18 October 2003  
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Will the UN and the EU triumph over the US?
America has defeated Iraq in the field but, says Paul Robinson, she has not won the battle against terrorism or her enemies in Europe and on the East River It is perhaps as well that we no longer have victory parades, but instead confine ourselves to memorial services for the war dead, such as the one at St Paul’s Cathedral last Friday. The idea that the coalition won in Iraq would not gain wide support in this country, and is being treated with increasing scepticism in the United States.

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That is not to say, of course, that the Americans failed militarily. On the contrary. They were triumphant, and remain triumphalist. That is part of the problem. Last month Panorama showed an American major confronting a civilian lying in a Baghdad hospital with a bullet wound in his chest. The officer believed that the Iraqi was responsible for an attack on American forces and wanted him to reveal the names of his supposed co-conspirators. ‘Tell him,’ the major said to the interpreter, ‘that if he co-operates with us, we can save his life. We have good doctors. But if he doesn’t co-operate ...it’s bad for his health.’ I’m happy to say that this was later revealed to be an unpleasant — and unsuccessful — bluff. It did, however, remind me of the reasons why America is in such trouble in Iraq; namely, its insistence on others’ total submission, and its failure to comprehend the wider consequences of such hubristic behaviour.

The United States is going to need a good deal more than nasty amateur theatricals to win the war in Iraq. I don’t doubt that in the next couple of years Paul Bremer or his successors will establish some form of Iraqi national government, and create for it a security force just about capable of, if not maintaining law and order then at least of securing the regime against violent overthrow. This will enable America eventually to withdraw all or most of its troops and to declare ‘victory’. But the Americans set out to do something rather grander than this. I suspect that they will fail to achieve their real aims, and that the result will be something that one can only call ‘defeat’.

One of the great pitfalls for strategists is to lose track of their original goals and be diverted into focusing on winning battles. Military objectives are not the same as war objectives. The Americans did not bomb the Iraqi army into shreds just to reduce its numbers of T-72s. They did it for a higher purpose. One cannot, therefore, measure their success in terms of the numbers of destroyed tanks and so forth, but only in terms of whether they achieved the objectives for which they carried out the destruction.

If eliminating stocks of WMD and driving Saddam from power had been the sole American objectives, the US would be leaving Iraq by now. Because their motives seem to have been as much emotional as rational, they are somewhat unclear, but they appear to have been twofold: first, to strike a major blow against Islamic terrorism; and second, to establish a new international order that would entrench American world supremacy in perpetuity, destroy the shackles constraining America’s behaviour, and deter the formation of any countervailing power bloc.

The first was always a rather silly objective, since Saddam had no connection with Islamic terrorism. However, the logic was that such terrorism had its roots in its discontent with the dictatorial governments of the region. By eliminating Saddam and creating a prosperous democratic Iraq, America hoped to transform the politics of the Middle East, thereby undercutting the ‘root causes’ of anti-Americanism.

The second objective springs from the 2002 US National Security Strategy, which declared America’s desire to ‘dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States’. The invasion of Iraq was designed to send a message of power that would tell would-be competitors to give up the effort. At the same time, the Americans hoped to reshape the international order so that their hegemonic power could be used as and when they wished, unrestrained by such niceties as formal alliances, international law or the United Nations. Richard Perle thus gleefully proclaimed in The Spectator on 22 March this year, ‘What will die in Iraq is the fantasy of the United Nations as the foundation of a new world order.’

At present, both of these American war aims are in jeopardy. There are only two ways to win a war: exterminate or imprison the enemy; or convince him, through some combination of force and negotiation, that he has been defeated. The former is rare. It is unusual for a war to end because there is none of the enemy left. Nearly all wars finish when the loser decides that he has lost. What matters is not destroying the enemy physically, but destroying his intent to resist.

Thus, for America to ‘win’ the War on Terror, the terrorists must believe that the Americans have won. At present, there is not the slightest evidence that they think this. Indeed, the more public opinion turns against the United States, the more the terrorists will be heartened. And public opinion has turned. A panel on public diplomacy in the Arab world appointed by President Bush reported that ‘hostility towards America has reached shocking levels’ and that US policies are ‘at the root of the problem’. In this respect, far from winning, America appears to be losing.

Supporters of Bush’s wars trot out various statistics to prove that they are winning: so many terrorists killed and so many captured. But this assumes that there is a set, limited number of the enemy. Kill or capture them all, and victory will be yours. Such thinking explains Bush’s crass call, ‘Bring ’em on!’ If body count were all that mattered, the British would have wound up the IRA years ago. Before Mr Blair freed them, there were hundreds of Irish terrorists in British prisons. Many more were in their graves. But there were always more to replace them, because we had failed to convince them that they had lost. I see no evidence that we are convincing anyone in the Arab world either.

The idea that America could win the war on terror by transforming Iraq into a beacon of progressive virtues also looks like a lost cause. This is not because it is impossible to establish any sort of democratic government in Iraq, but because it has become abundantly clear that the Americans grossly underestimated the damage that years of war and sanctions had done to the Iraqi economy. Leading members of the Bush administration have actually admitted this. Even if all goes wonderfully well, it will be many years before Iraq could possibly become anything like the thriving example of free-market economics and democracy that the Americans were hoping for.

As for reshaping the world order, that, too, looks likely to fail. Historically, whenever one state has acquired disproportionately superior strength, others have united against it to restore the balance of power. American strategists made it clear that they wished to prevent this from happening to them, and saw the invasion of Iraq as a signal to the rest of the world to accept the realities of contemporary power. In practice, their strategy is having the opposite effect.

I know numerous Cold War hardliners who have always counted themselves as fervent Atlanticists and who are now fuming with anger at the United States, viewing the war on Iraq as not merely stupid but also morally grotesque. At meetings of European security analysts the talk nowadays is more often about how to control American power than about how to combat international terrorism, weapons proliferation and the like. Even passionate supporters of Nato are beginning to suspect that the Common European Defence Policy needs further development to create a counter to American power. France and Germany are already marching ahead in that direction and public opinion is increasingly with them. An American plan to deter the development of counter-blocs is instead inciting them.

Furthermore, the United Nations, far from being humiliated by recent events, could well emerge invigorated. The more America has to backtrack and summon help from the UN, the more it will be the latter which will be seen as the winner in the power struggle between the two. Recent events have enhanced the basic principle of international law — that war is illegal unless sanctioned by the UN. The long debate before the war has impressed this rule on the minds of the general public, and the United States has been forced to recognise that it cannot count on the support of even the Western world unless it obeys the law. Other countries have learnt that they can stand up to America, and we can now expect them to do so again. The Americans have had to go back to the UN this week to get a resolution to bail them out in Iraq. Having declared the UN ‘irrelevant’, they have now discovered that they cannot manage without it.

In sum, the results of the war in Iraq will probably be the very opposite of those for which it was launched. The fires of terrorism will be fuelled, not quenched; Iraq will not be a beacon of Western liberalism transforming the Middle East but a bankrupt maelstrom of discontent; efforts to create a new power bloc to counter America will not fade away but redouble; the legitimacy of the United Nations will not be weakened but strengthened; and the constraints on American power will be tightened, not removed.

The United States has achieved most of its military aims, and will doubtless continue to do so. But at present it is losing the campaign for its strategic objectives. It is in danger of winning the battles but losing the war.

Paul Robinson is assistant director of the Centre for Security Studies at the University of Hull.

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