| Folie de grandeur
The writer’s book, Waiting for America: India and the USA in the New Millennium, has just been published
Even more chilling than George W. Bush’s unceasing bombast was Henry Kiss- inger’s recent testimony to the senate foreign relations committee warning that the devastation that threatens Iraq could also smite Somalia, Yemen, Iran and even Indonesia. In short, no country need feel safe from Uncle Sam’s swift and savage strikes.
This is the grim message of the national security strategy document that was unfolded last month. The attack on New York’s Twin Towers has provided the United States of America with an excuse to proclaim its imperial authority with a ruthlessness that no previous global power dared to attempt. Its might is not aimed only at wrongdoers like Osama bin Laden or those who might harbour terrorists. America will brook no contender on the world’s stage.
In August, Washington served an ultimatum on the comity of nations: promise to exclude Americans from the reach of the International Criminal Court or risk forfeiting US military assistance. It can be said in justification that military help is no country’s right. If the US gives something, it is fully entitled to lay down conditions. Nevertheless, the entire business of the ICC implied that the US claims immunity for its citizens from laws that it is prepared to enforce on others.
The NSS told us the following month that the American president “has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead of the United States that has opened up since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago.” What price the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ritual incantations about a multipolar world' “Our forces will be strong enough,” the document warns, “to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing or equalling the power of the United States.”
As I read that passage I could not but recall with foreboding the number of times American defence officials and strategic thinkers in Honolulu’s Pacific Command headquarters and elsewhere have told me that they regarded India’s blue water navy plans and objections to both the Diego Garcia base and surveillance of its own warships by American and Australian spy planes as directly challenging the US.
True, friction is ruled out while the two navies take part in ambitious joint exercises and while one does escort duty for the other. But recent history tells us that Syngman Rhee, Ngo Dinh Diem, the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos were once even more essential than Atal Bihari Vajpayee to what America saw as its fundamental interests. An American even said of Saddam Hussein, referring to Iraq’s war with Iran, that they had “always known him for a sonofabitch but he was our sonofa- bitch”. World peace would face a grave and gathering danger if every national leader was forever under the compulsion of being America’s very own “sonofabitch”.
Iraq is thus a test case not only of the degree of mature responsibility that Bush and his advisers are able to bring to the White House but also of the degree of independence that an all-powerful US will permit friendly countries to enjoy. Dare Vajpayee add his voice in support of Jacques Chirac’s demand for a two-stage process before Iraq is bludgeoned to death' Dare he say that there is nothing whatsoever to suggest either that Saddam was behind the September 11 attacks or that he is in cahoots with al Qaida and other such groups' Dare he point out that if circumstantial — not more — evidence does indicate that some terrorists have visited Iraq, the same can be said of 50 other countries' Are they all to suffer annihilation'
It is even more telling that the region that Saddam is supposed directly to threaten with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons does not feel at all threatened. On the contrary, the Arabs are desperately anxious to persuade Bush to tone down his belligerence. Kuwait is the sole exception. Other Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference are all opposed to war. Turkey fears that America’s cynical and motivated incitement of Iraqi Kurds — an old divide-and-rule stratagem that Kissinger also used — will encourage secessionism among Turkey’s own disaffected Kurds.
Obviously, these sensitivities weigh not at all with the Bush administration. It would not otherwise have so arrogantly moved towards recognizing Jeru- salem as Israel’s capital. The decision is a slap in the face of the Oslo process. It violates Washington’s own earlier pronouncements and commitments. It exposes the full extent of this administration’s contempt for all that Muslims and Arabs, especially the Palestinians, hold most dear. Yet, the NSS is at pains to claim that “the war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations.” Instead, it is supposed to “reveal the clash inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world.”
The assertion that America “must excel” in this “struggle of ideas” implies a schism in the Islamic ummah with Bush supposedly doing everything in his power to reinforce moderate modernist Muslims. Ask Malaysia’s moderate modernist, Mahathir Mohamad, what he thinks of this pretension while the Americans parade one presumably pliable nonentity after another as a potential successor to the “murderous tyrant” whom Bush accuses of amassing “the most serious dangers of our age in one place”.
There is Ahmed Chalakhi of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, and the former Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan (him with the Pakistani wife) who was pipped to the throne in Amman by the young half-English King Abdullah. Out of the woodwork has also emerged Sharif Ali bin Sharif al-Hussain, whose claim to a crown that was abolished in 1958 is contested by a certain Prince Raad who says he heads the Iraqi branch of the Hashemites.
In 1921, the British proclaimed Emir Feisal, whom Syria had thrown out, king of Iraq. To quote a contemporary historian, “most of the inhabitants of Iraq knew nothing of his existence or saw little reason why he should be installed as ruler of the country”. Bush’s utter inability to grasp the strength and nature of Asian nationalism would be confirmed if folie de grandeur tempts him to repeat that blunder.
His supposed grappling with the powers of darkness within the ummah has already been counter-productive in one significant respect. Even Saddam’s enemies agree that he is the most secular of Arab rulers; they also say that Iraqi women are the most liberated in west Asia. But the signs are that in desperation, Saddam is turning to the mullahs, not because he has suddenly become a theocratic bigot like so many US protégés but because, being a survivor, he recognizes the potency of religion as a rallying cry against US aggression.
In battling “for the future of the Muslim world” therefore, Bush is deliberately strangling the region’s least obscurantist regime. Thus, in the crucible of American ambition was born the monstrous taliban. Bush may also be trying to provoke Saddam into precipitate action. Cornered, he might offer just the casus belli that even France will no longer be able to ignore.
I am surprised, in fact, that the death of an American marine in Kuwait has not (until the time of writing) been blamed on Baghdad. Don Pacifico and Captain Jenkins walk again when a great power thinks its prestige demands flamboyant public flogging of some recalcitrant who can’t hit back.
Suppressing terrorism might be one reason; oil another, as Grant Aldonas, a former American under-secretary for international trade aid, admitted the other day. Encouraging Israel could be a third calculation. But taking precedence over all else, explaining why Bush is browbeating the UN inspectors and threatening to ride roughshod over the security council, is the determination to demonstrate that the US does not need the world. It is the world that needs the US. The world is, therefore, on a short leash.