Legacy of hatred: Iraq and the Arab world

OSAMA BIN LADEN, in his wildest dreams, could hardly have hoped for this.' It was with these words that Richard Dawkins began a recent and characteristically trenchant opinion piece for the Guardian. Published last Saturday, well before it became clear that that the entire allied strategy in the Iraq had been seriously miscalculated, Dawkins's article suggested that the American led invasion of Iraq would prove disastrous whatever the outcome:

Imagine how it looks from Bin Laden's warped point of view...

If the American victory is swift, Bush will have done our work for us, removing the hated Saddam and opening the way for a decent Islamist government. Even better, in 2004 Bush may actually win an election. Who can guess what that swaggering, strutting little pouter-pigeon will then get up to, and what resentments he will arouse, when he finally has something to swagger about? We shall have so many martyrs volunteering, we shall run out of targets. And a slow and bloody American victory would be better still.

Dawkin's went on to suggest that the claim that the war was about weapons of mass destruction was essentially dishonest:

Whatever anyone may say about weapons of mass destruction, or about Saddam's savage brutality to his own people, the reason Bush can now get away with his war is that a sufficient number of Americans, including, apparently, Bush himself, see it as revenge for 9/11. This is worse than bizarre. It is pure racism and/or religious prejudice. Nobody has made even a faintly plausible case that Iraq had anything to do with the atrocity. It was Arabs that hit the World Trade Centre, right? So let's go and kick Arab ass. Those 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, right? And Eye-raqis are Muslims, right? That does it. We're gonna go in there and show them some hardware. Shock and awe? You bet.

Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil, St Michael's angels against the forces of Lucifer. We're gonna smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all and let God deal with their souls. Minds doped up on this kind of cod theology have a hard time distinguishing between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Dawkins went on to launch a fierce attack on the American constitution which had facilitated the election of a man like Bush. He concluded his article with these words: 'Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for Iraq, but he never posed a threat outside his immediate neighbourhood. George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden.'

Given that Dawkins himself is something of an apocalyptic prophet, who has played a very significant part in demonising religion in general and Islam in particular, his strictures against the apocalypticism of George Bush contain a certain amount of humbug. But, writing on the first Saturday of the war, he was undoubtedly right to point out that, however slowly or swiftly the war was concluded, the ultimate outcome would be to strengthen the very kind of Islamic militancy it is supposed to undermine.

By now, a week further into the war, the likelihood of such an outcome is even more starkly visible. Fergal Keane, writing in the Independent on the second Saturday of the war (29 March), described his week criss-crossing the middle east in an attempt to track the the manner in which the war is being received.

In his article '
Does the West understand how this hated war is altering the Arab world?' he describes the information revolution which has been brought about in the Arab world by Al-Jazeera and then attempts to convey something of the strength of popular reaction to the war in the Arab street. He is not, he writes, expressing his own opinions, but attempting to reflect the responses which he finds:

What I try to do here is look at acts and their consequences. So when I say that Arab opinion is enraged by the war, that Arabs regard Mr Blair and Mr Bush as the leaders of an invading and occupying force, it is merely to reflect how things are. If there is a silent Arab majority or even minority who believes the war is a good thing, I have yet to find it. If it exists it is so minuscule as to be politically irrelevant.

Robin Cook, writing on 30 March in the Sunday Mirror, calls for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq immediately. He goes on to suggest that 'There will be a long-term legacy of hatred for the West if the Iraqi people continue to suffer from the effects of the war we started.' However, even if victory were to be secured by British and American troops tomorrow, it seems likely that the result of the illegal invasion undertaken by Britain and America would still be a legacy of hatred throughout most of the Arab world.

One of the most striking articles on the current situation to appear in the British press over the weekend was undoubtedly that of Edward Luttwak, an expert in military strategy, writing in the Sunday Telegraph. Luttwak argues that war cannot be tenderised and that attempts to moderate its destructive power in the interests of public relations are doomed to failure. The authority he invokes is none other than Clausewitz:

Long ago, Karl von Clausewitz, the supreme theoretician of war, explained why every attempt to prettify its essential violence with inconsistent acts of moderation, every refusal to use maximum force when it can be purposeful and no mere rampage, adds to the human costs of war by extending its cruelties and deprivations, and even more by delaying the arrival of the desired peace that is the only possible goal of any rational war.

Luttwak argues that, since every high building in a city is potentially a fortress or gun-turret for the enemy, high buildings must be destroyed by bombs before the army invades. In short, in order for for it to be liberated Baghdad must first be flattened. If this results in innocent civilians dying then so be it; war is not the time to engage in public relations exercises.

In one sense Luttwak, in citing the words of Hitler's mentor, is absolutely right. What he seems not to grasp, however, is that his argument points to the very conclusion for which those who have opposed the war have long argued: the military invasion of a foreign country is not and cannot be a method of liberation. War is not something you wage upon your friends; it is something you wage upon your enemies. If you go to war upon the country of your would-be friends it is very likely that you will succeed, either sooner or later, in turning them into your enemies.

Some hawkish commentators still resist this view. Julie Burchill, writing in the Guardian on the second Saturday of the war, was still looking forward to the scenes of jubilation among Iraqi citizens she believes will eventually greet British and American soldiers:

 . . . even those whose anti-war protests started in good faith now know that when Saddam's regime comes tumbling down, thousands of Iraqis will dance and sing with joy before the TV cameras, and thank our armed forces for giving them back their lives.

Of course, though it seems increasingly improbable, Julie Burchill may be right. Some such scenes may still be vouchsafed to us. But what neither she nor like- minded commentators seem to understand is that the real harvest of any invasion takes a long time to ripen and its first apparent fruits may be deceptive. It is worth recalling that, when British soldiers were sent in to Northern Ireland in 1969, they were welcomed openly by Catholic communities as protectors and liberators. But when, as soldiers who were not trained in the art of civil policing, they used heavy-handed methods, conducting house-searches for arms and imposing curfews, the initial jubilation soon turned to sullen resentment. Before long the very soldiers who had been welcomed by nationalists found themselves, as Dermot Walsh has written, facing 'petrol bombs, stones, burning barricades and ultimately bullets. The army, like the RUC before it, responded in kind and the violence spiralled out of control once more' (Bloody Sunday and the Rule of Law in Northern Ireland, Gill and Macmillan, 2000, p. 38).

The moral of this should be clear. The scenes which Julie Burchill so fondly imagines would prove little or nothing were they ever to take place. The test of a 'successful' invasion is much harder and it comes much later.

One of the reasons that the scenes of Iraqi jubilation are unlikely to take place on any significant scale is that, as well-informed reports are now making clear, Iraq is much better prepared to resist an invasion than most people have been led to believe. The battle for Baghdad is likely to be a long and bloody one and by the time it is over few Iraqis are likely to be in doubt that the British and American soldiers who have been sent to liberate them are indeed their enemies and not their friends.

The gravest danger of all will come if, as should not be ruled out, Iraq is driven into a position where it chooses to deploy chemical weapons against British or American troops. Reports that the Iraqi army is preparing to do this are already in circulation. These reports may well be disinformation, deliberately and dishonestly circulated by the Pentagon in an attempt to further demonise Saddam Hussein's regime. But they may also be true.

If Iraq were indeed to unleash chemical weapons on allied troops it would no doubt be claimed that the rationale for going to war in the first place had been vindicated. Fortified by the atrocity propaganda such a move would place in allied hands, the United States might very well react with the kind of gross irrationality which has characterised its conduct ever since 11 September.

In view of this it is perhaps worth underlining Richard Dawkins's sensible suggestion that the allied claim to be going to war in order to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction has always been a dishonest one. If Iraq were to deploy chemical weapons it would therefore prove nothing at all about whether it was right to go to war in the first place.

Were such a development to take place it would be appropriate to recall what has been said often but rarely heeded sufficiently - that the nation which possesses the greatest and most lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is none other than the United States.

In this respect Dawkins's further suggestion that George Bush poses a far greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein, seems, tragically, to be entirely true. That he should be aided and abetted in his current military folly by a British prime-minister who has in turn been supported by parliament is a matter for profound shame.

For Seymour Hersh's engrossing and disturbing account in the New Yorker of the battle between Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, an account which is severely critical not only of Rumsfeld, but also of General Tommy Franks, click

For a an interesting and revealing response to current military difficulties by a commentator who supports the war, see Nick Denton's article,  'Plan B', posted on 31 March.

Denton himself directs readers to an article in the Washington Monthly which he describes in the following terms: 'An astoundingly deep piece by Joshua Micah Marshall, author of the Talking Points Memo. He's critical of the neo-conservative case for Iraq, but is fair enough to represent it sympathetically.'

Marshall's article, Practice to Deceive, ought, I suspect, to be essential reading for all those with a need to understand America's real goals in invading Iraq - starting, perhaps, with our own Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Madeleine Bunting's article on the war, Bombs and Biscuits, appeared in the Guardian on Monday 31 March. One of the most welcome features of this fierce and truly excellent article is its psychological realism.
Human nature is the one thing which military strategists - and politicians - tend to leave out of their calculations. Madeleine Bunting, in her observations about how war can very easily turn ordinary decent men into monsters, has put it back into the equation in exactly the right way.

March 2003   


Richard Webster, 2002



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