When in doubt, attack Iraq
There is less evidence of Saddam manufacturing weapons of mass destruction than of Washington manufacturing pretexts for an offensive.
After Afghanistan, the Bush administration ‘will turn the focus of its anti-terror offensive to countries such as Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines and Indonesia, but not against Iraq’. Who says so? A ‘top Pentagon official’, speaking in early January 2002 (1).
Six months later, Iraq has gone from being a footnote in the ‘war against terror’ to topping America’s global agenda, with weekly leaks and hints about plans for an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
What’s changed? There don’t seem to have been any significant developments concerning Iraq itself. UK prime minister Tony Blair, Bush’s firmest European supporter, now concedes that there is no convincing evidence linking Saddam to 11 September or al-Qaeda. He has also noticeably failed to publish the promised ‘damning dossier’ showing that Saddam is producing weapons of mass destruction, after MPs given private briefings were reportedly unimpressed with the evidence.
Indeed, far from a growing threat to the West, there is much to suggest that Saddam, after the devastating defeat in the Gulf War and a decade of stringent UN sanctions, is much weaker than he once was. Nor does the left’s familiar catch-all explanation that ‘it’s about oil’ explain why America should be more concerned now.
There is no new demand for action against Iraq from other regimes in the region, even though they are no friends of Saddam. A recent report that Jordan would allow American forces to invade from its soil was immediately denied by the Jordanian government. And even the Iraqi Kurds, long oppressed by Saddam, have said that they would prefer to continue with current arrangements – relative autonomy within the US-British protected zone of northern Iraq – rather than risk a war with Baghdad.
Yet ever since President Bush made his ‘axis of evil’ speech at the end of January, Iraq has once more become America’s public enemy number one, with much talk of an attack to remove Saddam by early next year. There is less evidence of Saddam manufacturing weapons of mass destruction than of Washington manufacturing pretexts for an offensive.
The explanation for this change of heart must lie within America rather than Iraq. Some commentators have picked up on this, and claimed that Bush’s sabre-rattling is largely a political stunt aimed at winning support for his Republican Party in this year’s mid-term congressional elections. No doubt there is an element of electoral calculation in foreign policy statements. Yet it would seem strange to talk up the prospects of war with Iraq in order to win popular support, at a time when most Americans appear deeply indifferent about the issue. A small but declining majority still tell pollsters that they would support military action to remove Saddam, but there is little enthusiasm for it and certainly no sign of anything approaching war fever.
The Bush administration’s main motive for suddenly talking tough on Iraq seems to be even more ‘internal’ than the pursuit of American votes. It comes from within the White House itself. It is primarily about giving the administration a self-image of purpose, a sense of mission and clarity.
The war on terror is Bush’s only coherent policy, the political framework within which all aspects of economic and social policy operate. To maintain its momentum it needs a new focus, targets that can be achieved, victories that can be declared – especially after the mission in Afghanistan has descended into the debacle that others have detailed on spiked.
The pariah state of Iraq provides an obvious next stage for the rolling war. It is unlikely to have been mere coincidence, then, that the renewed emphasis on deposing Saddam coincided with the search for Osama bin Laden running out of steam and ideas in the hills of southern Afghanistan.
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, Bush first declared that America was at war, then went looking for an enemy to fight a war with; the Taliban fitted the bill. This time, the US administration seems to have first decided it wanted a war with Iraq, and then gone looking for a reason to start one.
But if the White House is determined to convince the world (and itself) that something must be done about Saddam – that, according to the Bush/Blair line, ‘inaction is not an option’ – it seems far less certain as to what that ‘something’ should be.
The debate between those officials advocating a full-scale invasion of Iraq by up to 250,000 troops, and those who prefer a massive aerial campaign in support of special forces operations against Saddam, has swung back and forth, much of it being carefully leaked to the media. There have even been suggestions of some kind of ‘third way’ as a messy compromise between the two.
This indecision at the level of military planning reflects a broader and deeper dilemma of American foreign policy today. The USA stands unchallenged as the superpower in a unipolar world. Yet it is nervous about the implications of projecting that power. America has the reach of an empire, yet it fears engagement in its potential colonies. This tension has been vividly demonstrated during the campaign in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where the Americans remain far more comfortable bombing from a great height anything that moves than trying to organise things on the ground.
That analysis might appear to be contradicted by the spread of America’s military presence around the globe since 11 September, now involving more countries than at any time since the Second World War, and by Bush’s declaration of a new willingness to make pre-emptive strikes against potential threats. But in fact these are highly defensive strategies, which point to a paranoid and panicky American government dug in behind its new Homeland Security system and missile shield, threatening to lash out at its enemies (real or imagined) around the world.
In this sense, America’s global military intervention can ironically be seen as a kind of insecure twenty-first century version of isolationism.
The threat of war with Iraq might have begun as a projection of internal American politics, but it is fast taking on a dynamic of its own. Never before can there have been so much talk, yet so little debate, about a war in advance of a shot being fired. It is high time we had some more rigorous criticism of the script for Get Saddam – the sequel.
Amid all the uncertainty as to whether and when a war might start, one thing for sure is that Washington does not know how all of this will turn out. Saddam is not the strong man or military force he is painted as, and predictions of an uprising across the Muslim world in the case of an invasion are likely to prove as inaccurate as they did after 11 September. Yet the ad hoc incoherence of US policy, and the insecurity at the heart of the American empire, mean that nothing can be taken for granted. Ask the people of ‘liberated’ Afghanistan.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) Somalia and Yemen, not Iraq, likely to be targets of American military action, Independent, 9 January 2002
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.