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Why Iraq

by Mary Nolan

In my talk today, I want to suggest some complicated answers to two seemingly simple questions: Why does the U.S. want to attack Iraq and bring about regime change? Why is this a very dangerous and bad idea?

President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and their advisors in and out of the government, are pursuing the prospect of war and "regime change" in Iraq with unwavering determination and embarrassingly passionate enthusiasm. Their campaign against Iraq can only be fully understood in terms of recent changes in American foreign policy and the Bush administration's vision of the place of America in the world.

These changes, this vision, can be summed up in three concepts: preemption, unilateralism, and global domination. These three pillars of policy had their origins in the administration of Bush Sr. and its efforts to define the post Cold War order. They were first laid out most explicitly in the Defense Planning Guidance document of 1992, authored by among others Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney.1 Put on hold during the Clinton years, preemption, unilateralism and global domination were rolled out again in the wake of September 11 — in the declaration of war against evildoers everywhere, in the explicit advocacy of preemptive military action in Bush's June speech at West Point, and most fully in the government's National Security Strategy which was published in September. Let us explore each of these pillars of American policy, beginning with preemption.

During the last half century, the U.S. has certainly not been reluctant to intervene overtly and covertly in many places and often on the flimsiest of pretexts — Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Grenada, Somalia to name a few. But preemptive action was not officially sanctioned. As long as the Soviet Union existed as a countervailing superpower, deterrence and containment were the official government policies. Preemptive military strikes to head off potential nuclear, chemical and biological attacks were first proposed in the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document. At that time the idea was not well received inside government. Post 9/11 preemption resurfaced in more clearly elaborated form. At West Point in June Bush argued that "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge."2 This doctrine was then spelled out in the September 2002 National Security Strategy and simultaneously applied to Iraq. It is worth looking closer at the details.

"The nature of the Cold War threat required the United States to emphasize deterrence of the enemy's use of force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, our security environment has undergone profound transformation." It has become more "complex and dangerous" not because contemporary threats rival former ones in "sheer destructive power" but because of "the nature and motivations of these new adversaries," "rogue states and their terrorist clients." The US can no longer be "reactive" and must "adapt the concept of imminent threat" which justifies preemptive action in response to the visible mobilization of military forces preparing to attack.3 While not spelling out such a redefinition of imminent threat and its legitimate invocation, the National Security Strategy concludes that "The greater the threat, the greater the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack — the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."4

Let us turn from preemption to unilateralism.In many arenas, the Bush administration has pursed policies that go against international agreements, circumvent international bodies, and ignore the views of our allies. The US has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missal treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. It won't sign on the International Criminal Court, and it is one of the few nations that has refused to ratify CEDAW, the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women. Military unilateralism is an integral part of a determination to build a US national security strategy — I quote the National Security Strategy again that "will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests."5 [I'm having trouble finding the international in that particular formulation!] While the US will "constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary to exercise our right of self defense by acting preemptively."6

And the US may well have to act alone, according to conservative analysts such as Robert Kagen, for Europe is weak. It lacks power and the hunger for it. Let me share his description of Europe and the US, for it captures the self-perception and judgements of key Bush officials. "Europe is turning away from power — it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant's 'Perpetual Peace.'" This doesn't sound bad to me but Kagan has a quite different assessment. He continues. "The United States, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might."7

Underlying both the policy on Iraq and the principles of preemption and unilateralism is an American vision of global domination that is now stated by many in this administration with an explicitness not seen before — indeed one not thinkable during the Cold War, when only the Soviet Union was accused of harboring such aspirations. As the National Security Strategy reminds us in several places, "The United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence." "The United States possesses unprecedented — and unequaled — strength and influence in the world."8 What that means concretely is a military budget that in nearing the $400 billion mark. This is nearly as large as the defense budgets of the next nine states combined.9 The missile defense program has been approved — although how it will stop terrorists with box cutters remains a mystery. But this is not enough, states the National Security Strategy. "It is time to reaffirm the essential role of American military strength." That translates into more bases, more hardware, more troops, more homeland defense, and a superiority of forces "strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."10

Military prowess is augmented by economic power and by the determination to promote the "single sustainable model for national success; freedom, democracy and free enterprise," that the Bush administration lays out in the National Security Strategy. It is noteworthy that the National Security Strategy spells out in detail its economic blueprint for the world. It includes pro-growth legal and regulatory policies to encourage business investment, innovation and entrepreneurial activity; lower marginal tax rates to improve incentives for work and investment; free trade; and sound fiscal policies to support business activities.

The National Security Strategy assures us that we and our Allies need not fear that the US will misuse its unprecedented military and economic power, for the US is committed to promoting "a balance of power that favors freedom." This phrase, used repeatedly in the National Security Strategy as well as by Condoleeza Rice in interviews is puzzling. The balance of power has historically assumed at least two and often several major powers coexisting so as to prevent one from becoming hegemonic. Who or what will balance American military, economic and political power? As Anatol Lieven from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, argues the goal looks like "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority."11

Why are the aspirations for preemption, unilateralism and global domination focused so intently on Iraq? Here opinions differ both inside the Bush regime and outside. Let me focus on what I see as three of the most important arguments: 1) the nature of Iraqi regime and need to avoid appeasement; 2) interest, ie oil 3) desire to redraw map of middle east and stabilize region under U.S. hegemony.

In many respects I am very sympathetic to the claims of the Bush administration that Saddam is dictatorial, evil, ruthless etc. He is certainly not a nice man — and when groups such as ANSWER pretend all was well in Iraq until the Gulf War — they are willfully blind. Saddam runs a highly authoritarian regime that has inflicted a great deal of harm on Kurds, Shiite Muslims and political dissidents within his own country. Its human rights record is abysmal (but then, so was that of apartheid South Africa, Guatemala, etc all of whom we supported.) Like many dictatorial regimes which we support, however, Saddam represents a danger first and foremost to his own population, not to the U.S. If he has WMDs — and it is not at all clear that he has — he does not have the capacity to send them to the US, and probably not even to other countries in the region. Since his invasion of Kuwait, he has not tried to expand or threaten his neighbors; he is interested in his own survival and smart enough to know that a war won't promote that.

Do Bush and company really believe that he is as dangerous as they claim? In portraying Saddam as a new Hitler, they conveniently forget that Saddam was our ally during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran, under Khomeni, was our main enemy in the region They forget that the U.S. helped him acquire the military prowess and material to make chemical weapons; and they forget that Saddam is not a fundamentalist, allied to al Quaeda, but rather the leader of a secular regime that is viewed with real hatred by religious fundamentalists. When Saddam did try to move beyond his borders against Kuwait, the U.S. didn't appease; it attacked and did enormous damage to the conscript Iraqi army on the highway of death. Subsequently, sanctions and continued bombings have decimated the civilian infrastructure, undermined the public health and water systems, and led, by UN estimates, to the death of 500,000 infants and children since the Gulf War. This is certainly not how the US, Br and France treated Nazi Germany during the high point of appeasement in the mid and late 1930s.

If Saddam's unprecedented evil is not the reason for the planned attack, is it oil? Oil is certainly an important consideration, for Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world (Saudi Arabia being first.) But to posit a corporate promoted war for natural resources is to simplify both the politics of oil and the Bush administration's commitment to controlling the region, a commitment that stems from ideology and military strategy as much as economic interest.

Oil matters, but the U.S. does not depend directly on Iraqi oil and it will not necessarily dominate further exploration and exportation of Iraqi oil, for Russia and France have contracts for that. Iraqi oil matters, because a U.S. occupation and even partial control can be used as a tool to discipline Western European allies, who do depend on oil from Iraq and the region. Oil matters because regime change and a U.S. occupation could be a step toward redrawing the oil map of the middle east in ways that would make Saudi Arabia less central and enable pipelines from Central Asia — the various Stans — to go through Iraq and avoid unstable Afghanistan and Axis of Evil Iran.

Finally, U.S. control of a regime changed Iraq would be a major step toward redrawing the political map of the Middle East. It would give the U.S. a crucial new military presence and in the process sandwich Iran between two U.S. occupied countries. Regime change in Iraq — assuming it went as the U.S. plans — would enable the U.S. to end its dependence on Saudi Arabia for bases and political support. From the government perspective, this is desirable, because SA is reluctant to destabilize itself by supporting a war against Iraq and because it was, after all, Saudi's from Bin Laden on down, who carried out Sept. 11. If the U.S. controlled Iraq, it would be the uncontested power in the region, finally supplanting the residues of British and French colonial control

If these are the main structural and strategic reasons that the U.S. imperial vision is focused on Iraq, we should not dismiss the contingent ones — a desire to divert attention from the government's failure to capture Osama Bin Laden and his top advisors — Remember those guys? A desire as well to divert attention from the ongoing economic recession and corporate scandals. Finally, a desire on Bush junior's part to do the job his father didn't and show his father up.

Why would an attack on Iraq be a dangerous action? My remarks so far have suggested some reasons. We are pursuing an explicitly imperial vision of global dominance. We are planning to act unilaterally, even if this means violating U.N. resolutions and alienating most of our allies in Europe and the Middle East. We have misstated the danger represented by Saddam. But this hardly exhausts the reasons not to attack Iraq (or attack more fully than the nearly daily bombing raids going on in the no-fly zones of Southern Iraq for the past several months.)

At attack on Iraq where there is no imminent threat to the U.S. would be a violation of international law. It is a violation of international law for the U.S. to claim for itself the power to redefine what imminent threat means, to expand it to cover not just mobilization for an attack — visible mobilization — but a purportedly intended attack for which there is no proof but our word.

If the U.S. abrogates to itself the right to act preemptively, what is to stop other countries from claiming the same right? If the U.S. abrogates to itself the right to decide who is a rogue state or a terrorist group and act preemptively against them, what is to stop other countries form doing the same? Israel with the Palestinians; Russia with the Georgians (they have already done it with the Chechans); India with Pakistan? International law is difficult to enforce, admittedly, but the world will be much more dangerous if it is officially thrown out by the U.S. and others follow.

A preemptive attack on Iraq will not make us safer. Such a war would increase the danger that Saddam would use any WMD he might have; it would increase anti-Americanism and acts of terrorism against Americans here and abroad. Such a war would, contrary to U.S. hopes, likely destabilize the Middle East in any number of possible ways. Iraq itself might disintegrate; the Kurds might strive for greater autonomy, sparking Turkish repression. Saudi Arabia faces internal and external pressure whether it supports the U.S. or opts out. A regional war might give Israel an opportunity to try to push out large numbers of Palestinians, a plan harbored by Sharon among others in the Gulf war. As even the Bush administration seems to have realized, regime change in Iraq will not come by military means alone, for there are no obvious successors to Saddam. Hence there is talk of a multi-year occupation, which would be costly, unpopular in Iraq and the region, and not likely to work as well as the occupation of Japan did after World War II.

An attack on Iraq would increase the erosion of civil liberties that has been going on since September 11. Conservatives have long wanted to roll back gains on this front, but not until after 9/ll did they have the opportunity to launch an across-the-board attack. First came the USA Patriot Act — officially know as The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, which was passed without even being read by many congressional reps in the wake of 9/ll. Its 400+ pages contain innumerable provisions enhancing the government's power to detain, violate attorney-client privilege, spy, engage in surveillance on the internet, and label as domestic terrorists those whose activities seek "to ... influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion." Many a group or protest could fall under such a capacious and elastic definition. Then came the detention of Middle Eastern and South Asian men, many held for nearly a year and often without access to lawyers or the ability to contact their families. Some are still in jail; others have been deported after secret INS hearings for being out of status, i.e. on expired visas. There are the 598 men held at Guantanamo as "enemy combatants" without protection of the Geneva Conventions pertaining to prisoners of war, and the two American citizens held under the same invented category. The war against terrorism and now against Iraq, which has not been connected with 9/11, provide the context and pretext for this war against civil liberties and the rule of law at home.

Finally, an attack on Iraq would provide the context and pretext for further erosions of social policies, for these are anathema to the one model of free enterprise laid out in the National Security Strategy. One can see such attacks on programs and policies even before war is declared. Bush is making passage of the act setting up the Homeland Security Department dependent on exempting its employees from normal labor rights and protections. The budget has not been passed because of a $7 billion difference between congress and Bush on social spending, but the government is advocating a war that it estimates will cost between $30 and $100 billion. Since Iraq is just one battle in the seemingly endless war against terrorism that the Bush administration is projecting, the war at home is likely to be equally long.

Are Americans buying the war against Iraq with it underlying vision of preemption, unilateralism and global dominance? If one is to believe the government and media, the depressing answer is yes. But there are many reasons to doubt that consensus reigns. If a majority in Congress gave Bush war powers, 23 senators and 135 representatives did vote no. The representatives in my part of Brooklyn — there are four given the gerrymandered districts — all voted against the resolution and did so insisting that regime change should not be a US policy, that war would not make us safer or help capture terrorists, and that pressing domestic priorities were being neglected. They voted no in part because of a mass lobbying campaign mounted by local peace groups and national organizations such as Move-On. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people across America wrote, e-mailed, faxed, phoned, lobbied, tabled and protested to protest the cry for war and condemn preemption and unilateralism. Each week recently there have been large ads in The New York Times from businessmen calling for better priorities, from Physicians for Social Responsibility, from Move-On opposing the war. I have spent every Saturday for the last five weeks on the streets of Brooklyn tabling against the war, asking people to sign post cards and petitions. There are some who say "bomb 'em, nuke 'em, flatten Iraq", but they are a very small minority. Many sign and thank us for being there, many aren't sure but want to talk and take our literature. The imperial vision of Bush, Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld does not seem to have trickled down to the streets of Brooklyn — or to the streets of many a middle American town if polling data is to be believed. It is not just that jobs and health insurance or the lack thereof seem more pressing. People don't want the US to act alone, they don't want large numbers of Americans to die, and they don't want high civilian casualties among Iraqis. Moved by an intoxicating mixture of ideology, messianism and interest, the Bush administration has refused to listen to the opposition abroad and at home. This is the incredibly dangerous moment at which we find ourselves.

by Molly Nolan

1David Armstrong, "Dick Cheney's Song of America: Drafting a Plan for Global Dominance," Harper's Magazine (October 2002): 78–83.
2Armstrong, 81.
3The National Security Strategy of the United States,, 9–10.
4Ibid., 11.
5Ibid., 3.
6Ibid., 5.B
7Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness," Policy Review 113 (June–July 2002).
8The National Security Strategy, 1, 3.
9Tony Judt, Its Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, August 15, 2002.
10The National Security Strategy, 19–20.
11Anatol Lieven, " The Push for War," London Review of Books