Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bush, the invasion of Iraq, and power

Patrick Cockburn, the best reporter covering Iraq, who writes for the British newspaper The Independent, has written a useful summary of the war in Iraq thus far, in the article "What the Bush Administration Has Wrought in Iraq". He concludes that "Iraq has joined the list of small wars — as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s — that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers." So what is behind this invasion? Oil? Showing up Bush senior? Helping Israel? Bad Intelligence? Helping the Republicans? Helping the military-industrial complex?

All of these may be part of the answer, but sometimes it is useful to apply the principal of Occam's razor: "The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating, or 'shaving off,' those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory". If one looks through history, one finds a long list of kings and emperors constantly trying to enlarge their dominion. The historian normally doesn't even have to explain why the aggressor is doing this; it is just assumed that when a head of state decides that he can conquer another country, he will do so, subject to a certain amount of "ambition" on the part of the conqueror.

The historian Geoffrey Blainey concluded that most wars are caused by miscalculation: if the aggressor is correct that he is far superior militarily, and the victim understands this to be true, the victim will generally just give up. If the potential victim really is able to defend itself, the aggressor has miscalculated, and fights a losing war; if the potential victim tries to defend itself but loses, then the victim miscalculated.

This explanation was very attractive for perhaps the leading international relations theorist today, Kenneth Waltz, who continues the long tradition of what is called "realism", that is, the view that power and the distribution of power among nations is the most important factor in international relations. Although this is often a conservative position, it need not be; one could argue that Noam Chomsky, for instance, has been recording the acts of the powerful against the less powerful for many decades now. In the 1990s, Waltz predicted that the U.S. would overextend itself and bring on a coalition that would create a balance of power, because Waltz felt that, democracy or not, the U.S. would use its excessive power to try and dominate other nations as thoroughly as it could. Overwhelming power leads to a desire to dominate, which leads to a balancing of power.

As it was, in a sequence that would not be mysterious to most historians, Clinton was not particularly expansionistic, but a different part of the ruling elite, in the form of the Project for a New American Century, were. These kinds of rifts among elites are normal. What made the situation dangerous was that the Soviet Union had disappeared, which had altered what Waltz calls the "structure", or distribution of power, in the world. Had the Soviet Union existed, the United States would not now be in Iraq.

So the first thing to consider is that Bush invaded Iraq because the Soviet Union did not exist, and no other power has emerged to challenge the U.S. The second consideration is that the expansionist part of the elite took power. I would argue that it still took 9/11 to enable Bush and company to pursue their nefarious designs on empire, because in a democracy some kind of justification is necessary for expansion -- which isn't to say that dictators don't also offer justifications, just that in a democracy the drama has to be higher. Whether Bush and company knew about 9/11 before it happened, or whether Osama bin Laden had good intelligence that Bush would attack Iraq if al qaeda attacked the U.S., which is what I suspect, is actually a secondary matter. The more important point, besides an expansionist elite in power and a severely unbalanced global power structure, is that Iraq was exceptionally weak. Not just weak, but just as important, Saddam had managed to thoroughly alienate Iran and Kuwait by invading them, and hadn't forged alliances with anyone else. It was like a wounded, isolated wildebeest in the Serengeti facing a pride of lions. Well, dumb lions, that pursued the wildebeest into a swamp.

The expansionist part of the American elite were licking their chops at such a prone prize. I'm sure that if one looked at the 5,000 year history of the states surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates, it would not be the first time that happened. Even before the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden was comparing the U.S. with Hulagu Khan, who conquered Baghdad in 1258, and virtually destroyed the city. The U.S. invasion fit in perfectly with his propaganda.

That Bush and company had no idea what they were doing, knew nothing of the region or how to rule, is nothing shocking when seen through the history of the last few thousand years, because mind-boggling stupidity is a constant feature of would-be conquerors. Certainly, Rumsfeld's desire to "transform" the U.S. military into a lean conquering machine was nothing new. Ever since history started, first cavalry and then tanks have been used to try and outmaneuver a slower enemy. This was the idea behind the blitzkrieg, an idea that Hitler used, based on the writings of the British strategist Liddel-Hart. Hitler, having been involved in one of history's biggest examples of stupidity, the huge, vain, incredibly murderous offensives on the Western Front of World War I, was determined to create a lean conquering machine. The spectacle of U.S. tanks going full blast across the Iraqi desert was well within the blitzkrieg mode. What was completely off script was the decision to rule Iraq by destroying the native bureaucracy, which even Hitler was not stupid enough to do, having left the French government virtually completely in place, for instance.

Not that even keeping the Baath party in place would have helped, although we'll never know. Perhaps the only way the invasion would have worked would have been to eliminate Hussein and his sons and keeping the rest of the Baath party in power. It would have made it easier to pursue what I think was Bush and company's larger goal, a full-scale empire (not that it would have been called that) in the Middle East and Central Asia, full of weak, struggling, divided pseudocountries, just ripe for the picking.

The only good that has come from this horrible war is that a wider empire will not be possible, no matter how much Bush clings to the idea. This whole fiasco was made possible, not only because of Blainey's insight, miscalculation, but because that part of the world is weak. Which brings us back to the more positive vision of this site, which is to propose a global makeover, which requires that each region of the planet be strong enough to provide enough of a balance that war becomes very unlikely. If every region of the planet was as industrially advanced as Europe and Japan are now and the U.S. used to be (it is currently building its military on top of built-up industrial power from the past), then a major war between regions would be virtually unthinkable. In order for every region to achieve this, there must be enough unity within the region to allow for at least a European Union type situation, which in turn is probably only possible if all the countries involved are democratic, and if they are all committed to a path of industrialization, as opposed to simply exploiting and selling off whatever natural resources are in their territories. And all this must be built in a sustainable way, if we want to avoid the ugly tragedy of war, as we see now in Iraq.

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