Getting Ours: The Foundations of Empire

Today, my absolutely last war column, until something actually blows up. I promise. Kind of. Everybody else in the chatter racket is hooting lustily, so why shouldn’t I? I concede that as a geopolitical thinker I have the credentials of a bucket of paint, a condition I share with the State Department and White House. Gonna do it anyway. They do.

Why are we going to fight Iraq? By asking the question I’m not suggesting that there is no reason, just that I don’t know what it is. Help me.

The proffered reasons don’t wash. If Iraq has massive quantities of chemical agents, such as one might use in war, they are no threat to us. If we fear that whatshistowel might supply nerve agents to terrorists, a fifty-five gallon drum would do for a lot of attacks, and in any event they are easy for chemists to make in quantities suitable for terrifying cities.* Biological agents can be hidden in a small box. Nuclear weapons are made either with reactors and processing plants, which are bought abroad, leave paper trails, and get found by intelligence agencies; or else they are loose ones floating out of Russia. I’ve seen no evidence of either.

Another suggested reason is that Hussein is just like Hitler and a danger to the world. A bedraggled country of twenty-four million with no military to speak of, unable to defend its skies, and with roughly the techno-industrial capacity wielded by Boadicea. How very like the Wehrmacht. Can anyone doubt it?

None of this adds up to justification for massive expenditure of resources and turning much of the world against us. Something else is going on. What?

Other reasons adduced for the invasion are:

We are doing it to protect Israel. This is not implausible. While the Israelis do not know what to do about the Palestinians, they have otherwise largely made their borders reasonably safe. Egypt has been bought off, Jordan behaves, and Syria knows better.

Iraq, however, is a horse of another binding. Iraq is hostile, and able to reach Israel with missiles as it demonstrated in Gulf I. The Israeli military, while well designed for quick call-up of the male population and powerful strikes at nearby nations, is not well designed for occupying largish countries at a distance. Warheads filled with nerve agents falling on Tel Aviv would be exceedingly unpleasant for those living there. From an Israeli point of view, having the United States remove the possibility must be appealing.

We are in it for the oil. This too is believable. The Moslem world sits on an awful lot of the stuff. They do not love us. Neither are they particularly predictable. Much of the world relies on oil from the region. Acquiring control over the Iraqi reserves, however that control might be exercised, could seem appealing: it would ensure our supply, avoid chaos if the Arabs decided to do something curious, discourage extortion except by us, and so on.

Further, having forces in Iraq would presumably have a certain calming effect on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, both essentially defenseless and living in terrain beautifully suited to the American style of war. Either would last fifteen minutes against US forces right next door. This thought would occur to them. They would presumably not adopt policies of which we disapproved.

We are waging war on Islam. Put starkly, the idea is not convincing. If however one believed that, for whatever reason, we were seeing a civilizational conflict between European and Islamic societies, or anything resembling it, a case for invading Iraq could be made. Is such a conflict brewing? Cogent arguments can be made both that it is and is not. Perhaps the important point is that there is enough ambiguity to allow an administration to convince itself of either.

If the United States conquered Iraq and occupied it, the realities of power would shift profoundly against the Islamic world. The Mideast is the center of Moslem gravity, that being where both the oil and Mecca are. Syria would have overwhelming forces on two borders and be impotent. Iraq would be out of the picture. Iran, a major bad boy from the American point of view, would have GIs on its frontiers, and the sobering realization the United States was willing to use them. Even if we didn’t.

Had this happened before the evanescence of the Soviet Union, the United States might have faced massive military assistance from Russia and the threat of direct Russian involvement. Now, no. On their own, the Moslem nations are lightweights: There is no Islamic country in the first world. A base in the Moslem heartland would consequently give the United States control of a crucial region of the globe.

Note that the three explanations are not mutually exclusive. One occupation would accomplish all of them. One might easily reason that the war will be such a walkover that too few American lives will be lost to upset the American public. So much for so little. What a deal.

If the real reasons are any of the foregoing three, the administration can’t say so. On the other hand, the reasons sought haven’t been found: the inspectors keep inspecting, so far without finding anything very scary. (I’m expecting any minute for NSA to produce satellite photos of the Maddox and Turner Joy in a hidden valley in Iraq, holed by a thousand scimitar cuts.)

A pretext being lacking, the approach would presumably be to whip up as much war fever as possible to maintain support until after the war, when it wouldn’t matter. It is easier to manufacture support for a war you have just won than for a war you are about to undertake.

To me, the emphasis on Weapons of Mass Destruction, with virtually no factual examination, sounds an awful lot like whooping up the masses. So does the encouragement of people to buy Survival Kits, one for the home and one for the car; and to seal up the house with duct tape and be ready for anything.** I don’t suggest that there won’t be terrorism; there may be lots, or none-yet in common fear is common purpose. Once the invasion is over, the public will accept it.

If this is the game, and the White House pulls it off, it will be, whatever else one may think of it, a slick bit of imperial gamesmanship. It may not be just what Bin Laden expected.

* Sarin

** Survival kits

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