The war on Iraq


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THE media has made history a spectacle, and as a spectacle, the minute-by minute coverage of the war in Iraq seems less horrific than entertaining.

Especially when you are an American who, from the outset, is convinced that your team is designated as the winning team. You would watch the battle in your bedroom. You would hold your breath when your ‘embedded’ correspondents excitedly describe Iraq’s ‘fierce resistance’. And finally, you would rejoice when you see hundreds of Baghdad citizens cheering a group of American soldiers who have conquered the city, grateful for being liberated from Saddam’s grip.

Of course, many Americans are deeply concerned with the safety of their soldiers fighting in Basra or Baghdad, or the loss of lives of innocent civilians. But I don’t think that one can say with confidence that this war is an issue profoundly connected to the personal lives of most Americans. As I see it, the connection hangs by the thread of merely one or two TV channels. If you get bored, you could switch to another channel and watch a Japanese cooking programme.

I am not suggesting that there is an element of callousness in all this. What I am trying to say is that the war, viewed around the clock like a spectator’s sport, is exactly the war that some Pentagon strategists have described it: a ‘cakewalk’. In other words, it is a war against a country with a very limited capability to battle the mighty US forces.

In a way, it is a strange, absurd, war. From the beginning, many people living in Indonesia – with no emotional attachment either to Iraq or to Saddam Hussein – had always been puzzled by the fact that the US, a superpower with an unrivalled military budget, an economy that is the richest in the world and with the most innovative weapons industry, felt threatened by a country already exhausted by its defeat in the first Gulf War. Saddam’s was a Republic so cornered that it could not refuse the UN groups carrying out inspections; it was, and still is, an economy with no strong industrial basis, a nation ten times smaller than the US; it was a regime hated by most Iraqis; it was a force that maybe did have terrifying weapons, but yet was also a power that according to the Pentagon planners could be quickly defeated. So why was Saddam a threat?

The other day I read Robert Kagan’s book, Of Paradise and Power, and I found an answer: because America is strong. Europe, Kagan’s argument goes, shows greater tolerance in facing threats because it is now a relatively weak continent. Whereas America, ‘being stronger, developed a lower threshold of tolerance for Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction.’



Interestingly, Saddam is not the only reason for American anxiety. An opinion poll, conducted in summer 2002, quoted by Kagan, showed that more Americans (compared to Europeans) were worried about the threats of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, the India-Pakistan confrontation, and the conflict between Israel and Arab countries.

Doubtless, the results of the poll smack of paranoia, and if Kagan is correct in suggesting that strength or power is the crucial thing, then the saying is apt: ‘When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.’ Living in Indonesia, I can well imagine that Americans would readily view this ‘chaotic’ South East Asian country as another nail to be hammered on.



Particularly after the Bali bombing. As you may recall, on 12 October 2002, a couple of bombs exploded in two nightclubs near the Kuta beach, the most popular tourist spot in the island. More than 190 people, mostly Australians, were killed. The horror was not as theatrical as the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, but given Bali’s fame on the world’s tourist map, and the fact that the victims were not poor, brown-skinned inhabitants of an unknown locality, it was no surprise that the explosions shocked the world and made the West angry.

In no time, somebody in Washington DC accused al Qaeda of being behind the plot. The arrest of most of the plotters, who all confessed to their crimes, has not produced evidence that they were members of Bin Laden’s gang of assassins. All the same, they belong to an international ring of terrorists, with bases operating reportedly in Malaysia and Singapore, fighting for what they believe to be a Muslim cause. Their leaders were trained in Afghanistan. Hence, they are not vastly different from the usual suspects.

So it is understandable that the flashbacks that come into an American mental screen are images of marching men in Arab garb brandishing swords, or stories of atrocities in the Maluku Islands committed by Muslim and Christian militias. Ultimately, the overall impression affirms the usual cliché of Islam as a single voice of anger and Indonesia as a single site of violence. In a recent interview, the strongman of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, always ready to broadcast alarmist remarks about the neighbouring country’s democratic politics, says that there are ‘100 radical Islamist groups’ in Indonesia.

I don’t know where he gets his figures. But it is likely that the US tends to believe Lee’s story. After all, he speaks excellent English and shares the same apprehensive view of the world with the current US administration.

It has become a cliché to suggest that the new American worldview was born following the attack of 11 September 2001. But let’s remember that in the wake of the attack, people all over the world expressed their sympathy to the Americans. The prominent French newspaper of the left, Le Monde, hit the street with a headline, ‘We are all American’. In Tehran people lit candles in mourning.



Actually the US could have used the momentum to rejoin the rest of the world by proclaiming that it belongs to countries hurt by indiscriminate terrorist attacks (there are many of them). The weeks after ‘9/11’ were an opportunity to strengthen the international legal order in the ‘war on terrorism’, to reform the UN and establish an international criminal court. Instead, President Bush and his cabinet prefer to exploit the rising American patriotic frenzy. They Americanized the tragedy, discovering ‘9/11’ as a convenient opening to act tough, flexing American muscle and imposing an American presence on the world stage.

Implied in Kagan’s defence of Bush’s foreign policy is a celebration of a Hobbesian world. Drawing on his observations of 17th century England in an age of civil war, Thomas Hobbes argued that the very laws of nature require us to form a common authority for our separate and collective protection. In international relations, it means the emergence of a Leviathan, a ‘Mortal God’, as Hobbes calls it, to discipline the quarrelsome nature of nation states. The US will play the role.

It is with such a Hobbesian agenda in mind, and not ‘9/11’, that the Bush cabinet designed a planet in which American supremacy would prevail. It is a terrifying ambition; I would have thought it a part of a science fiction script had I not read about it myself in The Guardian, Sunday Herald, and Der Spiegel.

The design is spelled out in a document called The Project for the New American Century, produced in 1997. The Project was prepared by, among others, Dick Cheney (now Vice President), Donald Rumsfeld (now Secretary of Defence), Richard Perle (now Chairman of the Policy Board) and Paul Wolfowitz (now Under-secretary of Defence). And there they mapped out ‘America’s global leadership.’



In late January 1998, they sent a letter to President Clinton. Their letter recommended a radical shift in confronting the United Nations and the Saddam Hussein regime. The letter was ignored. Now, in power under George W. Bush, the people who drafted it have started to carry out their plan with precision – and the current war on Iraq is a part of it.

The idea of The Project is to prepare, in the short term, the US to be ‘ready to lead military action, without regard for diplomacy.’ In the long term, it has to ‘disarm[..] Saddam and his regime.’ The United States has the right to fight in order to secure its vital interests in the Gulf. ‘In no circumstances should America’s politics be crippled by the misguided insistence of the Security Council on unanimity.’

Last year, Sunday Herald, a British newspaper, published a copy of a confidential report produced by The Project in September 2000. The report suggested that battling Saddam was the beginning, not the end of its strategy. ‘While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.’ The wider strategic aim, it insisted, was ‘maintaining global US pre-eminence.’

Another document obtained by the Herald, written by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby, called upon the US to ‘discourage advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.’



Needless to say, the project to make the US a Leviathan of the 21st century is an expression of a macho pragmatism of realpolitik. I am not sure whether realpolitik of this kind has something to do with the way ‘the real world’ operates. Of course it is possible to see the American global pre-eminence stay unchallenged until the end of the century. But to achieve it the US has to be prepared to wage constant wars against other global power centres, and face the consequences of economic and political over-extension like all the great powers in history.

Come what may, for someone living in Indonesia, The Project is nothing but an American imperial design that puts a country like Indonesia on the list of inconsequential pygmies. In no time, the Leviathan desire would provoke both nationalist and Islamist brands of militancy. It could generate 100 new Osama bin Ladins, making the lives of many Americans living abroad unsafe. It would create new layers of protective walls around Fortress America. And it might resume the most dangerous feature of the Cold War, i.e. a nuclear arms race, with a constant readiness to launch pre-emptive strikes.

It would be a global nightmare.


* This article was written when the war in Iraq was still ‘officially’ on.