A three hundred year trend

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I recommend the seemingly modest piece below by former UN planner Andrew Mack. It takes on the hopeless question asked (always too late) of any critic of American policy – So what would you do? At one level, it’s a ridiculous question and you almost want to say, “Now you ask?” Because by the time it’s raised, you’ve been backed into a policy corner, and in the case of Iraq you’d really want to backpedal maybe twenty-odd years and go at things quite differently. But, of course, it’s also a question that must be dealt with.

And Mack does so in a particularly thoughtful way. What he points to is a thirty-year-old trend: Around the world in the last decades authoritarian regimes have dropped like flies, thanks mainly to the (often peaceful) resistance of their own peoples and the hopeless brutishness of those who governed them. As a former UN planner he’s unlikely to resort to an older language of the left, but really what he’s proposing is that we have faith not in force (no less imperial force) but in the people and their inherent power to resist.

Faith in the power of the people seems these days like a stale sentiment, if not a dreadful cliché, until we pause a moment and consider history. Then Mack’s thirty-year trend becomes something more like a three hundred year trend in which the power of the people, sometimes a whirlwind of violence but more recently (as in the Soviet empire) often a whirlwind of nonviolence has felled every monarchy, every autocracy, every colonial power, every imperial pretender, every great power with the urge to dominate — leaving behind only a group of tinpot dictators like Saddam and, as it turned out, one great, triumphalist imperial power, us. It’s an extraordinary record that no one — other than Jonathan Schell in a remarkable book to be published next year — seems to have quite recognized. It is the lesson of modern history and one might think, as Mack suggests, that it would be a starting point for dealing with Iraq and much else.

Put that lesson up against the actual record of brute force and of the support of brute force in Iraq and it would seem a slam dunk what to decide — and yet no one’s looking. So far, after all, American policy in Iraq has involved supporting a regime that committed horrific crimes in war (against Iran) and against its own Kurdish minority with many tens of thousands dying; then fighting a war against the same Iraqi regime in which many more tens of thousands died (and though few Americans died in battle, many American soldiers returned with debilitating, if ill-defined illnesses); then helping impose and enforce terrible economic sanctions on the same regime, which seem to have indirectly caused the deaths of many tens of thousands, largely children. None of which even dislodged the tyrant who rules Iraq; all of which has now led back to what brilliant policy breakthrough? Yes, the possibility of a new war in which tens of thousands are once again likely to die, the Iraqi social infrastructure once again to be torn apart, huge numbers of refugees created, depleted uranium shells scattered across the landscape, and that might be only the beginning of things to come. Twenty years of such policy-making should, by definition, add up to a failed policy of monumental proportions in human, if not necessarily imperial terms — and now we should believe that, with a mega-version of the same policy, these men will bring peace and democracy to Iraq and the region? (What imperial power, after all, hasn’t taken what it wanted in the name of something good and civilized?)

Of course, just to say that a policy has failed is hardly to prove than an alternate one would have succeeded. Still, I think I prefer the modesty of Andrew Mack and his faith in the people of Iraq.

I’ve also added below a piece by Conn Hallinan, provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz, from the always interesting Foreign Policy in Focus website, on the levels of postwar devastation the last Gulf War caused among Americans who fought there. (Though I can’t confirm the various figures he cites, I find FPIP a very reliable site.) By the way, for a devastating account of how the US used economic sanctions as a weapon of war, you need to dig up November’s Harper’s magazine and look at Joy Gordon’s piece, “Cool War: Economic sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction.” Unfortunately, Harper’s obdurately refuses to put their material on line. Here’s a tiny snippet of that long piece. Tom


“…I obtained these documents on the condition that my sources remain anonymous. What they show is that the United States has fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country. And it has done so in the face of enormous human suffering, including massive increases in child mortality and widespread epidemics.

“It has sometimes given a reason for its refusal to approve humanitarian goods, sometimes given no reason at all, and sometimes changed its reason three or four times, in each instance causing a delay of months.

“Since August 1991 the United States has blocked most purchases of materials necessary for Iraq to generate electricity, as well as equipment for radio, telephone, and other communications. Often restrictions have hinged on the withholding of a single essential element, rendering many approved items useless….”

Containing Saddam
by Andrew Mack, December 16, 2002, The Nation

Critics of America’s plans to oust Saddam Hussein militarily have mounted powerful arguments, but not one has articulated a coherent nonmilitary strategy to bring about the demise of the monstrous Iraqi regime. But there is an alternative strategy, one inspired by an extraordinary but little-noticed political trend that has been under way for more than thirty years. During this period the number of authoritarian regimes around the world has dropped by more than half.

In almost none of these transitions did the regime succumb to the sort of coercive economic sanctions that have crippled Iraq’s economy over the past decade, nor to an external military assault like the one the United States is now planning. In most cases the overthrow of dictators–Albania’s Hoxha, Romania’s Ceausescu, Serbia’s Milosevic and dozens of other brutal autocrats — has taken even close observers by surprise.

To read more of this article from The Nation, click here.


Coming Home
By Conn Hallinan, November 25, 2002, Foreign Policy in Focus

Every time I hear the likes of Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, or Senator Lieberman go on about war with Iraq, it reminds me of a history lesson Congress should keep in mind when it begins its debate over Iraq: wars are waged with the bodies of the young, and they always come home.

The 1991 Gulf War is a case in point. As wars go, it was a slam-dunk for the U.S. side. While Iraqi casualties were somewhere between 85,000 to 100,000, the U.S lost 148 soldiers in combat, the majority of those the victims of so-called “friendly fire.”

Gulf War II is likely to be a repeat.

To read more of this article from Foreign Policy in Focus, click here.