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Threats to Peace
20 March 2002
A poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens begins, "After the final no there comes a yes/And on that yes the future world depends." If only the world leaders of our time would understand the principle of affirmation and ongoing-ness that Stevens evokes in those two lines. But, sadly, many do not. Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, Mr. Arafat, as well as Mr. Blair and Mr. Bin Laden, see the world from a particular narrow perspective, each closed to the possibility that there are alternative ways in which history can unfold.
Two years ago Mr. Arafat was certain that he could hold out for more in negotiations with Israel, even as Mr. Barak offered most of what the Palestinians wanted from the negotiations. Mr. Arafat insisted on the impossible, the total satisfaction of Palestinian demands. Unable to see beyond this single agenda, unwilling to consider that if the negotiations failed - as they did - the Palestinian future might be war and devastation, Mr. Arafat pursued his fixed course. He turned out to be, however, not the guarantor of victory for Palestinians, but the partial author of today's unending conflict and bloodshed.
For his part, Mr. Sharon entered office convinced he had the one and only perspective that would serve Israel. His was a strategy based on escalated responses to each attack and every threat. If anyone is as single-mindedly dense as Mr. Arafat, it is Mr. Sharon. The former could not see that struggle without compromise may condemn Palestinians to another fifty years of refugee camps and mire them in negative economic development. The latter could not see that escalation only brings expanded war - that one does not terrify one's adversary into submission, only into greater and more violent resistance.
Because neither Mr. Arafat nor Mr. Sharon realizes that the future always lies before us as a realm of possibilities rather than a determined course of events, neither has an exit strategy. Neither has a way to get out of a morass that is ever deepening.
Alternative futures and exit strategies have no place in the thinking of Mr. Arafat, Mr. Sharon, or Mr. George W. Bush.
Seymour Hersh, America's leading investigative journalist, reveals in a chilling essay in this week's New Yorker magazine that the discussion in the Bush administration is not about whether the United States should attack Iraq, but when. It has already been concluded, among Republican hawks and Republican moderates, that American must and will attack Iraq. The reasons proffered for such aggressive interventions are so uni-dimensional as to be almost catch phrases; even though there is some truth in each assertion, the reality is always more complex than the Bush administration acknowledges. Here is what the war-bent Republicans say. Iraq possesses "weapons of mass destruction," meaning chemical and biological weapons and a developing nuclear capacity, which are a threat to the United States. Mr. Saddam Hussein is a dictator. Mr. Hussein is crazed by power. Mr. Hussein has a deep enmity for the United States.
Having spoken with many highly placed figures in the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council, Mr. Hersh reports that the United States is likely to attack Iraq some time between April and late September of this year.
For Mr. Bush, the need to attack Iraq seems determined, fixed. (He will win a war his father neglected to finish.) Likewise, for Mr. Bush's advisors, the course of the prospective war seems foreordained. They believe that when the United States employs heavy aerial bombardment, as it did in Afghanistan, and makes use of surrogate forces indigenous to Iraq with leadership currently living in exile, it is a certainty that the Hussein regime will crumble. The only debate is about which surrogate government to put in place when Mr. Hussein is forced from power.
Truly chilling is that those shaping policy in Washington, those making the decisions about whether to go to war and how to prosecute the war, do not consider that events can transpire in alternative ways. It is, in fact, possible that massive bombing and local insurrection may topple Mr. Hussein's government, that Iraq's armed forces may prefer change to prolonged battle and potential destruction. But "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley," as Robert Burns so famously said, and what Washington has are not even the best-laid of schemes.
For it is very possible Mr. Hussein may not be easily toppled from power. Or that that Iraq's army may not respond as Washington expects. Or that the battle may quickly and tragically escalate beyond the borders of Iraq.
Americans are almost always surprised to discover that people outside their national borders are not filled with love for the United States. Why the world's greatest power should believe that everyone subject to its domination - sometimes quiet domination, sometimes brutal - should somehow respond to America with love and forbearance is a mystery. Perhaps what the poet W. H. Auden wrote of individuals is also true of countries: "For the error bred in the bone/Of each woman and each man/Craves what it cannot have,/Not universal love/But to be loved alone."
As will be clear to anyone living outside the borders of the United States, it is not a foregone conclusion, if America attacks Iraq, Iraqis will rise up against Mr. Hussein, shouting "Allah be praised for this American intervention!" Indeed, when put into words such as these, it seems downright unlikely. Far more probable is a surge of patriotic pride, a new national coherence in the face of an external aggressor. So it cannot be assumed, as Washington currently assumes, that a massive aerial attack will depose Mr. Saddam Hussein. Quite the opposite, a consolidation of his support, is as likely, perhaps more likely, to take place.
Nor, as Mr. Hersh notes, is the Iraqi army certain to form huge encampments and defined battle lines, allowing American bombers to decimate their ranks. Apparently few or none of those who formulate American policy and strategy have considered what would happen if the Iraqi army dispersed into small units lodged in thousands of small cities and villages throughout the country. What would America do then? Bomb every village, kill every civilian, in Iraq? The United States encountered immense difficulties with a dispersed army in Vietnam, as did the Russians with similar situations in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Yet no one in Washington is planning on a lengthy war, nor a war fought with heavy U.S. casualties.
Mr. Hersh also raises the specter of wider involvement, a consequence the Bush administration ignores. In the Persian Gulf War, when American forces expelled Iraq from Kuwait and pushed deep into Iraq, one of Mr. Hussein's strategic initiatives was to launch Scud missiles against Israel. There is small reason to believe he would not use a similar strategy in the face of another war, and ample reason to believe that some of the Scuds would have chemical or biological payloads. Yet if weapons of mass destruction are used against Israel, it is probable that Israel under Sharon will respond in similar and escalated fashion.
It takes little mental capacity to imagine that an Israeli bombardment of Baghdad with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons would precipitate a regional war. But even that small mental capacity is not to be found in the Bush administration. The thinking seems to be that since the U.S. was able to restrain Israel from retaliating against Scud attacks in the last war, it will be able to exercise similar restraint if a similar but more destructive attack occurs in the next war.
So the United States, under the aegis of the Bush administration, seems prepared to go to war without considering whether the war will proceed precisely as diagrammed on the blackboards in the Pentagon and State Department. The current government in Washington is not, not, prepared for patriotic support of Mr. Hussein, for an Iraqi military smart enough to disperse rather than fight in battalions susceptible to being bombed, for a war which escalates beyond the boundaries of Iraq.
This is where an exit strategy comes into play. If the United States government cannot imagine the war proceeding otherwise than planned, it of course cannot conceive of the need for an exit strategy. Yet what happens if, contrary to the pundits' predictions, the war is protracted, and American casualties mount? What happens if to gain military advantage the American leaders face a decision that commits them to bombing hundreds of thousands of civilians? What happens if, either through pan-Arabic solidarity or through an attack on Israel, the conflict expands into a huge regional war between Arabs and Americans? What happens if the planned intervention in Iraq escalates into a conflagration with Moslems one side and Christians and Jews on the other?
In the halls of power where the American assault on Iraq is being planned, none of these questions appear to be seriously considered. Yet if no one in Washington can conceive of difficulties, who will think of how to extricate the nation from escalation or prolonged war, should they occur? There is a kind of circle here: Because American policy-makers cannot see that American intervention in Iraq might result in a variety of outcomes, they do not consider how to extricate the nation if things go wrong. And because they do not have to consider how difficult it is to exit a situation in which the war is enlarged or casualties are mounting, they have no second thoughts about mounting an assault on Iraq in the first place.
The Wallace Stevens poem with which this essay commenced ends, "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never." Sadly, the minds of America's policy-makers today seem all too satisfied. Those minds are content with a single scenario; they are unwilling to consider the complexity of any society but their own and woefully unaware that the course of history cannot be predicted. The minds in the Bush administration seem to be marching in lockstep, impermeable to change, listening to the drum-roll of their own invention. It would be tragic if the final consequence of their obstinacy were that citizens both of the United States and other nations find themselves drawn into a forced march to the same martial music.