Saturday, September 16, 2006

Are Americans Stupid?

Are the citizens of the United States stupid?

Let’s consider this carefully. Bush uses the reaction to 9/11 to push the US into a war to topple Saddam. He claims that Iraq is a threat to US security and that Saddam is somehow linked to 9/11. Both these claims were widely disputed at the time, and both have since been shown to be wrong. Indeed it is now clear that the Bush administration itself believed in neither the threat nor the link. So why did Bush drive so hard for war in Iraq? Presumably this had something to do with the hubristic notion that the US, as sole superpower, can create reality. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and others bear a heavy responsibility for this. Another factor was no doubt the urge to finish what daddy had started. Perhaps to avenge, in some obscure way, daddy’s failure to finish off Saddam when he had the chance. Perhaps a factor was indeed oil – at the very least to the extent that oil ultimately underlies all western policy towards the Middle East.

So Bush pushes the US into an unnecessary war in Iraq. What are the consequences of this? Could these consequences have been foreseen before the war started?

Any war has immense costs in human lives and human suffering, in the destruction of infrastructure and national wealth, in bitterness, alienation and anger. This one has all of that, in spades. The cost in lives is borne firstly by Iraqis, then by American GI’s, then by the soldiers of the other countries involved, and finally by miscellaneous journalists, foreign workers, and others caught up in it.

A further consequence of this particular war is that Afghanistan, which is where 9/11 truly did originate, has been neglected. The Afghanistan war was certainly necessary. It was a necessary response to the 9/11 outrage, waged on a government that openly supported Al-Qaida, and that would have continued to do so had they not been removed. But the war in Iraq prevented the necessary follow-up and nation building that was required in Afghanistan. Without that follow-up Afghanistan would/will revert within a few years to the same state it was in before the war.

So the focus on Iraq threatens to undo the gains of the successful war in Afghanistan. Imagine if the hundreds of billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of troops, that have gone into Iraq had instead been used to build and stabilize Afghanistan. That would surely have created a stable, friendly nation of growing prosperity at the heart of what has always been a region of dangerous instability. The benefits would have flowed on to increased stability and growth in Pakistan and other surrounding nations, and would have been an ongoing rebuke to the medieval Iranian government instead of a goad and an opportunity for that difficult country.

So instead of a horrible but stable and ultimately doomed government in Iraq and a friendly and stable government in Afganistan, we have the latter reeling under a resurgent Taliban while NATO troops fight a war that they don’t have the means to win, and we have a war without end in Iraq. So far so stupid.

But that is just one set of consequences of the war in Iraq. Lets examine further the geo-strategic picture. The Iraqi conflict has now evolved into a civil war. I know that Bush and his people don’t accept this characterisation, but they have a powerful incentive not to. Thousands of people are dying every month, only a fraction of them occupying troops. This is a civil war. It seems highly likely that the result will be a fracturing of the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia dominated entities. In effect this has already happened. The consequence of that is massive long-term instability in the Middle East, adding risk both to America’s oil supply and to America’s great ally, Israel. Another consequence is vastly increased influence for Iran, a Shia nation and America’s great enemy, in the Shia dominated new Iraq – a neat irony. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the rest of them should take a bow at this point – they already look like geopolitical geniuses and we have only just started.

Lets look at some other consequences of the war in Iraq. The affect of the invasion of Iraq on Muslim opinion was powerful. Muslims everywhere adhere to the notion of an Ummah, a word that means something like 'Christendom' would have meant in the west several hundred years ago. Muslims do see all their fellow Muslims as part of an Ummah, a brotherhood of the shared religion. An attack on a Muslim country is taken to heart by all Muslims, not just those we call fundamentalists. The invasion of Iraq sent a shiver down the collective spine of the Ummah. The sympathy for America generated among the Ummah by the 9/11 attacks, which was strong enough to withstand the war in Afghanistan, evaporated. Fear and loathing took its place, a fear and loathing that is refreshed every day as the blood-soaked images beam out from Bagdad.

Surely this polarisation was just what Al-Qaida wanted when they started to attack America ten years ago? They wanted to create a world war between the west and the Ummah, leading ultimately to the creation of an Islamic superstate, run of course by their holy selves. That is a pretty unrealistic objective, but if they can get the American president to play along then who knows what may be possible. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the rest can now step forward for their second, or is it their third, bow. Well done guys.

Continuing our examination of the consequences of the war in Iraq, lets consider world opinion. That there has always been a strain of Anti-Americanism throughout the world is a natural and inevitable result of America’s pre-eminent position in the world. Just as some people, and some part of all people, will at one time or another rebel against the “powers that be”, whether parents, school, the traffic warden, or one’s own national government, so there will always be dissent, some of it permanent and entrenched, to any American government. I think most Americans understand this and, correctly, don’t worry too much about it.

But what has happened as a consequence of the war in Iraq goes well beyond this normal background of dissent. The world is wary of America in way it has not been before. And I am talking here about many of America’s natural allies. No-one, not even a superpower, can afford to squander the good will of the whole world. The result of this has been, I believe, a diminution in America’s power. Power is diminished if you have to use force, or the threat of force, to achieve all your ends. And if you piss off all your friends, and can no longer rely on friendly co-operation, then you have to actually use force, or its threat, all the time. This is where Bush is leading America. I happen to believe that a strong America engaged in the world and acting in such a way as to hold the support of reasonable people in the world is a good thing. Bush and his cohorts have largely destroyed the global goodwill necessary to this ideal. Whether this loss of goodwill is permanent only time will tell. But it is another consequence of the war in Iraq.

It is worth considering the war itself and who is fighting whom. Firstly, let us be clear that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. That is indisputable. In fact Saddam was a secular nationalist, not an Islamist. He was a natural enemy of Al-Qaida. Bin Laden and his henchmen would have been delighted to see the end of Saddam. The end of Saddam also gave Al-Qaida the opportunity to tap a well-spring of horror for the war among the Ummah. The war has been a great recruiting sergeant for Al-Qaida. So in the cracks and interstices of the civil war - that murderous killing spree between Sunnis and Shias - groups inspired by Al-Qaida weave their poison, making sure the war will not end, stoking it up, and gleefully killing Americans whenever they get the chance. Meanwhile Bush pretends that the whole thing is just “those terrorists” and that America now has a field in which to take them on (rather than a field in which they are created more quickly than they are destroyed). And so America faces a war of attrition. Who can afford to lose more lives in this war? The last war of attrition America fought was in Vietnam. Nuff said.

A lesser consequence of the war in Iraq is also, of course, the destruction of the political career of Tony Blair. There is some irony in Blair’s untimely end, and Bush’s continuing prosperity. Blair was elected again and again by a real majority, and had the warm goodwill and support of most of the British people. And high hopes, at least partly fulfilled, of being a good PM and a boon to his nation. Bush of course was elected, at least the first time, by an actual minority of the popular vote, and with remarkably low expectations even from his own supporters, and has proved divisive as President. Bush is responsible in a way that Blair is not, for the Iraq war. But Bush won an election after the start of the Iraq war, while Blair has been destroyed by the Iraq war. This perhaps brings us back to the question asked in the title of this essay, but let’s leave that for later.

In general I am inclined to absolve Blair from too great a responsibility for the war. I don’t think he wanted it, I think his policy decision was basically to stay in with America, a policy that Britain has followed unwaveringly since the First World War. His mistake, probably, was to support them far to enthusiastically. And that finished him off.

So far I have touched only briefly on the human cost of the war. But let us re-visit that for a moment. War is a terrible thing, but some wars are necessary. However to deliberately create an unnecessary war is a great evil. Bush and his team bear a heavy burden of moral responsibility here. Tens of thousands dead, including many of their own people, an enormous haemorrhage of America’s national wealth, the destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure and the remnants of its ancient heritage. Add that to the political and strategic consequences outlined above, and you have an administration of such staggering incompetence and sheer malevolence that it simply beggars belief that Bush is still President.

But hold, cry the supporters of this war. Saddam has gone, the people of Iraq are free. It was worth it for that. Certainly Saddam is no longer the leader of Iraq, and certainly he was a monster. But never before has America committed itself to war for the purely humanitarian purpose of removing a bad guy. Saddam is in chains and much better for it. But Saddam was no threat to America. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam had been under stringent sanctions for 10 years. Saddam did not even control his own airspace. He was boxed in and contained. Bin Laden on the other hand, evidently the person most responsible for 9/11, remains at large, still free, still inspiring acts of unspeakable cruelty, still cocking a snoot at America. Where are those morons in the White House? Let them step forward for another bow.

Ah, but the Iraqi people are now free, you insist. Very well, they are free. And a particularly fine quality of freedom they have. They die at a rate of 4,000 a month in Bagdad alone. Their country is occupied by foreign powers. They are poorer than they were. And their previous lack of freedom was, to put it bluntly, never our problem. But their current “freedom” certainly is.

I think at this point one should ask, as I did above, whether the consequences of the war in Iraq could have been foreseen. I am certain that they could have, because I personally foresaw most of them. I know that is not a satisfactory answer to the reader of this essay, because I may be lying. However the answer satisfies me, because I know it is true, and I know I have no special insight or knowledge. If I could see all this, then so could anyone.

Which brings us neatly back to the original question. Are Americans stupid? I think we can say that their current administration is. Perhaps not individually, but the group of them, acting under the hubris of their own status and their perception of America’s power, and lacking any real moral compass (because lacking any real desire to run the country for the betterment of its citizens) committed at act of staggering stupidity in leading America into the war in Iraq. The real charge is probably higher than mere stupidity – it is badness, moral emptiness, a cynical desire for power for its own sake, all hidden behind the Bible, family values, and the rest of their empty bumph.

But to return to the original question. Are Americans stupid? Clearly they are not, and asking the question is a mere rhetorical device. But given that Americans are not stupid how have they ended up with this bunch running their country? I think the obvious answer is as follows: Before 9/11 it was politics as usual. A tough campaign, a homely good guy with instant name recognition, an uninspired campaign by Gore, and the notion that while Bush was nothing special, at least he could do little harm. And even then, let us not forget, Bush actually lost the popular vote.

After 9/11 everything changed. There was the immediate rallying round effect. There was the successful war in Afghanistan. There was an extended period in which Americans were willing to give their leaders all the rope they needed. The Bush administration grabbed this opportunity. The next election was essentially a war time election – these are never lost by incumbents.

And so here we are today. Young American men and woman dying daily in Iraq, Iraqis dying hourly in Iraq, the perpertrators of 9/11 resurgent in Afghanistan, the Muslim world fearful and angry, America’s prestige at its lowest point ever, Israel lashing out pointlessly at Lebanon, totally bereft of ideas, America’s geo-political security compromised, the real terrorists still active, and no-one with any clue as to what comes next. And Bush on American television, telling American parents that their children in Iraq are dying in the war on terror, in a war to make America safe.
Let freedom reign!


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