The Enforcer

Stephen Sackur

  • Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky
    Vintage, 453 pp, £7.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 09 913501 9
  • Illusions of Triumph: An Arab View of the Gulf War by Mohamed Heikal
    HarperCollins, 350 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 00 255014 8
  • The Imperial Temptation by Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson
    Council on Foreign Relations Press, 240 pp, $22.50, June 1992, ISBN 0 87609 118 4

Saddam Hussein might yet win the US Presidential election. Not for himself of course – not even the failings of the American democratic system could give the Iraqi Ba’ath Party transatlantic popular appeal – but for the Democratic challenger, and current frontrunner, Bill Clinton. Had he been hired by the Democratic campaign President Saddam could scarcely have done more to tarnish George Bush’s reputation for foreign policy know-how. Almost every day, it seems, new evidence emerges of Iraq’s continued defiance of Gulf War ceasefire resolutions, whether it is the hampering of humanitarian efforts in the Kurdish north, the hiding of weapons in Baghdad or the killing of benighted Shi’ites in the southern marshes. And as Saddam’s image grows ever more grotesque in the eyes of the world, so does George Bush acquire the shrivelled, haunted demeanour of a beaten man.

The desperate logic of America’s sound-bite democracy means that between now and polling day Bush might try to revive his flagging popularity by resuming military strikes against the man he now refers to as the ‘Merchant of Death’. But if American lives were to be lost as a consequence, the electoral damage would be unconfined. Only the killing (or ‘icing’, to use current CIA parlance) of Saddam himself offers the real prospect of a Bush political resurrection. ‘Victory in the Gulf’ – the basis of the incumbent’s foreign policy sales pitch – has soured not just because Saddam Hussein is still able to practise his thuggery, but also because the full extent of US support for the Ba’ath regime has only come to light in recent months. As a result, Americans, many of whom were wholehearted supporters of Operation Desert Storm, are wondering who was fooling whom in those days of innocence before August 1990 when President Saddam was just another strategic ally.

Suppose, for example, that Saddam Hussein had not ordered his troops into Kuwait on 2 August. Imagine instead that the Iraqis had won concessions from their Kuwaiti brothers after a summer of diplomatic wrangling. New agreements would have ensured that Kuwait stuck to its OPEC oil-production quotas; the al-Sabah family would have freed the Iraqi regime from responsibility for the repayment of billions of dollars given to Baghdad during the Gulf War with Iran. Who knows, the Kuwaitis might have agreed, after substantial pressure from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world, to allow the Iraqis to lease the disputed islands of Warba and Bubiyan – thereby giving the Iraqi Government the chance to build new port facilities at the head of the Gulf. There were dozens of Arab diplomatic initiatives in the early summer of 1990, aimed at achieving just such a compromise between Iraq and Kuwait. President Mubarak of Egypt, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan were all convinced that the rising tension between Baghdad and Kuwait City could be defused. Saddam Hussein proved them wrong. As at every other defining moment in his career, he relied on the politics of brute force to achieve his ends.

But let’s stick with our hypothetical negotiated outcome, and consider the impact it would have had on the foreign policy-making apparatus in Washington. President Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, and dozens of top officials on the National Security Council and in US Intelligence, were familiar with Saddam’s brand of state tyranny long before August 1990. The Iranian Revolution, and with it the perceived threat to the Arab oil states of an expansionist and militant Islamic republic, encouraged the Reagan Administration to develop overt and covert ties with Baghdad. Top-secret intelligence data was shared with the Iraqis, billions of dollars of credit were offered and, in a series of complicated deals involving third parties, military equipment and sophisticated technologies were transferred to Iraq. The end of the Iran-Iraq war did not deter the Bush Administration from continuing the entanglement with Saddam. In October 1989 the National Security Council defined the ‘pursuit of improved political and economic ties with Iraq’ as an overriding priority. This despite clear warnings from weapons experts – including some working for the US Government – that Iraq was making a ‘major effort’ to acquire nuclear weapons.

According to evidence gathered by Congressman Henry Gonzalez and now publicly available in Washington, US intelligence sources were feeding Iraq with sensitive information only weeks before the invasion of Kuwait. At the same time, senior Administration officials went out of their way to cover up evidence that 900 million dollars of grain exports bound for Iraq had been diverted to Eastern Europe to enable the Iraqis to raise money for further arms purchases.

Given the weight of this evidence – referred to by Chomsky, but surprisingly ignored by Heikal and Tucker and Hendrickson – it is surely reasonable to assume that had Saddam decided against a precipitate invasion of Kuwait, US support would even now be oiling the wheels of his – soon to be nuclear-capable – war machine. And given that previous crimes, such as the gassing of thousands of Kurds in 1988, had cast no shadow over this sunny relationship with Washington, it is hardly surprising that the Iraqis failed to anticipate a massive American military response to the August invasion.

All of this is worth bearing in mind when one considers President Bush’s handling of the ‘Gulf Crisis’: a foreign policy calamity which he managed with dexterity to convert into a crusade for freedom. Having seen years of appeasement come to dust, Mr Bush became overnight the arch-anti-appeaser. ‘This will not stand,’ said the President in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kuwait. Over the following months he emphasised that nothing short of a complete and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal could avert an American-led offensive. Active diplomacy was shunned despite the Administration’s meaningless commitment to ‘go the extra mile for peace’. Saddam Hussein, the long-time recipient of American arms and funds, became at once a monstrous tyrant: ‘worse than Hitler,’ according to Bush. ‘What is at stake,’ he told the American people two weeks after the start of the Allied air offensive, ‘is a big idea – a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind; peace, security, freedom and the rule of law’.

It is to this notion of a New World Order, born of the collapse of superpower confrontation and fostered by the show of international co-operation seen in the Gulf War, that Messrs Heikal, Chomsky, Tucker and Hendrickson turn their attention. ‘There is indeed a New World Order taking shape,’ writes Chomsky, ‘marked by the diffusion of power in US domains and the collapse of the Russian empire and the tyranny at its heart. These developments leave the US as the overwhelmingly dominant military force.’ Today the United States is more potent than any previous imperial war machine. In their account of an American foreign policy that has shifted from post-war ‘containment’ to ‘global policing’, Tucker and Hendrickson argue that the Bush Administration has given military force a position in America’s ‘statecraft that is excessive and disproportionate. It has done so with the consent, even the enthusiasm of the nation.’ In both Deterring Democracy and The Imperial Temptation the United States dominates the international arena with all the finesse of a wannabe Schwarzenegger. In the Washington buzz-phrase, it’s now ‘The Enforcer’. The favoured strategy involves the threat or employment of overwhelming military force (there by ensuring that casualties are inflicted but not suffered), followed by a high-speed getaway under the banner of international law. It’s an approach which, according to Tucker and Hendrickson, ‘creates anarchy and calls it peace, in the name of order wreaks havoc’, and allows America ‘to assume an imperial role without discharging the classic duties of imperial rule’. At its heart there’s ‘an extraordinary disjunction between power and responsibility’. Recent United States actions in Libya, in Grenada and in Panama seem to reflect this international strategy – but President Bush’s handling of the Gulf Crisis illustrates the new reality best of all.

Mohamed Heikal, an Egyptian political commentator and diplomatic insider of many years’ standing, rightly puts oil, and the US strategic interest in the Arabian peninsula at the centre of his account of the Gulf War and its aftermath. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable because it gave him control of one important oil-producer, and posed a potential threat to another. If Saudi wells had fallen to the advancing Republican Guard 40 per cent of known reserves would have been in the hands of the newly-baptised ‘Beast of Baghdad’. Heikal shows how, in the days after the invasion, Bush manipulated American power in the region to ensure that the Saudis and their friends accepted a massive American military presence. With Soviet competition removed, with the Arab world internally divided as never before, and with the populous Arab states, like Syria and Egypt, crippled by economic problems, the United States was able to rely on Arab compliance, if not whole-hearted support. For Arabs it was ‘a time of strangeness’, says Heikal. Egyptian and Syrian troops camped out in the desert were moved to shout Allahu Akbar on hearing the news of the first Iraqi Scud attack on Israel. The celebrants were disciplined by senior officers who had probably spent much of their careers preparing for a fight with the Jewish state.

Twenty-eight countries contributed to the ‘coalition’ force gathered in Saudi Arabia: evidence, said Bush, of an unprecedented spirit of international co-operation, a new commitment to liberty and justice. One wonders if anybody told him of the planeload of troops who arrived uninvited in Cairo from the Central African Republic, hoping for permission to join Operation Desert Storm. Asked by Egyptian officials why they were so keen to take part, their commanding officer said: ‘We want some aid. The Americans are distributing money to those who participate and we’d like some of it.’ This African officer had got it wrong, of course. It was the Saudis, the Japanese and the Germans who were providing the dollars: the US Government was spending other people’s money. When UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar made his final peace mission to Baghdad in January 1991 to try to win a last-minute Iraqi agreement to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, Saddam is reported to have dismissed him scornfully. ‘These are American resolutions, this is an American age,’ he is supposed to have said. Having exploited American covert support for years, this was a fact of which he was well aware.

After the Allied air and ground assault was over, when Kuwait was once again an independently-owned family business, President Bush was happy to admit that if the United Nations had not sanctioned the use of force the US Government would have undertaken a unilateral military operation. Thus were the limits of the United Nations and the New World Order effectively established: a newly compliant Security Council, unhindered by superpower competition, was all well and good – but only so long as there was no clash with vital US strategic interests.

From the Arab point of view, the Gulf War merely confirmed an all-pervasive moral and political bankruptcy. The region continues to be dominated by anti-democratic regimes, whether it be the family oil-kingdoms of the Gulf, or the republics of fear presided over by Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad. The power of the American commitment to the Middle East’s oil resources is now acknowledged by all and resented by many. The peace process, and the determined efforts of Secretary of State Baker to bring Israel and the Palestinians to some form of agreement on a mutually acceptable future, do nothing to lift Heikal’s spirits. His book evokes thoughts of a marathon runner whose confident stride devours the first twenty miles, only to hit a wall of pain close to the finishing tape. The best he can do is stagger home nursing his blisters. ‘Unless there is a conscious effort to make a new start, Arabs can look forward only to years of despair, confusion and political stagnation,’ he concludes, before presumably heading off for a long lie-down.

More fruitful is the discussion, joined both by Chomsky and by Tucker and Hendrickson, about the significance of the Gulf War and ‘Bush’s New World Order’ for US policy-making. Chomsky has long been an insistent, though isolated voice on the American Left, warning of the corruption and iniquity of American policy at home and abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union has, according to Chomsky, merely presented new opportunities for the Washington establishment to visit evils upon the rest of the world – particularly the developing world. The Cold War was never guided by ideological commitment or principle. It was nothing more than a struggle for economic supremacy – a struggle which is ‘only half-ended’. The United States is still playing the superpower game: though now the targets are not so much Communist as ‘radical nationalist’. In Chomsky’s formulaic view, America is dominated by a military-industrial complex – ‘a welfare state for the rich’ – which has for decades been putting a moral gloss on aggression in Latin America, South-East Asia and the Middle East. This is an approach which brooks no subtlety. Bitter irony and sarcastic asides leave the reader punch-drunk, sagging on the ropes. Chomsky’s sense of outrage is palpable. His case is a strong one. But with his fists flying in all directions he’s in danger of knocking himself out. ‘For many years,’ he writes, ‘the United States has stood virtually alone in blocking a diplomatic settlement in the Middle East.’ Are we to take it that the Arab states and Israel bear no responsibility for decades of hatred and warfare? In his desire to overcome the establishment bias of many American journalists and intellectuals (‘worship of the state has become a secular religion’), he is in danger of creating another comic-strip Evil Empire.

Tucker and Hendrickson have subtitled their book on America’s overseas role ‘The New World Order and America’s Purpose’. From the outset, they argue, the United States has ‘never been a mere nation among nations’. Their deep unease about America’s present dalliance with the ‘imperial temptation’ is based on a morally-charged view of America’s past. The principled isolationism of the Jeffersonian Republicans, the League of Nations idealism of Woodrow Wilson and the years of Cold War containment – all are framed within an idealistic commitment to ‘liberty’ at home and abroad. It’s a self-satisfied view of America’s global significance which prompts a snort of derision from Chomsky, who takes a side-swipe at an earlier attempt by Robert Tucker to define ‘America’s historic purpose’. The complacency underpinning The Imperial Temptation is, however, abandoned when the authors conduct their Gulf War autopsy. President Bush’s decision to pursue the military option, and his subsequent refusal to give any assistance to the rebellious Kurdish and Shia communities in Iraq, has roused deep misgivings. ‘If the United States was determined to fight a terribly destructive war that would generate obligations that the nation either could not or would not fulfil then ... it ought not to have gone to war at all.’

It is perhaps fitting that the ‘Foreign Policy President’ has made such a hash of redefining America’s global role. The notion of a thoroughgoing New World Order backed by America’s economic might holds little appeal for a US electorate faced with a prolonged domestic recession. In the flush of Cold War victory, America is racked by insecurity, division and vulnerability. Talk of aid for the post-Soviet Republics has been drowned out by a strident chorus of ‘America First’. As seen from Washington, few foreign policy options offer the advantages of the quick military strike – easy in and easy out. The New World Order threatens to become an ‘Age of Enforcement’ dominated by an American military machine that’s all revved up with no place to go. But human rights abusers and territorial invaders across the world need not despair. The new age will pass them by as long as they ensure, as Saddam did not, that US strategic interests remain inviolate.