A Superpower Defeated

The news from and about Iraq, chronicling a quickening spiral of disaster for the US, is spilling out faster than even the experienced surfer can follow. The news is of a country united in a common cause: driving out the foreign invader and occupying power; of a militarized, imperial, foreign government attempting to run an ancient civilization, about which it knows or cares nothing; and of the impassioned desire for self-government proving to be more powerful than history’s wealthiest and most powerful state.

In the thick of all this blood, gore, destruction, killing, and hate, not even the ridiculous posturing of the Bush administration, forever promising to stick out this test of will, can reasonably dispute what is beginning to be obvious to everyone: the Superpower has been defeated.

We can begin with a passing commentary on the news, choosing the three most recent items as of this writing.

  • The interior minister has stepped down on the orders of the US on grounds that he is a Shiite, as is the defense minister. US administrators want a Sunni in order to balance out the appointed government (to think that people used to make fun of Clinton’s beancounting). But the idea that such a step will mollify, pacify, or satisfy anyone is absurd. The US going into Iraq had never even heard of a Sunni or Shiite — and now the US presumes to pick and choose a government with such attention to religious-ethnic balance that it will bamboozle Iraqis into thinking it is somehow democratic or legitimate? Preposterous.
  • Japanese aid workers and a photographer are captured by Iraqis who tell Tokyo to pull out or see these people burned alive. Tokyo puts on a good face and says it won’t pull out, but it is obviously a farce; after all, the government is simultaneously begging the UN to intervene. Besides, no Japanese citizen believes that their nation should be part of this sorry excuse for a coalition. Everyone knows the Japanese government just went along because of its “special relationship” with the US, which means that the US has military bases in Japan. Huge segments of the population want the US out of Japan, and Japan out of Iraq. This event will only further galvanize the peace and independence movement.
  • Just as the US is becoming aware of deep religious and tribal divisions in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite are cooperating together in the common goal of getting rid of the US. It seems that the US has at last brought the country of Iraq together, if not exactly the way it had expected. So not only the Sunni city of Fallujah is lost to the US, but also three Shiite cities in the South. Sure, the US can apply massive efforts to retake these cities, but only in the most formal sense. The bombing of mosques and the killing of hundreds of civilians guarantees eternal enmity between the population and the US government.

Let’s just add one more news item for good measure, simply because it will prove so crucial in the complete unraveling of the US war effort. Donald Rumsfeld is extending the stay for the troops, effectively drafting them for service. This has made angry and demoralized US troops — not to speak of their families — ever madder.

It turns out that Iraq was not a country of people longing to be touched by the magic wand of the Pentagon.

They already feel that they were lied to about how beloved the US government is in Iraq — how it was a country of people longing to be touched by the magic wand of the Pentagon. Now the troops are being told to kill and risk being killed in this disgusting spectacle for an indeterminate period of time into the future. At some point in this process, they will enter into an open rebellion beyond what we saw in Vietnam, where the operation had an ideological mask. This effort, in contrast, is widely seen as nothing but Bush’s private war for himself and his friends.

Nato and the UN might take a larger role were either institution interested in getting involved. But they too are made up of member states who oppose this whole bloody operation. Meanwhile, the Coalition, such as it is with the total numbers of troops from all other countries apart from the US and Britain amounting to less than 15%, is growing increasingly cosmetic and will ultimately collapse. Kazakhstan and Spain are as good as gone, and Poland, Italy, and the Netherlands are soon to follow. Why should they sacrifice blood for this catastrophic US adventure? When the coalition is gone in every way but name only, and the US receives no backing from the UN or Nato, it will be alone: a handful of officials holed up inside the White House against the rest of the world.

It is clear where this is headed. The US, the much-vaunted superpower that only yesterday advertised itself as the great global messiah, is defeated. From that point on, the rest is only a mop-up. The US can ride around in tanks and continue to talk of the light at the end of the tunnel while avoiding that precise phrase. But its control over Iraq will be as mythical as its declaration of victory a year ago.

The US believed it could control Iraq without having to bother with the question of whether the people of Iraq wanted the US there. Steeped only in military experience and lacking all knowledge of the liberal intellectual tradition, the war planners have no idea what constitutes a society, and how it operates. What the US planners did not take into account is that the ideas people hold are more powerful than air or land power.

As Mises wrote, “In the long run even the most despotic governments with all their brutality and cruelty are no match for ideas. Eventually the ideology that has won the support of the majority will prevail and cut the ground from under the tyrant’s feet. Then the oppressed many will rise in rebellion and overthrow their masters.”

The trajectory in Iraq has followed a course known from ancient times. It begins in an arrogant belief that a foreign people can be controlled and governed by force of superior arms alone. Decapitate the leader, the prediction goes, and his subjects will follow a new leader. In Iraq, the illusion lasted long enough for the US to undertake absurd acts of supposed reconstruction and benevolence and even arrange something that had all the form of a government. The power and the money were unlimited, so the answer to all problems was more violence, more brutality, more payola.

Hans Blix finally said what everyone has been thinking: Iraq was better off under Saddam.

The US followed this pattern of carrots and sticks for the better part of twelve months. Build a police station, shoot a political dissident, repair a school, shut down a newspaper, fund a hospital, arrest a cleric, shell out millions to buy off political support, mow down a few families at checkpoints in civilian areas. Some of us never bought the view that anyone in Iraq thought of the US as liberators as opposed to occupiers. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the entire country has been seething in anger since the overthrow of Saddam.

Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, broke the taboo and said what nearly everyone was already thinking but refusing to say: on balance, Iraq was better off under Saddam. On one level, this is perfectly obvious and probably doesn’t need to be said at all. And yet it does need to be said because the neoconservatives have continued to insist that anything and everything can be justified because Saddam was so evil. It’s not true, of course, that any means justifies the ends. And yet we could go further and state what most all Iraqis have concluded: Saddam was awful but the Occupation is worse.

And so the US is defeated in war. The fallout for pro-Western Iraqis could not be worse, as radical Islam attempts to use the Occupation as exhibit A in their case against Western values, culture, and institutions. The pro-American people within Iraq ought never to tire of pointing out that this was not America at war with Iraq but the Bush administration on a maniacal mission that never would have gone ahead if the regime had any respect for the Constitution. In its founding and history, America represents freedom and peaceful commercial engagement. The actions of a junta in control of the White House should not be permitted to poison the glories of American institutions and history.

For American citizens who feel themselves demoralized by defeat, they need to hear a similar message. The actions of the Bush administration and its disastrous war are not the actions of our country as such. It was a few misguided fanatics who do not have an appreciation for the value of freedom. They used the events of 9-11 to live out their ambitions to expand the hegemon (as Rice once again admitted in her testimony: “Bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events — events which create a new consensus that allows us to transcend old ways of thinking and acting”).

We mourn for the housands dead and the tens of thousands wounded, and grieve for their families. We can only rejoice as the administration concedes defeat and pulls out of this country, and rejoice even more if this serves to teach a lasting lesson. A defeat of Bush’s war in Iraq is a victory for freedom and for American patriotism. After all, the essential American idea is that society functions best when people govern themselves in liberty, and that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

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