Arrogant posturing

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Expectations about an interrogation of the basic premises of U.S. foreign policy are quashed as calls for revenge and retribution dominate the official discourse.

IN the annals of aerial warfare, which have been enormously and rather perversely enriched by U.S. actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Yugoslavia, "population will" often features as an intangible but legitimate target for military strikes. The doctrine was tested through saturation bombing in Vietnam, which was largely a rural society at the time of the war and afforded little scope for targeted bombing that would wreck daily patterns of life and sap national morale. A more selective approach was possible in Iraq and Yugoslavia, both urbanised societies dependent upon essential infrastructure and industrial activities for the sustenance of daily life. Civilian life was of course directly threatened by the war on infrastructure and industry, but its main purpose was to undermine the will of the population, which would then presumably pressure their governments to sue for peace on terms that the U.S. could dictate.

In the final analysis, of course, the purpose of "mechanical and explosive power applied from the air" - in the morbid euphemism of U.S. strategic thinkers - would be to foment a situation of mass unrest, leading to the ouster of inconvenient regimes.

Although entirely unprecedented, the September 11 attacks on the U.S. mainland were not entirely unforeseen. Intelligence reports over the last decade have warned of the possibility of such strikes without going into the specifics, particularly since the Gulf War reduced Iraq to smouldering ruins and the U.S. initiated its plan to build a "new world order" structured around the triad of Israeli hegemony in West Asia, Arab oil wealth and American military force. The broad purposes of such a terrorist attack on U.S. territory had been described with great percipience by a military analyst in a paper entitled "Asymmetric Warfare and the Threat to the American Homeland", published in a U.S. Army journal in 1999: "By killing and wounding people, damaging and destroying their homes and communities, disrupting their jobs and economic livelihoods and undermining their confidence and sense of security, an enemy can inflict pain to the point that the people demand a change in the government's policies... Used at the right time and place... an attack could destroy the people's faith in their government, in their military, and in themselves. It could be a decisive attack against the political will of an entire populace."

IT was this rather acute perception of the U.S. establishment, undoubtedly derived in part from its own military practice in wars of aggression around the world, which dictated the initial policy reactions. Calls for revenge and retribution were freely aired, but the introspective tone was conspicuously absent. There was a definitive attempt, in other words, to quash the notion that may have arisen in critical minds that an interrogation of the basic premises of U.S. foreign policy would actually be considered as a consequence of the September 11 attack.

The Nation, one of the oldest and most respected forums for left-wing and liberal opinion in the U.S., sounded the first notes of introspection. In an editorial posted on its website the day after the attack, it posed the problem in a particularly acute manner: "This is a pivotal moment when we should reconsider our posture toward the world and examine the true burdens and obligations of acting like an empire awesomely more powerful than any others and answerable to no one."

Writing for The New Yorker, the social philosopher and novelist Susan Sontag reserved her most acerbic words for the dominant tone of public discourse: "A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has happened and what may continue to happen. 'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that is not all America has to be."

This tone was, however, a minimal strain in the public discussion that followed the attack of September 11. What prevailed was the attitude of absolute self-righteousness, as exemplified for instance by the pontiff of American conservatism, George F. Will in an instant reaction for The Washington Post: "Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry, and their proper anger now should be alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues - principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations which, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world." This variety of comment was further embellished by the outbursts of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Israeli soldiers-turned-politicians who are hardly the best advertisement for an enlightened way of life, about an attack against civilisation that pitted the forces of good against evil.

At a moment of revelation - when the vulnerability of the U.S. to the intense hostility that its military posture provokes in various parts of the world was most evident - the U.S. committed itself even more firmly to the path of militarism. In the broad sweep of the contemplated military response, few countries seemed to escape the hostile gaze of the U.S. If democracy and the market have been the fundamental didactic principles of the U.S. mission in the world, the reaction to the September 11 carnage brought to the foreground a third element that generally escapes mention in formal expositions - military coercion. Will had put the point rather well as the first bombs began falling on Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991. More than a punitive mission, the bombs, he said, embodied an educational mission, which invited the Arab people to participate in the potential rewards of a civilisation that was capable of such awesome technological prowess.

Other columnists, normally less brazen, shed their reticence about mentioning the unmentionable as the decade of unquestioned U.S. global hegemony wore on. In 1999, Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist in The New York Times, articulated the case for U.S. militarism with less moral bombast and considerably more candour: "The hidden hand of the market cannot flourish without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas... And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

This candour perhaps had been born in Friedman's zealous advocacy all through the preceding years of a relentless policy of military punishment directed against Iraq. Wrecked by the 1991 Gulf War and bled white ever since by the economic sanctions that the U.S. in particular has been insistent on maintaining, Iraq remained all through the decade, the primary focus of American military actions. In January 1998, Friedman urged that the U.S. should bomb Iraq "over and over and over again". A month later, as a crisis over weapons inspection in Iraq began brewing, he explained that the U.S. should make it clear to the whole world that it would "use force, without negotiation, hesitation or U.N. approval". The air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 finally seemed to let loose his bloodlust. The U.S., he said, should take steps to have Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared a "war criminal". It should then proceed with a sequence of military steps that Friedman was kind enough to choreograph: "Blow up a different power station in Iraq every week, so no one knows when the lights will go off or who's in charge. Offer a reward for removing Saddam from office. Use every provocation by Saddam to blow up another Iraqi general's home."

Needless to say, these steps which have been at least partially implemented are recognised as war crimes under every international covenant. A power station blown up means not merely the "lights going off", but water treatment plants going out of commission, essential medicines losing their efficacy for want of refrigeration, hospitals and health care centres suspending their work, and food spoiling in storage in the killing desert heat of Iraq. The 1979 protocol to the Geneva Convention is absolutely unambiguous on this point: "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adversary Party..."

How then have Friedman and others of his kind managed to get away with comments of this nature in the most renowned and widely circulated of American newspapers? The answer clearly is that the U.S. does not recognise the minimal norms of social responsibility and international accountability in the pattern of its conduct towards the Arab world. It is now clear, from recently declassified intelligence documents, that the U.S. not merely knew of the appalling state to which it had reduced social infrastructure in Iraq, but closely monitored its progressive deterioration since the Gulf War.

This elaborate exercise is evident even through the heavy censorship that precedes the declassification of intelligence documents. The first available document is dated January 22, 1991, just a week after the war against Iraq began. It is entitled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities", and almost spells out a military rationale for targeting the country's water supply: "Iraq depends on importing specialised equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply... With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." Imports of chlorine, the document notes, had been placed under embargo and "recent reports indicate that the chlorine supply is critically low." A "loss of water treatment capability" was already in evidence, and though there was no danger of a "precipitous halt", it would probably take six months or more for the system to be "fully degraded".

A month later, the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) spelt out a chilling prognosis: "Conditions are favourable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban areas affected by coalition bombing... Current public health problems are attributable to the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems."

Further analyses of the health and water treatment difficulties in Iraq were done by the DIA in June and November 1991. The first document was heavily censored prior to declassification and yields nothing. The second seems concerned more with formulating strategies to minimise the adverse political fallout of the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Iraq than with mitigating it. (The website of The Progressive,, provides an excellent analysis of these documents and links that will help access them.) The strategy was simple: to blame the entire crisis on the Iraqi regime, while using the provocative actions of the weapons inspection commission for Iraq - a body nominally under U.N. control though in truth manipulated by U.S. and Israeli intelligence - to create recurrent causes for military strikes.

In December 1998, the weapons inspectors played their last card and forfeited forever all claims to Iraqi cooperation. The U.S. and the U.K. mounted a furious four-day aerial assault on Iraq. Ever since, with little more than cursory mentions in the world media, the two countries have kept up a sustained bombing campaign against civilian and military targets alike. Since George W. Bush assumed office as President, strategic hawks within the establishment have been pushing hard to set under way the final climactic act of the drama - a concerted military drive that would overthrow the Iraqi regime and perhaps carve up the country into three parts, each of which could be placed under the custodianship of friendly states in the region. Wiser and more cautious counsel has argued that the U.S. faces a crisis of legitimacy in the region, with the Oslo pretence for a settlement of the question of Palestine now in shambles and violence spiralling upwards in the territories under Israeli occupation.

The American commentators who have been free with their advice on Iraq also have definitive opinions on the Israeli occupation of Arab territories. In mid-August, The Washington Post carried editorial page comments by three regular columnists - George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly - which gave out a chilling advisory to Israel: "strike and expel" and "destroy and kill, capture and expel". Will, particularly, was absolutely specific. Israel, he said, should not just "kill or capture those terrorists", it should also "destroy the Palestinian Authority's military infrastructure" and "other physical infrastructure".

The mandate for military action against Iraq lapsed with the eviction of its forces from Kuwait in 1991. Israel continues to be in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding its withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war. The Palestinian side has complied with all the obligations that were imposed upon it, asymmetric though they were. It has recognised the right of Israel to exist, accepted the principle of "land for peace", and signed the grossly iniquitous Oslo accord for a final settlement with the Zionist country.

The principles of a final settlement, agreed in Oslo, were never free from a large burden of ambiguity. When the next round of negotiations were concluded in Cairo in 1994, the principles began to acquire the overt meanings that their U.S. and Israeli authors have cleverly concealed till then. The Cairo Agreement effectively legitimised a system of dual rights. It enshrined the Israeli right to fortify and defend its settlements in the Arab cities of Gaza and Jericho, to reserve roads and highways for its exclusive use and to restrict the Palestinian population to defined areas. Since then, the Hebron deal of 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum of 1998 have represented landmarks in the unravelling of the Oslo pretence. The ongoing uprising in the occupied territories, and the impunity with which Israel has been using U.S.-made arms against protestors, are ample proof that such a grossly unequal bargain will never again stick.

Oslo was the reward that the U.S. handed out to the Arab allies who had rallied to its cause in the Gulf War. As it sets about assembling a new coalition of nations to fight its new war against terrorism, it is likely to be called to account for this rather dishonourable chapter. Friendly regimes in the region have been undermined by a rising tide of resentment against their acquiescence in the assaults on Iraq and the suppression of Palestine. Since Israeli well-being is the fixed and immutable basis of American policy in the region, there seem few options for the U.S. but to bring the full force of military coercion to bear on recalcitrant states. This would be the inevitable consequence of the U.S.' own entrapment in a militarist logic of foreign policy.

For a few days after the appalling carnage in New York and Washington, it seemed that the U.S. had actually established an emotional bond with the rest of the world. Initial bellicosity over the nation being at "war" was overlooked as the shell-shocked reaction of a nation that had never seen violence perpetrated by external forces on its mainland for close to two centuries. American commentators who had not been swept away by the fury of the moment and the urge for retribution, read this spontaneous global upwelling of sympathy as an implicit reproach to the unilateralist and increasingly expedient course of foreign policy that the Bush administration had been following over the last few months. But the tide of sympathy is ebbing as the tone of hectoring morality again becomes the dominant element of U.S. foreign policy. It is yet unclear which nations would sign on to participate in the new U.S. campaign against global terrorism. But it is absolutely clear that there would be very few willing participants.

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