The United States needs to lose the war in Iraq as soon as possible
The temptation to take charge of the world was bound to be great when the United States emerged from the Cold War as the only superpower, for it seemed like a goal within easy reach. It was nevertheless resisted, by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, for almost a decade. Then a random event - for 9/11 might easily not have happened - unleashed forces in Washington that were itching to make a takeover bid, and now we live in the middle of a train wreck.
The idea that the United States can remain 'the world's sole military superpower until the end of time' is comically overambitious, but there it is, embedded in a 34-page document submitted to Congress in September 2002 entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States. 'The United States will not hesitate to strike preemptively against its enemies, and will never again allow its military supremacy to be challenged.'
As it becomes clear what the project to turn the United States into the world's policeman (or, more precisely, its judge, jury, and executioner) will cost in American lives and in higher taxes, American voters themselves will pull the plug on it sooner or later. Or maybe the world will pull the plug on the project first, by refusing to go on holding dollars as the gradual collapse in the value of the US currency deepens.
The risk is that it will all take too long. If an American defeat in Iraq takes another four or five years, huge and maybe irreparable damage will have been done to the international institutions that are our fragile first line of defence against a return to the great-power wars that could destroy us all. We need the United States back as a leading architect of global order, not a hyperactive vigilante, and we need it back now.
'The French plan, which would somehow transfer sovereignty to an unelected group of people, just isn't workable.' Condoleezza Rice, US National Security Adviser, September 2003
In September 2003, when French President Jacques Chirac urged a high-speed handover of power to Iraqis as the best way of clearing up the huge mess created by the illegal American invasion of Iraq, the US Government rejected the idea out of hand. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that ran the occupation regime under pro-consul Paul Bremer would stay in power as long as necessary to ensure the creation of an Iraqi constitution and the election of an Iraqi government that was (a) democratic and (b) pro-American.
Coming up with an Iraqi government that matched both of those criteria was a very tall order, given US closeness to Israel and Washington's determination to open the entire Iraqi economy up to foreign companies. In fact, Bremer's predecessor, retired general Jay Garner, had been
fired in April 2003 after only a month in the job because he had publicly called for early elections in Iraq; his superiors wanted to privatise the Iraqi economy first, in accordance with a plan that had been drawn up in late 2001. It was a crucial opportunity squandered, but it didn't seem urgent to the new rulers of Iraq at the time.
There had been scattered outbreaks of guerilla resistance ever since the war officially ended in May. Nobody in Washington panicked, and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, ever the unconscious ironist, declared: 'I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.'
By mid-November 2003, the Iraqi resistance had grown from small beginnings - 'Bring 'em on,' President Bush had confidently said when its attacks began to build up in July - to the point where it was killing an average of three American soldiers a day.
Bremer was hastily summoned back to Washington and the policy switched to high-speed 'Iraqisation:' getting Iraqi soldiers and policemen out front as sandbags to protect American troops, which in turn required coming up with a more or less credible Iraqi Government that they would be willing to die for.
So all of a sudden, handing over 'sovereignty' to an unelected group of people stopped being a problem: Washington announced that sovereignty would be handed over to just such a group on June 30, 2004.
They could have been an elected group, of course. Six months was ample time to organise elections in Iraq. But democracy is a messy and unpredictable business. An Iraqi government with a genuine popular mandate would be an unmanageable entity: it certainly would be no friend of Israel, it would probably reverse the privatisation process, and it might just order US troops to leave. So it would have to be an appointed government, at least until after the US election in November 2004 was safely past.
At the end of 2003, the game plan still seemed plausible if you lived in Washington, not in Baghdad, for the first crisis of the occupation was past. The pace of the attacks on American troops and on Iraqis who worked for the occupation regime had dropped off after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December, and both the Pentagon and the local occupation authorities in Iraq insisted that they were only the work of scattered Baath Party 'dead-enders' and 'foreign terrorists' who had infiltrated into the country.
Then, in April 2004, Iraq exploded again.
There were two triggers, and they were both pulled by Bremer. The first was his complicity in the US military's decision to besiege the city of Fallujah, whose 300,000 inhabitants were the most defiant supporters of the resistance in the whole of the 'Sunni triangle' west and north of Baghdad.
On 31 March, four US 'contractors' (paramilitary security personnel) were killed in their car by members of the resistance in Fallujah. Their bodies were then burned and hung above the stream of traffic crossing the Euphrates bridge and left there for hours. It was a ghastly display, but the reaction of the US forces in Iraq was foolish beyond belief. They besieged Fallujah, and announced that they would seize and occupy it unless the residents handed over those guilty of the atrocity against the contractors.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a career diplomat who served as British envoy to the CPA for a time in early 2004 before resigning in despair, said that Paul Bremer should have had a sign on his desk that read: 'Security and jobs, stupid.' The US military in Iraq should have had one that read: 'Hearts and minds, stupid,' but instead they gave the resistance more than it could ever have hoped for: a full-scale military siege of an Iraqi city full of young men who were eager to fight, and of old people, women, and children who would inevitably do most of the dying.
It was never imaginable that the Iraqi militants would hand over the people who had abused the Americans' bodies (if they were even in Fallujah any more), so the US forces were
effectively committed to the street-by-street conquest of a middle-sized Iraqi city. That would involve significant American casualties, and a huge toll of deaths and injuries among the civilian population.
The other trigger Bremer pulled was his decision to close a small-circulation weekly newspaper (less than 10,000 copies) that supported radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and to issue a warrant for his arrest. The paper inveighed against the American occupation and printed truth, rumours, and flat lies with a fine lack of discrimination, but in that it differed little from dozens of other weekly party papers that had sprung up in post-Saddam Baghdad.
Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr himself was a more serious proposition: young, radical, and relatively poorly educated in Islamic law, but able to trade on his renown as the son of a revered grand ayatollah who had been murdered by Saddam Hussein - and in charge of a private militia called the al-Mahdi army that drew its recruits from the overwhelmingly Shia slums of eastern Baghdad. Faced with the threat of disappearing into Abu Ghraib or some other part of the US prison system, he mobilised his militia and took over the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad. If the United States wanted to arrest him, it would have to fight its way into those cities and violate the holy shrines.
American firepower meant that it was possible to capture both Fallujah and the rebel Shia cities without suffering large US casualties, but it could not be done without inflicting huge Iraqi casualties . For a week or so, the offensive against Fallujah was pursued vigorously on the ground, killing at least 600 residents, most of them civilians. But a large proportion of the local men joined the active resistance, and it became clear even to the US planners that the full subjugation of the city would involve killing thousands of Iraqis and losing a considerable number of their own soldiers.
In Najaf and Karbala, US troops never tried to penetrate to the centre of the holy cities for fear of damaging the sacred mosques and completely alienating the Shias of Iraq, who had hitherto been less active in the resistance. Even so, the images being disseminated across the Muslim world were disastrously bad for the United States, as they were almost identical to the images of Israeli troops suppressing resistance in occupied Palestinian towns and cities.
Eventually, Washington realised that it would have to back away from both confrontations, and negotiations began to allow it a face-saving way out.
Even worse images began to appear in late April, as the photographs of Iraqis under torture taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison began to leak out to the media and the public.
In the midst of these events, various Iraqi resistance groups began to employ the new tactic of kidnapping and killing civilian foreigners, tens of thousands of whom had arrived in Iraq to work for the many foreign companies that had been granted contracts for the 'reconstruction' of the country. This led to a general exodus of foreign 'carpetbaggers' (to borrow the phrase used during America's own episode of Reconstruction after the Civil War).
The events of April were as much a psychological turning point in the Iraq War as the Tet Off ensive of 1968 had been in the Vietnam War. By mid-May, when the worst of the uprisings had abated, the inability of the United States to control the situation by force had become clear to Iraqis and to the world. The US Marines besieging Fallujah were withdrawn and the city was handed over to the nominal control of a Saddam-era Iraqi general who recruited a 'Fallujah Brigade' of troops locally, mostly from among the men who had been fighting the Marines - and the city effectively became a no-go zone for foreign forces.
Farther south, Najaf and Karbala also became American-free cities apart from a couple of negotiated patrol routes. Not only had US forces failed to kill or capture Moqtada al-Sadr, but the radical young cleric had gained enormously in prestige and become a serious rival to the more moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
A CPA opinion poll conducted in May revealed the full extent of the damage: only 2 per cent of Arab Iraqis still saw the Americans as liberators, while 92 per cent saw them as occupiers. A year previously, Iraqi opinion had been almost evenly divided.
If American troops are home from Iraq a year from now and the idea of American global hegemony has lost favour in Washington, then we get the world of the late 1990s back relatively undamaged, and we can pick up from where we left off with the job of building the multilateral institutions that we need to see us through the international storms that are sure to come.
If, however, the United States stays in Iraq, then sooner or later most of the other great powers will give up on the United Nations and the rule of law in favour of getting together to counterbalance the weight of the rogue superpower - especially if the United States really is pursuing a coherent strategy of redefining the world in terms of a perpetual, global 'war on terror' with itself as leader.
The stakes are much higher than they seem. The foundations of the World War I were laid by decisions that were made ten to twenty years before 1914, and after that it was very hard for anyone to turn back. There is a strong case for saying that we have arrived at a similar decision point now; what happens in the next year or so matters a lot, so we need some answers fast.
Is the terrorist threat really worth worrying about? Is there a serious bipartisan project for restoring American global hegemony, or is it merely a bunch of neo-conservatives dreaming of lost glories - or is it just the usual cock-up on an unusually large scale?
This is an extract from Gwynne Dyer's:
Future: Tense - The Coming World Order [UK]
Future: Tense - The Coming World Order [US]