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Wars and 'peace': The road to Iraq

Print edition : Jul 18, 2003 T+T-

THE world we live in has been more idea than fact, more subjective than objective, considering that our view of it, and of the forces of good and evil in it, has depended on what part of the globe we have called home. For centuries what has been perceived as civilisation and what as outer darkness have been heavily charged with a personal point of view. But a verifiable fact about today's world is that it still bears the stamp and psychology of Europe's maritime age. Those 300-odd years of European exploration, conquest, colonisation and empire positioned Europe as the world's centre and the rest of creation as peripheral, existing for the purpose of serving and servicing the centre.

The imperial era divided the globe into those who had a right to rule it, and the lesser breeds they ruled. Europeans assumed theirs was the master race with a superior civilisation and non-Europe was inhabited by inferior stock. Official documents used words like "heathen" and "subject races" to describe the larger part of humanity. Wars to extend the frontiers of empire or to control the land and sea routes to it were righteous wars and that emotive combination of hymn and battle cry - Land of Hope and Glory - triumphantly affirmed the white man's divinely ordained right to wage them:

Wider yet and wider Let thy bounds be set God who made thee mighty Make thee mightier yet.

The two Gulf Wars have shown us there has been no change in the rules and privileges that apply to war-making. Righteous war remains the white man's monopoly and he is entitled to resort to it when he sees fit. "Peace", in imperial times, was the name given to the new situations brought about by conquest. Its terms and conditions, dictated by the victor, became the law. This, too, is the mixture as before. In the imperial heyday when Europeans fell out among themselves for land-grab in Asia and Africa, they made agreements marking out their respective spheres of ownership or influence. Thus Britain and France sliced up West Asia between them and Africa was parcelled out among the British, French, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Any number of Pacific Islands found themselves under foreign flags. This version of an old-boy network guaranteed the "peace" Europeans needed to exploit the wealth of their colonies and send it westward unimpeded. When the falling out turned into a major war, 1914-18, the losers lost their colonies while the victorious Allies made their wartime occupations official under "mandates" blessed by the League of Nations, described by the League as "sacred trusts". Iraq and Palestine came under British protection and Syria under the French.

A textbook of European history prescribed for my college course in the 1940s defined the noble purpose of the mandates: "Great Britain and France undertook to guide the Arabs toward political independence and membership in organised international society." In Glimpses of World History Jawaharlal Nehru described this arrangement as comparable to appointing "a tiger to look after the rights of a number of cows or deer". Rights, political or human, did not in any case enter the picture. The British government saw no need to consult Palestinians when it announced it would establish a Jewish National Home on Palestinian soil. Those who objected, passionately and violently, to their tiny tract of land being flooded with Jewish immigration - especially after the Nazis came to power in Germany - were herded into barbed wire cages holding fifty to four hundred prisoners each.

The Palestinians - who included Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims and Christians - must have wondered why the British government could not establish a Jewish National Home for their persecuted fellow Europeans on British or other European soil, or in the spacious vastness of Australia or Canada. If the world's Muslims and Christians could live geographically distant from the soil and shrines of their scriptures and visit them on pilgrimages, why not the Jews? But the Zionists demanded Biblical terrain, Britain was provided with the European ally it needed to safeguard the Suez Canal route to India, and West Asia remains hung with the calamitous consequences of imperial priorities.

Iraqi rights fared no better under the mandate. Iraq demanded independence and unity with other Arab states. The British High Commissioner dealt with this by dismissing political parties, shutting down nationalist newspapers and exiling leaders. Agitation in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq was crushed by aerial bombardment. Lt. Col. Sir Arnold Wilson gave an account of it in a lecture to the Royal Asian Society in London on June 8, 1932, obviously appalled by the pertinacity with which (notwithstanding declarations at Geneva) the Royal Air Force (RAF) has been bombing the Kurdish population, and in particular, the last six months. Devastated villages, slaughtered cattle, maimed women and children bear witness to the spread, in the words of the special correspondent to The Times, of `a uniform pattern of civilisation'.

A new time-delayed bomb that did not explode on falling was tested here, so that villagers who had run away when they heard an airplane approaching could be killed when they thought it safe to return to their huts. This was also the time when aerial bombardment was being used to crush the non-violent resistance led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in India's Northwest Frontier Province. All this was not a contempt for human and political rights by a government which deeply respected them at home. It was a belief that rights did not, after all, apply to races that were not, by Western definition, quite human. In our own time the lesser breeds continue to be routinely used as guinea pigs for the latest advances in killer technology, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as in Vietnam and in the two Gulf Wars. In this context, barbed wire cages, the aerial bombardment of defenceless populations, the destruction of civil liberties, and the execution, imprisonment and exile of national leaders during their struggles for independence were perfectly compatible with the spread of "a uniform pattern of civilisation".

The mission forged ahead, undeterred by years of fierce resistance to foreign occupation in India, Iraq and Iran, Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations in 1932, which marked the end of the British mandate, but the British government stayed in military control, keeping troops and air bases in the country. The imperial enterprise came to its end, exhausted by the Second World War. Very probably the realisation that colonial armies, trained in modern warfare, that had fought on every battlefield of the war, would no longer serve under foreign masters may have had much to do with packing up empire. With its end a more equal world might have come into being. Partly it did, with sovereign nations in Asia and Africa taking charge of their own affairs. But the former imperial powers seemed to take it for granted that political changes at the top would make no difference to the old economic and strategic order. It came as a shock to Britain when Egypt wanted British troops out of the Suez Canal zone. President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956, and British and French forces attacked, Israel having attacked the Sinai Peninsula three days earlier. India's High Commissioner to Britain, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, records in her 1979 memoir:

"We now know that Britain was determined to force the issue from the time the nationalisation of the Canal was announced and also that secret meetings were held by Britain, France and Israel... to stop Nasser's `expansionist ideas' and bring about his downfall."

Famous examples of successful regime change by the West long before the wars on Saddam Hussein were those brought about by the CIA's assassinations of Patrice Lumumba (right) in the Congo and Salvador Allende in Chile, both popular icons and democratically elected leaders.

She also records that the British government consulted some Commonwealth countries before the Suez Canal crisis but Asian countries in the Commonwealth were not included. Nasser survived this disastrous attempt at regime change. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran did not when Iran's Parliament voted to nationalise its oil industry to rid it of British control. An Anglo-American coup overthrew the elected government in 1953, jailed Mossadeq, and brought back the compliant Shah who had fled his country two years earlier.

Other famous examples of successful regime change by the West long before the wars on Saddam Hussein were those brought about by the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) assassinations of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Salvador Allende in Chile, both popular icons and democratically elected leaders. But all this well-plotted murder and mayhem had to proceed undercover, given that there was a United Nations Organisation founded on the principle of sovereignty and equality of its member-states. There were also two superpowers acting as a brake on each other. India, too, nationalised its oil industry after independence and turned down unacceptable terms set forth by British and American oil companies when their cooperation was sought for oil exploration. Our first oil rig then came from Romania. Why was Nehru not assassinated? A professed socialist, he not only nationalised India's key resources but founded, with like-minded leaders, a non-aligned movement that refused subservience to either superpower bloc. His international stature and influence may well have prevented such an undertaking. Though American foreign policy was remarkably ignorant and intolerant of the post-colonial mood in Asia, there were Americans of intellect and integrity who assessed it correctly. One such was Ambassador Chester Bowles who urged a realistic policy towards Asia in words that are as relevant today as when he spoke them in May 1951:

"The Asian point of view must be recognised. Mr. Nehru says what Asia thinks. We owe a debt to Mr. Nehru for making Asia's attitude clear, even when we disagree with him. The military power we can apply to Asia is sharply limited. The Korean war should have taught us by now that a stubbornly determined Asia cannot be defeated by push button methods. The future of Asia will be determined not by Americans, but by Asians. The most dynamic force in the Asian Revolution is the overwhelming desire for human dignity, insisting that coloured peoples of the world be accepted as equals of whites of the West... Indians should be supported in their brave struggle to make the Five-Year-Plan a success... . The U.N. must not be turned into a white Western country club... ."

What no one then foresaw was the extent to which the U.N. would become an American preserve, one that would be incapable of using its authority to prevent an assault on a member-nation, and would legitimise this criminal act by accepting the occupation of Iraq. No one could then have foreseen either that America would take over the discredited imperial project of spreading "a uniform pattern of civilisation" according to its lights. The long war against Vietnam must have taught the planners of future American wars that even an army of ill-equipped, underfed Asians marching on no wages but a handful of rice could not be defeated by conventional warfare including deadly chemicals. Push-button warfare reached an apocalyptic new dimension when a thousand American cruise missiles pounded Baghdad in one night. Two such wars in quick succession - to demolish brutal regimes America itself had created or fostered, and plentifully armed - opened access to oil and gas in Central Asia and to the seizure of Iraq's immense oil wealth.

Even as the invasion of Iraq began, an article in The New York Sun from the American Enterprise Institute specified, "After Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh." The sovereignty of nations had been no obstacle in the past to targeting lawfully elected governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America for regime change. "No legal issue arises," Secretary of State Dean Acheson had said in the early 1950s, "when the United States responds to challenges to its position, prestige or authority." Saddam Hussein, a secular Arab nationalist who wanted no foreign interference in his region and who had outlived his usefulness to America as a bulwark against Iran's radical brand of Islam, was a natural target. His decision to trade Iraqi oil for euros instead of dollars - a step other major oil producers may have followed - made his removal a certainty. Until then neither his brutality nor his weaponry had harrowed America's official conscience. Sanctions after the first Gulf War had imposed a decade of human suffering on Iraq and crippled the industrial infrastructure of a prosperous country. The second Gulf War, launched by lawless imperial action, completed the devastation.

The new imperialism has been spelled out with engaging candour by Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser as the right of Western nations to impose order and stability, by war if necessary, outside the continent of Europe. (In fact, NATO gave the doctrine a trial run inside Europe when it dismembered Yugoslavia.) "We need to revert to rougher methods of an earlier era," says Robert Cooper, "force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19th century world."

There was a certain grace about the old imperialist, for the old imperialist was on the spot. He had long-term responsibilities to fulfil. He was accountable to his Parliament. He was a human being whose face we saw and whom we interacted with at a hundred human levels with all the give and take this involved, albeit as unequals. Mutual antagonism and mutual fascination entered the process. Love and hate, bitter enmity and warm admiration got woven into the stuff of what became an enduring relationship. The new imperialism is a crude absentee affair that involves no human process, only profits. It is a gathering of scavengers for the feast of spoils as soon as war is over and the occupier is in control. In sight of this awesome spectacle a fearful international silence reigns.

The `war against terror' has come full circle with those who profess to fight it now launched as full-fledged terrorist states themselves. That the West is the master and rightful owner of the world's wealth is an idea which, being non-negotiable, is a form of fundamentalism as fanatic as any other. No wonder it has produced a fundamentalist backlash, sometimes in the religious garb. Societies will strike back at what they see as re-colonisation. Yet this distorted world view is being corrected, by Europeans and Americans themselves who marched in their millions, rejecting the war against Iraq.