America’s war with itself

US leaders are projecting their own problems on to the Gulf - and it isn’t working.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Now I’m confused. After a month of weapons inspections, one apparently dodgy dossier from Saddam and a rumoured ‘material breach’ of the UN resolution, is the Bush administration ready and raring to attack Iraq – or not?

Guardian columnist Matthew Engel reckons that the USA is about to get busy. In a column headlined ‘Ready for battle’, Engel argues that ‘the energy behind this enterprise has such power that it has long been difficult to imagine the circumstances in which it wouldn’t happen’. ‘Behind the Bushies’ enthusiasm for war’, writes Engel, ‘the political timetable is creating the same sense of inevitability as the railway timetable in 1914’ (1).

But according to the London Times, some of America’s top military men – in fact, the top military men – are getting cold feet about all-out war. ‘General Eric Shinseki, chief of the US Army, and General James Jones, commandant of the US Marines Corps, fear that the present war plan dangerously underestimates the risks of attacking Iraq’, says The Times (2). How can bombing Baghdad be ‘inevitable’ if even Shinseki and Jones are voicing their doubts?

Then there’s Saddam’s ‘material breach’. According to President Bush and UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, he’s committed one. According to the New York Times, Bush thinks that ‘Iraq has violated the United Nations resolution requiring it to disclose all its weapons of mass destruction’ (3). And we know what was promised in the event of a material breach – ‘serious consequences’. ‘The US government is talking about “breaches” now’, says one newspaper, ‘in the clearest sign yet that war is imminent’.

But Bush officials deny that a material breach will inevitably lead to an invasion. ‘Officials said they did not expect that the Iraqi violations would be described by Bush as an immediate cause for war, but rather as a “serious matter”’, says one report (4). Post-material breach, there isn’t a furious White House on the warpath so much as, in the words of one US official, ‘a patient White House, very concerned about another failure by Iraq to cooperate but willing to allow the weapons inspections to go ahead’ (5).

What about the build-up of American and British forces in the Gulf, seen by many as foolproof evidence of the West’s thirst for war? ‘Up to 30,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen have been ordered by the [UK] Ministry of Defence to be ready for action’, said the Mirror this week, suggesting that ‘a round-the-clock air assault may now be just weeks away’ (6). For the Sun, the number of British and American troops now in and around Iraq represents ‘an Armada’, which will ‘destroy Saddam’.

But British and American defence officials are talking down the troop movements. UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon ‘stressed’ that war with Iraq is ‘not imminent or inevitable’ (7). He describes the shipment of British troops as part of ‘long-planned exercises in the Indian Ocean’, which will simply ‘pass by’ the Gulf. An MoD official told BBC News: ‘It is not heading for the Gulf. It could head for the Gulf.’ (8) That’s cleared that up, then.

Warning: reading coverage of the Iraqi crisis can invoke a heightened state of confusion. Has Saddam committed a material breach – and just what is a material breach? After a material breach has been detected, will there be all-out war or more inspections? And can America really go to war if the hawks in the White House want it but the commanders in the military don’t?

All of this confusion isn’t just a ‘public working out of a strategy for Iraq’, as one journalist has put it. Rather, the clashing claims over whether, when or how to launch a new Gulf War reflect far deeper uncertainties within the US and Western elites. The planned attack on Iraq may have started life as an attempt to unite the American elite and give focus to the West’s flagging war on terror, but it has ended up exacerbating tensions and divisions within the USA, making explicit America’s crisis of confidence. And the more the war talk drags on, the worse it gets.

The US stance against Iraq has demonstrated America’s global dominance today, its unchallenged unipolar position in the post-Cold War world. There may be little enthusiasm among some European politicians and Arab states for a war on Iraq, but none has seriously opposed the Bush administration’s plans. Even Germany, whose leader Gerhard Schroeder won re-election in September 2002 largely on a ticket of opposing an invasion of Iraq, has capitulated – agreeing to US/UN action against Iraq if necessary, and even offering German troops for the mission.

But at the same time, the Iraq issue has exposed the US elite’s fear of going it alone in international affairs – as reflected in its toing and froing with the UN over Iraq. America may be the unipolar power, but it increasingly sees its power as more of a burden than an opportunity; it holds world power, but it seems uncertain about what to do with it. Ignore the widespread claims about US leaders using Iraq to assert their ambitions for Empire – in truth, there is little appetite for unilateral initiative today, even within the mighty America.

The contradiction between America’s unchallenged power and its fear and uncertainty is best captured in the National Security Strategy document, published at the height of the Iraqi war talk in September 2002. The document declares America’s absolute power today, claiming that ‘the United States possesses unprecedented and unequalled strength and influence in the world’ (9).

But in the next breath the document says that America is threatened, not by other powers, but by handfuls of isolated and dangerous individuals around the world. ‘America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones’, it says. ‘We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.’ (10)

Even as the USA declares its ultimate power it flags up the risks it apparently faces from handfuls of people around the world, from ‘failing states’ like Saddam’s. This inverted notion of America vs the ‘embittered few’ reveals far more about the US elite’s state of mind than it does about the real balance of power in international relations. It captures the clash between America’s unquestioned power and its uncertainty about how to wield that power – a contradiction that has been writ large in Mighty America’s dithering over what to do about Failing Iraq.

The Iraqi stand-off also reveals the gap between the USA’s military might and prowess, and its caution about putting that military might to use. In recent weeks, the US has positioned 60,000 troops, 200 planes and 24 Apache helicopters in or around the Gulf, and has launched practice invasions and operations in the Gulf state of Qatar – demonstrating its massive military capability not only to the Middle East, but also to the world.

But US officials have expressed caution about sending such forces into action. US military leaders worry that ‘political leaders do not understand the commitment involved in such an invasion’. Gulf War syndrome has reared its ugly head again, with transatlantic debates about whether a new Gulf War will ‘cause serious illness in a new generation of Western troops’ (11). And then there’s the weather. Some military officials claim that an invasion would be impossible during Iraq’s biting winter, while others claim it would be difficult to pull off during Iraq’s sweltering summer.

US forces are happy to show off their might in Qatar and in announcements about a 250,000-strong invasion to destroy Saddam’s regime, but when it comes to making such threats a reality, other things get in the way. America may have the military means to destroy Iraq, but it seems devoid of the willpower or the convincing case for doing so.

The Iraq crisis has also exposed the contradiction between US claims of unity and the reality of disunity. US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice claims that ‘the administration is united on [the question] of Saddam’ – but the facts tell a different story. Far from uniting America around a common sense of purpose and mission, the Iraq war talk seems only to have exposed differences and brought deep divisions to the fore.

According to the UK Telegraph, ‘With war appearing more likely by the day there are still bitter divisions between uniformed officers and civilian officials in the Pentagon over how it should be waged’ (12). Another report claims that ‘divisions in the White House are intensifying by the day, as officials disagree profoundly over the Iraqi crisis’.

Such deep disagreements are often depicted as personality clashes. For the London Times, ‘Personality clashes…have frustrated the war planning’ (13). No doubt there’s a personal element to many of the disagreements, particularly those between dove Colin Powell and hawk Donald Rumsfeld, who are described by one US journalist as the ‘chalk and cheese’ of the administration.

But there is much more to these clashes than personality. They reflect far bigger disagreements about the meaning of America today: about America’s role in the world, whether it should be more interventionist or more isolationist; about what kind of image America should project for itself, whether as old-fashioned conqueror or new-fangled nation-builder; about how America should cultivate relationships with people in the third world, whose apparent hatred of the USA has sent shockwaves through the Bush administration; and about the use of military force, and whether American casualties can justify the overthrow of Saddam.

Beneath the debates about Iraq are deeper divisions within the post-Culture Wars USA about what kind of nation America is, and how it should assert its power in the modern era – the very disagreements that something like the war talk over Iraq attempted to overcome, by giving the US elite a cohering mission.

But the fact that the clashes over Iraq have gone so public reflects the American elite’s lack of a cohering mission today. As the New York Times points out, US leaders often have private squabbles about foreign ventures, but for such squabbles to go public is ‘exceptional’: ‘This dispute is being played out publicly, through official statements and surreptitious leaks – a common practice when it comes to tax policy but extremely rare with military strategy.’ (14) When US leaders have little sense of what ties them together, of what values and ideas they all agree on, there is little to stop their deep divisions spilling from inside the White House on to the front page of our morning papers.

The American elite cannot resolve its internal divisions by trying to look impressive in Iraq – and indeed, domestic uncertainty about America’s role only seems to have followed US leaders from Washington to the Gulf. Maybe Bush and co should turn their attention to the real problems besetting the American elite – and leave the Iraqi people alone to resolve theirs.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Ready for battle, Matthew Engel, Guardian, 17 December 2002

(2) Generals fear risky strategy, The Times (London), 19 December 2002

(3) Bush expected to say Iraq failed to meet UN terms, New York Times, 18 December 2002

(4) Bush expected to say Iraq failed to meet UN terms, New York Times, 18 December 2002

(5) Bush expected to say Iraq failed to meet UN terms, New York Times, 18 December 2002

(6) 30,000 British troops on standby for battle in Iraq, Mirror, 18 December 2002

(7) Britain steps up war preparations, BBC News, 19 December 2002

(8) Britain steps up war preparations, BBC News, 19 December 2002

(9) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America
Table of Contents
, White House, September 2002

(10) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America
Table of Contents
, White House, September 2002

(11) ‘Return of a syndrome?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 2002

(12) ‘Fortress Baghdad’ fears split Pentagon, Daily Telegraph, 19 December 2002

(13) American elections dictate timing of an attack on Iraq, The Times (London), 11 July 2002

(14) For each audience, another secret plan to attack Iraq, New York Times, 11 August 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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