Republic or Empire?
by Joseph Wilson
The Nation magazine, March
As the senior American diplomat in Baghdad
during Desert I Shield, I advocated a muscular US response to
Saddam's brutal annexation of Kuwait in flagrant violation of
the United Nations charter. Only the credible threat of force
could hope to reverse his invasion. Our in-your-face strategy
secured the release of the 150 American "human shields"-hostages-but
ultimately it took war to drive Iraq from Kuwait. I was disconsolate
at the failure of diplomacy, but Desert Storm was necessitated
by Saddam's intransigence, it was sanctioned by the UN and it
was conducted with a broad international military coalition. The
goal was explicit and focused; war was the last resort.
The upcoming military operation also has
one objective, though different from the several offered by the
Bush Administration. This war is not about weapons of mass destruction.
The intrusive inspections are disrupting Saddam's programs, as
even the Administration has acknowledged. Nor is it about terrorism.
Virtually all agree war will spawn more terrorism, not less. It
is not even about liberation of an oppressed people. Killing innocent
Iraqi civilians in a full frontal assault is hardly the only or
best way to liberate a people. The underlying objective of this
war is the imposition of a Pax Americana on the region and installation
of vassal regimes that will control restive populations.
Without the firing of a single cruise
missile, the Administration has already established a massive
footprint in the Gulf and Southwest Asia from which to project
power. US generals, admirals and diplomats have crisscrossed the
region like modern-day proconsuls, cajoling fragile governments
to permit American access and operations from their territories.
Bases have been established as stepping
stones to Afghanistan and Iraq, but also as tripwires in countries
that fear their neighbors. Northern Kuwait has been ceded to American
forces and a significant military presence established in Bahrain,
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The over-the-horizon
posture of a decade ago has given way to boots on the ground and
forward command headquarters. Nations in the region, having contracted
with the United States for their security umbrella, will now listen
when Washington tells them to tailor policies and curb anti-Western
dissent. Hegemony in the Arab nations of the Gulf has been achieved.
Meanwhile, Saddam might well squirm, but
even without an invasion, he's finished. He is surrounded, foreigners
are swarming through his palaces, and as Colin Powell so compellingly
showed at the UN, we are watching and we are listening. International
will to disarm Iraq will not wane as it did in the 1990s, for
the simple reason that George W. Bush keeps challenging the organization
to remain relevant by keeping pressure on Saddam. Nations that
worry that, as John le Carre puts it, "America has entered
one of its periods of historical madness" will not want to
jettison the one institution that, absent a competing military
power, might constrain US ambition.
Then what's the point of this new American
imperialism? The neoconservatives with a stranglehold on the foreign
policy of the Republican Party, a party that traditionally eschewed
foreign military adventures, want to go beyond expanding US global
influence to force revolutionary change on the region. American
preeminence in the Gulf is necessary but not sufficient for the
hawks. Nothing short of conquest, occupation and imposition of
handpicked leaders on a vanquished population will suffice. Iraq
is the linchpin for this broader assault on the region. The new
imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our worldview
are implanted throughout the region, a breathtakingly ambitious
undertaking, smacking of hubris in the extreme. Arabs who complain
about American-supported antidemocratic regimes today will find
us in even more direct control tomorrow. The leader of the future
in the Arab world will look a lot more like Pakistan's Pervez
Musharraf than Thomas Jefferson.
There is a huge risk of overreach in this
tack. The projection of influence and power through the use of
force will breed resistance in the Arab world that will sorely
test our political will and stamina. Passion for independence
is as great in the Arab world as it is elsewhere. The hawks compare
this mission to Japan and Germany after World War II. It could
easily look like Lebanon, Somalia and Northern Ireland instead.
Our global leadership will be undermined
as fear gives way to resentment and strategies to weaken our stranglehold.
American businessmen already complain about hostility when overseas,
and Arabs speak openly of boycotting American products. Foreign
capital is fleeing American stocks and bonds; the United States
is no longer a friendly destination for international investors.
For a borrow-and-spend Administration, as this one is, the effects
on our economic growth will be felt for a long time to come. Essential
trust has been seriously damaged and will be difficult to repair.
Even in the unlikely event that war does
not come to pass, the would-be imperialists have achieved much
of what they sought, some of it good. It is encouraging that the
international community is looking hard at terrorism and the proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction. But the upcoming battle for Baghdad
and the lengthy occupation of Iraq will utterly undermine any
steps forward. And with the costs to our military, our treasury
and our international standing, we will be forced to learn whether
our republican roots and traditions can accommodate the Administration's
imperial ambitions. It may be a bitter lesson.
Joseph Wilson, charge d 'affaires at the
US Embassy in Baghdad during Desert Shield, was the last US diplomat
to meet with Saddam Hussein. He is an adjunct scholar at the Middle
East Institute in Washington, DC.