When the Ground Beneath Divides

By the time you read this, the war against Iraq will be underway. Writing in the hours prior to its commencement it is impossible to know how it will proceed. It is likely that it will be devastating for the population of Baghdad, and of other Iraqi cities. The civilian casualties of an extensive bombing campaign will be both now and later: now from the ‘smart’ bombs that miss their target, or take out civilian areas surrounding military targets, or which are aimed at civilian targets deemed military targets; later from the destruction of infrastructure, the cancers from depleted uranium and other ‘collateral damage’. Should the US find that the Iraqi leadership is hunkered down, it will consider the use of ‘bunker-busting’ tactical nuclear weapons — the weapons of mass destruction it ostensibly went to war to prevent the use of. The Iraqi army — should it not simply dissolve — may land the occasional blow against the US-led forces, but it will be a backward struggle against vast superiority. As we have noted hitherto, and as Chomsky remarks in an interview within these pages, to call such actions ‘war’ is misleading, since war involves some contestation of forces with a real chance of victory.

There are other, wilder possibilities of course: a prolonged war may so enrage the Arab world that its populations will take more concerted action; upheaval in Pakistan may deliver nuclear weapons into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists who sponsored the Taliban; and so on. All of these scenarios are unlikely.

More possible is that the Iraq war will be the prelude to a series of wars, in which the US deals with Iran, North Korea and even Cuba and Libya in an expanded and openly imperialist vision of total American dominance. The invasion of Iraq marks a clear break with any notion that the US will respect a world of nation-states regulated by international law, with international intervention a last resort, to be achieved by international consensus. It is unimaginable to us that within a few years the US could have occupied not two countries (Afghanistan and Iran) but a half-dozen, simply because we have lived within the framework of the nation-state conception of international relations for so long. The Cold War was a continuation of such an arrangement, even if the process of being ‘invited in’ was often no more than a fig leaf for intervention. The fact that such an arrangement — hardly the final or most desirable form of global human relations — was honoured more in the breach than the observance was less important than the existence of a principle with the possibility of being strengthened rather than weakened over time, to a point where international law could be genuinely implemented. We are now moving backward from that point, in a process that, as John Hinkson notes, offers increased global order in the short term, and chaos in the longer run.

The strict principle of non-intervention could never survive the advent of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that could carry them; therefore one could never rule out the possibility that international intervention could be necessary. The case has clearly not been made for this to occur in Iraq. It is clear that Iraq has no missiles capable of long-range delivery, and it is part of a region in which several states possess weapons of mass destruction — including Israel, which has launched pre-emptive strikes on Iraq previously. The only form of just disarmament within the region would be mutual and regional disarmament, by several parties. This of course will not occur.

Hence the arguments in favour of the war have slipped and slid from one day to the next, utterly discrediting the governments of the US-led coalition in the process. From UK ‘intelligence’ reports copied from PhDs on the internet, to the obviously false connection of Iraq to al-Qaeda, to the steadily inflated casualty figures of Saddam’s undeniably brutal regime, there is no half-truth or outright lie that governments or their clique of supporters in the press will not resort to, to try and swing the argument with a substantially sceptical public.

There are many explanations for how it has come to this. The most visible culprit is a US Republican Party made up of a mix of business interests, political professionals and ideologically charged fundamentalist Christians, together with a reactionary (or conservative, as it styles itself) ideological network of substantial power. This is an unholy alliance of people who have no common interests or beliefs save the extension of power, whether for its own sake, or in the service of Americanising the world. It includes a powerful US Zionist lobby — the mere identification of which is sufficient to earn the accusation of anti-semitism — in alliance with Christian groups who believe the establishment of Israel to be the prelude to the full christianising of the Jews. It includes the slick and amoral operatives of big Oil, together with naive liberals hoping for the extension of full liberal sovereignty to the objects of American military humanitarianism.

Yet what should be becoming clear as the invasion unfolds and a new world of explicit imperalism is ushered in, is that it is part of a general process rather than a particular one. The George W. Bush government has emitted a more bellicose and raucous rhetoric than its predecessor, but it still has a long way to go before it tops the interventionist record of the Clinton era. The same could be said of Tony Blair, who is nominally of a social-democratic tradition. Leaving aside France and Russia, whose oil deals with Saddam’s regime have given an impetus to their doveish inclinations, the only country where a genuinely principled stand has taken place is Germany, where the social formation around the Greens and the Left of the Social Democrats has made an anti-war position the central one.

That this is the exception rather than the rule gives the clue to what is really occurring in the rolling out of a post-nation-state world order. The logic of a global market is materialised in a world of technoscience, hi-tech communications and increasing geographical divisions of labour and poverty and is legitimised by the universalising call of the US Constitution — and its talk of an abstract freedom and individual life. Such a powerful historical-cultural form reaches out beyond any particular cultural context, or given society. In the sectors of the world rushing fastest away from hitherto existing social forms, such a cultural logic seems overwhelming and obvious. The amoral fixers at the centre — whether politicians, foreign policy editors or think-tank commanders — are not troubled overmuch by such illusions but there is a phalanx of previously dissident liberals who find such logic overwhelming.

The liberatory potential of such a world historical process arises from its capacity to pull apart and reconstitute every existing relationship — social, cultural, material — and plug it together in a more comprehensive form. As Geoff Sharp notes in this issue, the most celebrated expressions of this possibility — the eradication of diseases and the like — are the light side of a darker process, most particularly the development of weapons of mass destruction. It is inevitable that such technologies should come back to haunt the cultural-political system that made their development possible, and that they should be turned back towards them by those under their thumb.

The US vision is ultimately that of a unipolar world, in which they alone have control of weapons of mass destruction. Their ideology is both universal and exceptionalist — the US is held to be the carrier of universal truths about the best way to live, and to be above the universal structures of judgement and morality that such a system would institute. As actually or nominally universal international frameworks spread, the US finds itself in a position where it must repudiate them all and make its exceptional, imperial role visible — the International Criminal Court, the WTO (who dares challenge its reintroduction of steel tariffs?), the UN Security Council. In the long run this will gather forces against them, both within and without their borders, that will bring their power to a crisis. But that process may stretch beyond our lifetimes. It will certainly stretch beyond that of many Iraqis.

As this process gets underway, the old liberal-Left is further sundered. Those who cleave to a one-dimensional universalist liberal view of the world find themselves drawn further to the centre of power. Those who have a deeper understanding of the wellsprings of life and meaning — those from the remnant radical Left, the social movements, the churches and other religious movements — can see more clearly that such liberal humanitarianism can become the carrier of death rather than life. As such a process continues, the coalition of anti-war forces becomes ostensibly more bizarre, but in reality highly explicable. The number of former military commanders who have come out against the war is far beyond the usual presence of an occasional ex-military maverick in the peace movement. Those who have been professional warriors understand what the armchair variety cannot, or do not care to: that we are entering a process which has no clear end, but a highly visible process of escalation. As a fundamental opposition grows, it becomes more clear that it is a struggle of life against death — and hence the cries for war become more shrill, more dishonest.

Many have pointed out that this war has drawn an unprecedented degree and type of protest — a protest against a war yet to happen. It is not entirely true that this is a first. The long dawning of World War II created a world-wide peace movement, and it could also be said that the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s was a pre-emptive peace movement that prevented a war. But the size of this one, its dimensions, its visibility are a new and, for the media and political barons, a revolting development. In a mediatised society the framework of ideological production can appear so rock solid that no disturbance seems possible, as can any building before the ground beneath it divides, and its contingent nature is made visible. When politics becomes a matter not of ‘who gets what, when, how’ but of life and death for us all, then the pillars begin to be shaken. From these events we can take hope that there is a future, but we cannot presume, in the immediate term, that it will be an easy one.

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