the Afghan campaign devolves into what University of California political science
professor emeritus Chalmers Johnson told me is something of a "phony war" in which
the U.S. blunders without a plan and gets drawn in deeper, the imminent war against
Iraq is starting to draw some mild second thoughts. This is all to the good
especially if, as most of the purported authorities I've talked to recently believe,
the leaks calculated to provoke serious questions are coming from the military.
story about U.S. Iraqi war plans that the New York Times featured last
week has provoked, at least in the establishment press, mostly desultory discussion
over whether President Bush has a plan "on his desk" (which he has denied) or
if the plan is only in the pipeline and not yet actually on his desk. But beneath
this fluffy debate lies the beginning of serious questions about the apparent
determination of the administration to get into a war with Saddam Hussein.
Interestingly enough, the most reluctant warriors tend to be those with long experience
in the military, while those most eager to mount an attack tend to be people who
have never served in the military, who served only a nominal hitch, or whose careers
have been as civilian Defense Department officials. Maybe it isn't as ironic as
it might seem on the superficial level. Those who have actually fought wars tend
to be more realistic and apparently more skeptical just now about
the prospect of ensuring peace and stability through endless war. And many have
seen friends and comrades die in conflicts of dubious value to long-term U.S.
The story in yesterday's New York Times by
John F. Burns, on
the attitude of the Kurdish leaders toward a possible U.S. attack on Saddam
Hussein's regime, should add more fuel to the skeptics' fire. Burns's story from
Erbil in Northern Iraq, contends that the Kurds admittedly helped by the
U.S.-British enforcement of "no-fly" zones against Iraqi government aircraft
have managed to carve out a semi-autonomous region that enjoys much more liberty
than the rest of Iraq, and is effectively run by indigenous Kurds.
The Kurds remember that after the 1991 Gulf war, when U.S. forces stopped at the
Kuwaiti border instead of advancing on Baghdad, the current president's father
called on the Kurds (and groups in the south) to rise up against Saddam and overthrow
him. When they showed signs of doing so they got no effective support from the
U.S. or any Western country and Saddam suppressed them rather brutally. (Some
also remember that back in 1975 the U.S. encouraged the Kurds to ally themselves
with Iran, then abandoned them rather swiftly when a temporary Iraqi-Iranian reconciliation
left the Kurds expendable and exposed to a military crackdown.)
Perhaps the Kurds, who have long been an example of the charms and perils of being
an essentially stateless society in the sense that they have never had
a nation-state of their own but have managed nonetheless, though with sometimes
heavy casualties, in a region full of armed and essential hostile states, including
not only Iraq but putative U.S. ally and NATO member Turkey are a little
tired of being played for suckers in Great Power military diplomacy. In a world
of virtually instant communications even though still one of fleeting and
glancing media attention to and interest in areas of the world where imperial
conflicts are not happening this week they seem able to get their message
Burns made clear, part of their purpose in speaking to the world through the Times
was to send a message to Saddam (who is still a potential imminent danger to the
status quo they have worked out) that they aren't the ones begging the United
States to get involved.
ONE LESS PROPAGANDA POINT?
All this might not deter the armchair warriors from
eventually having their way and fomenting a war on Saddam. But it will deprive
the propagandists of an important justification for war. Even the current President
Bush has used the generally accepted (though some have questioned it) story that
Saddam used poison gas on Kurdish villages as an illustration of the awfulness
of the current regime and the righteousness of seeking a "regime change."
If the current representatives of the people who were gassed by Saddam's forces
and at his orders (accepting for the sake of argument that the story is true,
which it might as well be if perception is reality) are now discouraging the United
States from a new attack on Iraq, at least part of the justification for an attack
will be undermined. There will always be weapons of mass destruction and rumors
of them, of course, and the fact that Saddam really is a brutal and unsympathetic
dictator. But having the leaders of the perennially oppressed Kurdish people urging
the United States to go slow should have some psychological impact.
There is some textual evidence that John Burns was motivated to do his story in
part by leaks from reluctant U.S. warriors. He writes that "officials from the
Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council and the Central
Intelligence Agency visited the Kurdish territory this year to discuss American
options, and had also met with Kurds in Washington and Europe" at which the message
that the Kurds will look 0ut for themselves rather than placing themselves at
the disposal of American regime-changers was supposedly delivered rather forcefully.
Was it just Kurdish interviews or American leakers also that convinced the Times
this was a story worth pursuing?
Then there was the story late in May about a "top-secret"
Pentagon war game that purported to show that a major campaign against a country
like Iraq "would place severe strains on personnel and cause deep shortages of
certain critical weapons," as the New York Times had the story. An invasion
might require as many as 200,000 troops, which would entail a large-scale call-up
of reserves. The military computer game noted that domestic security requirements,
including guarding and protecting military installations. have increased since
September 11, and mounting a major war would require considerable shuffling of
There is the possibility that the military is playing up the stress that a major
military operation would place on current military resources in part as a way
to buttress requests for higher military spending. In fact, this is a probability.
But in spite of reassurances in the May 24 New York Times story that the
military would suck it up and do whatever the president asked, the computer simulation
war game showed that the military seems to understand that a new war would stretch
its resources even enhanced resources to a potentially dangerous
And the fact that it leaked indicates that at least some people in the military
want to word to get out that some military officials have deep reservations about
any new commitments to conflict. When we talked to British correspondent Robert
Fisk earlier this year, he estimated that it would take 50,000 to 100,000 international
troops stationed in Afghanistan for 10 years to restore some semblance of stability
to just that country. He thought the West had an obligation to do just that (which
But even if the administration plans to try nation-building on the cheap, as seems
to be the case, we're looking an open-ended commitments that will require substantial
military resources and American money and attention. A new commitment to a major
military conflict would make even that level of support iffy.
Then there are the possible economic costs and consequences
of a war on Saddam, consequences which have been largely ignored but are explored
in the current issue of Fortune by Bill Powell. It is widely popular, perhaps
even part of the conventional wisdom, that war and empire are often undertaken
for economic reasons, to boost an economy. Although certain discrete economic
interests usually do benefit from war, however, this is a fallacy. War and empire
generally cost a society overall much more than they bring in, and the costs have
often been a c0ntributing factor in the collapse of regimes and empires.
As the new book The
Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America's Cold War Victory, by Derek
Leebaert, points out, much of the considerable cost of the Cold War was effectively
hidden through off-budget expenditures, but open military spending also rose considerably.
Military demands moved innovation away from potentially useful technology to ultimately
useless enterprises like fallout shelters, which those of us who were around in
the late 1950s and early 1960s remember as fairly pervasive for a while. Federal
R&D spending, mostly on military technologies with little or no civilian utility
and which sucked money away from civilian R&D went from $1.1 billion
in 1950 to 12 times that in 1963.
In his Fortune article, Powell notes that "Stock analysts, economists and
other pundits do contortions every day trying to explain why, in a reasonably
healthy economy, the stock market is so bad and so many corporate executives remain
in a blue funk. They seem to focus on everything other than the 800-pound gorilla
sitting in the room." Investors and CEOs hate uncertainty. The 9/11 attack created
uncertainty, and that uncertainty is compounded with each new warning from our
duly constituted authorities that another attack is not a matter of if but when.
of another military conflict on the scale of Desert Storm perhaps bigger,
with more casualties and lasting longer certainly contributes to political
and economic uncertainty. A war with Saddam has the potential to shatter the always-fragile
semblance of stability in the Middle East and possibly to disrupt world oil supplies.
It could lead to a regime change in Saudi Arabia. It could prompt him to unleash
whatever weapons of mass destruction he does have in a desperate cornered-rat
Japan and Saudi Arabia won't be writing checks for the next war, so the brunt
of the cost will be borne by U.S. taxpayers, in a time when federal deficits are
once again a fact of life. Powell points out that during the build-up to Desert
Storm, when uncertainty was rife, the consumer confidence index fell by about
30 percent (though it rose again after the U.S. victory). If oil supplies or prices
increase, there will be an economic impact: Mark Zandi, at economy.com, estimates
that a $10/barrel increase in the price of oil shaves 1 percent off U.S. GDP.
all, the questions about the wisdom of an attack on Iraq are beginning to gain
reasonably serious consideration in relatively mainstream venues. Whether they
will increase enough to stave off a war you would think that some conservatives
would take military reservations seriously instead of viewing the Joint Chiefs
as pansies and resurrecting quotes about war being too important to be left to
generals is another story. I'm inclined to doubt it, but I refuse to give
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