In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally, largely because he was at war with Iran, a U.S. enemy. Washington chose to see Hussein then as a potential force for good in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan thus took Iraq off the terrorism list. That made it possible for Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, to authorize American corporations to sell Hussein materials for his early chemical and biological weapons, such as the anthrax virus. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, now says these weapons are among the prime reasons our armed forces must besiege and occupy Iraq.
Is it any wonder that so many Americans are confused about the second President Bush’s call to war? Confusion, in fact, has become the dominant subtext of the campaign to convince Americans and the world of the war’s necessity. Clarity and truth have been kept out of sight. It’s a murky world, they whisper in the corridors of power, and sometimes we have to do business with dictators and madmen. But it wouldn’t be wise to tell the people about it; that would only spread insomnia. Well, you didn’t tell them and yet their anxiety is palpable. Let them eat duct tape, one patriot remarked.
We know that this man Hussein is an international outlaw, a certified bad guy, but wasn’t he a bad guy back in the ’80s, when President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad as special Middle East envoy to tell Hussein we would do our darnedest to make sure that his country did not fall to Iran? And that’s the way it stood until Hussein overran Kuwait in late 1990 and the first President Bush went to war to drive him out of that autocratic oil kingdom, purportedly to preserve its so-called democracy.
Next came Osama bin Laden and his followers, who have sworn themselves to lay waste to the United States of America and other “infidel” societies in the name of an Islam that many Muslims find unrecognizable and abhorrent. For a while, America thought that bin Laden, with his global terrorist network, was the primary enemy.
Washington retaliated appropriately for the terrorists’ murder of 3000 souls on 9-11 by attacking bin Laden’s Al Qaeda training camps and hideouts in Afghanistan and sweeping aside the fundamentalist Taliban government that had given bin Laden sanctuary. The American assault sent these legions into the country’s mountainous regionsand also across the border into remote areas of Pakistan, a longtime backer of the Taliban with its own large and powerful bloc of Islamic extremists.
In Afghanistan, too, there is troubling history for those trying to understand Bush’s call to war against Iraq. Back in the 1980s, the Russian army had invaded Afghanistan, and a guerrilla army, with mujahideen recruits from all corners of the globe, was fighting the occupation. The United States took the side of the Islamic guerrilla army, with the CIA supplying money and weapons. In the end, the bloodied Russians pulled out, and the Taliban emerged from the resistance as a new forceas did bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement. Washington, still frozen in its Cold War mind-fix and willing to help almost anyone who opposed the Russians, wasn’t paying attention to the long-term aims of these nascent groups.
Maybe all this is just the ebb and flow of historyor maybe, instead, it has something to do with partnering up with nations and groups we have nothing fundamental in common with. First we get behind somebody because they’re hostile to somebody we’re also at odds with, eventually lifting our “brave new allies” into power. Later, when it all turns sour, we pretend the marriage never happened and brand them as hoodlums. The real hobgoblin of our fears and conflicted thoughts these days is the awareness that too many of our monsters of the moment were created in our own laboratories.
Meanwhile, bin Laden and his top lieutenants managed to escape the U.S. bombing and ground assaults. That was a huge disappointment in Washington because Bush and his people had made such a big thing about their determination to capture or kill him. In Bush’s religious-sounding pantheon of “evildoers,” bin Laden was Evildoer Number One. But with this Attila-Stalin-Hitler figure having slipped away, the White House needed a more at-hand enemy to bring to account. And behold, there was Saddam Hussein, still standing despite his defeat in the 1991 Kuwait adventure and the subsequent economic embargoes and resolutions calling for elimination of all his WMDweapons of mass destruction. Thus did Saddam replace Osama as the first-in-line evildoer.
Even here, there was another dose of contradictory “facts.” The president said there was nothing inconsistent about focusing on Saddam Hussein. He insisted that all the pieces were connected. There was evidence, he said, that Hussein was linked to bin Laden and the terrorist threat to American security. He provided no details. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, said that while some Al Qaeda types were taking refuge in Iraq’s hinterlands, it could find no clear connection between the Iraqi dictator and September 11. No fresh evidence backing the White House position has surfaced since.
At least one more country needs visiting to capture the full bizarrerie of great-power foreign affairs and the irrational cohabitations that rise therefrom. That country is Pakistan.
Pakistan, Muslim archenemy of Hindu India, separated from India in 1947 at the birth of independence from British colonial rule. Pakistan has flirted on occasion with rituals of democracy, but essentially has functioned as a military dictatorship engaged in periodic wars with neighbor India, a committed democracy. Each is paranoid about the other, and their continuing dispute over Kashmir regularly erupts into violence. Both have the atomic bomb.
During the Cold War, India forged a relationship with the Soviet Union, while Pakistan lined up with China. Official Washington has generally favored Pakistan, using the jejune argument that the Pakistanis are easier to deal withas dictatorships often are. Most Americans who have lived on the subcontinent, such as myself, come away feeling that India, given its democratic tradition, is a much more natural ally for the U.S. than Pakistan. In 1971, Pakistan had acted as the go-between for the secret Kissinger trip to Communist China to lay the groundwork for the breakthrough Nixon visit the following year. For this and other favors, Washington owed Pakistan.
Today, Pakistan and the U.S. pose for pictures as allies. But there are deep internal contradictions. Is it not interesting that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, bin Laden’s operational commander, was captured the other day in a safe house in, yes, Pakistan? And not just in any old spot in Pakistan, but in the cantonment town of Rawalpindi, which adjoins Islamabad, the nation’s capital. How long had he been there? Was he under the protection of elements in the Pakistani government or military intelligence service who are sympathetic, sometimes openly, to the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Is Pakistan the next monster of our making?
More telling perhaps, Pakistan has secretly provided both North Korea and Iran with nuclear technology and blueprints useful in producing atomic weapons. North Korea, Iran, and Iraqin George Bush’s wordsconstitute the “Axis of Evil.” Should Pakistan be added to the list? The White House has chosen to look the other way. To date, the North Koreans are believed to have produced at least two bombs and have the capability of delivering them to America’s West Coast. Iran is believed now to have the capability of building a bomb, and keeps expanding its technical reach. Western intelligence says Iraq probably has some nuclear materials but has not yet been able to build a bomb. Also, its missiles are all fairly short-range.
Is it not fair then to ask why, if North Korea and Iran both present a greater and more immediate threat, our first act should be to declare war on Iraq?
Many of those who support Bush’s war policy on Iraq, including editorialists, have done so with fingers crossed, calling it a “roll of the dice.” Somehow I don’t see Vegas as a model for how best to bring about a regime change.
Bush partisans say this president is a bold wartime leader whose audacity could “change the world.” But that is a colossal leap, especially when one considers that this president has never really been out in the world he wants to change and, in the pattern of his life, hasn’t shown much interest in it.
For myself, as I watch him on television delivering his speeches and lobbying for international support (all while physically inside the borders of the United States), I see a man in a hurry who reduces complex issues to simplistic, missionary-like termssuch as the good vs. the bad. Is this a man who has the stomach and patience to commit the government to the long, complicated haul that is surely needed to turn around a nation like Iraq? Or must it happen for him before the next presidential election?
Might it not be worth considering some less pyrotechnical strategy? What if the president were to order a complete reassessment of our foreign relationships with a view to making fewer accommodations with dictatorships and rogue nations? We might not eliminate every corrosive alliance of expedience, but there could at least be a shrinkage of them. Some of the doubts in American minds today have to do with the nagging thought that perhaps we’ve gotten into bed with too many wild dogs and woken up with something more than fleas.
This is not a comforting feeling for a people who want to think of themselves as the good guys.
As for the instant question of Iraq, what would be so wrong if, instead of the all-out smash-and-destroy war the president and his people have planned, the U.S. and Britain simply began to ratchet up the small, quiet war that has been going on for quite a while. The air patrols in the northern and southern no-fly zones could be gradually enlarged until all of Iraq was blanketed with overhead surveillance that could spot and, when necessary, knock out clearly identified weapons installations. Economic sanctions could be tightened as well, with stiffer penalties against those selling contraband to Saddam Hussein.
True, this would not bring about a change of regime as swiftly as a blitzkrieg, but over time it would loosen Hussein’s grip on power and make change possible.
Several factors recommend this path. For one, some if not most of the nations opposed to the present Bush war plan would have a difficult time rejecting a more modulated, commonsense approach, using techniques already in place. And the damage to Washington’s relationship with old allies would be softened.
There would also be significantly less destruction of Iraq’s extensive road system, bridges, and other infrastructure, making much easier any nation-building effort to follow.
Finallyand not leasta lot fewer human beings would be killed, including Americans.
Something to think about.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 11, 2003