It was just another “routine mission” in Iraq, said President Bush, as 24 US and British aircraft bombed the outskirts of Baghdad for the first time since 1998. But is it just another day in the neighborhood, as Mr. Rogers would have it, or is it the first phase of Desert Storm II? The sense that we are being talked down to, like children, increased as a Pentagon spokesman averred that the US was acting in “self-defense”: “It reached the point that it was obvious to our forces that they had to conduct the operation to safeguard those pilots and the aircraft. In fact (it was) essentially a self-defense measure,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold. Iraq, it seems, had lately been challenging US airflights over the so-called “no flight zones” that trisect Iraq. Why, they even had the temerity to lock their radar on to US and British warplanes, who were merely asserting their God-given right to violate the sovereignty of any country. But please don’t think that this was an act of war, oh no: while “we will enforce the ‘no fly’ zone, both south and north,” said our spanking brand-new (and clearly nervous) President, “our intention is to make sure the world is as peaceful as possible.” That’s why we’re gonna bomb the h*ll out of anyone who contests our peaceful intent. Furthermore, says Bush, we’ll make damn sure Saddam doesn’t have “weapons of mass destruction” you know, like the nukes Ariel Sharon has pointed at Baghdad.
Our pilots were “in danger,” the administration avers, and therefore we had to “respond.” It is, of course, useless to point out to such people that our pilots were intruders in Iraqi airspace: since national sovereignty is a concept that the US no longer recognizes (not even in regard to itself), then how is it possible to answer such an Orwellian argument? We are “defending” ourselves halfway across the earth, in the name of a “no-fly zone” unilaterally declared by us, with only the fig-leaf of a vaguely-worded UN resolution to cover the nakedness of our aggression. There is, of course, only one way to eliminate the danger to our pilots, and that is to stop violating Iraqi airspace, cease the relentless pounding of Iraq, and while we’re at it lift the sanctions that have decimated an entire generation of Iraqi children. Such a rational policy, however, will obviously never be adopted by this administration.
I must admit, though, that our rookie President did seem rather queasy at the prospect of having to announce a US attack on Iraq while in the middle of his visit to Mexico: in his comments Bush went out of his way to emphasize that he had made the decision, all by himself: “It was a mission about which I was informed and I authorized.” Well, yes, at least we hope so, but obviously there was some question about that, not least of all in the President’s own mind. Of course, you say, I couldn’t know what is going on in the presidential brain. But faces reveal emotions, and often much more. The look on Bush’s face, as he answered questions about the bombing, betrayed what seemed to me like an enormous reluctance: one wonders if his advisors told him that Friday is a holy day in Iraq, like Sunday is here, and that people are generally out on the street walking with their families. Probably not.
This airstrike was used as a testing ground in two senses: first, as an experiment to see how the new “standoff” weapons that allow long-distance targeting work. Since US policymakers have discovered that war is tolerable to Americans just as long as all the casualties are on the other side, military technology has been developed to achieve just this result: I guess we’ll have to wait for the smoke to clear to see how the testing went, but in the meantime what is striking is the utter cowardice of this attack. As in the Kosovo war, where NATO warplanes bombed from 30,000 ft., hitting plenty of civilian targets in the process, Americans want to “stand off” while they inflict mass destruction on their demonized “enemies”: it is a vicious, strangely womanish strategy, entirely motivated by political considerations and fear: it is as if our leaders fully realize that the entire Middle East isn’t worth a single American life and they don’t want anyone else to realize it, either.
Secondly, the airstrike is a test run to see how much political support there is for a more extended conflict. The results, so far, must be heartening to the War Party: here in the supposedly “leftist” Bay Area, where “antiwar” sentiment is alleged to be strong, our congressional delegation was interviewed on the local news, and all three Nancy Pelosi, Mike Honda, and some other liberal Democratic swine supported the attack, with few if any reservations. People interviewed in the street seemed surprised, and generally clue-less: one burnt-out San Francisco flake opined that it was “scary” because “look who’s president!” Then the TV cameras panned across the pathetic scene of the International Action Center holding a “protest” against the bombing at the corner of Market and Powell streets, where the cable-cars turn around: the plaza, on this cold afternoon, was practically empty, with no more than half a dozen placard-carrying protesters milling aimlessly about. Score one for the War Party.
The Iraqis link the Baghdad raid to the stepped-up Israeli attacks on the Palestinians: Sharon’s renewed assault on the PLO and the Anglo-American assault on Iraq are different fronts in the same war, and the prelude, they say, to a wider war, spearheaded by Israel and supported by the US and Great Britain. While this scenario may be somewhat overstated, they have a point. This is a regional struggle, and an Israeli attack on Iraq is not out of the question: it has, after all, happened before. But why should the Israelis drop the bombs when their American and British cat’s-paws are perfectly willing to fight their battles for them? And that, in short, is what this whole confrontation with Iraq is about: Saddam is not a threat to any of his Arab neighbors, as the administration admits, because Iraq doesn’t have the military capability. Israel, alone, is threatened, not so much militarily as politically: Saddam has taken up the Palestinian cause, paying $20,000 to the families of each and every martyred Palestinian and becoming the hero of the Arab “street” as a symbol of fighting resistance to Western domination and Israeli arrogance. Keeping this in mind, then, let’s put the escalation of the war on Iraq in context.
That this is happening just as the Marc Rich scandal is beginning to break is, I suppose, a very convenient coincidence. Suddenly the headlines about Israeli officials manipulating Clinton in the final hours of his presidency, and growing outrage at the pardon a crook at the behest of a foreign power, are swept off the front pages. Now the airwaves are filled with speculation about Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction,” replacing not only the image of the fugitive crook and Israeli spy, but also pushing news of Israeli helicopter gunships shooting down Palestinian teenagers to the back pages. Score another one for the War Party.
Conservative Republicans were enraged by the use of our armed forces as means to divert attention away from the more embarrassing moments of the last administration: but will they hold George W. Bush to the same standard? Some of them will, but many others, I fear, will not: they have too much invested in believing that, this time, things are going to be different. This, of course, is an ironic position for conservatives to take since they, above all, exhort us to learn from history, abjure utopianism, and distrust grandiose claims of “newness” on general principles. It was great, however, to see good old Bob Novak on Crossfire disdaining the whole nonsensical premise of our policy in the Middle East, which is that America’s national interest is, somehow, served by making war on Iraq, and alienating the entire Arab world. As a backdrop to all this, the market dropped like a stone at the news of the attack an ominous taste of what is to come if the War Party gets its way.
As we watch this administration in action denying that this represents an escalation, denying their aggression, denying that it is our Israel-centric Middle East stance that put our soldiers stationed overseas in mortal danger there is a sinister, tortuous quality to their evasive explanations. If we make war, in Bush’s words, it’s because we want “to make sure the world is a peaceful as possible.” If we suddenly ratchet up the military campaign against Iraq less than a week after Bush declared his “reluctance” to go to war then all of this is “routine” according to an annoyed-looking Condolezza Rice, whose opaque patrician arrogance defines this administration’s developing style.
That this is the first phase of a long-range plan to “take out” Saddam Hussein, and “solve” the Iraqi Question once and for all, seems beyond question. Regular readers of this column know that I have been harping on the near inevitability of this prospect for months, now nay, years! and so none of this comes as a shock. But what is, indeed, a little shocking is the timing of all this: it not only drives the Marc Rich scandal off the front pages, but also occurs on the eve of secretary of state Colin Powell’s trip to the Middle East, where he will try to bring our Arab allies back into the US fold. The airstrike did not make an already difficult task any easier, and this raises an interesting question.
It seems clear, first of all, that there are distinctive factions within the administration: one, centered in the Defense Department, with secretary Donald Rumsfeld and certainly Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, behind a major move in the Middle East. The other faction, centered around the State Department, is not so enthusiastic about the prospect of Desert Storm II: Powell, they say, was opposed the first time around, and what is different now except that the circumstances are even less auspicious? It could be that the origin of this “routine” escalation lies in the factional dynamics of the Bush administration: that this was an attempt to undercut not only Powell’s first diplomatic foray, but his whole position within the administration as the authoritative voice on foreign policy. Could a factional war within the Bush administration spark a shooting war in the Middle East? It may already be happening.
Mr. Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com