Ready for a Rematch

Michael Byers

The family feud is rarely mentioned as a factor in contemporary politics, perhaps because its tribal character does not fit well into the ‘rational actor’ model favoured by political scientists and pundits. Yet the American political system, in particular, operates on quasi-tribal lines, to the point where ideological affiliations play an overt role in judicial appointments. Tribalism may soon become the determinating factor in White House decision-making as well, for George W. Bush and his entourage don’t deal in shades of grey. As far as they’re concerned, the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, us and them, are perfectly clear; and within this world of absolutes the family feud is alive and well. After eight long years of waiting, the Bushes have a score to settle with the Husseins.

Saddam Hussein, who has ruled Iraq since 1979, was born in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saladin. Raised by an uncle who had taken part in a pro-Nazi revolt against the Iraqi monarchy in 1941, Saddam, like Saladin, sees himself as the rightful leader of the Arab world. He is just as ruthless, too: purges are common and even potential opponents are crushed. In 1988, he used poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing more than four thousand people. When two of his sons-in-law fled the country in 1995, he lured them back with promises of mercy then promptly had them put to death.

Saddam has two sons. Uday is a trigger-happy, 36-year-old playboy who, in 1988, killed one of his father’s closest aides with a battery-powered carving knife. At a party in 1995, he shot and killed six dancing girls. Uday was heir-designate to the Presidency until 1996, when he was shot and partially paralysed in an assassination attempt. Although he still wields enormous power, his younger brother, the 34-year-old Qusay, has since acquired a more prominent role as head of the Iraqi secret service. He has been named his father’s deputy and appears alongside Saddam at meetings of the Armed Forces Command. If recent reports concerning Saddam’s ill-heath are correct, Qusay is well-positioned to succeed him as President.

In 1980, Saddam cemented his hold of power by invading Iran. The invasion sparked a ten-year war in which more than a million people died. Then, in 1990, he turned his attention to the south, invading Kuwait and prompting a war with the US and its allies that, in many respects, continues today.

Like Saddam, George Bush Sr is accustomed to power. Director of the CIA in the late 1970s, he served two terms as Vice-President to Ronald Reagan before riding into the Oval Office on the coat-tails of the great communicator – and of Reagan’s somewhat inadvertent victory in the Cold War. But Bush and his advisers were caught offguard by the massive geopolitical shifts brought about by the demise of the Soviet Union, as well as being hamstrung by a failing economy and burdened politically by Dan Quayle. The Administration made numerous foreign policy mistakes, not the least of which was sending mixed messages to Saddam – whom they had supported in his war against Iran – when he began asserting territorial claims to Kuwait.

Although unanticipated, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait provided Bush with an opportunity to shine. Flanked by two of his most trusted aides, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, he threw the US military into a desert war that was relatively easy to fight and win. Cruise missiles and tank-destroying aircraft soon routed the Iraqi Army at a cost of only a few hundred allied lives. Ultimately, allied forces did not advance on Baghdad, thereby preserving the balance of power in the Middle East and avoiding continued engagement; the scenario that all post-Vietnam US Presidents most fear. Triumphant and in control, Bush must have felt assured of a second term in office, but the American voters were easily distracted by the youthful charisma of Bill Clinton, who soon outshone the staid establishment figure and his increasingly ridiculous running mate. Bush suffered a humiliating defeat in 1992, retreating to Texas to lick his wounds. Saddam, in contrast, remained firmly ensconced in Baghdad, claiming that he had won the war, and grooming Uday and Qusay for power.

But Bush, as it happens, also has sons. Canny and articulate, 48-year-old Jeb was the one more obviously fitted to fill his father’s political shoes, and his election to the Governorship of Florida in 1998 was a logical first step in the family bid to recapture the White House. The selection of the unappealing George W., Governor of Texas since 1994, as the Republican candidate for the 2000 Presidential election was mostly a matter of timing. Having just been elected to public office for the first time, Jeb wasn’t ready for a Presidential campaign. With Al Gore seemingly destined to ride the economic boom to victory, George W.’s candidacy was at best a longshot. If he failed, Jeb would take Gore on in 2004.

George W. embarked on the Presidential campaign with a loaded purse and, in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal, a stout lead in the polls. He lost on the popular vote by the narrowest of margins. The battleground state during the month of November was, however, one in which the Republican machine was – thanks in large part to Jeb – particularly strong. We are now familiar with the ways in which the ‘recount’ became a coup. Though Saddam prefers more violent methods, he undoubtedly would have approved; were it not for the consequences.

The new Bush Administration, dominated by George Bush Sr, Cheney and Powell, has arrived in Washington with clear foreign policy goals. Like Saddam, it needs an external conflict to shore up its fragile domestic position and justify increased military spending. The strengthening of the Armed Forces is an explicit priority which includes a robust National Missile Defense system as well as new tanks, planes, ships and submarines. What is missing is the prospect of a fight that can be won cleanly and spectacularly without the loss of American lives. In this vein, a new Powell Doctrine has already been articulated: force will be used only to support clear political objectives and with sufficient resources to ensure success. As Condoleezza Rice, the new National Security Advisor, has explained, prevention, peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention are not part of the plan. ‘We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.’

Yet easily winnable military conflicts are few and far between in the contemporary world order. For a new Administration seeking to prove itself, Iraq is the only battlefield that fits the bill. The Balkans are too complicated and there is no ‘exit strategy’ there, apart from removing US troops and leaving European Governments holding the baby. Sub-Saharan Africa’s multiple conflicts are too far removed from America’s interests. Osama bin Laden, though a useful villain, is not a country and, as such, difficult to pin down.

Thanks to Clinton, Saddam and his sons are ready for the rematch. In December 1998, revelations that the CIA had used the UN weapons inspection programme to identify military targets and track Saddam’s movements enabled the Husseins to stop co-operating with the UN. Operation Desert Fox followed, with US and British planes bombing targets across Iraq at the very time that – coincidentally – the US Senate was voting on Clinton’s impeachment. Any harm done to the Husseins by the bombing was overshadowed by the consequent fragmentation of the broader allied coalition against Iraq.

Saddam and his sons have not only had two years in which to rebuild and rearm: they have also benefited from the almost complete collapse of support for the sanctions imposed by the UN in 1991. Within the Security Council, Russia, France and China – eager to do business and recoup overdue loans – have successfully lobbied for changes to the sanctions regime. Under the ‘oil-for-food’ programme, the Husseins are now able to sell unlimited quantities of oil and buy a wide range of industrial products. The proportion of Iraq’s profits that is directed into an escrow account, managed by the UN to compensate the individual, corporate and government victims of the Gulf War, has been reduced from 30 to 25 per cent. Smuggling is rampant and arms control experts are convinced that Iraq again possesses sizeable stocks of chemical and biological weapons. A nuclear bomb and missiles capable of delivering it are likely to follow. The average Iraqi, meanwhile, remains poor and malnourished, without all but the most limited medical care.

Although US and British warplanes continue to attack Iraqi air defences in the so-called (and probably illegal) ‘no-fly zones’, foreign airlines have resumed their service to Baghdad. Foreign dignitaries have paid courtesy calls. An international trade fair attracted legions of officials and corporate representatives eager for contracts with what, in terms of proven reserves, is the world’s most oil-rich country. The Bushes, for their part, have criticised Clinton strongly for his weakness towards Iraq. To them, the legacy of the Gulf War – America’s credibility – is once again on the line.

The Husseins’ attempts to use oil exports as bargaining chips give additional cause for concern. The current (January 2001) spike in petrol prices is due to Iraq’s decision to stop shipments for two weeks as they seek further to weaken Europe’s resolve. Ironically, the Bushes do not mind high oil prices, which benefit their corporate supporters and provide additional reason to increase domestic production by drilling in wilderness areas. Moreover, they can be blamed on Clinton’s policies of taxation, regulation and environmental protection.

The Bushes will not want oil prices to fluctuate, however. Significant price fluctuations reduce oil company profits and require difficult negotiations with Opec leaders, including the increasingly unpredictable Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. As seen from the White House, a war against Iraq is a good energy policy, especially because it would be unlikely to provoke sustained objections from other countries. Neither Europe – where the British Government is expected to play along, thus preventing the formation of a united front – nor Russia, whose struggling economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports, is expected to object that strongly. Nor is the Bush Administration at all concerned about the damage such a war would cause to the current international system.

The right wing of the Republican Party is remarkably suspicious of supranational organisations and international law. From its pragmatic, rationalist, amoral perspective, the single superpower can best advance its interests through the threat or use of force. Weak states co-operate, powerful states dominate. Law, both domestic and international, is a mere smokescreen for politics. The International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases: all are opposed by the men and women who control the Republican Party and regard such instruments as threats to American sovereignty, both at the federal and – more important – state levels. Even the World Trade Organisation is expendable, should too many of its decisions go against the United States.

The Bushes know that a second war against Iraq will not receive the approval of the Security Council. But a diminished role for the UN is undoubtedly part of the plan. The consequent violation of the UN Charter, which forbids the unauthorised use of force except in situations of self-defence, will not be condemned by the Council because the US will cast (or threaten to cast) its veto. Condemnations from individual countries will be dismissed as statements that merely conceal – but do not deny – a growing acceptance that American power defines the new world order.

In the face of a greatly emboldened and aggressive United States, the policy approaches adopted by middle powers such as the UK become more important. One option would be to demur to the Bush Administration on Iraq, missile defence, the Kyoto Protocol and other critical issues. This might work in the short term: avoiding arguments with the single superpower is a sensible goal. But the risks associated with acquiescence would also be considerable, given the willingness of Republican decision-makers to exploit power and opportunity against even those who consider themselves friends and – more important – given the long-term damage to the international system that would most probably result. Another, more attractive but challenging option, would be to stand somewhat apart from the US and focus on retaining the co-operative system of international organisations and rules that exists between and among other countries. Russia and China, in particular, need to be assured that the upcoming surge of US hostility towards them is only a temporary aberration not shared by other Western powers.

Patience – and cool heads – are required on all sides, especially when, as in Iraq things get personal. In two years’ time, the Republicans will probably lose control of the Senate and House of Representatives, and with it their ability to dominate decision-making in Washington. With luck, in four years’ time the American people will once again send the Bushes packing.