Future: Tense

By Gwynne Dyer

“The United States needs to lose the war in Iraq as soon as possible. Even more urgently, the whole world needs the United States to lose the war in Iraq.”

This is how journalist Gwynne Dyer begins his second book on the Iraq crisis, a follow-up to the gloomy forecasts made in Ignorant Armies. He has many reasons for not wishing the U.S. well, but the basic one is that American unilateralism threatens “international institutions that are our fragile first line of defence against a return to the great-power wars that could destroy us all.”

His anxiety is understandable. The current American administration has shown a disturbingly open contempt for the rule of laws both domestic and international (the whole concept of international law being dismissed as “hot air” by one sympathetic lawyer – an unconscious echo of the “scrap of paper”?). The defining characteristic of the Bush presidency has been its steadfast belief that might is right. Power does what it wants without justification, apology, or even bothering to admit that “mistakes were made.” In the bad old days the UN Charter and the International Convention on Human Rights was “broken daily, even hourly, but it made a difference that the oppressors generally felt obliged to deny their misdeeds or cloak them in fake legality rather than simply doing them boldly and openly.” If the present cavalier attitude toward the Geneva Convention is any indication, we may be on our way to a truly Orwellian future where that obligation is no longer operative.

Perhaps it all makes sense from a Darwinist perspective. Just before the first Gulf War the first President Bush talked about a “world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” How old fashioned. Helen Clark, prime minister of New Zealand, more recently observed the current trashing of the UN and pointedly asked “Who wants to go back to the jungle?” The answer seems to be America, since it is natural, if fatally short-sighted, for the “biggest bully on the block” to prefer the law of the jungle, where power always wins, to vague moral concepts like justice. Cast in terms of a struggle for survival, an endless war of all against all, foreign policy can be drastically simplified.

Dyer’s defence of the system of international law is the backbone of his case against the war in Iraq, and I’m sympathetic to most of it. Where I can’t follow him is in his analysis of how we got here.

He first posits a “symbiotic relationship between the Islamist terrorists and the coalition of interests in Washington that have clambered aboard the ‘war on terror.’ Neither side wishes the other to triumph, but both thrive on the confrontation.” This suggests a sort of equivalency of power – an Islamist movement on one side, the neo-cons on the other – that I have trouble with. But Dyer takes the idea further by claiming that Osama bin Laden and his confederates are really controlling everything from their secret hideouts. The big, blundering, stupid U.S. of A is being tricked into doing everything bin Laden wants it to do.

Reasoning like this overestimates the vision, intelligence, and (most of all) coherence, of various terrorist and Islamist movements while absolving the U.S. of anything other than hubris.

So first of all you have the question of why the U.S. invaded Iraq. “How did a country with such a fragile power base and so little to gain from establishing military hegemony over the globe – for it already enjoys most of the benefits that might come from having a global economic presence – ever let itself get lured into such a foolish venture?”

Forget about the WMD issues and the business about Iraq being a threat. Iraq wasn’t a threat to anyone. And you can also forget about this being an economic or oil war. The economic argument is dismissed as “pretty silly” since no one in the Bush cabinet “ever said anything in public that suggested they were even dimly aware of the gravity of the problem” of budget and trade deficits (as if they ever would), and it would have been “unimaginable that they would have voluntarily created a massive budget deficit with their tax cuts if they had even understood the nature of the problem.”

Well Gwyn, imagine it. In the first place, the Bush tax cuts are his administration’s entire raison d’etre. Secondly, a war makes a wonderful excuse for turning the budget into a train wreck. This manufactured crisis then helps to sell other aspects of the conservative agenda like privatizing social security and cutting government services.

The next conspiracy theory of the war to get shot down is the “all about the oil” explanation. Now Dyer admits the oil explanation does “hold a certain amount of water”, but “nobody would invade an entire country out of the blue for such remote or paltry reasons, and the seemingly bigger reasons – ‘security of oil supplies’ or keeping the oil price down – simply do not make sense.”

I can’t agree. While not a great reason for invading a country out of the blue, control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and the subsequent leverage such control would give the U.S. over the world economy, does make some sense. Especially in the jungle.

But rejecting all of these rational explanations (that is, explanations based on some notion of American self-interest) Dyer sees the invasion solely as a show of force announcing the new Pax Americana. Now this holds a certain amount of water as well, but does it seem likely that the U.S. would invade a country out of the blue just for some vague ideological need to prove themselves still politically relevant? Does this make sense?

Meanwhile, as the American colossus blindly walks off a cliff, the criminal mastermind Osama bin Laden has foreseen, and indeed fore planned, all. In Afghanistan he learned that the way to gain support for the Islamist cause was to directly attack the West by terrorist means, thus drawing Westerners into striking back militarily against the Muslim world from which the terrorism was coming, which then would have the result of finally driving the masses into the arms of the Islamists so they could get their revolutions off the ground. As with “almost all terrorism” what was involved was a form of “political jiu-jitsu in which the weaker side (the terrorists) tries to trick the stronger side (the government, the colonial power, etc.) into an overreaction that really serves the terrorists’ goals.”

“It was a roundabout route to their goal, to be sure, but sometimes the longest way round is the shortest way home.”

This is a decent historical analysis of the way these things have worked in the past (the British in Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden, the French in Vietnam and Algeria, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the Russians in Afghanistan), but it attributes an enormous amount of global geo-political foresight and planning to a small terrorist group that didn’t even have a toe-hold in Iraq. Dyer insists that the “leading cadres [of terrorists] are intelligent men who are fully familiar with modern theories and ideas . . . as they read everything that pertains to their trade and mission”, and no doubt this is true. But haven’t people in the West been reading the same books? Dyer seems so determined to see the current war on terror follow the same script as earlier wars of occupation and resistance that he ascribes all intelligence, cunning, and planning to the terrorists while simply sticking the U.S. with arrogance and folly. And so America can really only win by losing, and losing quickly.

But I don’t want to make too much of this. A lot of what Dyer has to say is perceptive and vital, especially with regard to the continuing importance of international law and the nature of American nationalism. On these and other subjects he has a message to heed.

Review first published online January 18, 2004.

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