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The resurgence of U.S. unilateralism is rapidly becoming the most pressing problem in international affairs today, as underscored by Friday’s major air strikes (involving strikes by 20 planes) against Iraq.
While the United States has always been unilateralist, the skillful combination of horse-trading and coercion that went into the building of the Gulf War coalition, along with several token nods toward multilateralism afterwards, had helped to erase the international community’s memory of previous incidents, like the invasion of Panama, the proxy wars in central America, and even, to some extent, the Vietnam war.
The murmurs started again, however, after the December 1998 Desert Fox bombing of Iraq, done in explicit defiance of the Security Council, building toward a crescendo with the blatantly illegal NATO war against Serbia. Now it is once again becoming permissible to tell the truth, to say that it is the United States, not Iraq much less North Korea, that is the world’s biggest rogue state.
One index of the United States’ imperial arrogance is the change in its rhetoric over the past decade. Starting with the superficially plausible explanation that the Gulf War was necessary because aggression and occupation cannot be allowed (an assertion that required a detailed knowledge of the situation’s specifics to refute), it then progressed to the notion, evident in the August 1998 bombing of Sudan’s biggest pharmaceutical plant and in Desert Fox, that the United States is justified in bombing countries if they have, or potentially might produce, so-called "weapons of mass destruction" the same United States being, of course, the largest stockpiler, seller, and user of such weapons.
This clearly absurd justification has now been superseded, in this year’s raids against Iraq, by the idea that aggression is justified to destroy purely defensive systems (in this case air defense) that might deter American warplanes and spy planes carrying out clearly aggressive and illegal overflights. Brazenly dismissing the traditional idea of the military’s purpose, to protect the populace from external aggression, this argument could be made only by a government supremely confident that no one who matters in the world will dare to point out that the American emperor has no clothes. It is also parallels the progression of Vietnam rhetoric, which started with the supposed need to defend democracy (as represented by dictators like Diem) in southeast Asia and ended with the idea that Vietnam must be destroyed to preserve American "credibility," a consideration whose moral bankruptcy is obvious.
The feebleness of Bush Administration propaganda, while clearly indicative of complacence and arrogance, should not, however, be taken as a sign of stupidity or cowboy-ism, as it often has by the world press.
Their plans in the Middle East are, in fact, diabolically clever, and have already met with significant, though not complete, success. Smart sanctions, the new plan for Iraq, are not intended to address civilian needs in Iraq, and are only minimally intended to keep Iraq from rearming. Their primary purpose is to further militarize and extend U.S. control of the region, in part by attempting, in a small way, to rebuild the Gulf War coalition.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a perfect opportunity for the United States to increase its control in multiple ways get the Arab states on its side, subordinate OPEC, institute a permanent land-based military presence with the excuse of the need to contain Iraq, and so isolate the Palestinians that they saw little choice but to enter into a "peace process" that was really an orderly, phased capitulation to Israel.
Ten years later, OPEC has reasserted itself, the Palestinian struggle has had a resurgence, helping to forge unity among Arab states, and the world is tired of killing Iraqi children. The U.S. response has been twofold. One side is the good-cop approach of smart sanctions, sold as allowing Iraqis to get consumer goods, but involving extensive land monitoring on all of Iraq’s borders, with presumably heavy U.S. military participation. The bad-cop approach is support for a coup in Iraq, which is militarily and geopolitically untenable but offers a useful threat to make the relevant actors get on board with smart sanctions.
The renewed hypertrophy of the U.S. military budget, the attempt to revive a nuclear first strike capability through the National Missile Defense program, the recrudescence of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency as in Plan Colombia (which ought perhaps now to be called Plan South America), and the increased military control of the Middle East all point to the same thing the United States is by far the most serious military threat to the world. The damage Iraq could do if free is nothing compared to the damage the United States is doing and will do if this unilateral reign of terror is not ended.
In the 1980’s, millions of Americans came together in the nuclear freeze movement, out of a shared perception that the threat of nuclear annihilation required immediate, concerted action. Right now, it is clear the U.S. unilateralism is the same kind of threat, not just to the rest of the world, but to us at home as well — terrorizing the world is not exactly the best way to ensure your own security. We need the same kind of movement to combat it.
Mr. Rahul Mahajan is an antiwar activist, and serves on the Coordinating Committee of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq and the Board of Directors of Peace Action.