The problem

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WEEKS after the fall of Baghdad, it is only those with rare courage who might argue that Gulf War II (Operation Enduring Freedom) has gone off according to script. Despite the swift collapse of Saddam’s regime, a turn which, it must be admitted, proved the sceptics wrong, and the relatively low cost in terms of lives (for the victors), it is clear that the Anglo-American plans for Iraq have gone awry.

True, the Middle East is not in flames, so far. But Saddam, his immediate family and many of the top functionaries of the Baath Party have gone missing. It is unclear whether they are dead, ‘successfully’ in hiding in the country, or ‘safe’ in exile. What is undeniable is that the people, for whose ‘freedom, democracy, and human rights’ this regime change was ostensibly orchestrated, continue to suffer.

The crippling effects of a decade of sanctions (leading in some estimates to close to a million deaths) have been compounded by a near complete destruction of urban infrastructure – water supply, sewage, power, disastorous in particular for the urban conglo merations. Above all, the Iraqis have, for the first time since the construction of a modern state in the aftermath of World War I, been occupied by an alien power. This, to a proud people claiming a hoary legacy of civilization, cannot but gall.

Just why this ‘war’ was imposed remains a mystery. Clearly not just because Saddam was unwilling to disclose and destroy his alleged weapons of mass destruction. These incidentally have still to be found despite the occupying powers enjoying the run of the country. Nor has any evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda or 9/11 been produced. As for Saddam being a threat to his neighbours, no one took this charge seriously, more so after a seven-year war with Iran, the Kuwait debacle and subsequent sanctions.

So was all this about control of the Iraqi oil reserves and securing a new beach-head in the Middle East? Was the intention to ‘destroy’ the one power with the ability to challenge Israel? Or is the Iraqi operation another step in the processes initiated since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War for leveraging US military dominance to restructure global power relations?

The arguments may have changed. Jimmy Carter’s regime foregrounded western concern over human rights and child labour. Clinton took these arguments a step further, adding the defence of democracy and freedom to the list. Now, we are told, that the struggle is for defending (and extending) the western way of life, the ‘clash of civilization’ most serious along the religious fault-lines.

Co-terminously, the villains too have changed. Earlier it was the ungodly communists. Now the focus is on radical Islamicists, rogue regimes and states possessing weapons of mass destruction and having links to terrorists. More than any other fallout of Iraq, it is the fear of an inflamed Islamic backlash, not only in the Middle East but in all Muslim majority countries as also those with substantial Muslim minorities, that causes concern.

There are other implications of the untrammelled growth of American dominance and more, the manner in which the Iraq operation was orchestrated. The egregious ‘assault’ on the United Nations, multilateral institutions as also the regime of international law; the contemptuous disregard of global public opinion expressed starkly in the most-impressive anti-war demonstrations since the days of the Vietnam war; above all the manipulation of the global media and instituting a culture of double-speak and deceit unmatched by any regime since World War II.

There is little doubt that most observers are terrified of the changes under way. The absence of meaningful countervailing power can create a hubris, an arrogance that unchallenged power creates in its wake. The US today, especially as exemplified by the Bush administration with many key positions occupied by neo-conservative ideologues, believes that a combination of ‘will to power’ and the ability to exercise it gives it the right to remake the world, a world suited to and subservient to its interests. Towards that end, it is willing to exercise all the leverage at its command to ensure the successful execution of its script.

This may, however, be a carricatured scenario, one conjured up by states and analysts unable to come to terms with the changed realities. In part it reflects the desire, increasingly desperate, to protect one’s own turf. Witness, the shrill cries in defence of state sovereignty in disregard of the trends towards increasing interdependence and globalisation. Uncomfortable as it may seem, it does appear that the old ways of governance and managing intra- and inter-state affairs need to be re-thought. Shocks like Iraq impel each one of us to re-visit our assumptions of the desirable and the good.

Equally, it is hardly as if the world is being re-made in the American image. Even in Iraq, despite an impressive military victory, peace is nowhere in sight, and the occupying forces have been ‘forced’ to renegotiate their relations with the UN and with erstwhile allies and dissenters, even reach out to countries like India for help in maintaining law and order.

Nor has the effort at cobbling together a new coalition that might constitute a transitional regime been any easier. The US may not have counted on staying on for too long. In the past it has preferred intervention, regime change and withdrawal to establishing a colony. It clearly does not favour any re-drawing of state boundaries. It would deem it a failure if religious, Islamic parties seize power in the ensuing vacuum. Yet, even the most enthusiastic votaries of democracy know that meaningful liberal and constitutional order is a chancy goal, one that demands concerted action by many different actors and institutions, and over a sufficiently long time, before it can take root. In a region that has never known or experienced a liberal democratic culture, the process is likely to be particularly messy.

Part of the challenge of our times is that so many of us would like to reject both the old and new order. We elevate democracy to a non-negotiable principle but are unwilling to live with its consequences. We promote pluralism and multiculturalism, yet continue to be uneasy and hostile to the ‘other’. Above all, we are quicker to state what we desire without specifying what we are willing to give up or compromise on in the search for desirable order. None of this promotes clarity of thinking or action.

The recent events in Iraq prove, once again, the continuing mismatch between power and ideals. If the actions of the United States create unease, and rightly so, many of those who opposed its unilateral actions, including the impressive mobilisations of civil society, present no alternative and clear road map barring status quo ante. After all, it is difficult to deny that the threat of terrorist actions particularly by non-state actors has generated new instabilities and uncertainties. Equally, that we are unwilling to countenance the actions of brutal regimes against their own populace merely to uphold the sovereignty of states. What course history will take remains, as always, open.

All the above can be well illustrated by the conflicting trends closer home. Like many other actors on the sidelines, India too took a cautious but ambiguous stance on the war. Despite greater proximity to the US (and Israel) in recent times, the Parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the war. It’s another matter that this happened when the fate of the Saddam regime had already been sealed. And now that the war is over, we too, like many others, are scrambling for the crumbs of reconstruction.

If the political class did not cover itself with glory, nor did our many NGOs and social movements. Compared to Europe or the US, even Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, the anti-war/peace rallies were tiny and peripheral. And while our media did carry the usual complement of pro and anti articles, there has been little serious debate about the consequences of the war. It is, for instance, insufficiently appreciated that the recent efforts at Indo-Pak rapprochement owe much to the fear of a possible US intervention unless tensions in the subcontinent are contained.

There is, for instance, need to rethink the notion of justice and reconciliation in post-conflict societies. It is not only the US which has to wrestle with the difficult question of how many of the erstwhile ruling Baath Party it should try for war crimes or crimes against humanity? What of its own role and complicity in the massacre of Kurds in the North or the Shias in the South in the phase when Saddam was treated as a trusted ally? We too, for instance in Punjab, have been unable to decide how to treat the security forces which crushed the insurgency in the 1980s and purportedly saved the nation from disintegration, often by stepping outside the confines of law.

Similarly, should societies seek to ‘bury’ the past, encourage erstwhile ‘victims’ to ‘forgive and forget’ in the hope of affecting reconciliation. Equally, how regimes and societies overcome the divisiveness of prior tribal and clan loyalties in an effort to create citizens without sacrificing democratic ideals and processes. Can a process of constructing a modern nation ever be ‘peaceful and painless’?

This issue of Seminar debates some of the fallouts of Iraq in the hope of facilitating serious engagement with a crucial turning point in global history. We must not forget that what has happened (and is happening) in Iraq concerns not just the Iraqi people, but all of us.