Letter from Ground Zero

Letter from Ground Zero


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 fact.”

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 even exist.

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.

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