As the USA stumbles and crashes to the end of their first administration of the twenty-first century, I feel the need to provide a semi-educated dilettantish outsider’s perspective.
I’m neither an economist nor an American, so I’m not going to dwell so much on that nation’s current economic woes, its causes and effects. I’m more interested in the foreign policy of this administration, which has surely been disastrous for the USA’s global image.
Obviously the events of September 11 have dominated their foreign policy. I witnessed the unfolding events of that day with amazement and horror and sympathy, like almost everyone else, but it wasn’t long after realizing that the world wasn’t coming to an end that my thinking was dominated by one simple question – what will the reaction be?
As one wiseacre once put it, we ought to be judged not by how we treat our friends but by how we treat our enemies – or words to that effect. So many of us must have felt that the way the USA responded to this attack would be of enormous significance for the whole future of the west, and few of us would’ve felt too sanguine about it, given the new administration, and the returnees from the previous Bush administration.
Nevertheless, the invasion of Afghanistan didn’t raise too many eyebrows. Most of us felt a real disgust at the brutal, primitive ways of the Taliban, and sympathized with the push towards freedom of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees. We watched the despicable destruction of the Buddhist statues, the beating of women in their absurd tent clothing in the streets, and we heard, many of us for the first time, all about Osama Bin Laden and al-Queda, and their training grounds in the south of the country. It seemed reasonable to make a strike against this sort of thing, perhaps.
Always perhaps. My concern, always, is with the suffering of civilians and innocents when the crude instruments of war are brought to bear. Those clean clinical strikes we all remember from the first gulf war, the demonstrations of strikepower, something like demonstrations of a new more effective washing machine or garbage disposal. Where were the human beings down there? Were there none? Does anybody really believe advertising?
The argument that the September 11 attacks were first and foremost criminal, and therefore a police matter, an argument that seemed perfectly coherent to me, that argument was soon drowned out as the invasion of Afghanistan progressed and rumours surfaced that Iraq would be next. My own initial response was to discount the rumours and to reflect, from my safe and faraway computer desk, that Afghanistan was already ravaged by war and turmoil, the American invasion could hardly make it worse and might eventually bring about a happier outcome for the less benighted. An ignorant liberal fantasy.
News trickled out about Camp X-ray, and then Camp Delta, and the war of words against Saddam Hussein began, and my sense of anger and disgust grew. I was no fan of Saddam, but I could see no obvious connection between his regime and al-Quaeda and the September 11 attacks. Everything, on the contrary, pointed to a disconnection, an antagonism, since, al-Quaeda, like the Taliban, seemed to have grown out of a primitivist movement [primitivism being a term I use in preference to fundamentalism] which would be as hostile to Saddam’s quasi-secular dictatorship as it was to Christian infidel nations.
I tried to look at the other side. All of the Bush administration’s arguments for ‘’taking out’’ Saddam were clearly bogus, but Saddam was just as clearly a criminal and a murderer, and the Iraqis would be better off without him. Presumably most Iraqis would agree. However, perhaps an even greater majority of Iraqis were antagonistic to the US and profoundly suspicious of its interest in the region. These people would be prepared to take up arms against any invading force. Better the devil you know. Given the ‘’if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists’’ rhetoric of Bush, these people, who if they had been Americans defending their land, would be honoured as patriots, would be in danger of being branded as terrorists, and given the moves by the Bush administration to dispense with the Geneva conventions in order to more ‘’efficiently’’ prosecute their unilaterally declared ‘’war on terror’’, they would be treated abominably for their patriotism. All of which would rebound on the USA itself.
A little investigation showed me that, though Saddam had behaved abominably in the aftermath of the first gulf war, to shore up his battered status, his regime in the years leading up to the renewing of hostilities by the US had been relatively peaceful. Saddam, it seemed to me, was brutal but not stupid. A prolonged rein of terror would not have done his cause any good, and nor would he have helped his cause by antagonizing the US unnecessarily. These fairly obvious reflections made me very suspicious about US claims regarding WMD. First, the Bush administration seemed bent on regime change in Iraq, no matter what, and WMD appeared to be a mere pretext. Second, there were massive contradictions between US claims and those of the UN weapons inspectors, and it was only reasonable, from a bystander’s perspective, to trust the UN, who had no particular barrow to push, over the US.
In any case, we watched helplessly as the US moved towards war, disgusted and deeply ashamed that little Australia, under little Johnnie Howard, was backing the planned invasion to the hilt. Howard’s adherence to Bush didn’t surprise me though – what did surprise me was the support of Tony Blair. My understanding is that Blair was keen to remove Saddam but backed a more multilateral, UN-based approach. It seems that the Bush administration secured a promise from Blair that, if the US went through the motions of getting support from the UN security council, Blair would back the invasion. They did go through those motions, in the most bullying and belligerent manner possible, and Blair, as a man of his word, felt compelled to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. Which raises the question of whether keeping a promise is more important than saving lives. Blair shouldn’t have made such a promise in the first place, though, considering the nature of the Bush administration, which should’ve been clear enough to him. His own head of intelligence, Sir Richard Dearlove, reported to him in July 2002, well before the UN maneuverings, the real situation:
Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
Given this evidence of pig-headedness in the Bush administration’s intentions, and a cavalier callousness in regard to the fate of the Iraqi people, Blair’s support strikes me as unconscionable. Maybe he felt British troops could be a tempering influence in the invading force – as indeed they seem to have been, by and large – but the fact remains that the Americans were largely calling the shots, and their approach was a matter of the gravest concern.
The invasion of Iraq, and the mess it has created of that country for years, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, the shameless exploitation of the country’s resources, and the obvious strengthening of al-Queda and anti-American sentiment that has resulted, will be seen as one of the enduring legacies of the Bush administration. It took a long time for the administration to realize that the most important battle in Iraq was the battle for hearts and minds, but it does seem that, particularly under the leadership of David Petraeus, things have improved greatly in recent times.
The most disturbing development, it seems to me, that has occurred under the George W Bush presidency, is the expansion of Presidential power to unprecedented proportions. This is a situation that should be reversed by the next administration as a matter of urgency. Of course, it’s unlikely that a President will act to curtail his own power, but it would be a measure of that President’s stature that he should so act. The abuse that has occurred under the soi-disant war on terror is flagrant and chilling, and a crime against humanity. Joseph Marguilies’ book Guantanamo and the abuse of presidential power provides much evidence on this matter, but it’s not far to find much other evidence on the brutality that this administration has unleashed and encouraged in its treatment of alleged enemy combatants – a huge number of them completely innocent and since released without charge – since the events of September 11 2001.
Another probably vain hope for the future is for the USA to recognize its international obligations and to accept international jurisdiction with regard to crimes against humanity.
This may all read like an anti-American screed, but I’m a sometime student of history and I know that, through the ages, every nation or state that has come to a position of dominance in its neighbourhood or the world has used that position for the purposes of exploitation. The ancient Aztecs built a magnificent nation on the exploitation and enslavement of its neighbours. The Athenians dominated the Delian League and ruthlessly exploited it to its own advantage. The Roman Empire was more or less archetypical in this regard, and the British Empire was all about expansion of its own power at the expense of others, no matter how civilized a spin you put on it. So it’s ridiculous to allow the US, or any other power that attains the position the US has done, to imagine itself the world’s police officer, as well as judge, jury and executioner. We must have stronger international courts, subscribed to by all.
I once used a schoolyard story to illustrate the US war on Iraq, and I will repeat and elaborate on it here as I think it still holds good. The USA can be compared to the strongest, toughest kid in the playground. Of course, in the past he has demonstrated this toughness in various ways, intimidating many kids who deserved it, some who didn’t, and accepting sycophancy as his due. Others in the school-yard have tried to steer an independent course, but have recognized that they need to keep on good terms with big Sam. One day, Sam gets tripped up and falls flat on his face. He feels humiliated, and he can’t get on his feet fast enough to catch the culprit, though he know well enough who he is. He spends a bit of time hunting around for him, then he beats up another boy he knows to be a good mate of his. However, this doesn’t satisfy Sam, because the mate was easy pickings and Sam still feels humiliated. He feels he has lost face, so he decides to get stuck into another boy with whom he’s been on bad terms for years. He makes up excuses for his bullying, saying that the boy has been hatching plots against him and that he’s secretly in league with the lad who’s tripped him up. He knows that the two boys have always hated each other, but so what? The kid deserves it anyway…
The sad thing about this story is that it really is spot on – there is nothing more to the invasion of Iraq than this – the restoration of big Sam’s pride and reputation. Of course there is one important sense in which this is an odious comparison, and that is that the September 11 attacks claimed thousands of innocent lives, and the attack on Iraq has claimed hundreds of thousands more. The USA has wrought some revenge on some of the September 11 attackers. To say they have been brought to justice would be going too far, since this administration has, in this sphere, dispensed with justice in the universally understood meaning of the term after declaring their ‘war on terror’. That the perpetrators of the Iraq invasion and occupation will never be brought to justice goes without saying. Yet still we can hope.