ANALYSIS FROM A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE:
“The Righteous War”
Never has a war had so much prior discussion and so little backing from world public opinion. No matter! The decision for war, based on a calculus of American power was made in the White House a long time ago. We have to ask ourselves why.
George Bush is about to lead the valiant troops into battle in righteous war against the despotic tyrant. He will not turn back, no matter what pusillanimous or venal European politicians, major religious figures around the world, retired generals, and other erstwhile friends of liberty and the US may think or do. Never has a war had so much prior discussion and so little backing from world public opinion. No matter! The decision for war, based on a calculus of American power was made in the White House a long time ago.
We have to ask ourselves why. To begin with, we have to lay to rest two major theories about the motivations of the US government that have been insistently put forth. The first is that of those who favor the war. They argue that Saddam Hussein is a vicious tyrant who presents an imminent danger to world peace, and the earlier he is confronted the more likely he can be stopped from doing the damage he intends to do. The second theory is put forward primarily by opponents of the war. They argue that the US is interested in controlling world oil. Iraq is a key element in the edifice. Overthrowing Hussein would put the US in the driver’s seat.
Neither thesis holds much water. Virtually everyone around the world agrees that Saddam Hussein is a vicious tyrant but very few are persuaded he is an imminent danger to world peace. Most people regard him as a careful player of the geopolitical game. He is accumulating so-called weapons of mass destruction, to be sure. But it is doubtful he would use them against anyone now for fear of the reprisals. He is certainly less likely, not more likely, to use them than North Korea. He is in a tight political corner and, were absolutely nothing done, he would probably be unable to move out of it. As for the links with Al-Qaeda, the whole affair lacks credibility. He may play tactically and marginally with Al-Qaeda, but not one-tenth as intensively as the US government did for a long time. In any case, should Al-Qaeda grow stronger, he is near the top of their list for liquidation as an apostate. These charges of the US government are propaganda, not explanations. The motives must be other.
What about the alternative view, that it’s all about oil? No doubt oil is a crucial element in the operation of the world-economy. And no doubt the United States, like all the other major powers, would like to control the oil situation as much as it can. And no doubt, were Saddam Hussein to be overthrown, there might be some reshuffling of the world oil cards.
But is the game worth the candle? There are three things about oil that are important: participating in the profits of the oil industry; regulating the world price of oil (which has such a great impact on all other kinds of production); and access of supply (and potential denial of access to others). In all three matters, the US is doing quite well right now. US oil firms have a lion’s share of the world profits at the present time. The price of oil has been regulated to US preferences most of the time since 1945, via the efforts of the government of Saudi Arabia. And the US has a fairly good hold on the strategic control of world oil supply.
In each of these three domains, perhaps the US position could be improved. But can this slight improvement possibly be worth the financial, economic, and political cost of the war? Precisely because Bush and Cheney have been in the oil business, they must surely be aware of how small would be the advantage. Oil can be at most a collateral benefit of an enterprise undertaken for other motives.
So why then? We start with the reasoning of the hawks. They believe that the world position of the United States has been steadily declining since at least the Vietnam War. They believe that the basic explanation for this decline is the fact that US governments have been weak and vacillating in their world policies. (They believe this is even true of the Reagan administration, although they do not dare to say this aloud.) They see a remedy, a simple remedy. The US must assert itself forcefully and demonstrate its iron will and its overwhelming military superiority. Once that is done, the rest of the world will recognize and accept US primacy in everything. The Europeans will fall into line. The potential nuclear powers will abandon their projects. The US dollar will once again rise supreme. The Islamic fundamentalists will fade away or be crushed. And we shall enter into a new era of prosperity and high profit.
We need to understand that they really believe all of this, and with a great sense of certitude and determination. That is why all the public debate, worldwide, about the wisdom of launching a war has been falling on deaf ears. They are deaf because they are absolutely sure that everyone else is wrong, and furthermore that shortly everyone else will realize that they have been wrong.
It is important to note one further element in the self-confidence of the hawks. They believe that a swift and relatively easy military victory is at hand—a war of weeks, not of months, and certainly not of still longer. The fact that virtually all the prominent retired generals in the US and the UK have publicly stated their doubts on this military assessment is simply ignored. The hawks (almost all civilians) do not even bother to answer them. One doesn’t know, of course, how many US and UK generals still in service are saying, or at least thinking, the same thing.
The full-speed-ahead, torpedoes-be-damned attitude of the Bush administration has already had four major negative effects on the world position of the United States. Anyone with the most elementary knowledge of geopolitics would know that, after 1945, the one coalition the United States had to fear was that of France, Germany, and Russia. US policy has been geared to rendering this impossible. Every time there was the slightest hint of such a coalition, the US mobilized to break away at least one of the three. This was true when DeGaulle made his early gestures to Moscow in 1945-46, and when Willy Brandt announced the Ostpolitik.
There are all sorts of reasons why it has been quite difficult to put together such an alliance. George Bush has overcome the obstacles and achieved the realization of this nightmare for the US For the first time since 1945, these three powers have lined up publicly together against the US on a major issue. US reaction to this public stand is having the effect of cementing the alliance further. If Donald Rumsfeld thinks that waving the support of Albania and Macedonia, or even Poland and Hungary, in their face sends shivers up the spines of the new trio, he must be very naive indeed.
The logical riposte to a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis would be for the US to enter into a geopolitical alliance with China, Korea, and Japan. The US hawks are making sure that such a riposte will not be easily achieved. They have goaded North Korea into displaying its teeth of steel, offended South Korea by not taking its concerns seriously, made China more suspicious than before, and led Japan to think about becoming a nuclear power. Bravo!
Then there’s oil. Controlling the world price of oil is the most important of the three oil issues mentioned earlier. Saudi Arabia has been the key. Saudi Arabia has done the work for the US for 50 years for a simple reason. It needed the military protection of the US for the dynasty. The US rush to war, its obvious ricochet effect on the Muslim world, the open disdain of the US hawks for the Saudis, the virtually full support for Sharon have led the Saudis to wonder, out loud, whether US support is not an albatross rather than a mode of sustaining them.
For the first time, the faction in the royal house that favors loosening its links with the US seems to be gaining the upper hand. The US is not going to find easily a substitute for the Saudis. Remember that the Saudis have always been more important for US geopolitical interests than Israel. The US supports Israel for internal political reasons. It has supported the Saudi regime because it has needed them. The US can survive without Israel. Can it survive the political turmoil in the Musim world without Saudi support?
Finally, US administrations have been valiantly trying to stop nuclear proliferation for fifty years. The Bush administration has managed in two short years to get North Korea, and now Iran, to speed up their programs, and not to be afraid to indicate this publicly. If the US uses nuclear devices in Iraq, as it has hinted it may, it will not merely break the taboo, but it will ensure a speedy race of a dozen more countries to acquire these devices.
If the Iraq war goes splendidly for the US, perhaps the US can recuperate a little from these four geopolitical setbacks. If the war goes badly, each negative will be immediately reinforced.
I have been reading recently about the Crimean War, in which Great Britain and France went to war against the Russian tyrant in the name of civilization, Christianity, and the struggle for liberty. A British historian wrote in 1923 of these motives: “What Englishmen condemn is almost always worthy of condemnation, if only it has happened.” The Times of London was in 1853 one of the strongest supporters of the war. In 1859, the editors wrote their regret: “Never was so great an effort made for so worthless an object. It is with no small reluctance that we admit a gigantic effort and an infinite sacrifice to have been made in vain.”
When George Bush leaves office, he will have left the United States significantly weaker than it was when he assumed office. He will have turned a slow decline into a much speedier one. Will the New York Times write a similar editorial in 2005?
ęCopyright 2003 by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Professor Wallerstein, based in Paris, is director of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations at Binghamton University, State University of New York [Ref. commentaries on the web.]. The Center was founded in 1976 to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time.
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This story was published on March 5, 2003.