Page 5, 26th July 1991

26th July 1991
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Page 5, 26th July 1991 — How the West went to war

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How the West went to war

In the first of three articles to mark the anniversary of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Professor Richard Falk looks at the roles of the USA, the United Nations and the church.

IT was important after the Cold War to find a new justification for the use of military force overseas, especially in the third world where US lives might be at risk. The shadow of Vietnam still troubled US policy-makers in the early stages of the Gulf crisis and they feared that the war might end inconclusively.

The White House continued to face the problem of mobilising for war in a political democracy. People needed to be convinced that it was worth risking lives, although the task had been made easier by the fact that a professional army could now be relied upon to do the fighting.

This was an important factor in the Gulf war. Unlike Vietnam, it was not the conscripted children of the privileged middle classes who would be put at risk. Nevertheless, to build political support for the war, an ideological justification other than anti-communism was necessary.

President Reagan had tried to build such an ideological foundation through figures like Colonel Quadaffi and other anti-US leaders, classifying their governments as supporters of "terrorism". But while this line of argument enjoyed some success, and was enough to justify a surprise military attack on Libya in 1986, it could not provide an ideological substitute for the Cold War.

Indeed, several forces in US society had blocked the apparent intention of the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s to intervene directly in Nicaragua. Despite the popularity of the Reagan presidency, there was strong resistance to intervention from the public, from within the armed forces (especially the army) and from the Catholic church.

Such opposition from the army and church marked a significant change from the Vietnam era. The church, for example, had then been united behind US policy (in fact, President Ngo Dinh Diem of 1 South Vietnam was a devout

Catholic who had been groomed for leadership by Cardinal Spellman while in exile in the United States).

In this sense the United ations played a major role in ie build-up to the war, but not st%bsequently. The claim that tha: was a UN war worked well with both the European and US public, reinforced by the presentation of Saddam Hussein as a leader who personified evil and had built up a dangerous war machine.

It was seen as a good war, perhaps the first good war since the second World War, and certainly since the Korean war 40 years earlier. It had received UN blessing and the organisation's formal procedures had been followed.

Such a collective response was understood as an alternative both to appeasement, which had failed to stop Hitler in the presecond World War period, and to a deliberate policy of war. But as the January 15 deadline approached, it became increasingly clear that a quite different politics lay behind the use of the UN and the rhetoric of a new world order: that the main US concern was not to get Iraq out of Kuwait but to demonstrate in the post-Cold War world that the United States was able and willing to guarantee the interests of "world capitalism" and uphold the security concerns of the industrialised world. Geopolitically the Gulf war can be seen as the first resource war of the new international era.

But once it had given the mandate, the UN was predictably marginalised, as was most of the coalition. Even Kuwait was reduced to a minor player during the course of the war. Decisions over what to do, how to fight, what weapons to use, how far to carry the mandate, were all made by the White House, a few advisors and the main military commanders.

This usurpation of authority was not challenged by the other members of the coalition except indirectly and in the most discreet manner. The Soviet Union did seek to avoid a ground war with its February peace initiative; and, in response, the Iraqi government, including Saddam Hussein, did show a clear willingness to withdraw promptly and unconditionally from Kuwait — alleged, even by Bush, to be the sole purpose of the war.

But the White House had its own plans and did not at all welcome the Soviet effort.

It made no attempt to hide its concern that unilateral withdrawal by Iraq would undermine its real aims.

And the real aim of the war, the definition of which had been influenced by Israel from the outset, was to destroy Iraq's status in the region as a strong military and political force.

What is so disturbing about this whole pattern is that very few influential voices were to be heard anywhere objecting to the manipulation of both the UN and of world public opinion. The war succeeded politically in the United States beyond the wildest dreams of its planners. No US president can receive the 91 per cent approval rate that Bush temporarily enjoyed — not even Jesus.

Such enthusiasm for victory in war poses fundamental questions for the future. For the political culture of constitutional democracies in the industrialised world would appear to be comfortable with the North's use of violence in the South of the world. The initial reluctance to go to war with Iraq was not a reluctance to kill others or to project US military power, but a fear that war would not work, would be divisive and expensive, and would lead to a loss of American lives.

The Vietnam syndrome that Bush complained about was not an objection to military intervention in the third world, but to unsuccessful military intervention. The Iraqi military machine had been presented as the fourth largest in the world.

So when the US-led allies scored such a comprehensive and spectactacular military victory with what were referred to as "miraculously low casualties", the Rambo mentality achieved full expression in the United States and Britain. The war became a demonstration of, the vitality and technological superiority of the two societies. This was especially important in the United States, as it countered the country's growing sense of inferiority in relation to Japan and to Europe.

The popularity of the Gulf war has confirmed one's worst fears about the political culture that has emerged in the West, carrying to its logical extreme the whole pattern of global conflict since 1945. For it is in the South where all the significant fighting and dying has occurred. The only exceptions, and they are minor by comparison, have been the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Soviet intervention in Ilungary in 1956 which cost a thousand lives, and the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974 which took several thousand lives.

It is mainly sophisticated diplomatic historians who regard the period since the second World War as "the long peace". John I.ewis Gaddis, one of the most careful analysts of the strategy behind the Cold War, has argued that it has given Europe and the North the longest period of peace since ancient times. The long peace was quite compatible with the idea that geopolitical wars between East and West to ensure the dominance of the North could be fought indefinitely in the third world.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war, the LIS government and its closest allies have expressed an idealistic intention to bring peace and security to this tormented region. So far these claims have been no more than that and their credibility will be tested by several issues.

It is crucial for those in Europe and North America who opposed the war to continue their struggle to publicise the real issues that lay behind it. For the war and its aftermath are of fundamental significance to the peoples of the Middle East, to North-South relations, and to Christian-Moslem dialogue. The peace movement faces an unprecedented challenge in its efforts to put forward positive, persuasive proposals for achievement of global security and world justice.

We should also have no illusions about the degree to which the people will oppose state militarism in a democratic society. Victory in the Gulf war met with such popular enthusiasm that the phenomenon cannot be explained away simply as the inevitable effect of state propaganda on media manipulation.

The political culture of the industrialised North embraces successful wars of domination and exploitation, particularly those with a racial or religio,: overtone, and this has disturbing implications for the free functioning of constitutional democracy.

Believers in the North in the potential of democracy must not only support the struggle of peoples in the Middle East for human and democratic rights. We must also seek to remedy the deformations that have crept into our own political culture, reinforcing militarism and a supremacist worldview, Richard Falk is professor of international law at Princeton University and a consultant to the US Senate foreign relations committee.

Extracts from "How the West mobilised for war" by Richard Falk taken from Beyond the Gulf War: The Middle East and the New World Order, edited by John Gittings, published on August I by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, £5.99. © CIIR 1991.

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