Cost of Iraq adventure

Published in the Dawn on October 25, 2003

If the war on Iraq was all about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's evil rule, it would not have detonated such a fierce debate. Obviously something more is at play arousing universal anxiety and concern.

There are issues that transcend or escape the stated arguments for the war. And what remains unstated may be the most visible.

The popular view sees it as part of a new wave of American imperialism. But is a widely held view necessarily a correct one, beyond scrutiny?

One has to truly comprehend three things - the enormous fear and anger felt in the US in the wake of 9/11 tragedy, the unprecedented wave of anti-Americanism that has been sweeping across the Muslim world even pre-dating the terrorist attacks and then the stealthy manner with which the most powerful nation was attacked and humiliated and hailed by many among the Muslim world as a heroic act in the way of God. All this has sent an indelible message to the Americans that they are unsafe and vulnerable as there is a new enemy out there, faceless and willing to die, and armed with deadly new weapons that are easy to find and hard to fight.

It so happened that the 9/11 tragedy coincided with the emergence of a very aggressive president in the United States whose political philosophy rested on a very small plinth of some of the most conservative American values. There were other constraints too limiting the president's priorities. Arguably no other president in recent US history has been so smitten by the failure to win a second term as the elder Bush, and his son is hell bent to see it did not happen to him.

That had an impact on his politics and strategy for leadership. Apparently his father told him that the major reason for his defeat was the loss of the Jewish vote and also advised him not to neglect his power base which was the wealthy Americans, the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party and the increasingly influential and rich Christian church. He took the advice and rolled his foreign policy and domestic politics into one.

The resulting agenda: shun and vilify Arafat to please the Jewish vote, repudiate treaties that hurt the American corporate sector and the military industrial complex, shower tax cuts on the rich, scorn the UN as it limits unilateralism and is unpopular with Congress and the American people, and finally convey the word abroad that anyone out of the line would be severely dealt with. If any country misbehaved, it would be subjected to a "regime change". It looked as if there was a new "Terminator" on the block.

It turned out that the doctrine of pre-emption was essentially designed to deal with the intractable issues of an increasingly complex post-cold war world and thus has nothing that could have a political cost in America. It became a foreign policy of denial and evasion.

September 11 tragedy played right into the hands of neo-conservatives to advance their agenda - a work already in progress and the threat of imperialism began looking real. The administration finally got its act together. It found an issue fitting its combative instinct. While the reality remains obscure, clearly a myth of imperialism with a higher purpose was being fostered.

The belligerent rhetoric apart, what has this "imperialism" done so far? Basically three things - tough homeland security measures, enjoying broad-based domestic support, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. As for Afghanistan, the fact is a Taliban-weary Afghanistan, long caught up in a bloody civil war and hosting the biggest nest of global terrorism - a threat not just to the US but also to Pakistan and indeed the world - had been inviting international concern for some time.

It was an intervention waiting to happen. It came ineffectually during the Clinton years and was thus already in train when the breaking point was reached with the attack on the World Trade Centre. It was a provocation the world could have ignored only at its peril. So there was a massive intervention, fully endorsed by the UN, applauded by the international community and facilitated by Pakistan. Call it American imperialism or whatever.

Of course Iraq is a different matter.The administration lied to the American people. The neo-conservatives built the case on a number of falsehoods and misrepresentations. An emotionally charged public living in daily fear of terrorism to which Osama bin Laden contributed as much as John Ashcroft with the draconian measures of homeland security, was receptive to this propaganda blitz. Iraq was invaded without UN endorsement and in the face of universal reservations. Now "the morning after", America is awakening to new realities.

Has the imperialism in Iraq gone sour or was there no imperialist war to begin with and just, as Senator Kennedy said, a big fraud? You only have to listen to the debates of Democratic candidates for the next year's presidential race. The race includes some outstanding minds representing some of the best values that America is known for.

It is too early to say whether Democrats will come to power but one thing is clear, there is still some hope for return of American idealism that has been facing testing times in the post-cold war world. New challenges have meanwhile arisen that cannot be tackled by traditional diplomacy and taking the sole superpower towards unilateralism. Intervention became acceptable in certain situations, sometimes for the good. Look at the Balkans.

Of course, intervention also had the potential to be abused, when tempted by the opportunity of the post-cold war monopoly of power to guarantee unchallenged assertion of its will on what it sees as a menacing and disorderly new world. But there are limits to power otherwise it can turn on itself.

The United States might learn the hard way that military interventions are a high-risk instrument of foreign policy specially in the Islamic world where there is a rising tide of anti-Americanism. As in the case of Iraq, these interventions can prove to be much costly and provocative, lacking sustained public support at home and arousing anxiety abroad. Even the latest UN resolution is no more than a flimsy and cosmetic endorsement of US intervention barely enough for the administration to use it for political purposes domestically.

Unlike most US presidents who generally get elected on the strength of their power base and gradually broaden their appeal and become leaders of the whole nation, Bush has made no attempt to do so except on a single issue that is terrorism. Elsewhere he has divided the nation like never before in its post-civil war history. There has always been diversity of political opinion in America but not as much polarization as it is today. And America has never before aroused so much international hostility.

Now saner voices are beginning to speak up in America. For every book that the conservatives have come out with, the liberals and mainstream intellectual elite and leaders of public opinion are beginning to counter their hubris with their own critiques. People are beginning to worry about the direction the country is headed for. And this augurs well for the country. It may set limits to what Bush can or cannot do.

Contrary to the prevailing opinion, specially abroad, that Bush and his neo-conservatives may be some revolutionaries out to put their imprimatur on the world and fashion it in their own image, I do not credit them with any conceptual policy framework representing either lofty ideals or even hard-headed realpolitic.

It is essentially a clumsy political opportunism and misguided conservatism of a wealthy leadership, all with business backgrounds, representing special interests and very narrowly defining the national purpose in military terms. All this talk of modernizing Muslim countries and bringing democracy is simply an eyewash designed to give a sublime purpose to the Iraq war. Look at who is benefiting most from Iraq reconstruction - the American corporations.

It is beyond America's capability and resources to go and reform every Muslim society. Iraq was different where people's disaffection with Saddam may have surpassed their anti-Americanism, but elsewhere in the Islamic world America is seen as part of the problem not solution. And as Iraq war has shown, nation-building does not come cheap. Bush has probably been the first leader in American history to go into a major war amid a huge tax cut and a massive deficit.

All things considered, Bush is unlikely to embark on another military intervention during the rest of his present term. It would be a dangerous politics to do so as America enters the last year before the elections. Yes, Iran's nuclear programme is causing concern but I do not foresee any action against Iran, or even Syria, certainly not in the next one year.

The US threats will however continue aimed at ensuring that they keep their hands off Iraq. Iran's nuclear programme will probably be taken care of by Israel, at an opportune moment.

Next elections are going to be one of the most crucial in recent American history. They will be fought as much on the basis of contrasting values as on issues and pure politics. Issues are clearly Iraq war and the economy. Victory in war does not help in winning an election but failure does help in losing it. The way Iraq war is going it will be neither a victory nor failure.

So in the final analysis the decisive issue will be the economy. And with this on again off again jobless recovery it is open to question if the economy will have improved sufficiently to hand another term to the president. At the next elections, therefore, this so-called imperialism may disappear with George W Bush as suddenly as it came. If he survives, imperialism may not, having been stymied by Iraq and a strong back lash against it both at home and abroad.

The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan.