Empire's last hurrah
Stupidity and irresponsibility exploded the American empire from within, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Of all the empires in history, the United States will go down as one of the most aggressive and least inspiring. After nearly 160 years of warfare and imperial conquest, US policy, and the war machine it marshalled, has left nothing in its tracks but death and destruction, with no lasting cultural value. Five years after the US invasion, Iraq lies in ruins. Divided, violent, depleted, unstable, rife with sectarian war, a hotbed of terrorism and with 20 per cent of its population killed, wounded, displaced or in asylum in neighbouring countries, Iraq bears no resemblance to its recent past. Meanwhile, allied regimes in the Arab Middle East, which the Bush administration vowed to democratise after invading Iraq, are now more entrenched, more autocratic than ever.
The only historical analogy that can be found for US actions in Iraq at the turn of the 21st century is the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. The Mongol warlord Hulagu and his army of marauders and mercenary slaves (not much different from Blackwater -- modern US hired mercenaries) besieged the city for two weeks before storming it. Baghdad, the proud capital of learning, wealth, universities, hospitals -- House of Wisdom and libraries of the Abbasid empire and the civilised world for almost five centuries -- was systematically destroyed, burned and looted and its population of 800,000, both civilian and military defenders, killed. After the city was reduced to ruins, Hulagu and his army withdrew to his home base of Azerbaijan to rest and graze his horses. That was the legacy of the rise and fall of Mongol hordes. Where will the American empire go after its debacle in Iraq?
Some people may contest the fact that the US is an imperial power that dominates the world, or most of it. This is either due to self-effacing denial or the legendary American sense of self- righteousness. Drawing on the parallel historical examples of the 16th to 19th century age of colonialism, they will challenge any claimant to point out where American colonial dominion is, the colonised peoples or the colonial governments that rules over them. Little do they know about US neo-colonialism, sprawling American military bases spread around the globe, the 13 American naval armada canvassing the seas and oceans or the hundreds of billions of US dollars spent on them in the name of American security and spreading democracy. According to the US Department of Defense annual Base Structure Report for 2003, which lists foreign and domestic military bases, the US rents or owns 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries, in addition to 6,000 bases in the US and its territories. The report excludes huge US military, naval and air force bases in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The US Department of Defense deploys 253,288 uniformed personnel and an approximately equal number of civilian personnel, technicians and non-uniformed military and civilian contractors.
In April 2003, the Bush administration and its cohorts conveniently estimated that the Iraq conquest would cost $1.7 billion, part of which would be offset by the participating "coalition of the willing". Allies Britain, Germany, Canada, Norway and Japan would pay the costs of reconstruction, in addition to the expected Iraqi oil revenue. That was in 2003. But according to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and a respected former World Bank vice- president, the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 will reach $845 billion "for military operations, reconstruction, embassy costs, enhanced security at US bases and foreign aid programmes". In his most recent book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, Stiglitz states: "A trillion dollars could have built an additional eight million housing units; could have hired some 15 million additional public school teachers for one year; could have paid for 120 million children to attend a year of Head Start; insured 530 million children for healthcare for one year; or provided 43 million students with four-year scholarships at public universities."
How much the losing Iraq war is costing the US treasury, financially as well as politically, is increasingly a matter of public debate in the US, as much as the Vietnam War was a matter of public outrage 40 years ago. Except for the Vietnam War, the Iraq war -- now in its sixth year -- is the longest and most costly war in the post-independence history of the US. It has lasted longer than the American Civil War, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish- American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the first Gulf War, not to mention the series of brutal guerrilla wars incited by the Reagan administration in South America during the 1980s.
The five-year long Iraq war has led the world's most feared imperial power to infamy and bankruptcy. It has wreaked untold suffering and destruction on the ancient land of Iraq and its population, all to the benefit of US mega- corporations like Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root, and the Pentagon's paramilitary and civilian contractors. The US and its coalition, who defied the UN Security Council and invaded Iraq, owe the country and its people huge reparations for their wanton destruction. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, no connection was established between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda to warrant a pre-emptive war, and Iraq is no closer to democracy today than the closest US Arab allies in the Middle East are. As many polls have indicated, all the Iraqis want -- except their Maliki government -- is for the US to leave and let them lick their wounds, unite their families, mourn their dead, repatriate their refugees, mend sectarian differences and establish a new Iraqi order without American interference.
No matter how much money or how many years that will take, it would not address the fundamental question of the consequences of the Iraq war. For one thing, Iraq, inspired by Afghanistan, has become a breeding ground for armed resistance and terrorism for all sorts of causes. Rand Corporation data estimates that since the invasion of Iraq terrorism has increased seven-fold. It has become a worldwide phenomenon and a panacea for all evils in every region of the world. Since it gained more experience and support in Iraq, such resistance- cum-terrorism will continue in Iraq should the Maliki government finalise a deal it initialled with the US occupation last November for an extended American security presence in the country beyond the proposed date of US withdrawal that has yet to be scheduled. Few Americans understand how delicate the issue of foreign military presence on Arab territory is. Not only does it echo the colonial history that had humiliated Arab pride and sovereignty for centuries, but it is also an issue for which they held their ruling lords as traitors and their anti- colonial leaders as heroes. After all, Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda gathered momentum as it claimed to launch an all out war against US military presence in Bin Laden's own holy land of Saudi Arabia -- an unpardonable act of desecration, to him.
To accommodate Israeli interests, the pro- Zionist alliance in the US and Europe has worked hard to identify terrorism with Islam. That has turned out to be a poisoned chalice for the West as it lent the indefatigable force of faith in its most fundamentalist manifestations to what would have otherwise been a national resistance movement. Organised terrorism, born in Afghanistan, reared and refined in Iraq, will not only turn on any foreign military presence but on the very national governments that allowed the US or other powers to establish a military foothold. As massive US military deployment in the Arab Gulf states undermines Iran's security, the latter will encourage national resistance to US presence in all these states and will enhance its military and nuclear capacity to confront any potential US attack. Saudi Arabia's recent decision, with the lukewarm agreement of other Arab Gulf states, to set up an anti-missile defence system pours oil on the fire of confrontation. It is the old Cold War logic: if one side's defence system is superior to the attack capability of the other, the latter becomes vulnerable.
The US invasion of Iraq arrested the Middle East/Gulf region's slow transition to democracy and placed latent religious fundamentalist forces at the forefront of resistance. There was little argument against fighting an occupation force, especially one that siphons off Arab oil resources and, in return, bolsters the aggressive capacity of the Arabs' archenemy, Israel, to liquidate the Palestinian people. US allied regimes that facilitated the movement of troops, materiel and military hardware from established bases or through air, sea or land routes for the conquest of Iraq will also be targeted by fundamentalist forces.
Iran and Syria, as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, represent the obstacle to complete US-Israeli hegemony over the region and its resources. The US is egged on by Israel to escalate the confrontation with Iran in a manner that is reminiscent of the escalation against Iraq in the months leading up to the invasion in March 2003. After 12 years of sanctions, Iraq was militarily powerless and defenceless. Iran is not in the same position, although superior US military power cannot be underestimated.
Oil is a critical factor. It has recently climbed up to $130 before coming down to under $125. The world is facing recession as the US economy, the major engine of the world economy, is in the doldrums. It is doubtful if President George W Bush can embark on yet another misadventure that would set the entire Middle East on fire, no matter what his Iran-hating Arab allies may tell him.
Washington is rife with leaks and eyewitness accounts of how the Bush administration, whose Iraq war architects like rats have now jumped from the sinking ship, planned and executed the war and for what reason. When the full story unravels -- and it will -- it will be worse than the Watergate scandal that forced former president Richard Nixon to resign in August 1974. One of the questions that will be on the mind of the Democratic Party's presidential candidate who will be selected in August is whether he should follow the example of former president Gerald Ford and grant President Bush immunity from impeachment for lying to the American people about Iraq, wasting $2-3 trillion on botched wars, and mismanaging US foreign policy in a way that increased, not diminished, the risk of terrorist attacks against the US.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.