Braving Bush’s New World Order

Braving Bush’s New World Order

The Soviet Union can no longer act as a brake on US. expansion, and Western Europe cannot do so yet. That is the bitter, bloody and understated lesson of the current crisis.


The Soviet Union can no longer act as a brake on US. expansion, and Western Europe cannot do so yet. That is the bitter, bloody and understated lesson of the current crisis. As the willful destruction in the Persian Gulf draws to an end; as our ministers and mediamen, having double-thought and double-talked beyond Orwell’s imagination, cynically proclaim that might is right; and as the population laps it all up with patriotic fervor, there is a great temptation to blame the bloodthirsty gods or the folly of humankind. It is more useful, however, to examine the causes of Russia’s weakness and of Europe’s abject abdication, and to seek behind these failures the political and social forces that may be capable of challenging President Bush’s “new world order,” which is as old as capitalism and as modern as a laser-guided missile.

The Limits of ‘New Thinking’

The Soviet government “regrets” but it “does not condemn…” This refrain sums up the dilemma that was revealed in two dramatic weeks m February, when the world saw both Mikhail Gorbachev’s skill and the real limits to his diplomatic action. Soviet involvement began much earlier, of course. From last August it was crucial. Above all it was precious for George Bush, who could not have disguised U.S. intervention as a United Nations operation without the blessing of Gorbachev. In return the Soviet leader was promised economic rewards and shown immediate consideration, notably over his troubles with the Baltic States. But as the war heated up, he grasped that he had struck a bad bargain. The Soviet press began to suggest that the destruction of Iraq by the United States and its allies was going beyond the U.N. resolutions. On February 12, judging the Iraqis ripe, Gorbachev sent his personal envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, to Baghdad. Three days later Iraq publicly envisaged the possibility of accepting Resolution 660, which called for the unconditional evacuation of Kuwait. By Monday, February 18, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was in Moscow studying the Gorbachev peace plan, which the Soviet leader duly communicated to Washington and other Western capitals.

The Americans (who, we now know, had already set the date of the ground war) were enraged by this threat to their schedule. Bush’s first instinct was to reply, We want Saddam Hussein’s scalp and nobody is going to stop us. Under the Influence of his advisers, however, he chose to rely first on the Soviet Union’s obvious reluctance to risk an open break with Washington. The Soviet pupil was told to amend his copy and duly did so. By Thursday Aziz was back in Moscow. The next day Gorbachev produced a revised plan, which included a timetable for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait: four days to leave Kuwait City and twenty-one to abandon the entire country. That Friday, however, Bush, with the obedient allies lined up behind him, delivered his ultimatum: Within twenty-four hours Iraq had to accept the Western terms–allowing a week for total evacuation–or all hell would break loose. Even then Gorbachev did not give up. He spent the final Saturday calling Western leaders, pleading personally with Bush to put the decision off by a day or two in order to find a compromise between the two proposals. He allowed his ambassador to the U.N. to tell the Security Council that the parting words of Aziz suggested Iraq would accept such a compromise. To no avail. Gorbachev was coolly thanked for his services by the Americans and dismissed.

What should we have expected the Soviet leader to do? My own opinion is that a socialist leader should have retrospectively condemned Soviet aid to the semifascist regime of Saddam; condemned with equal vigor the Kuwaiti and Saudi oligarchies and their close ties to Western oil and financial interests; and spoken to the Arab and Western peoples above the heads of their governments. But Moscow, I recognize, long ago ceased to use such language–and not with the advent of Gorbachev but with the rise of Stalin. Even leaving such dreams aside, there was still scope for a different line, if only the Soviet diplomats, instead of bothering about U.S. sensibilities, had chosen not to waffle but to speak their mind.

With hindsight, Gorbachev must now regret having voted last November for Resolution 678, which gave the coalition the green light to strike. Yet even later, in the debate over the ultimatum, the Soviet delegate could have acted differently. He could have told the Security Council that the refusal to seek a compromise proved that the real goal was to bring down Saddam and destroy Iraq; he could have asked the Secretary General to confirm that those were not the aims of the U.N. resolution; and he could have made it plain to the world that the United States and its twenty-eight partners were going to war under their own banner. But it was impossible to say all that and at the same time repeat, like Gorbachev, that “the course toward developing cooperation with the U.S.A. and improving relations is vitally essential.” In fact, there was no need to debunk the U.S. claims. On Tuesday, February 26, with Iraq ready to accept any terms and the Soviet Union pleading for a cease-fire, Bush and his accomplices dropped all pretense about the U.N. and their own past pledges. Instead, they merely offered variations on the theme of La Fontaine’s fable: “The reason of the strongest is always the best”–until the Republican Guard was crushed, that is, when they could afford to be righteous again. Speaking in Minsk that same day, Gorbachev showed his pique by hinting at the “fragility” of Soviet-American relations.

Even this modest degree of Soviet interference is attributed by most Western commentators to the pressure on Gorbachev from the military lobby. But this view is less than convincing. Admittedly the Soviet Union is split down the middle and passions are running high, with the army paper Krasnaya Zvezda hankering openly for the good old days when Iraq was a close ally and the generals talking already of the need for more sophisticated weapons. Nevertheless, when one considers that the war has come within 200 miles of the Soviet frontier, that the Soviet Union has a population of some 50 million Muslims in its southern regions and that it has maintained a political presence in the Middle East for more than thirty-five years, there is no need to point to the military lobby to explain Gorbachev’s efforts. The best evidence is that former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the prime opponent of that lobby, approved the Soviet leader’s peace proposals.

Gorbachev emerges from this battle bruised and wiser. In the Middle East the consequences for Moscow will cut both ways. The popularity of the Soviet Union should rise among millions of Muslims–if only by contrast with the United States, Britain and France. On the other hand, its reputation as a superpower able to stand up to the United States will collapse. It is at home, however, that the impact will be strongest. All Soviet politicians have now grasped that one cannot aspire to membership in the International Monetary Fund and clash with U.S. interests. A junior partner does have some autonomy, but it is limited. This factor will figure in the reassessment of values taking place as part of the “political cold war” now being waged in the Soviet Union.

The Taming of Mitterrand

With the Soviet Union abandoning its role as a superpower, Western Europe was supposed to become the new challenger to American domination. But that myth has been shattered by the current crisis. Europe’s submission could best be seen in the figure of Françoois Mitterrand, once the maverick, standing to attention in the American contingent next to John Major. True, the French President’s gestures in the past were often just that–gestures. But at least France did not speak with an American accent. It was in favor of a Middle East conference that would include the Palestinian question, and Paris emphasized that the objective of the U.N. was “to liberate Kuwait” and nothing more. The French government soon had to eat its words. The paradox reached its sordid climax when Gorbachev offered his peace plan, milder than Mitterrand’s had been in mid-January, and the French Foreign Minister, toeing the American line, had to explain that it was unacceptable.

The volte-face was so manifest that Mitterrand himself chose to explain it to a group of Journalists on French television on February 24. He hinted, en passant, that the extension of the time granted to Iraqi troops for evacuation, from four days to seven days, was the result of French influence. It was impossible to go beyond that, he maintained, because of climatic imperatives. He got away with this because no one asked him why there had been no effort to reach a compromise with the Russians over the withdrawal period. But the rapid pace of events gave the game away. Two days later the Iraqis were ready for any concessions, but Paris had altered its demands: Iraq was now bound to accept all twelve U.N. resolutions. The French had simply Joined the American chorus chanting Vae victis and pressing on to crush Saddam’s Republican Guard. No doubt the eloquent French President will find a smooth explanation for this in his next TV performance.

The total subservience to the United States is all the more puzzling considering that France had so much to lose in the process. Ever since Charles de Gaulle distanced himself from Israel, France has enjoyed some sympathy In the Arab world. Above all, it has deep, if ambiguous, connections with North Africa. While resentful of the former colonial power, most lay liberals in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were brought up on the ideas of the French Revolution and had strong links with the French left. They now feel most betrayed by France’s double standards, indifference and eloquent silence while Iraq was being pounded, the difference in the French responses to Israeli and Palestinian victims. The West as a whole will pay a high moral price in the Arab world for Its military victory, but France will pay more than Britain or the United States because more was expected from its Socialist government.

Mitterrand had a golden opportunity here to assert the autonomy of Europe. Admittedly, from the start it was clear that the British were the United States’ obedient servants. But other members of the European Community were less compliant. When Gorbachev put forward his peace plan, it was warmly welcomed by the Germans and approved by the Spanish government and the Italian Parliament. If France had taken the lead, it might at least have influenced Bush. Why did it not even try?

The billion dollars offered to France by the Kuwaitis and the prospect of juicy markets in the Persian Gulf are insufficient explanation, although the influence and enthusiasm of the big French exporters should not be underestimated. (When Forbes described the poor performance of French weapons in Iraqi hands, the French newspapers dismissed this as the bias of a competitor; clearly nothing will discourage the greed of the arms merchants.) A more complete explanation, however, must take into account the personality of the French President. Mitterrand was never a nationalist in the Gaullist sense of the term. He was always an “Atlanticist”–a European who took U.S. leadership of the alliance for granted. After all, it was he who proved Ronald Reagan’s best ally in the battle over the Euromissiles.

Yet one should really move beyond Mitterrand and beyond France’s frontiers. The tentative conclusion to be drawn from this crisis is that Europe will not stand up to the United States unless it simultaneously tries to forge a society fundamentally different from the American model.

Puppets and Protagonists

It used to be an axiom of the left that the real choice was between the United Socialist States of Europe and Europe of the United States. Later, socialism receded ever further over the horizon, while the economic balance of power shifted gradually away from the United States to Europe and Japan. This gave birth to the idea–now shaken by the gulf war–of a united capitalist Europe capable of defying the United States. This is not to say that conflicts of interest will vanish, as we saw when Germany raised interest rates while the United States was lowering them. Nor does it mean that Europe will never shake off American hegemony. But it will probably not do so in the present historical period.

Sensing the danger presented by the end of the cold war, the United States acted swiftly. If Saddam had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. The Iraqi leader not only enabled Washington to strengthen its command over the world’s principal energy resources and to provide fat new contracts, notably to the worried arms manufacturers; he also made it possible to argue that the capitalist system, extended to the entire world by virtue of the Soviet Union’s surrender, requires a military alliance, with the United States as its obvious leader. It is this new world order that Mitterrand and company did not dare oppose.

The only ones who dared to dissent were people who also oppose the domestic consensus. The antiwar movement in Europe is inspired by all sorts of pacifists, by remnants of the far left, by Greens of all complexion, by Communists at variance on this occasion with the Moscow line, by Socialist rebels defying the party whip in the wake of Tony Benn in Britain or Jean-Pierre Chevènement in France. The movement is strongest in Germany, quite effective in Italy and Spain, less so in France and Britain. Undoubtedly, it could be stronger. Contending with the full propaganda machine of the establishment is only part of its problem. Is it because of the repugnant nature of the Iraqi regime, or the understandable guilt over the millions of Jews murdered here in Europe, or the occasional inability of the peace movement to show that its revulsion at this war, its aims and its horrors implies no indulgence for Saddam Hussein? Whatever the reasons, many people who know better–and have done better in the past–now find themselves outside the movement. To give but a couple of examples: Wolf Biermann, the singer who left East Germany but kept his socialist principles, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who spoke out bravely against French torture during the Algerian war.

The antiwar movement, such as it is, is the nucleus of a potential opposition. Significantly, it is made up of “outcasts and outsiders”–not quite in the sense in which Herbert Marcuse used to describe people outside the main process of production but rather in the sense of groups, parties and people outside the political mainstream. Whether one looks at Russia or at Western Europe, the capacity to resist Bush’s new order seems to be connected to the rejection of capitalism and the readiness to search for an alternative society.

Since this sounds rather abstract, I can perhaps make the same point in another way by describing a lesser event, one that was overshadowed by the war in the gulf. This was the death and transformation of the Italian Communist Party. Born in Livorno in January 1921, the P.C.I. died in Rimini exactly seventy years later, only to be resurrected at once as the Democratic Party of the Left. At its January congress, party leader Achille Occhetto chose to have the party come out against the war, the only big European party to do so. This transformed the mood of the congress. The left was pleased, which may explain why only a small fraction decided not to join the renamed party. Occhetto’s right-wing allies in the party, on the other hand, were peeved, and while I have little sympathy for these so-called miglioristi, I must admit they had a point. The purpose of the name change, they argued, was not just to drop the word “Communist” from the title but to move the party into the political mainstream. Opposing the war means again becoming the odd party out.

The implication is that if you join the consensus, you must accept American leadership and the American war. The message addressed to Occhetto can now be extended to the entire Western left: Are you still ready, despite the odds, to seek a radical alternative or are you resigned to taking up your appointed place in George Bush’s new world order?

While the warmongers gloat, the struggle must go on, with its hours of hope and moments of despair. Twenty-three years ago the Tet offensive shattered the myth of U.S. invincibility, and young people all over the world, inspired by the Vietnamese, moved to the attack. An old slogan again echoed across Europe: “Run, comrade, run, the old world is behind you.” This time around the U.S. establishment had an easier task, since it confronted not a revolutionary people in arms but an allegedly mighty regular army, driven to disaster by a madman. In this different mood and circumstance the slogan, too, must be altered: Wake up, comrade, wake up, because the old world–in a new disguise but with its weaponry in full barbarian splendor–is ahead of you.

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