Unless there is a dramatic upset of plans now being made in the Pentagon, the United States of America should be at war with Iraq any time in the next six to eight weeks. Returning to Washington, this columnist has been somewhat startled by how far things have changed in just one month. The atmosphere in America’s capital today is somewhat similar to what it was in New Delhi in the run up to the Bangladesh war in 1971. Or the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia in the weeks before Operation Desert Storm for liberating Kuwait.
As in 1991, when many people and governments abroad doubted America’s determination to go to war, a big gap now exists between how Washington’s public position on the coming war is perceived abroad and the actual preparations in the US for battle. Public debates in the US have gone on from the “ifs” and “whens” of the attack on Iraq to detailed discussions on the specifics of what a temporary American administration would do in post-Saddam Iraq. There have been discussions even on whether the oil cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, would allow representatives of the American interim administration in Baghdad to cast the Iraqi vote at their meetings.
Recent events in the Korean peninsula have been viewed in much of the world outside the US as a foil to the situation in Iraq. In the Arab world and in south Asia, Pyongyang’s antics have been seen as enfeebling Washington in its efforts to tame — nay, conquer — Baghdad.
On the contrary, the dominant view among those in Washington who will provide inputs for a final decision on when to strike against Saddam Hussein is that the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has only advanced, if anything, the timing for a regime change in Baghdad. They reason that if Kim Jong Il imagined that the US would simply walk away from the crisis created by the communist dictator on the assumption that his timing was propitious for the best possible deal with Washington, he is gravely mistaken.
It is true that notwithstanding the bravado of the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, the Americans cannot take on both Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il at the same time. But more to the point, nor can the Americans allow Kim Jong Il to have his way. East Asia is important enough to US strategy in Asia for Washington to seek a way to contain Pyongyang. Aides have counselled the president, George W. Bush, that the only way the US can deal with the crisis in the Korean peninsula is by launching the conquest of Iraq as quickly as possible and completing it successfully. So that he can devote attention to the Korean crisis and is free to deal with it effectively. Urgent challenges facing US foreign policy are not confined to Korea alone.
Another crisis which would normally have attracted all of Washington’s attention is tearing apart Venezuela. There is no love lost between Bush and Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, who is viewed by the White House as the new Salvador Allende in Latin America. When Chavez was briefly ousted in a military coup last year, there were allegations — which were never convincingly denied — that the coup leaders had received help from America.
Chavez is once again in deep trouble. Like Chile in the days before Allende’s overthrow and death, Venezuela has ground to a halt in general strikes by opponents of Chavez. The events in Venezuela are of importance to the US not only because of the ideological element in the crisis there. Venezuela is the fifth largest producer of oil in the world and the US is among the biggest importers of Venezuelan oil. As in the case of Korea, if the US is to play its role in Venezuela not only as the world’s super power but also as the supreme power in the Western hemisphere, it has to get rid of other distractions which will come in the way of fulfilling that role.
Iraq is clearly one such distraction. And the case is, therefore, being made that the sooner Iraq is settled on America’s terms and Saddam Hussein is consigned to the dustbin of history, Washington will be free to deal with the imperatives of a post-Chavez set-up in Venezuela, which is critical to US interests in Latin America. War against Iraq is also seen in the corridors of power in Washington as vital to the ongoing fight against terrorism. Although Afghanistan has been rescued from the taliban — and by proxy from al Qaida — the war against Osama bin Laden’s outfit has produced questionable results.
Afghanistan’s hopes that installing Hamid Karzai as president would be a precursor to stability have been belied. That country once again stands at the crossroads of stability and chaos although the continuing massive Western military show of strength in Kabul masks the problems that lie ahead for Karzai’s government.
In his top drawer in the Oval office, Bush still keeps a sheet of paper with photographs of a score or so top al Qaida operatives from Osama bin Laden downwards. A black marking pen lies by the side of this sheet of paper. Early last year, Bush told Bob Woodward, The Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, that he would put a big, black cross-mark on a photograph each time an al Qaida leader among them is netted “dead or alive” as the president’s much-quoted Texan expression goes.
For the president, it has been a very long wait. More than a year after the Americans employed their full military might on Afghanistan and pulled their diplomatic and other weight on the rest of the world in the fight against terror, only two of the pictures on the sheet have been scored off. A third one was scored off, but the action proved to be premature. The campaign for the re-election of Bush in 2004 unofficially began the moment the November 2002 poll for a new congress was over.
With a new leadership emerging in the Democratic party, which is unlikely to act as the B-team of the Republicans any more, uncomfortable questions are certain to be asked during the presidential campaign about the questionable success of the war against al Qaida. A conclusive victory against Saddam Hussein will ensure that no such questions are asked as the US becomes engaged in fashioning a new, pro-US administration in Baghdad after 45 years of Baathist rule.
Besides, the dominant view within the Bush team is that a victory against Saddam Hussein will only reinforce the fight against al Qaida. Indeed, many even believe that such a victory is essential for stepping up the battle against bin Laden. Those who champion this point of view maintain that there is a perception across the Arab world that America is incapable of sustaining a fight, that it has what bin Laden has called a “mineral water army” and that American forces can only fight a technologically superior battle, primarily from the air.
Bush officials concede that this image in the Arab world was reinforced by the way Americans turned tail from Somalia and fled after the first casualties, and their inability earlier to retaliate for heavy losses of life in an attack on the US embassy in Beirut when Lebanon was being torn asunder by civil war.
If Washington is to battle militant Islam with any degree of finality in the future, this image in Arab minds has to change, officials in Washington argue with a fair degree of logic. Iraq, they say, offers an opportunity to change that image. This also implies that there is no doubt at all within the Bush team that a victory against Saddam Hussein in the coming battle will not only be conclusive, but also quick.
A very naïve argument which is gaining ground in Washington has also strengthened the case for a quick and final battle against Saddam Hussein. This argument makes the case that as in parts of Afghanistan which were liberated from the taliban, the Iraqi people will greet the American forces as liberators. Further, goes the argument, the Iraqis will embrace Western-style democracy and free enterprise, which in turn, will persuade other Arab peoples to overthrow their monarchies and dictatorships to follow the example of post-Saddam Iraq in ushering in democracy.
The first part of this rationale may become a reality. The Americans may be welcomed in Iraq, at least in those areas where Saddam Hussein’s repression has been the most cruel. But Iraq has never been a democracy and the experience with Russia under Boris Yeltsin should tell the Americans that any such experiment can only be disastrous. At any rate, the latter part of this scenario can only be a pipe-dream. It will require much more than democracy, superimposed on Baghdad by Anglo-American forces, for monarchies and dictatorships in west Asia to be overthrown.
Those who believe in this pipe-dream have also held out unrealistic hopes that such a bloom of popular will in the Arab world in the aftermath of change in Iraq will compel the Arabs to make peace with Israel. Regrettably, Israel has allowed this impression to grow in Washington because such an illusion suits the government of prime minister Ariel Sharon, in all that it is trying to do, even as it reinforces the case within the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq’s dictator as quickly as possible.