Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2003
Issue No. 632
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War by example

The exemplary nature of the US invasion of Iraq bodes ill for the world's future, writes Roger Owen*

Roger Owen The new United States defence doctrine based on the notion of preventive response means that any war now fought by America necessarily has an exemplary quality. Its purpose is not simply to defeat armies and to change regimes but also to demonstrate the effectiveness of American military power, of America's determination to impose its world view, to create a new world order free of terrorists and of the regimes which support or arm them.

As is clear from United States' efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere, the doctrine itself, and its legitimacy, have to be demonstrated in advance. In the Iraqi case it will also have to be justified retrospectively, after the event, by the discovery of evidence of weapons of mass destruction and of the regime's links with terrorism. Part of the fighting round Baghdad will be to obtain secret intelligence files before they can be destroyed. This will have to extra advantage of putting pressure on those many states and regimes which have either connived with the sanctions-busting activities of President Saddam Hussein or whose secrets have been monitored by Iraqi intelligence. The captured files promise to make uncomfortable reading.

The exemplary nature of the whole exercise is well recognised by the rest of the world. It is also aware that a perception of American success in Iraq will usher in a new type of international politics. For one thing, it will force a change in the way in which peoples and regimes see the world, from a view based on the United Nations and international law to one based on an identification with Washington's definition of terrorism and of the evil nature of those who support them. For another, it will force changes in the ways in which states and regimes present their own position, one which will seem to reflect American goals rather than any serious considerations of national interest. Mr Blair's slavish following of the Bush administration's line provides a painful foretaste of all this.

Some leaders will obviously want to wait and see how it all plays out. They may even calculate that, if they play their cards right, they may be offered some temporary advantage, like a share in the rewards involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. Others will become ever more fearful as to how the United States will use its power next, well aware of the dangers of being caught up in various types of escalation, from more American campaigns against more rogue regimes to the many types of backlash which such policies are sure to provoke.

One thing is abundantly clear: that America's new world order cannot be created without more and more interventions, that Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's notion of obtaining a decisive outcome, once and for all, cannot work. Demonstration by example will have to go on for some long time. And, as is the way with such things, each American success will be contested, each new venture accompanied by a reliance as much on America's political and economic power aided by fierce diplomatic arm twisting, as on its military might alone.

As far as the Arab world is concerned, there are three obvious ways in which tensions may escalate further after Iraq. The first is the impact which a military occupation will have on relations with the Iranians to the east and the Syrians to the west, where the Americans will find themselves guarding long borders against potentially hostile forces on the other side. Second, there is the threat of political pressure to fall in with whatever designs the American administration may have next, from an imposed peace on the Palestinians to demands for permanent leases for American military bases outside Iraq. Third, there is the distinct possibility of ever stronger Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza unrestrained by America.

Any or all of these pressures will certainly produce a counter-pressure from sections of each Arab regime's own population, with demands to resist Israeli policies as well as the prolonged American occupation of an Arab Muslim neighbour. They will have to decide, as usual, whether to try to respond singly or collectively. They will also have to develop a response to the obvious temptation to make such occupations as costly and as difficult as possible. Support for anti-American groups either inside Iraq or just across its borders will surely rise, fanned by the inevitable American military response.

At some time, sooner or later, the Americans will begin to use the promiscuous word "terrorists" to describe those who oppose their presence in Iraq. At some time too people will begin to make analogies with Afghanistan. Not to America's fight there against the Taliban but to the example, and the lessons, provided by the previous struggle against the Soviet invader.

It is clear that in such cases where a single case becomes a test case for forces competing at the global level the stakes are very high indeed. The Bush administration has to prove the rightness of its case to the world. To do so it needs not only to be seen defeating old enemies, it will also need to keep finding new ones to make the same point.

Furthermore, like any other imperial, or would-be imperial elite it must also prove its case to its own people. This will be a new and peculiar situation for the United States in which the huge costs of invasion and occupation will soon be pretty clear for all to see. And where the problems of creating a viable Iraqi government to whom to hand over power and to reach some concrete agreement about future access to Iraqi oil will obviously affect the American public's perception of the doctrine of exemplary, preventive wars, not just in the run-up to the next presidential election but far beyond.

* The writer is professor of history at Harvard University's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies.

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