A world for which there is no analogy

Posted on

Last night late I lay down and read the President’s liberate-Iraq, turn-the-Middle-East-into-a-new-Garden-of-Eden speech at the American Enterprise Institute. It was stuffed with wish-fulfilling visions, fantasy, euphemism, hypocrisy (“In confronting Iraq, the United States is also showing our commitment to effective international institutions.”), and triumphalism. (“Across the world, we are hunting down the [Al Qaeda] killers one by one. We are winning, and we’re showing them the definition of American justice.”)

Like all other right-thinking Americans, the President, I noted, has no interest in letting the word “oil” slip through his smirking lips. Instead, oil has transmuted via this administration’s alchemist’s stone into something far vaguer and less greedy sounding: “Iraq’s natural resources” as in “We will seek to protect Iraq’s natural resources from sabotage by a dying regime…” I was trying to think what other “natural resources” in Iraq might be sabotaged by a dying regime. What else is there to sabotage at this point (other than priceless archaeological sites)?

I was also struck by the President’s — or his speechwriters’ — attraction to historical analogy. Once again, the post-World War II occupations of Japan and Germany are cited as reasonable benchmarks when considering a postwar Iraq. (“Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own. We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments…” and so on.) This at a moment, by the way, when the civilian leadership of the Pentagon is bitterly and publicly arguing with Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki over whether we’ll need a military force of 100,000 or 300, 000 to police post war Iraq. (All those flowers to catch from the cheering crowds.)

Of course, the Japanese and German occupations have come up many times in recent months and the dissimilarities between postwar Japan and Germany and a postwar Iraq have been much discussed. Interestingly, however, the other side of the analogy, far more devastatingly off-base, has hardly been explored.

In 1945, as World War II ended, the United States stood triumphant over a world whose industrial heartland lay in ruins. Its destiny, its sense of triumphalism, seemed fulfilled. The “American Century,” proclaimed in the pages of LIFE magazine by owner Henry Luce only in 1943, lay shimmeringly ahead. Europe, Japan, and all of Eastern Russia were rubble. Scenes we would now identify with Chechnya or Liberia (or perhaps soon Iraq) — streams of refugees, acts of horror beyond imagining, terror and war of the most brutal sort — had taken place in the heart of “civilization.” On the other hand, the American economy was booming. Our society stood at the very edge of what would become the consumer revolution — toasters, finned automobiles, and TV dinners beyond imagining — our land was untouched by war, our military powerful and technologically advanced.

The occupations of Japan and Germany, as well as the resuscitation of Europe through the Marshall Plan, took place in the context of an America transcendent and a world on its proverbial knees. Stalin’s Russian had a mighty military, of course, but a completely devastated land. Think now about the present moment, even if, like our President, you assume the equivalency of postwar Japan and postwar Iraq (“There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken…” etc.)

The only real parallel between then and now is perhaps military in that we stand militarily ascendant. But, as Immanuel Wallerstein indicates below, our economy is another matter. Even were we eager to launch a Marshall Plan by ourselves in the Middle East (and note the “many nations” the President claims must revive Iraq, with us but another name on a long list), we would be incapable of doing so. Just take a look at Paul Krugman’s column, “No Relief in Sight,” in the New York Times today if you want to get a sense of our limping economic state — and that’s without imagining oil prices that refuse to stop soaring, or the costs of mobilization and war that haven’t even been included in the budget (an almost Enronish financial sleight of hand), or the possibility that something will go wrong in a future war.

As a friend was pointing out to me yesterday, there’s been remarkably little writing about the ways in which this war — or simply endless war or the garrisoning of the earth — could hurt the American economy. What if, in fact, for all its military might, the United States is in fact an empire in economic decline? How does the occupation analogy look then? That’s why reading the scholar Immanuel Wallerstein’s commentaries — the latest of which follows — is so bracing. He’s a declinist. It gives him quite a different perspective on our present situation. He sees the full-speed-ahead Bush war policies as simply speeding American decline. To subscribe to his bimonthly commentaries just go to his website and sign on.

I think you can feel in the country as well as the administration, the skin-deep nature of our present triumphalist moment. (Otherwise they wouldn’t be in such a hurry for war.) In fact, unlike in 1945, most Americans feel, I suspect, anything but triumphalist and whatever dregs of a now ancient American victory culture might surface as war with Iraq begins (if it does), the effect may prove even briefer than in the last Gulf War.

If we were once again to think analogously about the post-1945 era, my childhood years, what’s left is not the triumphalism, but the fear and hysteria, which in the 1950s lay just under that “golden age.” Then, too, they were stoked by the government. Then, too, just underneath the official fears lay a fear of a futureless world. Now, however, futurelessness isn’t the minor key. (Take a look, for instance, at Paul Rogers latest piece, “On the Nuclear Slope,” on the administration’s attempt to incorporate nuclear weapons into the everyday war-fighting arsenal.)

With that in mind, I offer below a bizarre little piece from the Los Angeles Times that, no less than Wallerstein, catches something of our moment. State Farm Insurance Co. has just announced that its auto policies will not cover damage from a nuclear blast or from radioactive fallout.

My guess is that at most times people feel the world is on the cusp of something. But what if indeed we are? What if, in fact, our search for historical analogies — as the best writers and thinkers have been doing, as Wallerstein himself does in his final paragraph — is a search for the comfort of knowing that this perilous moment isn’t really so unique, when in fact we are at a moment for which analogies may be painfully scarce, where nothing in our past, our history, quite applies. Tom

“The Righteous War”
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 107
February 15, 2003

George Bush is about to lead the valiant troops into battle in righteous war against the despotic tyrant. He will not turn back, no matter what pusillanimous or venal European politicians, major religious figures around the world, retired generals, and other erstwhile friends of liberty and the U.S. may think or do. Never has a war had so much prior discussion and so little backing from world public opinion. No matter! The decision for war, based on a calculus of American power was made in the White House a long time ago.

We have to ask ourselves why. To begin with, we have to lay to rest two major theories about the motivations of the U.S. government that have been insistently put forth. The first is that of those who favor the war. They argue that Saddam Hussein is a vicious tyrant who presents an imminent danger to world peace, and the earlier he is confronted the more likely he can be stopped from doing the damage he intends to do. The second theory is put forward primarily by opponents of the war. They argue that the U.S. is interested in controlling world oil. Iraq is a key element in the edifice. Overthrowing Hussein would put the U.S. in the driver’s seat.

Neither thesis holds much water. Virtually everyone around the world agrees that Saddam Hussein is a vicious tyrant but very few are persuaded he is an imminent danger to world peace. Most people regard him as a careful player of the geopolitical game. He is accumulating so-called weapons of mass destruction, to be sure. But it is doubtful he would use them against anyone now for fear of the reprisals. He is certainly less likely, not more likely, to use them than North Korea. He is in a tight political corner and, were absolutely nothing done, he would probably be unable to move out of it. As for the links with Al-Qaeda, the whole affair lacks credibility. He may play tactically and marginally with Al-Qaeda, but not one-tenth as intensively as the U.S. government did for a long time. In any case, should Al-Qaeda grow stronger, he is near the top of their list for liquidation as an apostate. These charges of the U.S. government are propaganda, not explanations. The motives must be other.

What about the alternative view, that it’s all about oil? No doubt oil is a crucial element in the operation of the world-economy. And no doubt the United States, like all the other major powers, would like to control the oil situation as much as it can.
And no doubt, were Saddam Hussein to be overthrown, there might be some reshuffling of the world oil cards. But is the game worth the candle? There are three things about oil that are important: participating in the profits of the oil industry; regulating the world price of oil (which has such a great impact on all other kinds of production); and access of supply (and potential denial of access to others). In all three matters, the U.S. is doing quite well right now. U.S. oil firms have a lion’s share of the world profits at the present time. The price of oil has been regulated to U.S. preferences most of the time since 1945, via the efforts of the government of Saudi Arabia. And the U.S. has a fairly good hold on the strategic control of world oil supply. In each of these three domains, perhaps the U.S. position could be improved.
But can this slight improvement possibly be worth the financial, economic, and political cost of the war? Precisely because Bush and Cheney have been in the oil business, they must surely be aware of how small would be the advantage. Oil can be at most a collateral benefit of an enterprise undertaken for other motives.

So why then? We start with the reasoning of the hawks. They believe that the world position of the United States has been steadily declining since at least the Vietnam War. They believe that the basic explanation for this decline is the fact that U.S. governments have been weak and vacillating in their world policies. (They believe this is even true of the Reagan administration, although they do not dare to say this aloud.) They see a remedy, a simple remedy. The U.S. must assert itself forcefully and demonstrate its iron will and its overwhelming military superiority. Once that is done, the rest of the world will recognize and accept U.S. primacy in everything. The Europeans will fall into line. The potential nuclear powers will abandon their projects. The U.S. dollar will once again rise supreme. The Islamic fundamentalists will fade away or be crushed. And we shall enter into a new era of prosperity and high profit.

We need to understand that they really believe all of this, and with a great sense of certitude and determination. That is why all the public debate, worldwide, about the wisdom of launching a war has been falling on deaf ears. They are deaf because they are absolutely sure that everyone else is wrong, and furthermore that shortly everyone else will realize that they have been wrong. It is important to note one further element in the self-confidence of the hawks. They believe that a swift and relatively easy military victory is at hand – a war of weeks, not of months and certainly not of still longer. The fact that virtually all the prominent retired generals in the U.S. and the U.K. have publicly stated their doubts on this military assessment is simply ignored. The hawks (almost all civilians) do not even bother to answer them. One doesn’t know, of course, how many U.S. and U.K. generals still in service are saying, or at least thinking, the same thing.

The full-speed-ahead, torpedoes-be-damned attitude of the Bush administration has already had four major negative effects on the world position of the United States. Anyone with the most elementary knowledge of geopolitics would know that, after 1945, the one coalition the United States had to fear was that of France, Germany, and Russia. U.S. policy has been geared to rendering this impossible. Every time there was the slightest hint of such a coalition, the U.S. mobilized to break away at least one of the three. This was true when DeGaulle made his early gestures to Moscow in 1945-46, and when Willy Brandt announced the Ostpolitik. There are all sorts of reasons why it has been quite difficult to put together such an alliance. George Bush has overcome the obstacles and achieved the realization of this nightmare for the U.S. For the first time since 1945, these three powers have lined up publicly together against the U.S. on a major issue. U.S. reaction to this public stand is having the effect of cementing the alliance further. If Donald Rumsfeld thinks that waving the support of Albania and Macedonia, or even Poland and Hungary, in their face sends shivers up the spines of the new trio, he must be very naive indeed.

The logical riposte to a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis would be for the U.S. to enter into a geopolitical alliance with China, Korea, and Japan. The U.S. hawks are making sure that such a riposte will not be easily achieved. They have goaded North Korea into displaying its teeth of steel, offended South Korea by not taking its concerns seriously, made China more suspicious than before, and led Japan to think about becoming a nuclear power. Bravo!

Then there’s oil. Controlling the world price of oil is the most important of the three oil issues mentioned earlier. Saudi Arabia has been the key. Saudi Arabia has done the work for the U.S. for 50 years for a simple reason. It needed the military protection of the U.S. for the dynasty. The U.S. rush to war, its obvious ricochet effect on the Muslim world, the open disdain of the U.S. hawks for the Saudis, the virtually full support for Sharon have led the Saudis to wonder, out loud, whether U.S. support is not an albatross rather than a mode of sustaining them. For the first time, the faction in the royal house that favors loosening its links with the U.S. seems to be gaining the upper hand. The U.S. is not going to find easily a substitute for the Saudis. Remember that the Saudis have always been more important for U.S. geopolitical interests than Israel. The U.S. supports Israel for internal political reasons. It has supported the Saudi regime because it has needed them. The U.S. can survive without Israel. Can it survive the political turmoil in the Musim world without Saudi support?

Finally, U.S. administrations have been valiantly trying to stop nuclear proliferation for fifty years. The Bush administration has managed in two short years to get North Korea, and now Iran, to speed up their programs, and not to be afraid to indicate this publicly. If the U.S. uses nuclear devices in Iraq, as it has hinted it may, it will not merely break the taboo, but it will ensure a speedy race of a dozen more countries to acquire these devices.

If the Iraq war goes splendidly for the U.S., perhaps the U.S. can recuperate a little from these four geopolitical setbacks. If the war goes badly, each negative will be immediately reinforced. I have been reading recently about the Crimean War, in which Great Britain and France went to war against the Russian tyrant in the name of civilization, Christianity, and the struggle for liberty. A British historian wrote in 1923 of these motives: “What Englishmen condemn is almost always worthy of condemnation, if only it has happened.” The Times of London was in 1853 one of the strongest supporters of the war. In 1859, the editors wrote their regret: “Never was so great an effort made for so worthless an object. It is with no small reluctance that we admit a gigantic effort and an infinite sacrifice to have been made in vain.” When George Bush leaves office, he will have left the United States significantly weaker than it was when he assumed office. He will have turned a slow decline into a much speedier one. Will the New York Times write a similar editorial in 2005?
Immanuel Wallerstein

[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 [email protected]; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

Insurer Adds Nuclear Exclusion for Cars
State Farm is telling policyholders it won’t cover damage caused by blasts or fallout.
By Kathy M. Kristof
The Los Angeles Times
February 27, 2003

With the United States on the brink of war in Iraq and North Korea test-firing missiles, State Farm Insurance Cos. is issuing a timely, if chilling, notice to customers: It won’t cover auto damage caused by nuclear blasts or radioactive fallout.

“No insurance company could withstand the financial impact of insuring a nuclear accident,” Bill Sirola, a spokesman for the nation’s largest automobile insurer, said Wednesday.

Never mind that filing an auto insurance claim may be the least of people’s worries should a nuclear strike occur.

Since Sept. 11, most insurance companies have been reassessing their exposure to potential losses from terrorism, including the possibility of an attack using a nuclear device or radioactive materials.

To read more of this LA Times piece click here