The new world disorder

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

President Saddam Hussein makes a speech on Iraq's Army Day in Baghdad on January 6. - AP

President Saddam Hussein makes a speech on Iraq's Army Day in Baghdad on January 6. - AP

The U.S.' war efforts against Iraq represent a stark paradigm shift in the international system and a crisis for international law.

The possible war against Iraq has long, but discernible roots in the political soil of West Asia. In the unbroken tradition of American strategic calculation, stretching from the Eisenhower administration to the present, American planners have consistently emphasised the importance of West Asia and its key resource as a kind of "strategic lever" of that violent cradle once called the `family of nations'.

As early as 1950, the United States State Department recognised that "[c]ontrol of this source of energy, important in peace and war, is a desirable goal in itself." Its experts prophesied that given the fact that "Arab states are all oriented towards the West in varying degrees, opposed to communism, and generally successful at present in minimising or suppressing Communist activities" domestically, the main threat to Western interests in the region would come from "ultra-nationalist elements".

The rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1956 and the wave of Arab nationalism that this unleashed, culminating in the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy in Iraq by Ba'athists in 1958, confirmed the fulfilment of this prophecy in the view of American officials. By the 1970s, Saddam Hussein was widely viewed throughout the Arab world, and also publicly described himself, as the heir to the Arab nationalist mantle of Nasser. Unlike Syria's Hafez al-Assad, whose pan-Arab inclinations were tempered over time by the realities of power, Hussein's regime remained ideologically committed to the demands of Arab nationalism, actively seeking to live up to a self-declared role as protector of Arab interests in the region.

This was best illustrated by Iraq's voluntary assumption of the role of a front-line state against the Iranian variant of radical Islam on behalf of the "Arab nation" in a bloody eight-year war of attrition. Saddam formally adopted the title of "Salah-din", after the Arab ruler who drove European invaders out of the region during the medieval Crusades, thereby laying claim to the leadership of the `Arab nation' and tacitly suggesting the goal of liberation from subservience to foreign interests in the region, including what is referred to in Iraqi agitprop as the "Zionist entity".

In retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that Saddam's regional pretensions and military adventurism would eventually require a direct confrontation with America's role as a kind of successor-in-interest to European imperialists.

At the same time, however, the war effort against Iraq represents a stark paradigm shift in the international system and a crisis for international law. The new national security strategy announced by the Bush administration with its boldly unilateralist and pre-emptive tropes is a radical departure from earlier U.S. practice and policy. In fact, the almost cavalier statement in Washington's National Security Strategy, released in September, that the U.S. "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defence by acting pre-emptively" represents nothing less than a decisive repudiation of the most elementary legal and political norms of the international order.

With its latest pronouncements, the U.S. appears determined to embark upon a dangerous new global brinkmanship that undermines not only the tenuous rule of international law, but also the stability of the international order itself. In its place, the Bush administration has sought to substitute the peregrinations of naked power politics. Washington will now decide, unilaterally and based upon its own virtually limitless discretion, which states in the international system shall be designated as rogue states, whose military capabilities, real or imagined, pose a threat sufficient to warrant the unilateral or multilateral imposition of "regime-change" by the so-called international community. The role of the U.N. and its Security Council is merely to rubber-stamp the U.S. fiat or else be consigned to "irrelevance".

The fact is that nothing in international law generally, or in the law of armed conflict in particular, even remotely approaches, let alone justifies, the doctrines of "regime-change" and "pre-emptive war" that are being advocated by the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The foundational principle of contemporary international law, enshrined in Article 2(1) of the U.N. Charter, is the sovereign equality of all states in the international system. The precept announced in Article 2(4) of the Charter that all nations must "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" is an essential corollary to that principle. The doctrine of pre-emption advocated by the U.S. is unambiguously repugnant to these essential principles and, as such, represents a permanent threat to any state within the international order that crosses the will of the paramount hegemon.

In retrospect, much of the policy debate around the international legality of so-called humanitarian interventions and the "just war" concept that characterised previous U.S. military initiatives in the Balkans and Kosovo now appears to have been a prelude to the new paradigm of U.S. primacy.

As Perry Anderson observed recently in New Left Review, the "Balkan War provided a vital first precedent for overriding the legal doctrine of national sovereignty without any need to invoke self-defence - one retrospectively sanctioned by the U.N." The rhetoric of human rights and humanitarian intervention "was the jimmy in the door of national sovereignty".

Meanwhile, the intellectual echo-chamber of the American media has already abandoned yesterday's fashionable truisms about the `end of history' and the much-heralded genuflection of the nation-state before the holy trinity of free markets, free trade and free elections. Instead, editorial pages across the U.S. resonate with the romantic and grandiloquent prose of "Empire", an exceptional empire that does not seek "territory", to be sure, but an empire nonetheless that manifest destiny has vouchsafed for that `city on a hill' which, by example and by the justice of its arms, will guide the benighted peoples of the world to a neo-liberal utopia of progress for all. Once a branding accusation hurled at the U.S. policy-makers by leftist dissidents and was anathema to any `responsible' scholar of international affairs, the public discourse of Empire has acquired a new-found legitimacy and audience at a time when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appear to have donned the virtuous garb of French philosophers proclaiming "la mission civilatrise" and urging the American people to take up the white man's burden in the war between "civilisation" and "barbarism".

Taken together with Washington's unseemly haste to deploy a still-flawed prototype of its missile defense system, its insistence on withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the sweeping revision of U.S. nuclear posture to authorise use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear, hostile states as well as the Bush administration's efforts to seek an exemption for American citizens from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the hyperbole certainly signals something more than a mere change in atmospherics.

THERE are good reasons to conclude that these developments represent a drastic turning point in international relations whose implications reach far beyond the more immediate problem posed by a recalcitrant Iraq with its vast oil reserves. The first is the virtual collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. By the mid-1990s, the failure of the non-proliferation regime had already become inevitable. The traditional nuclear oligopoly had resolutely resisted the universal disarmament plans proposed by India that would have set a time-table for the abolition of nuclear weapons, preferring instead to opt for the permanent nuclear apartheid embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the nuclear powers to retain their weapons indefinitely while mandating international sanctions against any states that attempt to follow suit.

With nuclear technology now having passed from China to Pakistan and from Pakistan to North Korea, the nuclear oligopoly, including the U.S, must cope with the thoroughly predictable crisis of their own making precipitated by the still-birth of the non-proliferation regime. Since no meaningful distinction can be drawn between the declared nuclear powers and official enemies such as North Korea, the U.S. needs a free hand to be able to attack pre-emptively and constrain some "rogue" states while tolerating the weapons of mass destruction of others.

In a previous era, Henry Kissinger was fond of using the term "revisionist states" to describe this broad category of disfavoured regimes. The term is instructive - states that seek to revise, so to speak, the distribution of power either regionally or globally in the international system must now face retribution at the hands of the U. S. which, like some post-modern version of Hobbes' Leviathan, will be the ultimate arbiter and guarantor of the distribution of the means of violence, and their use, in the international state system.

It is notable, for example, that each of the states identified in Bush's "axis of evil" belong to precisely this category of disfavoured regimes that have sought to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, built with French assistance, ostensibly for its efforts in developing nuclear weapons. As a recent paper presented by The Nixon Centre, a conservative foreign policy think tank, has noted: "It is widely accepted in most circles in the United States government and the analytic community that the Islamic Republic of Iran is supporting a number of programmes, some overt, some covert, that will provide it with the option of developing and deploying a nuclear weapons capability in the not too distant future."

North Korea's nuclear program has been revived largely in response to the Bush administration's own aggressive moves and policy intentions. At least one Congressman in the U.S. has asserted a direct link between Washington's decision to scrap the ABM Treaty and North Korea's decision to restart its nuclear programme. "There is no question," the Ohio Democrat said in a statement, "that North Korea's recent actions are a direct consequence of the Administration's decision to pull out from an agreement to control nuclear weapons."

The strategic imperatives underlying Washington's unrelenting, almost obsessive, pursuit of unilateralism explain to a considerable extent the bellicosity of its newly revised nuclear posture, the premature deployment of a flawed missile defence system and even its unstated policy of undermining the ICC. The missile defence system now being proposed by the U.S. is viewed, correctly, as an offensive weapons system which would considerably enhance the ability of American planners to undertake military campaigns abroad, perhaps utilising tactical or other so-called "battlefield nukes", against hostile states without fear of retaliation on domestic soil by long-range ballistic missiles.

The defence system itself requires withdrawal from the ABM Treaty based as it is upon the deployment of additional ballistic missile systems. It is also the inspiration behind Washington's urgency in pursuing an exemption for all American citizens and personnel from the ICC. This is not immediately obvious until one considers the question in the light of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. While the ICJ refrained from adopting a blanket rule that the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict would be illegal per se, leaving the question unresolved on procedural grounds, it did emphasise in no uncertain terms that the threat or use of nuclear weapons "would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law."

One of the concurring Judges noted: "It is plausible that by inference, implication or analogy, the Court (and this is what some states in their written and oral statements had exhorted it to do) could have deduced from the aforesaid a general rule comprehensively proscribing the threat or use of nuclear weapons, without leaving room for any `grey area', even an exceptional one." Despite the ICJ 's reluctance to rule on the issue, it appears certain that international law, if ever confronted with a concrete instance of their use, would potentially recognise something like a general principle prohibiting the threat or use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict. The potential for such a ruling would gravely undermine Washington's ability to use its nuclear arsenal against hostile states in precisely the manner in which the newly revised U.S. nuclear posture proposes.

THE second reason for the paradigm shift is the end of the Cold War and the rise of potential rivals to American primacy such as the European Union, China and Japan. The consensual aspects of American hegemony relied considerably upon the threat posed to other states in the international system by the purportedly expansionist objectives of the Soviet Union. With the removal of this threat, the level of consent and deference accorded to U.S. primacy by other states in the international system has eroded somewhat. This fact, combined with the formation of the European Union, a common market that rivals that of the U.S. in size with all of the resulting economies of scale and competitive advantages this confers, poses a potential risk in the long-term to America's unrivalled dominance of the international system.

China's emerging prowess, at least in the military sense, is another cause for concern as is the growing influence of Japan in Southeast Asia. Since China and several of the European nations are permanent members of the Security Council with veto authority, the U.S. needs the ability to act unilaterally and pre-emptively to preserve its strategic interests in the world order. To respond to these imperatives, the U.S. must not only remove the regional threat posed by Iraq and obtain control of its vast oil reserves, but needs to install a pliant Iraqi regime that can serve as a platform from which to accomplish a complete reordering of the political landscape of the West Asia.

This sweeping reordering of West Asia to serve U.S. objectives will then function as the ultimate trump card in all future challenges to American hegemony from any quarter, giving U.S. planners a proverbial stranglehold on the lifeline of any modern economy. Iraq's oil reserves would enable the U.S. to undermine the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), eliminating American dependence on Saudi Arabia as a swing producer, and thereby ensure that the weapon of oil supply can be utilised to checkmate the aspirations of any great power that challenges U.S. primacy. The winter of discontent in Europe about U.S. plans for war and the cloying pieties about multilateralism among Europe's liberal intellectuals should be considered in this context.

An October 30 report in Oil and Gas International noted that the Bush administration "wants to have a working group of 12 to 20 people focussed on oil and gas to be able to recommend to an interim government ways of restoring the petroleum sector following a military attack in order to increase oil exports to pay for a possible U.S. military occupation government... According to the source, the working group will not only prepare recommendations for the rehabilitation of the petroleum sector post-Hussein, but will address questions regarding the country's continued membership in OPEC and whether it should be allowed to produce as much as possible or be limited by the OPEC quota, and it will consider whether to honour contracts made between the government and foreign oil companies, including the $3.5 billion project to be carried out by Russian interests to redevelop Iraq's oilfields." It is estimated that at least 69 per cent of the $1.1. trillion in oil-concessions and contracts approved by Iraq were awarded to Russia or France before the Bush administration began shaking the fist of war at Iraq.

"Regime-change" in Iraq alone, however, would not be sufficient to ensure complete security for U.S. interests in the region given the presence of other hostile states as well as those where American influence is waning under pressure from popular opinion outraged by Israeli repression in the occupied territories. The destruction of the Iraqi regime is critical, therefore, not only as a means to redraw the geopolitical map of the West Asia region, but in terms of halting the tide of "anti-American" opinion sweeping the region by imposing a settlement upon the Palestinians.

As The Boston Globe has reported, the "most hawkish members" of the Bush administration have publicly aired "a sweeping vision for the Middle East that sees the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as merely a first step in the region's transformations... After an ouster of Hussein, they say, the United States will have more leverage to act against Syria and Iran, will be in a better position to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and will have to rely less on Saudi oil." In an editorial on March 29, The Wall Street Journal, not to be left behind in such matters, wrote about how this turn of events would enable the U.S. to impose whatever final settlement the U.S. and Israeli negotiators approve for the Palestinians. It said: "The path to a calmer Middle East now lies not through Jerusalem but through Baghdad." A week later, it said: "Only a seismic political change in the Middle East will show the Palestinians that they must come to terms with Israel's right to exist. A democratic pro-Western Iraq will do more for peace in Palestine than 100 trips by Colin Powell."

In the view of American planners, imposing "stability" in Iraq would enable the U.S. to undertake a greatly enhanced, and far more aggressive, role in combating the so-called "anti-American" forces throughout the region. The Rand Corporation's Pentagon briefing laid out a far-reaching U.S. strategy in which Iraq was the "tactical pivot", Saudi Arabia the "strategic pivot", and Egypt "the prize." The same briefing recommended that the U.S. "demand that Saudi Arabia stop all anti-U.S., anti-Israel, and anti-Western rhetoric in the region; dismantle and ban the kingdom's `Islamic charities' and confiscate their assets; and prosecute those involved in terrorism."

Phyllis Bennis, a West Asia specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies, has similarly underscored the fact that the invasion of Iraq is a stepping stone for U.S. planners who are looking to preserve American primacy into the indefinite future. "It's empire and oil, expanding U.S. power around the world, redrawing the Middle East map, controlling oil, undermining OPEC, finding competitors to Saudi Arabia and strengthening the U.S. role as guarantor of access to oil for its allies, Japan and Europe," she told Reuters.

Another conservative group called Project for the New American Century, from which the Bush administration has drawn several senior officials, has already declared that U.S. forces should stay in the Persian Gulf even after the overthrow of Saddam and even if the U.S. manages to improve relations with Iran. The U.S. war against Iraq will, therefore, set the stage not only for a redrawing of the geopolitical map of the entire region, but for guaranteeing Pax Americana into perpetuity against the vagaries of history itself.

The first Persian Gulf War proved that, with minimal reliance on ground troops, the U.S. could wage an effective military campaign incurring few, if any, casualties by commanding the skies in much the same way that Britain's command of the seas a century ago conferred a decisive strategic advantage enabling it to conquer and maintain its empire. This revolution in military affairs has significantly emboldened U.S. planners in their strategic hubris.

Yet, the degree to which American planners can actually achieve their long-term strategic objectives still depends on a rather imponderably large number of political, not military, variables. The touching faith of the Bush administration in the ability of American power and coercion, both military and non-military, to bring about predicted outcomes regionally and on the world stage, greatly underestimates the political complexity of the task. For one, the Bush administration's conquest of Iraq will quickly confront it with a prisoner's dilemma requiring a difficult choice between old-fashioned colonial repression on the one hand, and the daunting task, on the other, of fashioning some kind of semi-democratic client state able to accommodate the competing demands of Iraq's tapestry of ethnic hatreds.

Second, the overthrow of Saddam by the U.S. would mean a crucial defeat for the ideology of secular, Arab nationalism that will only strengthen the hand of Islamic fundamentalists in the region. Finally, while the conquest of Iraq may demoralise the Palestinians and weaken their negotiating power at the bargaining table, U.S. occupation of Iraq could, by the same token, lead to a hardening of Israeli rejectionism that would make the prospect of compromise even more remote than it is at present.

H. Rajan Sharma is an international lawyer, author and political activist based in New York. He is currently representing the Bhopal gas tragedy victims in a federal class action lawsuit against the Union Carbide in the U.S.

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