Mr. Bush's War

Immanuel Wallerstein

We know now that George W. Bush confided to one of his friends before he was president that he wanted a war with Iraq and that, unlike his father, he would get rid of Saddam Hussein. And so he has. But as the U.S. polls turn seriously against him and a majority of Americans today say that the war wasn’t worth the loss of lives, it is time to take a reckoning of what Mr. Bush has accomplished.

He wanted a quick war, and he didn’t get that. The U.S. occupiers are faced today, two years after the invasion was launched, with a stiff Iraqi resistance which the U.S. doesn’t seem to be able to quench. Indeed, it seems to be growing more, not less, deadly as time goes on. The U.S. says its strategy is to train Iraqi government troops to the point that they can handle this resistance. But everyone admits, and first of all the U.S. generals on the scene in Iraq, that the U.S. is nowhere near this goal, and that it might not be reached for a number of years, if ever. Donald Rumsfeld himself is talking of needing to stay in Iraq for twelve years, which certainly doesn’t make it seem as if he thinks the Iraqi government is going to be able to handle the resistance very soon without U.S. assistance.

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At this point, there are extremely few Iraqi government units that can fight even a minor engagement by themselves. The training doesn’t seem to stick. Now, one can presume that the U.S. trainers are competent and highly motivated. So why doesn’t the training stick? There seem to be several reasons. One is the motivation of the Iraqi troops. They are in it for the most part because it is a relatively well-paying job, if an extremely dangerous one at the moment. So they collect the pay checks and avoid the battles, especially since they are ill-equipped for the most part. One intrepid Westerner who actually went out with these troops for a while (most Western reporters remain in the well-protected Green Zone of Baghdad) discovered that these troops were singing anti-American songs when U.S. advisors were out of hearing.

Few commentators have made the obvious comparison of these U.S.-trained Iraqi troops with the resistance units. The latter, though lacking the U.S. training and U.S. support, seem to fight very well, as admitted by the U.S. military. They are certainly not in it for the money. Dare I suggest they are in it for the patriotism, whether this is Iraqi national patriotism or Islamic jihad or a combination of the two? And this is a quite powerful motivation. Every once in a while, an American advisor points to the fact that rebellions can be crushed, and offers as examples the British crushing of both the Malaysian rebels and the Mau Mau in Kenya. But there are obvious differences. In Malaysia, the rebels were rooted in the Chinese community and the Malay majority had no sympathy for them. And the Mau Mau lacked any access to advanced weaponry. There is no comparison with the situation in Iraq, which is closer in structure to all those resistances that did win out against the West or West-supported regimes.

Mr. Bush also wanted a regime in power that would be a strong, long-term ally, capable of running the country. So far he hasn’t got that either. On all three counts - strength, role as a reliable U.S. ally, and ability to run the country - the new Iraqi government has yet to show that it can meet the bill. Military strength they clearly do not have. So let’s look at the ability to run the country. In the chaotic situation that Iraq presents today, there is an exodus of the skilled professionals which Iraq has in larger supply than most Middle Eastern countries. Under Saddam, some of these professionals left because of repression or fear. Today, they are leaving because their lives are threatened daily by mafiosi, resisters, random violence, and kidnapings. Skilled female labor stays home, in part out of fear of the chaos but in large part because of the Muslim fundamentalist pressures.

As for being a reliable U.S. ally, I sure hope that Condi Rice is not counting on the present Iraqi government in a pinch or in the middle run. For one thing, the Iraqis have to get their act together in the enormous tensions between the differing ethnic/religious groups. If the Iraqi army is weak, that is not true of the militias, which are more clearly the future of order (and disorder) in Iraq. Pulled in all directions, there is no national project, certainly not one of being a good boy in a neoliberal world order.

The third thing Mr. Bush hoped for was the reassertion of an uncontested hegemony of the United States in the world arena. But it is now becoming jaded journalese to point out that de facto multipolarity is the name of the present situation, and that the U.S. is on a downward slide. Dick Cheney can rant all he wants, but one has to wonder whether even he believes that the U.S. is stronger than ever and that the world is complying with U.S. wishes.

And finally, like the narrow-minded provincial that he is, George W. Bush expected that the U.S. would flourish at home and return to the mythical paradise that was the United States of the robber barons of the nineteenth century making their fortunes in a country peopled by happy small-town, Christian families going to church on Sundays and hiding their sins in a big closet. Instead, the United States is living through a national culture war that is massive and threatens to turn violent in the next decade. The U.S. has never been so split internally since the Civil War. Indeed, in some ways, the U.S. is replaying the Civil War. But, as with all these things, the second time around is not only farce but even more vicious.

Richard Nixon seems in retrospect to have been merely a small-time criminal, but at least an intelligent one. He presided over the defeat in Vietnam, but he wasn’t the one who started the war. Nonetheless, his downfall was caused by his skullduggery in the context of the defeat in Vietnam. Will George W. Bush be impeached? Doubtful. But his skullduggery is far vaster than that of Tricky Dick, and history (and the U.S. people) will judge him more harshly.

In the meantime, Iraqis and Americans are dying and being maimed every day. And nothing good will come out of these deaths.


Published Saturday, July 9th, 2005 - 03:10pm GMT
Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at immanuel.wallerstein (at) yale.edu
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