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No pretty script in this drama

After the unprecedented anti-war protests around the world in February, it became clear that there were two superpowers — the U.S. and world public opinion. But over the next month, the waging of war against Iraq has made something else even more clear — the American administration will now rule by imperial diktat. RAHUL MAHAJAN examines its implications ... for the U.S. and the rest of us.

AFTER the February 15 protests against the war — a unique event in world history involving 12 million people in more than 600 cities on seven continents united on one issue — Patrick Tyler wrote in the New York Times that "there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion".

Unfortunately, George Bush's reaction mirrored Stalin's when told that the Pope disapproved of his policies: "How many divisions has the Pope?" How many divisions has world public opinion?

Over the next month, the Bush administration made clear its contempt for public opinion as it drove relentlessly to war with Iraq and opened up a new front: the United Nations and the current world order. On March 16, Bush issued his joint ultimatum to Iraq that it should disarm and to the U.N. that it should pass a resolution. The U.S., which had hitherto exercised global hegemony by a combination of coercion, bribery, persuasion, and military force, announced it would now rule by imperial diktat.

This new New World Order had been hinted at since shortly after September 11, 2001, starting with the proclamation of the first Bush doctrine: "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." March 16 locked the U.S. into this imperial course; our new Caesar had passed his Rubicon.

And the war came

The course the war has taken demonstrates the complete victory of the neo-conservatives. So awesome is the technological superiority of the American military that it can launch attacks without suppressing all air defences; it can target the Iraqi regime in Baghdad while leaving the lights on in the city. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterised the war as "humane", a term that was quickly picked up and thrown from one media commentator to another.

Richard Perle, chairman of the advisory Defence Policy Board, wrote a piece in the Guardian titled, `Thank God for the death of the U.N." The U.N., he said, was unable to guarantee peace, let alone rescue miserable people from oppressive regimes; the unsubtle implication was that imperial America is the only viable guarantor of world order.

These are only preliminary indications of what is likely to be an orgy of liberal imperialist triumphalism after "successful" prosecution of the war. Not only is America the only possible ruler of the world, the pundits will say, but the only one that can do so benignly, in a "humane" manner. The White Man's Burden will re-emerge, this time cast as America's burden alone; obviously, "old Europe" is simply not up to the task.

The home front

The mainstream of the American anti-war movement is largely unprepared for these developments. While a substantial core of the movement continues a series of increasingly militant protest actions (as of writing, more than 2,000 people had been arrested in San Francisco), popular support for the war has shot up over 70 per cent and virtually every important political figure previously opposing the war has gone mute.

While the military learned the lessons of the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement has remained mired in the past. It has not confronted the questions: What do we do if American casualties are low? If few Iraqi civilians are killed? If we see constant scenes of Iraqis cheering their American "liberators" as they are freed from bondage to an odious dictator? If every time an American official opens his mouth, it is to proclaim that Iraq's oil is the wealth of the Iraqi people and belongs only to them? If America's former allies like France and Germany, which so resolutely opposed U.S. war plans, now scurry back to shelter under America's imperial wing? If the U.N., so cavalierly tossed aside, retrospectively legitimises the war by administering the Iraqi humanitarian programme, cleaning up the mess that the U.S. has made?

The Bush administration's recent course makes it clear there is no outside force that can meaningfully resist U.S. imperialism; perhaps the most crucial question in the world is whether the domestic anti-war movement can adjust to this new situation and transform itself into a sustained anti-imperialist movement. Answering the above questions is not an academic exercise but a matter of life or death.

The U.S. in West Asia

Some of the answers, of course, are relatively easy. The story of civilian casualties will require both time and hard journalistic work to uncover. According to the Guardian, the best estimate of civilian deaths in the Afghanistan war, caused both directly by the bombing and indirectly by disruption of food aid and generation of refugees, is over 20,000.

The same Iraqis cheering as the unstoppable American military passes by often curse them once they are gone. Twelve years of crippling sanctions, exacerbated by American political manipulation of the bureaucratic rules of the oil-for-food programme, and for years held in place almost solely at the behest of the U.S., have made it clear to Iraqis that the U.S. is not overly concerned for their human rights, not even the basic right to food and medicine. Iraqis likely will be cheering as much for the anticipated termination of the sanctions as they will be for the termination of Saddam Hussein's rule.

U.S. plans for Iraq hardly involve the institution of any meaningful democracy. The attitude toward democracy shown by the Bush administration, similar to that of past U.S. administrations, is crystal clear. In Afghanistan, even though the United States exercised total control over selection of the loya jirga delegates, it would not allow the jirga to make its own decision; according to delegate Omar Zakhilwal, the ex-monarch Zahir Shah was pressured to step down as a candidate and the U.S.-backed warlords openly coerced delegates. Hamid Karzai walks around today flanked by mercenaries in the pay of Dyncorp, a U.S. military contractor, a situation reminiscent not of the sophisticated "low-intensity democracy" paradigm that characterised the 1990s but rather of colonial regimes in the late 19th Century.

U.S. officials have funded an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected leader in Venezuela, while in Palestine they try to fashion a quisling government that will execute Israel's policies. There can be little doubt that, whatever facade of democracy the U.S. fashions — perhaps it will suddenly discover the great Iraqi tradition of the loya jirga — it intends to create a puppet government.

U.S. plans for Iraq's oil are also clear. The picture in much of the world of swaggering Texans eagerly grubbing the oil up out of the ground with their own hands is overblown. Iraq's oil will not be denationalised overnight, but by a gradual process initiated not directly by the American occupiers but by the new puppet regime. U.S. corporations, shut out from potentially lucrative oil deals because the U.S. was seen as Iraq's enemy, will likely profit handsomely from future oil exploration in Iraq, and the tremendous wealth represented by Iraq's oil is certainly a factor in this war.

But control of Iraqi oil is the primary consideration. A puppet regime in Iraq will be a useful counterweight to Saudi Arabia, which currently controls the world oil market. Combined with U.S. efforts to cultivate non-Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) West African oil sources, the war on Iraq may be the key to the U.S. setting itself up as the primary arbiter of the flow and pricing of oil worldwide, as it was until the wave of oil nationalisations and the assertion of OPEC's power in the early 1970s.

The U.S. versus Europe

Consideration of oil makes clear the true target(s) of this war of aggression. The lurid scaremongering about the horrible threat to the world presented by Iraq grows less believable by the day. If the series of shameless and incompetent lies presented by the Bush administration — which culminated with the revelation of some ineptly forged documents purporting to show that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger — did not suffice, consider this: U.S. forces in western Iraq have found no Scud missiles and there have been no chemical or biological attacks. It's likely that occupying forces will "find" such weapons just as officers in the Los Angeles Police Department regularly "find" murder weapons on the suspects they choose. Will anyone except an increasingly credulous American public believe it? Iraq is only incidentally a target, in that it is a great strategic prize; in truth, the war is aimed at Europe in the short term and China in the long term. The U.S. and Europe are roughly on par economically, but politically there is no comparison. It's no accident that the world order we've seen being shaped is called the "Washington consensus" and not the "Brussels consensus", much less the "Tokyo consensus".

That political hegemony is clearly a penumbral effect of U.S. military power. While it continues, however, there are forces at work to undermine the basis of American dominance. The political passivity of the American public has been maintained, despite a host of repressive measures and the subversion of the core of democracy, only with massive consumption of cheap foreign goods. In the past year, the current account deficit was roughly $500 billion, five per cent of GDP. No ordinary nation can maintain such a balance of payments without undermining its currency and its economic strength, yet the U.S. does. One prop for its currency is the valuation of world oil in dollars, something that Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela were looking to change with the advent of the euro. Another is the larger effect of U.S. political power, and the huge inflows of foreign capital that it generates. To continue this happy state of affairs, however, it is no longer sufficient for the U.S. to push forward the "free trade" paradigm, which (almost) equally benefits U.S. and European corporations; thus the proliferation of regional trade pacts, essentially protectionist in nature, and the more overt, open, and sustained use of U.S. military power to gain economic advantages for the U.S.

For the long term, China looms large in the dreams of the neoconservatives, not because it can compete with the U.S. for global hegemony but because it can resist. The expansion of U.S. military bases in Central Asia, and impending U.S. control of Caspian basin oil, is directed to that end. So is increased control over the flow of oil from West Asia to China, not just directly at the source but with the beginning last year of joint U.S.-Indian naval exercises in the Straits of Malacca.

Resisting the hegemony

The contours of these imperial plans are being seen quite clearly in the rest of the world. The strong opposition of Germany and France to the plans for war on Iraq did not stem from moral considerations, but rather from disquiet over the increasingly oppressive way in which the U.S. is exercising dominance over them; their impending return to the fold will reflect a calculation that their self-interest is better served by submitting for the moment to U.S. imperialism. What motivates the Indian Prime Minister's shameful recent statement that "action against Iraq should not dilute our focus" is less clear.

Hope for resistance to U.S. imperialism, which has undoubtedly emerged as the greatest threat to humanity, lies primarily with that other superpower — global public opinion — which had best equip itself with some divisions (not militarily, but in the sense of political power) if it is to have any chance to prevail in what augurs to be a long and difficult struggle.

Rahul Mahajan is a founding member of the Nowar Collective (, located at the University of Texas, Austin, U.S. His latest book is the forthcoming Full Spectrum Dominance: Iraq and U.S. Power (Seven Stories Press, April 2003).

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