Scenarios and speculations at the edge of the cliff

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It seems that we are finally at the very edge of “shock and awe” in Iraq, hardly, as William Arkin points out in his latest piece of military analysis in the Los Angeles Times below, the newest of strategies. The Mongols used it back in the 13th century, burning down a Baghdad that wouldn’t surrender along with its fabulous, possibly unique libraries of that moment. Thousands of volumes were lost forever to posterity as today a war might destroy some of the most ancient monuments of human history.

“Six thousand years ago,” Simon Jenkins tells us in A war for civilization by philistines in the British Times online, “Mesopotamia saw the earliest manifestation of Western culture. It is now to see the latest. An estimated 10,000 archaeological sites remain, most as yet unexcavated. Many will now be excavated for the first and last time… The Art Newspaper has published an awesome list of Iraqi sites near bases, factories and scientific works, some of them damaged by bombing errors in 1991. They include the world’s oldest brick arch at Ctesiphon, undermined by an earthquake bomb and now vulnerable to any further shock.” The great ziggurat and sacred court of Ur, the 6,000 year old ancient Sumerian city, he tells us, “are now pitted with 400 shells from a misguided strafing and bombing raid by an American jet in 1991. They were intended for the nearby Tallil air-base, which the US afterwards protested should not have been sited so near the monument. Yet the base was put there not by Iraq, but by the British.”) Will we then be considered the Mongols of our time?

Though I’ve been writing about this war-to-come since at least last fall, I find it unbelievably sad and unforgivable that we seem finally at the edge of this particular cliff. Every day war doesn’t happen seems valuable to me. I continue to wonder what might still step between it and us. What if the inspectors aren’t withdrawn by the UN or Blix and Barradei suddenly do accept Iraq’s invitation and fly to Baghdad? What if a sudden full-scale revolt in the Labor Party should unseat or unhinge Blair? Of course it’s all desperately unlikely, but as I marched in a demonstration in San Francisco on Sunday with a dear old friend, a fabulous ragtag band of antiwar tuba players, clarinetists, and drummers, and a nearby group in wedding dresses who called themselves the Brides of March (a warning, of course, about the folly of launching a war on the ides of March), and noted the ever angrier signs, I couldn’t help wondering whether all hope was truly gone.

Should you want to check out a piece of writing that catches the sadness of this moment in an unexpected and — for me — almost unbearable way find Tony Kushner’s fantasy of a meeting between Laura Bush, an angel, and three dead Iraqi children in “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy” in the March 24th Nation magazine (which does not seem to be online).

The human mind is a prediction machine. We can’t help ourselves. Scenarios race through our heads. Stories about moments to come are always with us. At least the futuristic fi of scifi is more or less who we are. Unfortunately, we’re terrible speculators. We misread the future constantly, which is hardly surprising since it — even this infernal war — has not yet been made.

The military exists, it seems, to speculate, often badly, about future events. It’s called war planning, and the thought that generals always refight the last war more or less sums up the consensus on how well our war planners do the job. And the media like the military now seems to exist not so much to report on the present but to guess — endlessly, loudly, and badly — about the future. Perhaps the difference between the military and the media is that military men generally have to pay for their mistaken speculations, while the pundits of the media never even have to acknowledge that they’ve guessed wrong. Look at George Stephanopolis who was laughably wrong night after night for ABC news during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Now he has his own show.

As for me, I wish I knew what was going to happen, since endless speculations fill my head. Instant regime collapse or a months long siege of Baghdad? Iraqi army surrenders, a coup, or last-ditch, house to house fighting, or both, or something I can’t even begin to imagine? I just have no idea. So instead I thought I might simply loose speculations by others on you. Below William Arkin speculates about the scenarios that the military has wrapped itself in. Then Immanuel Wallerstein in one of his bimonthly essays lays out a wild set of possibilities in a Bush loses (or Bush breaks even and loses later scenario). Finally, Mark Le Vine at the Alternet website offers a Bush wins scenario and warns the antiwar opposition to ignore it at their peril.

I suppose my only speculation right now is this: Whether in the short run Bush wins or loses, it seems to me that we all lose from the mad act of loosing techno-war on a largely helpless populace, a huge city, and a region already at the edge of chaos. I don’t predict a world in rubble, I simply fear it. Tom

Will ‘Shock and Awe’ Be Sufficient?
By William M. Arkin
The Los Angeles Times

March 16, 2003

“Analysts write about war as if it’s a ballet,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said after Operation Desert Storm, “like it’s choreographed ahead of time, and when the orchestra strikes up and starts playing, everyone goes out there and plays a set piece.”

“It is choreographed,” he continued, but “what happens is, the orchestra starts playing and some son of a bitch climbs out of the orchestra pit with a bayonet and starts chasing you around the stage. And the choreography goes right out the window.”

Senior leaders of the U.S. military believe they have planned for the unexpected problems they’re certain to face. “What you do is you go down through all the worst-case scenarios,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters March 4. “We worry about many, many worst-case scenarios.”

To read more Arkin click here

“Bush Bets All He Has”
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 109
March 15, 2003

The United States is in deep trouble. The President of the United States has taken an enormous gamble, and done it from a fundamentally weak position. He decided a year ago or so that the U.S. would make war on Iraq. He did this in order to demonstrate the overwhelming military superiority of the United States and to accomplish two primary objectives: 1) intimidate all potential nuclear proliferators into abandoning their projects; 2) squash all European ideas of an autonomous political role in the world-system.

Thus far, Bush has been magnificently unsuccessful. North Korea and Iran (and perhaps others as yet unobserved) have actually speeded up their proliferation projects. France and Germany have shown what it means to be autonomous. And the United States is not able to get any of the six Third World countries on the Security Council to vote a second resolution on Iraq. So, like a reckless gambler, Bush is about to go for broke. He will launch a war in a very short time, and bet that he can achieve an overwhelming and rapid victory. The bet is very simple. Bush believes that if the U.S. does achieve this kind of military result, both the proliferators and the Europeans will repent of their ways and accept U.S. decisions in the future.

There are two possible military outcomes: the one Bush wants (and expects), and a different one. How likely is it that Bush achieves the rapid capitulation of the Iraqis?

The Pentagon says they have the weaponry and will do it rapidly. A long list of retired generals, both American and British, have voiced their skepticism. My guess (and for me that is all it is) is that the outcome of rapid, total victory is not very likely. I think that a combination of the desperate determination of the Iraqi leadership plus an upsurge of Iraqi nationalism plus the announced unwillingness of the Kurds to fight Saddam (not because they don’t hate him but because they distrust profoundly U.S. intentions with regard to them) will make it extremely difficult for the U.S. to end the war in a matter of weeks. It will probably take many months, and once it takes many months, who can predict where the winds will blow, first of all in British and then U.S. public opinion?

Nevertheless, suppose the U.S. wins quickly. I would say that, at that point, Bush comes out merely even – not a winner, but not a loser. Why do I say that? Because a victory will leave the geopolitical situation more or less where it is today. First of all, there is the question of what happens in Iraq the day after victory? The least one can say is that no one knows, and it is not at all clear that the U.S. itself has a clear vision of what it wants to do. What we do know is that the interests at play are multiple, diverse, and totally uncoordinated. That is a scenario for anarchic confusion.

For the U.S. to play a significant role in the postwar decision-making will require a long-term commitment of troops and a lot of money (really a lot of money). Anyone who looks at the U.S. economic situation and the internal politics of the U.S. knows that the Bush administration would have a very hard job leaving troops there very long and an even harder job obtaining the money it would need to play the political game.

In addition, all the other problems facing the world would remain intact. First of all, there would be even less likelihood than now that there could be any progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state. The Israeli government would take a U.S. victory as vindication for its tough line, and simply make it tougher. The Arab world would get even angrier, if that’s possible. Iran certainly will not stop its drive for nuclear proliferation. Iran will probably, on the contrary, be feeling its oats in the region with Saddam Hussein out of the way. North Korea would step up its provocations, and South Korea would get even more uncomfortable with its U.S. ally and the latter’s penchant for military action. And France is likely to dig in for the long haul. So, as I say, a rapid U.S. military victory in Iraq would leave us with the geopolitical status quo – which is certainly not what the U.S. hawks intend.

But suppose the military victory is not rapid. What then? In that case, the whole operation is a geopolitical disaster for the U.S. Pandemonium will break out, and the U.S. will have as little influence on its future outcome as say Italy, which is to say not very much at all. Why do I say that? Think of what will happen, first of all in Iraq itself. Iraqi resistance will turn Saddam Hussein into a hero, and he will certainly know how to exploit that sentiment. The Iranians and the Turks will both send their troops into the Kurdish north, and probably end up fighting each other. The Kurds may side for the moment with the Iranians. If that happens, the Shiite groups in the south of Iraq will keep their distance from the U.S. military efforts. The Saudis may offer themselves as unwelcome mediators, and will probably be rejected by both sides.

Elsewhere in the region, the Hezbollah will probably attack the Israelis, who will riposte and probably try to occupy southern Lebanon. Will the Syrians then enter that war, to try to save the Hezbollah and, more generally, their role in Lebanon? Quite possible, but if so, the Israelis will bomb Damascus (maybe with nuclear weapons). Will the Egyptians then sit still? And oh yes, there is that fellow, Osama bin Laden, who will no doubt be doing the usual thing he likes to do.

And Europe? There will probably be a major revolt in the Labor Party in the U.K., which might end up with a split in the party. Blair might take his rump out and form a national emergency coalition with the Tories. He would still be Prime Minister, but there would be great pressure for new elections, and Blair would probably lose, and lose badly. And then there is the little matter of the warning Blair received from legal advisors that, if the British went into Iraq without U.N. explicit endorsement, he could be brought up on charges before the International Criminal Court. Aznar’s electoral prospects in Spain have become similarly doubtful, given extensive opposition within his own party to Spain’s position. Berlusconi and the East/Central Europeans will start to get very cold feet.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, one will say goodbye to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or in Spanish ALCA). Instead, Lula will press for the reinvigoration of Mercosur as a trade and currency structure, and might even get Chile to come into it. Fox will be in deep trouble in Mexico. In Southeast Asia, the two largest Muslim nations (Indonesia and Malaysia), both of which presently have governments essentially friendly to the U.S., may try to emulate Europe in creating a zone of autonomous action. There will be great pressure on the Philippine government to send the U.S. military home. And China is likely to tell Japan that it had better loosen its political ties with the U.S. if it expects to continue to have an economic future in the region.

In early 2004, where will all this leave the Bush regime? It will leave it facing a rapidly growing antiwar movement in the United States, which might actually swing the Democratic Party into a real opposition to Bush’s global policies. Not easy, but quite possible. If so, the Democrats could probably win the elections.

If all this happens, Bush will indeed have achieved regime change – in Great Britain, Spain, and the United States. And the United States will no longer be regarded as an invincible military superpower. So, to resume, if Bush wins, he faces a geopolitical status quo, which is far less than he wants. And if he loses, he really loses. I would say the odds are not very promising. The historians will record that there was no need for the U.S. after September 11 to put itself in this impossible position.
Immanuel Wallerstein

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‘Bush Wins’: The Left’s Nightmare Scenario
Mark LeVine,
March 13, 2003

As the American-imposed deadline for Iraqi “disarmament” approaches, the antiwar movement seems to be counting on one of two scenarios to frustrate the plans of the Bush Administration.

The first is an optimistic “We Win” scenario, which would result from massive protests and diplomatic pressure forcing President Bush to postpone an invasion indefinitely. (What has yet to be addressed is what exactly we win if Hussein remains indefinitely in power and the sanctions go on killing Iraqis.) With war seemingly imminent, the movement is being forced to fall back on a second scenario, “Everyone Loses,” in which the warnings of a protracted and bloody war that destabilizes the Middle East and increases terrorism bear their bitter fruit.

Mark LeVine, Ph.D., spent six years recently researching and reporting from the Middle East, including Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. He is an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of California at Irvine.

To read more LeVine click here