Even before US troops arrived in Baghdad, looting broke out--in
Paul Wolfowitz is busy turning history on its head.
A lot of folks die.
At last the war ends.
The world is made safe
For Dick Cheney's friends.
In the past 200 years, all of the earth's great territorial empires,
whether dynastic or colonial, or both, have been destroyed. The list
includes the Russian empire of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the Habsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns, the Ottoman
Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the overseas empires of Holland, England,
France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" and the
Soviet empire. They were brought down by a force that, to the
indignation and astonishment of the imperialists, turned out to be
irresistible: the resolve of peoples, no matter how few they were or how
poor, to govern themselves.
With its takeover of Iraq, the United States is attempting to reverse
this universal historical verdict. It is seeking to reinvent the
imperial tradition and reintroduce imperial rule--and on a global
scale--for the twenty-first century. Some elements, like the danger of
weapons of mass destruction, are new. Yet any student of imperialism
will be struck by the similarities between the old style of imperialism
and the new: the gigantic disparity between the technical and military
might of the conquerors and the conquered; the inextricable combination
of rapacious commercial interest and geopolitical ambition and design;
the distortion and erosion of domestic constitutions by the immense
military establishments, overt and covert, required for foreign
domination; the use of one colony as a stepping stone to seize others or
pressure them into compliance with the imperial agenda; the appeal to
jingoism on the home front. True, American officials state at every
opportunity that they do not intend to "occupy" Iraq. But then the
British in the nineteenth century said the same thing. Two years before
the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the conquest of
Egypt he declared that his heart's desire was an "Egypt for the
Egyptians." The liberal imperialist Lord Palmerston said in 1842 in
defense of his gunboat diplomacy, "It is, that commerce may go freely
forth, leading civilization with one hand, and peace with the other, to
render mankind happier, wiser, better." When it came to rule, the
British preferred, wherever possible, not "direct rule" but a sort of
covert domination called "influence"or "indirect rule" or "paramountcy"
(the British were as richly inventive of euphemisms as the United States
is today). Then as now, imperialism, in the words of the great
anti-imperialist Ernest Hobson, was "floated on a sea of vague, shifty,
well-sounding phrases which are seldom tested by close contact with
It was one thing, however, for Europeans, in newfound possession of
modern tools of technical and organizational superiority, to subjugate
"backward" foreign peoples in 1700 or 1800 or 1900. But can it be done
again, in our century, in the wake of that project's universal rejection
by the peoples of the earth? So far, the outlook is unpromising. The
United States vowed to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. The phrase
has rightly been criticized as an outrageously mild euphemism--a vague,
well-sounding, shifty phrase if there ever was one--for an extremely
violent act; but now it turns out that the expression defined a deeper
problem. If I am going to change the oil in my car, I must, before I
remove the old oil in the crankcase, have new oil ready to put in.
Otherwise, my car will quickly overheat and break down on the road. This
is roughly the condition of Iraq two weeks after the destruction of its
former government. The United States, it turns out, forgot to bring a
new government with it when it set out from Kuwait to Baghdad. The
troops brought plenty of MREs (meals ready to eat) but no GRR
(government ready to rule). American forces had no intention of becoming
a police force, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told the press. Did the
Administration perhaps take its own slippery rhetoric about not
occupying Iraq too seriously? The result was a vacuum of authority soon
filled by nearly universal looting. Many Iraqis made clear their hatred
of the old regime and their joy at its disappearance; but it appears
that they had little more confidence in the invader. Finding themselves
caught between local misrule and foreign rule, did they perhaps decide
that they had a momentary opportunity to grab something for themselves
and set about sacking their own country? A journalist, upon arriving in
an Iraqi city, described it as "prelooted." Did the Iraqis, in
anticipation of foreign exploitation, "preloot" their whole country?
The United States thus achieved Regime Removal but not the promised
Regime Change. There were, we can now see, no plans even to keep order
in Iraq, much less to administer it, or organize a government there. The
famous war plan was much discussed; the peace plan, it appears, did not
This became clear when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the
raging anarchy in Iraq as "untidy," and America's new viceroy in Iraq,
retired Gen. Jay Garner, newly arrived in the city of Nasiriyah from the
Hilton hotel in Kuwait, likened events to the American constitutional
convention of 1787, remarking rhetorically, "I don't think they had a
love-in when they had Philadelphia." Does he really think that mayhem in
Iraq, including the extinction of the better part of the country's
cultural treasures, has any resemblance to the deliberations by which
Washington, Franklin and Madison framed the Constitution of the United
States? Is such a man fit to run a country?
So far, the American military giant has proved to be a political pygmy.
The Shiite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was imported into Iraq from
London by the "coalition" forces, was promptly hacked to death by local
people. The gathering of Iraqis invited by the United States to meet at
a US military base has been boycotted by the country's most important
political groups. In Mosul, American troops have fired upon an angry
mob, killing seven. "It's a show of force, but people don't understand
it," a soldier in Mosul told the Times. "They're not grateful."
Before the war began, it was often said that winning the war would be
easy and winning the peace hard. And it was surely always clear even to
the war's opponents that the United States could drive its tanks from
Kuwait to Baghdad, whereupon the regime of Saddam Hussein would
dissolve. Yet was it ever certain that what followed the conventional
engagements would be a peace? With every day that passes, "the peace"
looks more like another war.
Even before US forces could establish order in the cities of Iraq and
bring humanitarian relief to its people, the Bush Administration
unleashed a barrage of threats against Syria, accusing it of aiding
Islamic fighters in Iraq and possessing chemical weapons. Administration
officials suggest they are sending an appropriate warning to Iraq's
neighbor that certain behavior will not be tolerated. To millions of
Arabs watching the events unfolding in Iraq, however, these actions are
confirmation that the United States has a larger agenda in the Middle
East that has little to do with the security and well-being of the Iraqi
Instead of rushing on to threaten its next potential target of
pre-emptive war, the US should focus its energy on the reconstruction of
Iraq, since it will be judged for years to come by how well it handles
that task. Judging by the first weeks, there are reasons to worry that
the Administration has failed to understand the nature of that
challenge. If it wishes to legitimize US military action, it will have
to draw on international support to bring order to the Iraqi people and
to make good on its claim that it will bring them democracy. Yet Richard
Perle revealed the arrant indifference of Administration hawks when he
said recently, "What we have won on the battlefield is the right to
establish consistent policies that are for the benefit of the people of
Iraq." Uncle knows best.
After the regime's authority collapsed, seething ethnic and religious
rivalries and festering hatreds boiled over. In a cultural atrocity
unparalleled in our age, looters vandalized the priceless antiquities in
Baghdad's National Museum and burned the National Library, where reposed
the records of the world's most ancient civilization. The US government
had been repeatedly urged by museum directors, archeologists and
cultural leaders to protect Iraq's archeological treasures as required
by international law. Yet the commanders who had immediately posted
guards at the Iraqi oil ministry somehow were unable to find soldiers to
stop vandals from plundering the irreplaceable heritage of humankind.
(Nor were they able to protect hospitals from pillagers of desperately
needed medical supplies.) The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon
had expected before the war that Saddam's fall "would usher in a period
of chaos and lawlessness," yet it chose to go with a light, fast-moving
invasion force unequipped to deal with civil disorders. Order is slowly
being restored, but the explosion of destructive anarchy and lack of
coherent US policies has stirred up distrust among the Iraqis, whose
support will be needed to restore services and build a stable
Although the US military rapidly secured Iraq's oilfields before
Saddam's troops could burn them, its technical specialists were unable
to locate any weapons of mass destruction during more than three weeks
of war, when they could have menaced US soldiers; nor was any evidence
uncovered of Iraqi links to Al Qaeda. Thus the claimed basis for the
invasion has yet to be established. Of course, WMDs may well be
unearthed, but the question remains: If Saddam didn't (or couldn't) use
them in self-
defense, how can it be said he would have pre-emptively launched them
against America or Israel?
If such weapons are found, under the Chemical Weapons Convention they
should be verified and destroyed by international inspectors. Inspectors
from the International Atomic Energy Agency should also be allowed to
return to Iraq and continue their work in accordance with the
Those who opposed the war must refuse to be browbeaten or silenced by
the gloating "I told you so" chorus on the right (and center) and must
continue to hammer at the false premises that underpinned the war. The
reality is Bush deceived the American people when he said the war was
necessary to national security, and in so doing he has abused the powers
of his office, undermined the Constitution and flouted public opinion. A
recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that a majority of Americans
oppose Bush's pre-emption doctrine. It has no basis or justification in
international law--as Arab and world opinion, and Kofi Annan, agree. And
it sends a message to states facing US threats that they should quickly
acquire nuclear weapons in self-defense.
The only claim of legitimacy the Administration can make for the war it
misled America into is that it was a humanitarian war to liberate an
oppressed people. But to sustain such a claim to a skeptical world, the
Administration must prove that its intentions for Iraq are honorable,
and it can do that only by inviting the UN Security Council's full
involvement--political as well as humanitarian--in the reconstruction of
Beyond that, the Administration should cool its threats against Syria.
It must rejoin the international community and work with it to bring
democracy, freedom and human rights to Iraq, and peace to the entire
region--starting with a vigorous push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian
Emerging from their meeting in Belfast the day before US forces
announced Baghdad had fallen, George W.
He might have the toughest detail this war has to offer.
After carefully crafted U.S.
This editorial was originally published in the April 21, 2003 issue of The Nation.
CORRECTION: When this column was originally published, a fact-checking error caused the word "owner" to be removed from a reference to the Jewish "owner-editors" of U.S. News & World Report and The New Republic. This may have made it appear as if Alterman was addressing the issue of Jewish "editors" in general with regard to media coverage and Israel, rather than merely the two men he cited.