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Maintaining prominence: two points on the war against Iraq

About the author
Marco Grasso is an economist at the University of Milan – Bicocca. His primary fields of interest are environmental, public, and international economics. He is senior researcher at the Italian think-tank Vision.

Point one: the premise

‘We cannot let our enemies strike first…’
…reads the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, released last September.

The Bush administration presented the war in Iraq as a mission to topple Saddam Hussein to keep him from using weapons of mass destruction. Officially. The truth seeped out unofficially from the president’s wild bunch – the neo-conservative ideologues. Rather, the Washington warlords saw Baghdad as the first move in a broader project to redesign the structure of power of the Middle East. Their plot sounded like this:

The United States must eliminate, by any means, the tyrant of Baghdad and establish a pro-western, passably democratic government in Iraq; not a perfect government indeed, but one noticeably less dreadful than Saddam’s tyranny. This virtuous example will radically change the fate of the entire Middle East:

  • Palestinians, stunned by the real freedoms and economic opportunities of the Iraqis, will negotiate an effective peace with the Israelis.
  • The fundamentalist Shia mullahs will not resist the claims of their people, and eventually a democratic Iran will arise.
  • Jordan, Syria and the small gulf emirates, without the threats posed by a hostile Iraq, will make vigorous steps toward democracy.
  • The corrupt regimes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be of no more use to contain the troubles of a region with no more troubles, and thus will be gently but firmly westernised.

With democracy, freedom, and a growing level of welfare spreading all over the region, the long-term menace of terrorism will lessen and ultimately disappear. Not wishful thinking, but a bold plan. Unfortunately based on poisoned bait, namely the right for the US to act pre-emptively and unilaterally, as clearly stated by the National Security Strategy.

The pre-emptive use of force

This is justified, according to international law – and to common sense – only for the sake of self-defence from an imminent and visible threat. Otherwise it is a preventive war strategy. Let us say, with Colin Powell that Americans now live in a “different world” where they cannot wait for the “smoking gun” because such a gun could be a chemical cloud or an atomic mushroom; where terrorists, hosted and nurtured by leaders of rogue states, seek martyrdom through the extermination of hated infidels. Even if the risky and treacherous world so depicted by the Secretary of State is a reality, we have to be able to distinguish between actual dangers and long-term possible dangers, pre-emption and preventive war.

Specifically the latter is a war against a potential enemy who has not yet attacked or harmed anyone, while the former has historically been considered a particular case of self-defence, legitimated according to just war theory only when at least three conditions are met: narrowly defined object, imminent danger, no other options.

Narrow definition of the object to be defended

In the case of the war against Iraq, the object is to defend US national interest. If it is sufficiently narrowly defined – as in the case in which our lives are threatened – a pre-emptive use of force is legitimate. But the use of force is not justified when the same object is much wider – for instance, when it is represented by the possibility of accumulating wealth, or the aspiration to lead a safer or more rewarding existence – because too many issues are at stake.

According to the National Security Strategy, US national interest lies in the “maintenance of prominence”. The declared aim of this grand strategy is “to make the world not just safer but better”. Reshaping the Middle East, starting from Iraq, to make the region and the world better and safer, is without doubt too broad an object. Furthermore the presumption that America’s interests match with the world’s interests is at least questionable. Ask the Arabs, who are still wondering about the true motives for invading Iraq, behind the smoke screen of democracy.

The defence of this excessive object through the use of military force can all too easily look like an act of aggression, to the greater part of the world. The National Security Strategy, moreover, makes “no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbour or provide aid to them”. To justify the war against Iraq, the object, besides being too broad, is also intentionally blurred: in fact no evidence exists of connections between the secular Saddam and the radical fundamentalist Osama bin Laden.

Fear of imminent danger

The second condition occurs when there is uncontroversial evidence that a likely threat is imminent. It is not sufficient that the potential aggressor has weapons of mass destruction – Iraq surely had chemical and biological weapons, purchased from Americans and other western countries – nor that traces of those weapons remain. It is necessary that those weapons are ready for use. Matter-of-factly, there was no such evidence before the war: nor is there now. Indeed, other countries present more imminent threats. Again, in the absence of this kind of evidence we are not dealing with pre-emption, but with preventive war.

All other options to the use of force have been exhausted

Also, the pre-emptive use of the force implies either that there is no time for other measures to work, or that these measures are unlikely to deal with a current threat. According to the White House the UN inspections were not eliminating any danger of possible use of weapons of mass destruction. This is a highly arguable claim. More time should have been spent on more joint action to conduct a systematic inspection, in a realistic period of time, of sites potentially concealing weapons of mass destruction.

To sum up, aided by a calculatedly fuzzy and hyperbolic concept of the national interest which was here defended, no persuasive evidence was offered demonstrating that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use: thus no imminent danger was proven. Moreover, other, non-military measures were not fully exploited. In the terms of reference of just war theory, the attack on Saddam Hussein was not an act of pre-emption. Rather, it was a preventive, imperial-style war without a compelling strategic rationale.

It was a war that the Bush administration did not have to, but chose to fight, based on a doctrine which sidelines and demotes non-military means to solving controversies, whilst undermining international law and diplomacy. This is a doctrine which could trigger off a situation of continuous belligerency closer to the Hobbesian state of nature than to the Kantian state of law, the very ideal of democracy which we westerners are proud of espousing, and apparently so keen to export.

Point two: the aftermath

‘The coalition is going to have a leading role…’ ….said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (International Herald Tribune: 12 April 2003).

The war on Iraq – at least the worst part of it – is over: but the military victory was markedly the one element never in doubt. Despite the triumphalism, the situation in Iraq remains messy, and the relationships between America and the non-Americans-nor-Britons are enduringly problematic. Ultimately, global perceptions of the Iraqi crisis will be determined by the character of its aftermath.

The Iraq invasion, projected and conducted on a highly ideological basis, has definitely altered the world’s equilibrium. The new role of the United Nations, not to mention that of the so-called ‘un-willing’ countries, is far from clear. President Bush said from Hillsborough Castle that the UN would play a “vital role” in Iraq’s reconstruction. Other, more hawkish members of his administration – or simply those free to speak frankly – put the question in more aggressive and at any rate completely different terms.

On the one hand they limited UN responsibility to humanitarian assistance: “The United States had deliberately chosen the words ‘vital role’, to refer mainly to humanitarian efforts”, declared Colin Powell. On the other hand they dismissed countries that did not agree with the coalition: “The whole notion that France wants to be part of the reconstruction process takes a lot of chutzpah,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “I think France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, China have removed themselves from this process by causing the United Nations to be irrelevant in what is going on.”

It really seems as if neo-conservative theology is only a matter of muscle-flexing resolve, with no room for negotiation and cooperation. The main goal of US foreign policy – the maintenance and expansion of unchallenged power, a unilateralist project in which international institutions and alliances are only an annoying cause of delay – appears extremely imperialistic, endangering international order.

Ignoring this profound wound in the hope that it will heal itself, may prove unwise. Historically, from the times of ancient Babylon, not even the strongest powers have been able to get along by themselves. After its military victory, the United States should share a broader political process with the allies and the international institutions. It is evident that America’s postwar efforts need ample support, both in a formal sense, and given their effect on world public opinion, if the transatlantic rift is to be repaired and relationships with and within the UN re-established.

Isn’t it time for the United States to be magnanimous, and to share with other countries the honours (and the burdens) of Iraq’s liberation from its bloodthirsty tyrant. Otherwise, if the world begins to perceive that American interests are the only ones under consideration, that American companies are privileged, and that the “blood for oil” suspicions are only too credible – the Atlantic Ocean will widen even more.

But there is one other, more prosaic issue at stake. The invasion of Iraq involved shouldering post-war responsibilities: providing humanitarian help and relieving the sufferings of the people, keeping domestic peace and protecting the borders, restoring and running the economy. This means years of heavy and costly work: $ 20 billion per year, according to the latest estimates of the Council of Foreign Relations. And it will be years before the obsolete and damaged Iraqi oil infrastructure will produce adequate revenues.

Therefore, besides the political reasons, there is a strong economic rationale for spreading the fruits of reconstruction. Governments in nations whose companies make profits rebuilding Iraq, or pumping oil, or whatever other business they are engaged in, have an interest in assuming part of the reconstruction duties. Sadly, the first moves of the Bush squad are discouraging: the awarding of construction contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Iraq only to US companies with a steady track of Republican Party fidelity, strengthened by personal connections with the administration members, and lubricated by generous campaign donations, is not a heartening spectacle.

Finally the home front. The American economy is sluggish and the proposed affluence-privileging tax cut of $550 billion in ten years has nothing to do with stimulus, even according to the administration’s own tax-cut-friendly method of analysis, which shows that the cut would have no notable impact on the economy. Rather, the economy and the stock market look at the aftermath of the war against Iraq and at the new order set in the Middle East. In these troubled days consumption, savings, and investment are much more dependent on international policy issues then on internal economic ones. The perspective of an economic recovery thus relies heavily on the guarantee of a smooth transition to democracy in Iraq and on the stability of the whole region, which will spring only from a firm and fair peace between Israel and Palestine. These goals in turn result from the willingness of the US to share the burden and to heal the wounds with its traditional allies, mainly new and old Europe.

So, let us place our faith in the earnestness of Bush’s Irish words, and in the good will shown by some Atlanticists inside the administration, rather than be frightened by hawkish menaces and by the false beginning made by the first reconstruction contracts. Humility is an essential quality to rebuilding both Iraq and the relationships with governments, peoples and institutions around the world. The president himself, during his 2000 campaign, warned against arrogance in dealing with other countries: “If we are an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us”. America is too wise to fall for the allure of unilateralism. Hopefully.


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