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Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities


Regrettably, there are all too many candidates that qualify as imminent and very serious crises. Several should be high on everyone’s agenda of concern, because they pose literal threats to human survival: the increasing likelihood of a terminal nuclear war, and environmental disaster, which may not be too far removed. However, I would like to focus on narrower issues, those that are of greatest concern in the West right now. I will be speaking primarily of the United States, which I know best, and it is the most important case because of its enormous power. But as far as I can ascertain, Europe is not very different.

 

The area of greatest concern is the Middle East. There is nothing novel about that. I often have to arrange talks years in advance. If I am asked for a title, I suggest “The Current Crisis in the Middle East.” It has yet to fail. There’s a good reason: the huge energy resources of the region were recognized by Washington sixty years ago as a “stupendous source of strategic power,” the “strategically most important area of the world,” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”1 Control over this stupendous prize has been a primary goal of U.S. policy ever since, and threats to it have naturally aroused enormous concern.

 

For years it was pretended that the threat was from the Russians, the routine pretext for violence and subversion all over the world. In the case of the Middle East, we do not have to consider this pretext, since it was officially abandoned. When the Berlin Wall fell, the first Bush administration released a new National Security Strategy, explaining that everything would go as before but within a new rhetorical framework. The massive military system is still necessary, but now because of the “technological sophistication of third world powers”—which at least comes closer to the truth—the primary threat, worldwide, has been indigenous nationalism. The official document explained further that the United States would maintain its intervention forces aimed at the Middle East, where “the threat to our interests” that required intervention “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to decades of fabrication.2 As is normal, all of this passed without comment.

 

The most serious current problem in the minds of the population, by far, is Iraq. And the easy winner in the competition for the country that is the most feared is Iran, not because Iran really poses a severe threat, but because of a drumbeat of government-media propaganda. That is a familiar pattern. The most recent example is Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was virtually announced in September 2002. As we now know, the U.S.-British invasion was already underway in secret. In that month, Washington initiated a huge propaganda campaign, with lurid warnings by Condoleezza Rice and others that the next message from Saddam Hussein would be a mushroom cloud in New York City. Within a few weeks, the government-media propaganda barrage had driven Americans completely off the international spectrum. Saddam may have been despised almost everywhere, but it was only in the United States that a majority of the population were terrified of what he might do to them, tomorrow. Not surprisingly, support for the war correlated very closely with such fears. That has been achieved before, in amazing ways during the Reagan years, and there is a long and illuminating earlier history. But I will keep to the current monster being crafted by the doctrinal system, after a few words about Iraq.

 

There is a flood of commentary about Iraq, but very little reporting. Journalists are mostly confined to fortified areas in Baghdad, or embedded within the occupying army. That is not because they are cowards or lazy, but because it is simply too dangerous to be anywhere else. That has not been true in earlier wars. It is an astonishing fact that the United States and Britain have had more trouble running Iraq than the Nazis had in occupied Europe, or the Russians in their East European satellites, where the countries were run by local civilians and security forces, with the iron fist poised if anything went wrong but usually in the background. In contrast, the United States has been unable to establish an obedient client regime in Iraq, under far easier conditions.

 

Putting aside doctrinal blinders, what should be done in Iraq? Before answering, we should be clear about some basic principles. The major principle is that an invader has no rights, only responsibilities. The first responsibility is to pay reparations. The second responsibility is to follow the will of the victims. There is actually a third responsibility: to bring criminals to trial, but that obligation is so remote from the imperial mentality of Western culture that I will put it aside.

 

The responsibility to pay reparations to Iraqis goes far beyond the crime of aggression and its terrible aftermath. The United States and Britain have been torturing the population of Iraq for a long time. In recent history, both governments strongly supported Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime through the period of his worst crimes, and long after the end of the war with Iran. Iran finally capitulated, recognizing that it could not fight the United States, which was, by then, openly participating in Saddam’s aggression—something that Iranians have surely not forgotten, even if Westerners have. Dismissing history is always a convenient stance for those who hold the clubs, but their victims usually prefer to pay attention to the real world. After the Iran-Iraq war, Washington and London continued to provide military equipment to their friend Saddam, including means to develop weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. Iraqi nuclear engineers were even being brought to the United States for instruction in developing nuclear weapons in 1989, long after Saddam’s worst atrocities and Iran‘s capitulation.

 

Immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, the United States and the United Kingdom returned to their support for Saddam when they effectively authorized him to use heavy military equipment to suppress a Shi’ite uprising that might well have overthrown the tyrant. The reasons were publicly explained. The New York Times reported that there was a “strikingly unanimous view” among the United States and its allies, Britain and Saudi Arabia, that “whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than did those who have suffered his repression”; the term “stability” is a code word for “following orders.”3 New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman explained that “the best of all worlds” for Washington would be an “iron-fisted military junta” ruling Iraq just the way Saddam did. But lacking that option, Washington had to settle for second-best: Saddam himself. An unthinkable option—then and now—is that Iraqis should rule Iraq independently of the United States.

 

Then followed the murderous sanctions regime imposed by the United States and Britain, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, devastated Iraqi civilian society, strengthened the tyrant, and forced the population to rely on him for survival. The sanctions probably saved Saddam from the fate of other vicious tyrants, some quite comparable to him, who were overthrown from within despite strong support from the United States and United Kingdom to the end of their bloody rule: Ceausescu, Suharto, and quite a rogues gallery of others, to which new names are being added regularly. Again, all of this is boring ancient history for those who hold the clubs, but not for their victims, or for people who prefer to understand the world. All of those actions, and much more, call for reparations, on a massive scale, and the responsibility extends to others as well. But the deep moral-intellectual crisis of imperial culture prevents any thought of such topics as these.

 

The second responsibility is to obey the will of the population. British and U.S. polls provide sufficient evidence about that. The most recent polls find that 87 percent of Iraqis want a “concrete timeline for US withdrawal,” up from 76 percent in 2005.4 If the reports really mean Iraqis, as they say, that would imply that virtually the entire population of Arab Iraq, where the U.S. and British armies are deployed, wants a firm timetable for withdrawal. I doubt that one would have found comparable figures in occupied Europe under the Nazis, or Eastern Europe under Russian rule.

 

Bush-Blair and associates declare, however, that there can be no timetable for withdrawal. That stand in part reflects the natural hatred for democracy among the powerful, often accompanied by eloquent calls for democracy. The calls for democracy moved to center stage after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so a new motive had to be invented for the invasion. The president announced the doctrine to great acclaim in November 2003, at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. He proclaimed that the real reason for the invasion was not Saddam’s weapons programs, as Washington and London had insistently claimed, but rather Bush’s messianic mission to promote democracy in Iraq, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The media and prominent scholars were deeply impressed, relieved to discover that the “liberation of Iraq” is perhaps the “most noble” war in history, as leading liberal commentators announced—a sentiment echoed even by critics, who objected that the “noble goal” may be beyond our means, and those to whom we are offering this wonderful gift may be too backward to accept it. That conclusion was confirmed a few days later by U.S. polls in Baghdad. Asked why the United States invaded Iraq, some agreed with the new doctrine hailed by Western intellectuals: 1 percent agreed that the goal was to promote democracy. Another 5 percent said that the goal was to help Iraqis.5 Most of the rest took for granted that the goals were the obvious ones that are unmentionable in polite society—the strategic-economic goals we readily attribute to enemies, as when Russia invaded Afghanistan or Saddam invaded Kuwait, but are unmentionable when we turn to ourselves.

 

But rejection of the popular will in Iraq goes far beyond the natural fear of democracy on the part of the powerful. Simply consider the policies that are likely to be pursued by an independent and more or less democratic Iraq. Iraqis may have no love for Iran, but they would doubtlessly prefer friendly

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