A war in which there will be no winners
The Iraqi crisis is a self-inflicted one made in the USA and the West - and those who created it are likely to suffer the consequences.
It is a war that almost nobody wants. A war in which there will be no real winners. Yet it is a war that everybody assumes will happen anyway. What are the consequences likely to be?
Whatever they are, none of it has much to do with Iraq. Despite the impression given by both sides of the debate, the Iraqi issue itself is not particularly important in international terms. All of the analogies being drawn between this conflict and the Second World War are way out of line.
The hawks are wrong to say that the ruined state of Iraq could pose a serious threat to world peace. The anti-war lobby is equally wrong to suggest that conquering Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is necessary for America to control world oil supplies; since when did the USA or Europe have any problems doing business with unsavoury regimes in the Middle East?
No, this is a self-inflicted crisis, made in the USA and the West for reasons that have little to do with Iraq. And those who created it are likely to suffer the consequences – even if not as directly as the Iraqi people.
Over the past year, the US administration of President George W Bush has artificially promoted Saddam’s Iraq back to the top of the international agenda. Washington’s primary motive has been to find a focus for its post-11 September campaign to reassert America’s sense of mission and international authority. As Brendan O’Neill analysed on spiked at the time, the idea of a new conflict with Iraq seemed to come out of nowhere in early 2002, coincidentally at a time when America’s ‘war on terror’ was getting bogged down in the deserts of Afghanistan (see Bush’s Gulf War syndrome).
Through the past year, there has been a rising tension between America’s wish to keep Iraq at the top of the agenda, and its uncertainty over how to conclude the issue. It was a loss of self-belief in America that helped prompt the government to project its problems on to Iraq. Yet that same crisis of conviction has made the USA reluctant to take decisive action. Despite their gung-ho reputation and rhetoric, the Washington hawks have effectively sought to hide behind the UN, going back time and again in search of approval, asking the UN weapons inspectors to win the argument for them.
Even in hawkish circles, the closer war has come, the less enthusiasm there seems to be for it. This is not because of any serious military concerns about their ability to roll over the Iraqis. It rather reflects apprehension about the possible political and diplomatic fallout from a war.
It is now clear that a military victory over Iraq is not going to have the desired effect in terms of boosting America’s global authority. Unlike the Cold War years, the USA no longer has the capacity to pull together a solid alliance behind its leadership against a common enemy. Saddam’s Iraq is a far cry from the Soviet Union. Instead, every survey of international opinion now suggests that most people think Bush’s America poses a greater threat to world peace.
An invasion of Iraq will be the catalyst for, not the cause of, the USA’s worsening global problems. It will heighten hostility to America in the developing world. It will also deepen long-term divisions within the Western alliance, making it harder still for the USA to count on its European allies in the future. Of course, President Bush will still be the dominant figure in world politics, and a swift victory will strengthen his hand at home. But America will stand more isolated and exposed in international terms than at any time in living memory.
For the United Kingdom, the consequences of a war with Iraq could be still more damaging. Prime Minister Tony Blair has attracted fierce criticism over his support for Bush’s stance. Yet in truth, any British leader concerned to maintain his place in the international pecking order would have had no choice but to do much the same. The UK’s inflated standing on the world stage has long been dependent upon its political and military relationship with American power. For Blair, the alternative to backing Bush and sending British troops to the Gulf would be to accept that the UK was just another medium-sized state in a Franco-German run Europe, with little more clout than, say, Holland.
Blair is paying a heavy price to keep Britain punching above its weight. The Iraq conflict has intensified all of his underlying problems. At home, it has become a focus for the widespread mistrust of government and politics itself – an anti-political mood which, as the MPs’ ‘rebellion’ over Iraq revealed, now extends even within the parliamentary Labour Party. The Iraqi crisis has brought the uncertainty at the heart of the British establishment to a head in such a way that even army commanders complain of not knowing why and for what they might be asked to fight a war. Abroad, Blair’s support for Bush has damaged Britain’s status.
If the prime minister gets to stand behind the president on a post-Iraq victory rostrum, he will of course claim to be vindicated, and should certainly be able to see off his largely spineless Labour critics. But in the longer term, the corrosive effect of these tensions on British politics, and on Britain’s relations with Europe and the world, are unlikely to be so easily contained.
A war against Iraq could also destabilise the Gulf region. Most states there are fragile entities, created out of the sand by colonialism and held together by oil and repression. The effects of an invasion by US-UK forces, packing vast firepower but lacking political-moral authority, could help to unravel an already unstable region. While America talks about replacing Saddam with a US General, Turkey, Iran and other players are already playing for a possible carve-up of postwar Iraq (see Dangerous territory, by Brendan O’Neill).
Many have raised concerns that a war could also lead to an increase in international terrorism. That may well be true, but not in the way that most critics suggest. There is unlikely to be any mass Muslim uprising against the West. As a force in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic fundamentalism is several years past its peak. Thus there was little response to the Taliban’s call for a worldwide jihad when America attacked Afghanistan in 2001.
What the West is doing in the Iraq crisis, however, is to further undermine the legitimacy of national sovereignty, through its insistence on the right of the ‘international community’ to determine Iraq’s destiny. This attitude is shared by all sides of the debate at the UN Security Council, despite the fact that it flagrantly violates the UN Charter’s own principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention. Deriding sovereignty and intervening in the affairs of other states, often in the name of human rights, has been a growing tendency in Western foreign policy since the last Gulf War of 1990-91, and especially during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
One of the effects of undermining national sovereignty and internationalising issues in this way has been to encourage the emergence in the developing world, not of traditional movements for national liberation, but of cross-border terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda. Yet the irony is that most of those leading the anti-war movement, who now warn that attacking Iraq could lead to more terrorism, are at the same time firm supporters of the anti-sovereignty current in Western foreign policy. This is a subject to which we will return.
Despite all of the fears about the possible fallout from a war, and the obvious uncertainty at the heart of the US-UK elite, almost everybody seems to accept that war will happen anyway. This reveals the cynicism and moral defeatism that are the hallmarks of much of the anti-war movement. If allowed to go unchecked, those sentiments will help to ensure that there can be no positive outcome from this self-inflicted crisis over Iraq. That is why on spiked we take such a critical attitude both to the disastrous prospect of war, and to the disastrous politics of the anti-war movement.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
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