Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2003
Issue No. 637
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Rationalising war

What would Max Weber say about the current situation in Iraq and Palestine? Duncan Kennedy* applies the German sociologist's frameworks to the predicaments of the two nations

Duncan Kennedy The prophetic style of what follows has an element of the ridiculous, but why not give it a try? On 2 April, I wrote "The US has already lost the Iraq war. This is even the case if the Iraqi army surrenders or goes home by 16 April, and even if a significant minority of the Iraqi population welcomes the occupation." I think it is great that the Iraqi army has dispersed and that the mass killing of soldiers and civilians is over. But I still think the US has already lost the Iraq war. There will be at least two nationalist resistances, a secular one that is partly Ba'athist and the other, an Islamist one.

It seems clear that the Saddam regime was Stalinist organisationally, capable of mobilising a significant number of people in a "patriotic" war like the Russian defence against the Germans, though on a much smaller scale and against a much stronger enemy, using the same combination of ideological and internal terror tactics, and relying on a clientelist base quite possibly even in Shi'ite territory. Approximately five per cent of the Iraqi population are, or rather were, members of the Ba'ath Party, but multiply that number by, say, four, to account for their families. Even with the state apparatus taken over by a repressive US regime, a very small percentage of die-hard Ba'athists, together with secular nationalist collaborators, have the numbers and the combination of ideology and force necessary to indefinitely fight a low-level guerrilla war. The Iraqis didn't surrender, but rather deserted or dispersed, and it seems likely that they kept their light weapons. The secular nationalist resistance won't have to be unified politically to fight a guerrilla war. The extreme demoralisation of moderate Arabs who identified with Saddam as a resister, even as they loathed him as a political leader, is irrelevant -- moderate Arabs are not the people who will do the fighting.

The Islamists will be Shi'ite in the south, Kurds of various faiths in the north, and it is possible there might be a new Sunni Islamist movement in the centre of the country. They will be supported by "fighters" from throughout the Muslim world urged on by fatwas from radical and moderate clerics from Djakarta to Peshawar and beyond. The identification of the US in Iraq with Israel in the occupied territories will be complete in the minds of Muslim masses everywhere -- whether they identify with secular nationalist or Islamist guerrillas. The first targets of the resistance will be Iraqis who decided to gamble on the United States. Enthusiastic welcomes from Shi'ite crowds shouting, "Allah is the only God and Hussein is his enemy" are not a solid base.

The first primaries ahead of the US presidential elections begin a year from now. The US will be in the position of an occupying force trying to pacify the country; elections in Iraq will be inconceivable (the largest political party in Russia is the successor of the CPUSSR, and don't forget Algeria).

The US will be, in fact and not just in Muslim fantasy, in the position of the IDF in the occupied territories, but in a much larger, richer, more developed territory, and the US forces are badly trained for guerrilla war. They are no more culturally attuned to Iraq than they were to Vietnam, likely to be demoralised and prone to war crimes out of terror for their lives. Iran (Shi'ite) and to a lesser extent Syria (anti-Saddam Ba'athist) will play in miniature the role of China in the Vietnam War (Kurdistan equals Laos). The US would have to take military action against Iran and Syria to successfully pacify them, but that would be inconceivable during an election year -- another 300,000 troops? Reinstate compulsory military service? Psychological warfare, or bluffing, by threatening the "go crazy" (Nixon bombs Hanoi) on Iran and Syria will help, but only for a while.

The Bush administration will have tried to save itself by claiming to have located and destroyed Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (planting them or "inferring" their existence if necessary), but this will leave them with only oil and democratisation as justifications for continued occupation. Maybe they will decide to admit that "liberation" did not work and argue that we have to occupy for several years to prevent either the return of the Ba'ath or an Islamist takeover.

The Republican base for the war was the pro-Israel, pro-Sharon neo- conservative internationalists, the middle American isolationists terrified by 9/11 into "striking back" before Saddam armed Al-Qa'eda, and the part of the right-wing business community with an interest in the region or in reconstruction. Votes from isolationists will be needed to win the election, but those people are always susceptible to deciding that the Iraqis are "ungrateful" and we should leave them to devour themselves now that they can't hurt us anymore. The business people are gigantic campaign contributors with no political commitments beyond generalised rightism. It seems unlikely that either group will support a long occupation, and that the neo-conservatives will be isolated. But the Republicans cannot talk about withdrawal before the election without seeming to have admitted defeat. Their position will be quite vulnerable with the swing voters who determine US elections. The quick end to the conventional war means that by the time the campaign is in full swing 12 months from now we will be fully and irrevocably into the occupation period.

The Democrats will say they opposed the war because Bush and his crowd botched the necessary diplomacy, but that they are happy we did so incredibly well, and that the current danger is that the Republicans are "ideologically blinkered" (code for pro- Sharon neo-conservatives) about the reality of occupation, so the only thing to do is to multilateralise the conflict, which they will promise to do if elected, bringing most of the troops home and diffusing responsibility. This promise is utterly impractical, but the Democrats out of power can promise anything they want without consequences. The Democrats will make a secret deal with the French to avoid any threat of veto of UN takeover, and Blair will subtly aid them by distancing himself from the Republicans. If the Democrats win, the occupation will be over within a year of the election. There will be civil war in Iraq until a new dictatorship is established, with tacit US consent in exchange for self-limitation in rearmament and keeping the oil flowing, and maybe even US support if the CIA and special forces can find a dictator to back and turn into their client.

If the Republicans win, the occupation will have to drag on, with massive suffering, for a year or two longer, so the Republicans can find a way out that doesn't look like utter failure for them. Unless they decide to leave quickly, arguing that they got rid of Saddam and the weapons of mass destruction and that was all they ever wanted. When they leave, there will be a civil war until a new dictatorship is established.

What would Weber think? Our fate is rationalisation, disenchantment, an ethic of consequences, and decisionism. The ethic of consequences: on the ground in Iraq, from the point of view of human bodies and the human spirit, there is no difference between steel in the flesh, or burning of the flesh, from a torturer in an Iraqi prison, and steel in the flesh or burning of the flesh by a bomb or a shell or a bullet. What we did to bodies in Iraq -- to soldiers and civilians, men, women and children -- and what the Iraqis did, on a small scale to our soldiers, was something no less physically sickening, blowing brains out, amputating body parts, maiming for life, than what Saddam's torturers have done for the last 20 years. It may be ethically required of us to do these acts of killing and maiming, but only if the killing and maiming of bodies we do prevents worse.

Saddam's diabolical history, his killing, gassing, torturing, raping, even though it puts him far higher on the scale of murderers than the average petty dictator, is not relevant except as a way to predict what would have happened if we had not acted or had acted more slowly or without destroying any hope of a multilateral effort and a peaceful transition. Neither the suffering he dealt out in the past nor the suffering the US was complicit in through sanctions and by backing him against Iran will be reduced or redeemed in any way by inflicting more suffering. So for me the first question is to compare the number of people he would have tortured and murdered with the numbers we will have already killed and physically maimed in order to be rid of him, along with the killed and maimed in the guerrilla war to come and then in the civil war after we withdraw, and then by the regime -- in the best case something like Mubarak and in the worst something like Assad -- that "stabilises" the country at the end of the story.

It is hard to think about this quantitatively. Suppose he would have murdered and tortured thousands over the remainder of his rule. How many thousands have we killed and maimed in the last few weeks? When the balance sheet becomes a little clear (it will never be more than that) perhaps it will turn out that the war, even done in this botched way, was worth it -- consequences can validate a policy even if it appeared foolish or evil when adopted. That seems unlikely to me but not impossible.

One reason it seems unlikely is US military doctrine, as it would be applied to a guerrilla war. We know all about the greater precision of US weapons, which means that the US can kill or injure fewer civilians in killing enemy soldiers than used to be the case. But the weapons we use are also more powerful and more physically destructive, just as was the case in Vietnam relative to previous conflicts (napalm compared to cluster bombs). US doctrine seems to be that we should minimise civilian casualties in killing enemy soldiers but that we should and will absolutely minimise US casualties no matter how high the consequent loss of civilian life. This means that, as the journalists in the Palestine Hotel learned, US forces will use very destructive force in response to threats to their lives, even when there is a high probability of high civilian casualties. The US does not observe a doctrine of "proportionality" when it comes to measuring a US soldier's life against foreign military or civilian lives. To save your individual life it is justifiable to kill as many civilians as necessary.

If it turns out that we sow over the course of the war and the civil war a great deal more unbearable physical and moral suffering and death than we have prevented, then the death and suffering will be on the consciences of those who ordered it. The deaths will have been wasted. Whether or not they were nobly suffered or sought out from US patriotism or Iraqi patriotism or in response to "humiliation" (or "the tragedy of Andalusia"), or out of faith in a deluded belief that they would increase US security against terrorism, or as display of the military virtue and courage of the nation in question -- Arab or Western. In the perspective of disenchantment, death in patriotic battle, for Americans or Brits or Iraqis, has no redeeming moral value -- it is only suffering and loss. For me as a disenchanted person, the body filled with tiny steel shards gets meaning only if some good comes of it -- good on balance.

There will of course be many, many other consequences, linked only indirectly and over the long term to suffering and death and to peace and happiness. The power of the US empire, contrary to what appears on the day of victory in the first campaign, will be set back (not eliminated) and the cause of multilateralism enormously strengthened when the occupation proves a failure. That may lead to the deaths of innocents in cases like Rwanda and Cambodia and Kosovo in the next round (if the "international community" fails to act), but on balance is probably good.

There may be some positive consequences in the long run for the Palestinians (in the short run Israel has a free hand), since Israel will be even more isolated than it was before, and since a much weakened US will be less willing to sacrifice US national interests to the Likud view of the Israeli national interest, and since the US will be more dependent on pro-Palestinian Europeans to help it out of its Mideast catastrophe. The most important consequence may be a re-alignment of US opinion. On one side there is likely to be an intensification of identification with Israel for those who support our occupation of Iraq (if we are doing the right thing in Iraq, the Israelis must be doing the right thing in the territories -- all Arabs are terrorists). On the other side, a broadening of the pro-Palestinian base in the (weak) US left, including the Jewish left (if what we are doing in Iraq is bad, then what the Israelis are doing must be bad too; Arabs just want national self-determination).

Aside from the immediate deaths, the tragedy is the re-enforcement of all the different enchantments of the modern era, the "reaction formations" against the ethical irrationality of the world. The main enchantments have been communism, nationalism, fascism, tribalism, religious communalism and religious fundamentalism, and the enchantment of rationalisation -- bureaucratic legalist professionalism (just doing my job). All of these enchantments will be strengthened except communism. In their various names, more meaningless deaths will occur than probably would have occurred if the US had either been willing to take the risk of Saddam's continued possession of weapons of mass destruction, treating him like Gaddafi, or been willing and able to assemble a world coalition rather than acting unilaterally.

In the future conflicts dominated by the enchantments, the ability of the US to do good, in decisionist moments when someone has to decide according to the calculus of effects whether violence (including the deaths of innocents) is morally required or morally forbidden, has been sharply reduced, because of the loss of what remained of the US post-World War II decolonising aura, but I have no idea whether that will turn out to have been a good or a bad thing, given that the US, in my eyes, had much earlier lost any presumption of being a benign power in the world. In this case, US complicity in the injustices suffered by the Palestinians will be a direct cause of the imperial defeat -- if the defeat happens. What seems highly likely is that nationalist delusions will be strengthened along with religious delusions and protofascist (Saddamist) delusions, all over the world, including the US, as the threat of terrorist attacks in the US increases along with right-wing patriotic security measures against them and against internal dissent. In a few countries of the periphery, left segments of national elites might take advantage of the new configuration to mobilise their populations for autonomous national development strategies based on self-help and anti-American diplomacy in a newly fractured world order. To my mind, that is no more than a conceivable good side effect.

That's my rap as of today. I'll end, though, pointing to the final paragraphs of Weber's Politics as a Vocation, written in 1918 just after the crushing of the Spartacist communist revolution in Germany, which predicted a dark time. I'll add a call to oppose the war now as strongly as possible so as to increase the probability of a Democratic victory in November 2004, and thereby shorten the suffering of the Iraqis, though I do so with little hope of improving their ultimate fate. Along this line, I'm into marching against the war and signing anything anyone wants to propose, so long as it is not anti-Semitic. And I am in favour of keeping the Palestinian cause close to the centre of anti-war efforts.

* The writer is a professor of law at Harvard University.

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