George W. Bush is a geopolitical incompetent. He has allowed a clique of hawks to induce him to take a position on invading Iraq from which he cannot extract himself, one which will have nothing but negative consequences for the United States--and the rest of the world. He will find himself badly hurt politically, perhaps fatally. And he will rapidly diminish the already declining power of the United States in the world. A war against Iraq will destroy many lives immediately, both Iraqi and American, because it seems clear that high-altitude, surgical-strike air attacks will not suffice in military terms. Invading Iraq will lead to a degree of turmoil in the Arab-Islamic world hitherto unimagined. Other Arab leaders don't like Saddam Hussein one bit, but their populations won't stand for what they will inevitably feel is an unprovoked attack on an Arab state, leaving leaders with little choice but to be swept along in the turmoil or drown. And an attack on Iraq might ultimately spark the use of nuclear weapons, which, if unleashed now, will be hard to again make illegitimate. Iraq may not have such weapons yet, but we can't be sure. Even if it doesn't, might it not attack Israel with conventional missiles that would prompt Israel to respond with the nuclear weapons we know it has? For that matter, are we really sure that, if the fighting gets tough, the U.S. is not ready to use tactical nuclear weapons?
How have we gotten into such a disastrous cul-de-sac?
It seems probable that U.S. military action against Iraq is now not a question of whether but of when. The U.S. government insists action is necessary because Iraq has been defying United Nations resolutions and represents an imminent danger to the world in general, and to the U.S. in particular. This explanation of the expected military action is so thin that it cannot be taken seriously. Defying U.N. resolutions or other international enjoinders has been commonplace for the last 50 years. I need hardly remind anyone that the U.S. refused to defer to a 1986 World Court decision condemning U.S. actions in Nicaragua. And President Bush has made it amply clear that he will not honor any treaty should he think it dangerous to U.S. interests. Israel has, of course, been defying U.N. resolutions for more than 30 years, and is doing so again as I write this commentary. And the record of other U.N. members is not much better. So Hussein has been defying quite explicit U.N. resolutions. What else is new?
Is Hussein an imminent threat to anyone? In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. That action, at least, did pose an imminent threat. The U.S. response was the Persian Gulf War, in which we pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait and then decided to stop there--for good military and political reasons. But that left Hussein in power.
The U.N. passed various resolutions requiring Iraq to abandon nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons and mandated inspection teams to verify that it had done so. The U.N. also put in place a variety of embargoes against Iraq. As we know, over the decade since then, the system of constraints on Iraq put in place by these U.N. resolutions has weakened considerably, but not totally by any means.
Several weeks ago, Iraq and Kuwait signed an agreement in which Iraq agreed to respect the sovereignty of Kuwait. The foreign minister of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah said his country is now "100% satisfied," adding that he had written the agreement himself. A spokesperson for the United States nonetheless exhibited skepticism. The U.S. is not about to be deterred simply because Kuwait is "satisfied." What is Kuwait, that it should participate in such a decision?
U.S. hawks believe that only the use of force--very significant force--will restore our unquestioned hegemony in the world. It is no doubt true that the use of overwhelming force can establish hegemony, as happened with the United States in 1945. But U.S. hegemony is not what it once was. The country's economic superiority in the world between 1945 and 1965 has been replaced with a situation in which the U.S. economic position is not significantly better than that of the European Union or Japan. This relative economic decline has cost the U.S. the unquestioned political deference of its close allies. All that is left is military superiority. And, as Machiavelli taught us all centuries ago, force is not enough: If that's all you have, then its use is a sign of weakness rather than of strength and weakens the user.
It is clear that, at this point, almost no one supports a U.S. invasion of Iraq: not a single Arab state, not Turkey or Iran or Pakistan, not Russia or the great bulk of Europe. There are, to be sure, two notable exceptions: Israel, which is cheering Bush on, and Great Britain--or rather its prime minister, Tony Blair, who declared last weekend in Texas that "doing nothing ... is not an option" with regard to Iraq. Yet an article in The Observer last month reported that "Britain's military leaders issued a stark warning to Tony Blair last night that any war against Iraq is doomed to fail and would lead to the loss of lives for little political gain."
I cannot believe that U.S. military leaders have drawn a different conclusion, although they may be more wary of stating that unpleasant truth to President Bush. Kenneth M. Pollack, formerly of the CIA and the Iraq specialist on Clinton's National Security Council, says military action in Iraq would require sending in 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops, presumably from bases in either Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, as well as additional troops to defend the Kurds in northern Iraq.
The U.S. seems to be counting on intimidating its allies into going along. But after Israel's occupation of West Bank cities, the remote hope that Saudi (or even Kuwaiti) bases would be made available to U.S. troops has almost surely disappeared. Turkey clearly has no interest in defending Iraqi Kurds, since such action would certainly strengthen the Kurdish movement in Turkey, against which the Turkish government fights with all its energy. As for Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--with Bush's strong support--is in the process of destroying as rapidly as possible the Palestinian Authority, which certainly won't help Bush build his anti-Iraq coalition.
Still, there will be an invasion, which will be difficult if not impossible to win. The action could well become another Vietnam. Just as in Vietnam, the war will drag on and will cost many U.S. lives. And the political effects will be so negative for the U.S. that eventually Bush (or his successor) will pull out. A renewed and amplified Vietnam syndrome will be the result at home.
Can no one in the Bush administration see this? A few, no doubt, but they are being ignored, because Bush is in a self-imposed dilemma. If he goes ahead with the Iraq invasion, he risks bringing himself down, like Lyndon Johnson. And a U.S. failure would finally give the Europeans the courage to be European and not Atlantic. But those negative consequences to Bush would be in the future, whereas the negatives of not invading are immediate.
Bush promised the U.S. people a "war on terrorism" that "we will certainly win." So far, all he's produced is the downfall of the weak and impoverished Taliban. He hasn't captured Bin Laden. Pakistan is shaky. Saudi Arabia is pulling away. If he doesn't invade Iraq, he will look foolish where it matters to him most--in the eyes of American voters. And he is being told this, in no uncertain terms, by his advisors on internal U.S. politics. Bush's incredibly high approval ratings reflect his being a "war president." The minute he becomes a peace-time president, he will be in grave trouble--all the more so because of failed wartime promises.
So, Bush has no choice. He will invade Iraq. He has made clear that the current Middle East crisis will not deter him from this. Quite the opposite. Sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region is a way of trying to ensure the operation. And we shall all live with the consequences.
Immanuel Wallerstein is senior research scholar at Yale University and the author of "The End of the World as We Know It." Copyright © Immanuel Wallerstein 2002. Reprinted for fair use only
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