| The author is professor of philosophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
I recently asked an American friend, a keen observer of politics in the United States of America, why he thought the US went to war in Iraq. Oil is important. But given the oil and petroleum exporting countries’ inability to act as a cartel, there was no need to go to war for low oil prices. The existence of weapons of mass destruction could be an object of legitimate concern, but it is not clear that Iraq is more dangerous now on that account than ten years ago. A concern for democracy has, by itself, seldom been the basis of American foreign policy. And the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism were tenuous at best; he was not in any position to threaten America. On listening to this skepticism my friend replied: “Let me put it this way: thunderstorms do not threaten you and they seldom cause damage. But you can still be terrified of them.”
Despite George W. Bush’s arrogant bluster and unconvincing moral passion, there is a good deal to the thought that this war was ultimately precipitated and sustained by fear. The subtlest effects of September 11 was to damage American confidence, so much so that a kind of uncritical stupor seems to have overcome the mainstream of the American political establishment. In America there is considerable worry about the moral legitimacy and political efficacy of this war, but self-reflection was, on the whole, immobilized by the fear 9/11 created.
Put September 11 in perspective. It was the first major attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour, and convinced many Americans that they were vulnerable in many ways. “Anti-Americanism” was going to be a currency of world protest, simply because of America’s power and status. Small independent outfits and rogue states could, if ingenious enough, occasionally inflict serious damage on America. Some of the world’s hostility was due directly to American policy, but most of it was a product of types of regimes and social process, say in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that had little to do with America directly. What would America’s strategy be'
It is difficult to fight terrorism with wars. The other option is to undermine the causes of terrorism. But what are these causes' Oddly enough, violence in Israel and Palestine, a conflict in which most world opinion is convinced of American partisanship, was seldom directed against America. On this view, outfits like al Qaida had to be, therefore, the products of local processes, ideologies, and are sustained by particular states like Sudan and Afghanistan.
How do you deal with them' One way is to elicit the cooperation of all the regimes around the world to make sure they don’t let such groups grow in material and financial strength. Post-9/11 many regimes that allowed such groups to flourish, including Pakistan, came around, one way or another, to cooperating with the US. Only the taliban and Hussein had no incentive to do so, and both became targets. On this view, Iraq’s actual links with al-Qaida are irrelevant. From the American point of view, the fact that this regime might have a motive to support anti- American activity is more important.
Add to this the uncertain trajectory of politics in west Asia. Many regimes there, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and possibly Egypt, are poised for significant political changes in the near future' What will be the shape of those changes' Will they produce stable, relatively benign regimes' Will they produce Islamic fundamentalism' Or will there just be scattered anarchy' Most of the world does not worry about such questions because of two reasons. Unless these changes produce an oil cartel (which will wreck the economies of China and India even more than the US) it is unlikely that, whatever their nature, these regimes will have much interest in the rest of the world. Kashmir might be an object of concern, but India is in no position to make its concerns count.
Second, the rest of the world is also in no position to really influence these changes significantly. But if these changes turn out to be malign, America would be some kind of ideological target. And Americans have the means to do something about it, or so they think. This is what explains the immeasurable gulf that exists between America and the rest of the world over what constitutes a potential threat.
The doctrine of “regime change” introduced in Iraq allowed Bush to square many circles. The real nub of the argument is: the only way you can avoid organized future threats to America is by dismantling all those regimes that might have a motive to turn on America. By changing regimes, you change the structure of domestic politics in these countries and reduce the motivation to spawn and support terrorism. This argument is quite consistent with supporting authoritarian regimes like Pakistan. So long as regimes are not likely to again allow anti-American activity to flourish in a significant way, because they are either allies, or are too dependent on America anyway, they do not need to be changed.
An American presence in Iraq, on this point of view, would also give the US a major toehold in west Asia. In case things go wrong in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, the US would not be left with the prospect of a west Asia, with the exception of Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, composed entirely of potentially hostile regimes.
The war in Iraq is, from an American point of view, primarily about America’s security, and its next moves will be governed by this logic, not by a moral crusade for democracy or even by venial economic interests. Regimes that cooperate with America’s perception of where threats to it will come from will remain safe; indeed American action in Iraq might have even been meant as a warning for them. Hobbes has presciently pointed out that we take pre-emptive strikes for two related reasons: fear and uncertainty. The need for pre-emption arises from a sense of vulnerability rather than strength; and uncertainty about others’ intentions only exacerbates it.
The argument that Iraq was important for American security derived its plausibility, not from the strength of the threat it posed, but from the fear and sense of uncertainty about the world that has gripped America. But while an American victory in Iraq may produce a benign regime, even bring a reasonably open and robust democracy to Iraq, its overall consequences in shaping politics in west Asia or Pakistan remain uncertain. Will it generate a backlash' And will the fear of backlash draw America into deeper quagmires' Only the most obtusely naïve statesman would think that they know the answers to these questions. But Bush’s team comes perilously close to thinking that they do.
The greatest danger in feeling vulnerable is that vulnerability is a self-fulfilling argument. You begin to feel fear everywhere and you might be drawn in everywhere. This is probably what Osama bin Laden was hoping for. And as for fear of thunderstorms, it is prudent to take out insurance on them, but for Bush to think that it can control all turbulent elements is probably as irrational and hubristic as thinking that one can control the weather.