Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

July 9, 2002

Iraqi Warmonger Complications

As 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.

The leaked 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. interests.


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 out.

As 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.


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 personnel.

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 degree.

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 I don't).

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.

The prospect 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 move.

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 in 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 up hope.

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