SPEAKING AT LOYOLA COLLEGE:
Noted Journalist James Fallows Previews “The War after the War”
Fallows addressed the students directly much of the time, as they are the ones growing up in a confusing world embroiled in international conflict. The younger people entering the workforce, he said, will have to understand and live with the aftermath of war in Iraq and the resulting geopolitical consequences of the Bush Doctrine.
The journalist wanted students to be able to ask questions and critically examine their current time period, which he pointed out is rife with history-making episodes: September 11, the Afghanistan bombing campaign, war in Iraq, and the recent SARS outbreak. "There are certain times in life that have more historic density," said Fallows about recent events.
He added that he wanted the students present to be aware of what was happening in the world, to "get their bearings" and also learn new ways to think about and understand the conflict in Iraq from the context of history. He enumerated four areas for deeper examination: the Iraq side of the war, the U.S. side, events of the past few months, and the aftermath of the war.
To explain the volatile nature of relations in Iraq, Fallows referred to David Frumkin’s seminal work, A Peace to End All Peace. According to Frumkin, all current problems can be traced back to the conclusion of World War I, when the peace accord carved up the Middle East without regard to tribal boundaries.
"World War I is the best example of how wars can have unexpected consequences," said Fallows, describing the resultant in-fighting between many different ethnic factions and religious groups in the affected nations. Of course, such a statement was pregnant with implied warning in regard to the current war in Iraq: what unanticipated conflicts might be expected in the future?
To touch on the hostility of Iraq towards the United States, Fallows briefly explained the United States’ Cold War policy of backing local warlords in Middle Eastern countries in its zeal to oppose Communist regimes. The United States, he mentioned, had in fact supported Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in its initial rise to power. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. was "less against Iraq than Iran." Fallows sketched the history without going into specifics about the Iran-Contra scandal or the CIA’s equipping and training of mujahadeen.
Overall, Fallows said, Iraq has encountered "30 years of mixed signals from the United States," a situation that has led to frustration on the part of Iraq officials and citizens as well as others in the Arab world. Similarly, Fallows pointed to a growing feeling of resentment in the last 50 to 60 years that the glory of ancient Islam has been unfairly beaten by the non-cultured West. Investigate in-depth how the U.S. supported both Iran and Iraq during their bloody 8-year war, suggested Fallows, and one begins to see how different factors combined to create a potentially volatile foreign relations quagmire.
Fallows apologized for taking time to explain Iraq’s position (although he went on to spend much more time describing the motivation and thinking behind US policy). "I’m spending time on background because it has been left out of most newspapers," he said.
The author then moved on to the U.S. perspective, joking that recent current events read like an uninspired work of pulp fiction. “You can’t make stuff like this up,” he said: a president failing to capture a dictator during a war, his son coming into power a decade later determined to finish the uncompleted agenda of his father. It was an aberration of history, said Fallows, to see virtually the same administration facing, 10 years later, virtually the same war.
However, Fallows pointed out, those who have been paying attention to defense consultants and advisers know that the current war was not an unexpected turn of events. Even back in the 1990s, the National Security Council and the Pentagon cautioned that Saddam Hussein would "be a problem." According to this school of thought, the United States and Iraq were on a "fundamental collision course." Fallows said that it could be argued that war with Iraq was inevitable.
Fallows elaborated on “the Bush Doctrine,” the theory furthered by Paul Wolfowitz that allows the United States to stamp out potential problem groups or nations before they gain enough power to seriously threaten American citizens. Many defense specialists contend that September 11 would never have happened had the United States been more vigilant in its eradication of nascent threats. Officials concerned with interests of national security who operate under the Bush Doctrine cannot allow terrorism to fester; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, "We must drain the swamps."
How this will affect relations between the United States and other nations remains to be seen, said Fallows. He pointed out that the students present were working and living in the post-911 Bush Doctrine world where pre-emptive strikes may reign supreme, but said he believed this would not become permanent U.S. foreign policy, but a justification for the war with Iraq only. Regardless, said Fallows, "the Bush Doctrine will have interesting repercussions in the future."
Fallows went on to discuss recent current events leading up to the war in Iraq. He noted that James Woolsey had declared, as early as September 12, 2001, that the US had to go after Iraq, regardless of its proven complicity in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Intelligence and policy officials such as Woolsey were convinced that the terrorist problem could be traced back to Iraq. This begs the question of how far back it was decided that the U.S. would wage war on Iraq. Fallows admitted that he doesn’t have the answer, but brought up one significant indicator: General Tommy Franks had been developing attack plans for at least a year.
Last summer President Bush announced the United States’ intention to invade Iraq, with or without UN support. By September, though, Bush’s policy had swung wildly in the other direction, with him making a concerted attempt to sway world opinion to his side. A few months later, Bush reversed once more, abandoning his efforts with the United Nations and forming a small "coalition of the willing," overriding objections of many disapproving countries.
Fallows pointed out that the war in Iraq was filled with similar dramatic turns. During the first week of fighting, he said, US newspapers were filled with stories of snipers, suicide bombers, and heavy resistance from the Republican Guard. Yet in the next few weeks, Saddam Hussein’s army fell apart easily. Many worst-possible-scenarios simply did not materialize: Saddam Hussein did not attack Israel; Israel did not retaliate by attacking neighboring countries and widening the war; and Kurds in northern Iraq did not revolt or cause trouble in nearby Turkey. The only significant short-term tragedy was the looting in Baghdad. (Providing water to citizens immediately and repairing hospitals are proving to be the most difficult relief tasks, but army officials claim these will be accomplished in the not-so-distant future.)
The more challenging tasks, said Fallows, will be US efforts to avoid retribution killings, extricate members of the old regime, and settle the Israel-Palestine conflict. Also, from an economic standpoint, there is the issue of reparations. Will Iraq be saddled with huge debts like Germany was after the conclusion of World War I? Similarly, regarding the new economic system, Fallows pointed out that if the Bush administration is determined to convert Iraq to a democratic market system, it will need to make a long-term commitment in order to completely transform the Arab society.
Fallows finally addressed his audience with questions for reflection and further examination. What does it mean if Saddam Hussein is not found to possess weapons of mass destruction? The Democrats, traditionally the "opposition party," chose not to obstruct Bush’s path towards war; what should we as a people do when the division in our country is not reflected in the political arena? How should dissent be handled by the press?
In the future, which unknown danger does a country’s decision-making officials opt for: allowing another nation’s leader to develop weapons of mass destruction, or attacking that country? Fallows remarked that during the lead-up to the Iraq war, he was in the "What’s the rush?" camp, saying that the dangers of attacking seemed very real and more dangerous than not attacking. Ever the mindful historian, Fallows did not want the government to proceed too quickly without thinking through all the potential disastrous consequences of a war. "Once the United States committed to an invasion," said Fallows, "it took on the weighty responsibilities of controlling looting and countering the resistance of the Muslim clerics."
Grounds for deeper philosophical contemplation including looking into what exactly is a just war. Fallows posed a last question to the audience of students, academics, and community members: “Is prevention,” he asked, “a justification for taking human life?”
Elissa Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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This story was published on May 10, 2003.