The end of Realpolitik

Michael Naumann
27 February 2003

Can a projected war ever have reached such a state of military predictability with such unpredictable political results?

If American troops go into Iraq it will be the US’s first ‘pre-emptive’ war. Yet, if we are to believe Clausewitz’s wisdom that wars are the continuation of politics by other means, a war that can be won swiftly on the battlefield but can just as easily be lost politically, should not be fought.

Clausewitz never thought that a war, simply by being fought, could constitute politics in itself. That would be, to quote Talleyrand, worse than a crime: it would be a mistake.

Iraq, you’re no Germany

And politically, decades will have passed until the coming war against Iraq can be declared ‘over’, whether or not America shoulders the responsibility of rebuilding the country. It took a generation after 1945 to weed out the ex-Nazis from Germany’s judicial, administrative and industrial institutions. More than a thousand war criminals were executed by the victorious Allies; many thousands of others disappeared forever into Stalin’s gulags.

Nothing of this sort seems to be possible in Iraq. It certainly has its share of political murderers fit for a war crimes tribunal. But one can easily imagine the reception of such trials. They would fuel ideological, religiously-inspired anti-imperialism for years to come, both in the region and in the wider Islamic world of more than a billion believers, most of whom live at the bitter end of globalisation.

Germany in 1945 had an administrative structure, a functioning health service, hospitals, a legal system (albeit highly compromised), and many practical, experienced democrats who returned from emigration or were liberated from Nazi concentration camps and prisons who helped run the country under the supervision of the occupation forces, whose language they could understand. None of this applies to Iraq.

Still, just like an anatomist applying his knowledge to the critique of cubism, James Woolsey – a former head of the CIA and still an influence in Bush’s Washington – finds this war “a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of central and eastern Europe, here we have a golden chance.” (The inclusion of eastern Europe is especially notable.)

Germany had been an integrated modern state since 1871. By contrast, religious, ethnic and tribal groupings make Iraq internally fractured. Its divisions may well turn out to have been deepened by Saddam Hussein’s state-terrorism, just as Tito’s authoritarian rule maintained but also doomed the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

If democratisation is the goal, why not start with Kuwait? If it fails there, it would at least not be such a sad failure as the democratisation of South Vietnam.

Besides, Iraq is internationally indebted to the tune of more than $200 billion. Who will pay its debtors? Who will honour its oil contracts with Russia and France? Who will stop the Kurds from creating their own state, with concomitant claims of Kurdish territory beyond Iraq’s borders? Turkey? Iran?

Who will receive Iraq’s unavoidable flood of post-war emigrants? Will all these questions be placed at the door of the United Nations, an organisation that already seems to have proven its ‘irrelevance’ in the eyes of the Bush administration – unless its Security Council approves ‘serious consequences’ for Iraq’s continued (and undeniable) ‘material breaches’ of resolution 1441?

Saddam Hussein’s demise, one must fear, will be followed by chaos and humanitarian catastrophes. The targeting of the power infrastructure, it is said, will mean the breakdown of water supplies across the country. A nation suffering from hunger, thirst and disease is not interested in the promises of democracy until these problems have been fixed. That will take years. Who will undo the damage?

The road to global disorder

It is time to remember that the coming war has nothing to do with the ‘war against terrorism’ declared by the American President after 11 September 2001. Such a war will never be over, because terrorists cannot be fought in ‘wars’.

Russia is learning this lesson in Chechnya, and so, unfortunately, are the poor citizens of Grozny. In the eastern Congo and its border regions, ‘war’, communal clashes, and an almost industrial terrorism that feeds upon itself, have fused into catastrophic social collapse.

The ‘war against terrorism’ in Afghanistan can now be declared lost, at least for the time being. The Taliban are regrouping, as are other bands of mujaheddin. In northwest Pakistan, terrorist strongholds prevent the capture of the leaders of al-Qaida, including – according to some western intelligence rumours – Osama bin Laden.

Any considerable show of American force in this part of Pakistan would lead to the overthrow of Musharraf’s regime – and thus open Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to Islamic fundamentalists, who have penetrated the army, the intelligence services and indeed the government. In Latin America, political terrorism has become an accepted part of reality in a number of nations. It just goes on.

Yet, instead of focusing the western world’s attention on this immense problem, the Bush government has decided to use military force against a country which seems neither to be the most important nation on the list of present dangers, nor to have been convincingly connected with al-Qaida.

Iran is steadfastly moving towards a nuclear capability with great help from Russia and North Korea; Saudi Arabia (with a high birth-rate and plummeting living standards and employment) is exporting terrorists and religious intolerance, and may soon enter a pre-revolutionary state of unrest; Egypt is arming massively (again with Russian assistance, as well as American financial aid), to no particular purpose except the deterrence of an Israel itself threatened by most of its neighbours.

All these indicators seem to be screaming ‘wrong war!’ yet the US president is preparing to lead his doubting nation into its most expensive adventure since Vietnam.

Tens of thousands, including some American soldiers, will probably die. Nothing can be done about this, unless the US Congress has a change of heart (very unlikely) or Saddam Hussein finds a sudden death that would allow a withdrawal of US forces from the region without the superpower completely losing face (even more unlikely).

Heroism and nightmare

Wars never unfold as originally planned by their generals. The political consequences of wars have always surprised their leaders – usually on both sides. If the horrendous consequences of the demise of the Austrian and Ottoman Empire had been predicted in 1914, Europe’s nations would have thought twice before entering their historical slaughterhouse. And – as Churchill in a hypothetical mood once observed – without America’s entry into the 1914–1918 war, the warring partners might have reached a truce which could have spared us the 1939–1945 war.

Wars are the historical emblem of missed political opportunities, and perfectly justifiable wars are no exception. This, not a lukewarm pacifism, seems to have been the historical knowledge of the millions of Europeans who demonstrated for peace on 15 February. The footprints of bad political advice which led our nations into wars over many centuries can be visited in tens of thousands of graveyards across the continent.

Could this be why “Europeans are from Venus” (as Robert Kagan has argued): because they finally emigrated from Mars, leaving behind the heroic gratifications of the battlefield and the prospect of less heroic war cemeteries?

What seems to be new – Mars squared, so to speak – is the belief in Washington that American national values and American geo-strategic and economic international interests can be merged together through the application of military force and the ominous threat of nuclear bombs.

If so, Realpolitik has gone out of fashion. Yet it is bound to return – summoned by the high price of the after-war and the other ‘collateral’ costs.

Sooner or later we will be reading a book that explains how all of this came about. It could not possibly bear the same title as The Best and the Brightest – David Halberstam’s damning study of the arrogance of high intelligence in even higher places in America during the Vietnam era, leading to death, disaster and national trauma that has never been laid to rest.

In politics, one does not have to be superbly intelligent to commit unheard-of political mistakes or enter a quagmire, as Halberstam suggested. It suffices to be (in the tragically appropriate English phrase) ‘too clever by half’ to create, rather than avoid, a terrible war. And to believe that Clausewitz is old-fashioned.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData