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Iraq War: The Coming Disaster

April 14, 2002|IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN | Immanuel Wallerstein is senior research scholar at Yale University and the author of "The End of the World as We Know It."

NEW HAVEN — George W. Bush is a geopolitical incompetent. He has allowed a clique of hawks to induce him to take a position on invading Iraq from which he cannot extract himself, one which will have nothing but negative consequences for the United States--and the rest of the world. He will find himself badly hurt politically, perhaps fatally. And he will rapidly diminish the already declining power of the United States in the world.

A war against Iraq will destroy many lives immediately, both Iraqi and American, because it seems clear that high-altitude, surgical-strike air attacks will not suffice in military terms. Invading Iraq will lead to a degree of turmoil in the Arab-Islamic world hitherto unimagined. Other Arab leaders don't like Saddam Hussein one bit, but their populations won't stand for what they will inevitably feel is an unprovoked attack on an Arab state, leaving leaders with little choice but to be swept along in the turmoil or drown. And an attack on Iraq might ultimately spark the use of nuclear weapons, which, if unleashed now, will be hard to again make illegitimate. Iraq may not have such weapons yet, but we can't be sure. Even if it doesn't, might it not attack Israel with conventional missiles that would prompt Israel to respond with the nuclear weapons we know it has? For that matter, are we really sure that, if the fighting gets tough, the U.S. is not ready to use tactical nuclear weapons?

How have we gotten into such a disastrous cul-de-sac?

It seems probable that U.S. military action against Iraq is now not a question of whether but of when. The U.S. government insists action is necessary because Iraq has been defying United Nations resolutions and represents an imminent danger to the world in general, and to the U.S. in particular. This explanation of the expected military action is so thin that it cannot be taken seriously. Defying U.N. resolutions or other international enjoinders has been commonplace for the last 50 years. I need hardly remind anyone that the U.S. refused to defer to a 1986 World Court decision condemning U.S. actions in Nicaragua. And President Bush has made it amply clear that he will not honor any treaty should he think it dangerous to U.S. interests. Israel has, of course, been defying U.N. resolutions for more than 30 years, and is doing so again as I write this commentary. And the record of other U.N. members is not much better. So Hussein has been defying quite explicit U.N. resolutions. What else is new?

Is Hussein an imminent threat to anyone? In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. That action, at least, did pose an imminent threat. The U.S. response was the Persian Gulf War, in which we pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait and then decided to stop there--for good military and political reasons. But that left Hussein in power.

The U.N. passed various resolutions requiring Iraq to abandon nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons and mandated inspection teams to verify that it had done so. The U.N. also put in place a variety of embargoes against Iraq. As we know, over the decade since then, the system of constraints on Iraq put in place by these U.N. resolutions has weakened considerably, but not totally by any means.

Several weeks ago, Iraq and Kuwait signed an agreement in which Iraq agreed to respect the sovereignty of Kuwait. The foreign minister of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah said his country is now "100% satisfied," adding that he had written the agreement himself. A spokesperson for the United States nonetheless exhibited skepticism. The U.S. is not about to be deterred simply because Kuwait is "satisfied." What is Kuwait, that it should participate in such a decision?

U.S. hawks believe that only the use of force--very significant force--will restore our unquestioned hegemony in the world. It is no doubt true that the use of overwhelming force can establish hegemony, as happened with the United States in 1945. But U.S. hegemony is not what it once was. The country's economic superiority in the world between 1945 and 1965 has been replaced with a situation in which the U.S. economic position is not significantly better than that of the European Union or Japan. This relative economic decline has cost the U.S. the unquestioned political deference of its close allies. All that is left is military superiority. And, as Machiavelli taught us all centuries ago, force is not enough: If that's all you have, then its use is a sign of weakness rather than of strength and weakens the user.

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