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The Empire Backfires
by JONATHAN SCHELL
[from the March 29, 2004 issue]
The first anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq has arrived. By now, we were told by the Bush Administration before the war, the flower-throwing celebrations of our troops' arrival would have long ended; their numbers would have been reduced to the low tens of thousands, if not to zero; Iraq's large stores of weapons of mass destruction would have been found and dismantled; the institutions of democracy would be flourishing; Kurd and Shiite and Sunni would be working happily together in a federal system; the economy, now privatized, would be taking off; other peoples of the Middle East, thrilled and awed, so to speak, by the beautiful scenes in Iraq, would be dismantling their own tyrannical regimes. Instead, 549 American soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqis, military and civilian, have died; some $125 billion has been expended; no weapons of mass destruction have been found; the economy is a disaster; electricity and water are sometime things; America's former well-wishers, the Shiites, are impatient with the occupation; terrorist bombs are taking a heavy toll; and Iraq as a whole, far from being a model for anything, is a cautionary lesson in the folly of imperial rule in the twenty-first century. And yet all this is only part of the cost of the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. To weigh the full cost, one must look not just at the war itself but away from it, at the progress of the larger policy it served, at things that have been done elsewhere--some far from Iraq or deep in the past--and, perhaps above all, at things that have been left undone.
While American troops were dying in Baghdad and Falluja and Samarra, Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman, was busy making centrifuge parts in Malaysia and selling them to Libya and Iran and possibly other countries. The centrifuges are used for producing bomb-grade uranium. Tahir's project was part of a network set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani atomic bomb. This particular father stole most of the makings of his nuclear offspring from companies in Europe, where he worked during the 1980s. In the 1990s, the thief became a middleman--a fence--immensely enriching himself in the process. In fairness to Khan, we should add that almost everyone who has been involved in developing atomic bombs since 1945 has been either a thief or a borrower. Stalin purloined a bomb design from the United States, courtesy of the German scientist Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the Manhattan Project. China got help from Russia until the Sino-Soviet split put an end to it. Pakistan got secret help from China in the early 1970s. And now it turns out that Khan, among many, many other Pakistanis, almost certainly including the highest members of the government, has been helping Libya, Iran, North Korea and probably others obtain the bomb. That's apparently how Chinese designs--some still in Chinese--were found in Libya when its quixotic leader, Muammar Qaddafi, recently agreed to surrender his country's nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The rest of the designs were in English.
Were Klaus Fuchs's fingerprints on them? Only figuratively, because they were "copies of copies of copies," an official said. But such is the nature of proliferation. It is mainly a transfer of information from one mind to another. Copying is all there is to it. Sometimes, a bit of hardware needs to be transferred, which is where Tahir came in. Indeed, at least seven countries are already known to have been involved in the Pakistani effort, which Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, called a "Wal-Mart" of nuclear technology and an American official called "one-stop shopping" for nuclear weapons. Khan even printed a brochure with his picture on it listing all the components of nuclear weapons that bomb-hungry customers could buy from him. "What Pakistan has done," the expert on nuclear proliferation George Perkovich, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has rightly said, "is the most threatening activity of proliferation in history. It's impossible to overstate how damaging this is."
Another word for this process of copying would be globalization. Proliferation is merely globalization of weapons of mass destruction. The kinship of the two is illustrated by other details of Tahir's story. The Sri Lankan first wanted to build his centrifuges in Turkey, but then decided that Malaysia had certain advantages. It had recently been seeking to make itself into a convenient place for Muslims from all over the world to do high-tech business. Controls were lax, as befits an export platform. "It's easy, quick, efficient. Do your business and disappear fast, in and out," Karim Raslan, a Malaysian columnist and social commentator, recently told Alan Sipress of the Washington Post. Probably that was why extreme Islamist organizations, including Al Qaeda operatives, had often chosen to meet there. Global terrorism is a kind of globalization, too. The linkup of such terrorism and the world market for nuclear weapons is a specter that haunts the world of the twenty-first century.
The War and Its Aims
But aren't we supposed to be talking about the Iraq war on this anniversary of its launch? We are, but wars have aims, and the declared aim of this one was to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, the President articulated the threat he would soon carry out in Iraq: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Later, he said we didn't want the next warning to be "a mushroom cloud." Indeed, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell explicitly ruled out every other justification for the war. Asked about the other reasons, he said, "The President has not linked authority to go to war to any of those elements." When Senator John Kerry explained his vote for the resolution authorizing the war, he cited the Powell testimony. Thus not only Bush but also the man likely to be his Democratic challenger in this year's election justified war solely in the name of nonproliferation.
Proliferation, however, is not, as the President seemed to think, just a rogue state or two seeking weapons of mass destruction; it is the entire half-century-long process of globalization that stretches from Klaus Fuchs's espionage to Tahir's nuclear arms bazaar and beyond. The war was a failure in its own terms because weapons of mass destruction were absent in Iraq; the war policy failed because they were present and spreading in Pakistan. For Bush's warning of a mushroom cloud over an American city, though false with respect to Iraq, was indisputably well-founded in regard to Pakistan's nuclear one-stop-shopping: The next warning stemming from this kind of failure could indeed be a mushroom cloud.
The questions that now cry out to be answered are, Why did the United States, standing in the midst of the Pakistani nuclear Wal-Mart, its shelves groaning with, among other things, centrifuge parts, uranium hexafluoride (supplied, we now know, to Libya) and helpful bomb-assembly manuals in a variety of languages, rush out of the premises to vainly ransack the empty warehouse of Iraq? What sort of nonproliferation policy could lead to actions like these? How did the Bush Administration, in the name of protecting the country from nuclear danger, wind up leaving it wide open to nuclear danger?
In answering these questions, it would be reassuring, in a way, to report that the basic facts were discovered only after the war, but the truth is otherwise. In the case of Iraq, it's now abundantly clear that some combination of deception, self-deception and outright fraud (the exact proportions of each are still under investigation) led to the manufacture of a gross and avoidable falsehood. In the months before the war, most of the governments of the world strenuously urged the United States not to go to war on the basis of the flimsy and unconvincing evidence it was offering. In the case of Pakistan, the question of how much the Administration knew before the war has scarcely been asked, yet we know that the most serious breach--the proliferation to North Korea--was reported and publicized before the war.
It's important to recall the chronology of the Korean aspect of Pakistan's proliferation. In January 2003 Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that Pakistan had given North Korea extensive help with its nuclear program, including its launch of a uranium enrichment process. In return, North Korea was sending guided missiles to Pakistan. In June 2002, Hersh revealed, the CIA had sent the White House a report on these developments. On October 4, 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly confronted the North Koreans with the CIA information, and, according to Kelly, North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister, Kang Suk Ju, startled him by responding, "Of course we have a nuclear program." (Since then, the North Koreans have unconvincingly denied the existence of the uranium enrichment program.)
Bush of course had already named the Pyongyang government as a member of the "axis of evil." It had long been the policy of the United States that nuclearization of North Korea was intolerable. However, the Administration said nothing of the North Korean events to the Congress or the public. North Korea, which now had openly embarked on nuclear armament, and was even threatening to use nuclear weapons, was more dangerous than Saddam's Iraq. Why tackle the lesser problem in Iraq, the members of Congress would have had to ask themselves, while ignoring the greater in North Korea? On October 10, a week after the Kelly visit, the House of Representatives passed the Iraq resolution, and the next day the Senate followed suit. Only five days later, on October 16, did Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, reveal what was happening in North Korea.
In short, from June 2002, when the CIA delivered its report to the White House, until October 16--the period in which the nation's decision to go to war in Iraq was made--the Administration knowingly withheld the news about North Korea and its Pakistan connection from the public. Even after the vote, Secretary of State Colin Powell strangely insisted that the North Korean situation was "not a crisis" but only "a difficulty." Nevertheless, he extracted a pledge from Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, that the nuclear technology shipments to North Korea would stop. (They did not.) In March, information was circulating that both Pakistan and North Korea were helping Iran to develop atomic weapons. (The North Korean and Iranian crises are of course still brewing.)
In sum, the glaring contradiction between the policy of "regime change" for already disarmed Iraq and regime-support for proliferating Pakistan was not a postwar discovery; it was fully visible before the war. The Nation enjoys no access to intelligence files, yet in an article arguing the case against the war, this author was able to comment that an "objective ranking of nuclear proliferators in order of menace" would put "Pakistan first," North Korea second, Iran third and Iraq only fourth--and to note the curiosity that "the Bush Administration ranks them, of course, in exactly the reverse order, placing Iraq, which it plans to attack, first, and Pakistan, which it befriends and coddles, nowhere on the list." Was nonproliferation, then, as irrelevant to the Administration's aims in Iraq as catching terrorists? Or was protecting the nation and the world against weapons of mass destruction merely deployed as a smokescreen to conceal other purposes? And if so, what were they?
A New Leviathan
The answers seem to lie in the larger architecture of the Bush foreign policy, or Bush Doctrine. Its aim, which many have properly called imperial, is to establish lasting American hegemony over the entire globe, and its ultimate means is to overthrow regimes of which the United States disapproves, pre-emptively if necessary. The Bush Doctrine indeed represents more than a revolution in American policy; if successful, it would amount to an overturn of the existing international order. In the new, imperial order, the United States would be first among nations, and force would be first among its means of domination. Other, weaker nations would be invited to take their place in shifting coalitions to support goals of America's choosing. The United States would be so strong, the President has suggested, that other countries would simply drop out of the business of military competition, "thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace." Much as, in the early modern period, when nation-states were being born, absolutist kings, the masters of overwhelming military force within their countries, in effect said, "There is now a new thing called a nation; a nation must be orderly; we kings, we sovereigns, will assert a monopoly over the use of force, and thus supply that order," so now the United States seemed to be saying, "There now is a thing called globalization; the global sphere must be orderly; we, the sole superpower, will monopolize force throughout the globe, and thus supply international order."
And so, even as the Bush Administration proclaimed US military superiority, it pulled the country out of the world's major peaceful initiatives to deal with global problems--withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol to check global warming and from the International Criminal Court, and sabotaging a protocol that would have given teeth to the biological weapons convention. When the UN Security Council would not agree to American decisions on war and peace, it became "irrelevant"; when NATO allies balked, they became "old Europe." Admittedly, these existing international treaties and institutions were not a full-fledged cooperative system; rather, they were promising foundations for such a system. In any case, the Administration wanted none of it.
Richard Perle, who until recently served on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, seemed to speak for the Administration in an article he wrote for the Guardian the day after the Iraq war was launched. He wrote, "The chatterbox on the Hudson [sic] will continue to bleat. What will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order. As we sift the debris, it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions."
In this larger plan to establish American hegemony, the Iraq war had an indispensable role. If the world was to be orderly, then proliferation must be stopped; if force was the solution to proliferation, then pre-emption was necessary (to avoid that mushroom cloud); if pre-emption was necessary, then regime change was necessary (so the offending government could never build the banned weapons again); and if all this was necessary, then Iraq was the one country in the world where it all could be demonstrated. Neither North Korea nor Iran offered an opportunity to teach these lessons--the first because it was capable of responding with a major war, even nuclear war, and the second because even the Administration could see that US invasion would be met with fierce popular resistance. It's thus no accident that the peril of weapons of mass destruction was the sole justification in the two legal documents by which the Administration sought to legitimize the war--HJ Resolution 114 and Security Council Resolution 1441. Nor is it an accident that the proliferation threat played the same role in the domestic political campaign for the war--by forging the supposed link between the "war on terror" and nuclear danger. In short, absent the new idea that proliferation was best stopped by pre-emptive use of force, the new American empire would have been unsalable, to the American people or to Congress. Iraq was the foundation stone of the bid for global empire.
The reliance on force over cooperation that was writ large in the imperial plan was also writ small in the occupation of Iraq. How else to understand the astonishing failure to make any preparation for the political, military, policing and even technical challenges that would face American forces? If a problem, large or small, had no military solution, this Administration seemed incapable of even seeing it. The United States was as blind to the politics of Iraq as it was to the politics of the world.
Thus we don't have to suppose that Bush officials were indifferent to the spectacular dangers that Khan's network posed to the safety of the United States and the world or that the Iraqi resistance would pose to American forces. We only have to suppose that they were simply unable to recognize facts they had failed to acknowledge in their overarching vision of a new imperial order. In both cases, ideology trumped reality.
The same pattern is manifest on an even larger scale. Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some willingly and some not, on an arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as one indivisibly connected species on our one small, endangered planet. Seen in a certain light, the Administration's imperial bid, if successful, would amount to a kind of planetary coup d'état, in which the world's dominant power takes charge of this process by virtue of its almost freakishly superior military strength. Seen in another, less dramatic light, the American imperial solution has interposed a huge, unnecessary roadblock between the world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent tasks that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge: saving the planet from overheating; inventing a humane, just, orderly, democratic, accountable global economy; redressing mounting global inequality and poverty; responding to human rights emergencies, including genocide; and, of course, stopping proliferation as well as rolling back the existing arsenals of nuclear arms. None of these exigencies can be met as long as the world and its greatest power are engaged in a wrestling match over how to proceed.
Does the world want to indict and prosecute crimes against humanity? First, it must decide whether the International Criminal Court will do the job or entrust it to unprosecutable American forces. Do we want to reverse global warming and head off the extinction of the one-third of the world's species that, according to a report published in Nature magazine, are at risk in the next fifty years? First, the world's largest polluter has to be drawn into the global talks. Do we want to save the world from weapons of mass destruction? First, we have to decide whether we want to do it together peacefully or permit the world's only superpower to attempt it by force of arms.
No wonder, then, that the Administration, as reported by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in these pages, has mounted an assault on the scientific findings that confirm these dangers to the world [see "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," March 8]. The United States' destructive hyperactivity in Iraq cannot be disentangled from its neglect of global warming. Here, too, ideology is the enemy of fact, and empire is the nemesis of progress.
If the engine of a train suddenly goes off the rails, a wreck ensues. Such is the war in Iraq, now one year old. At the same time, the train's journey forward is canceled. Such is the current paralysis of the international community. Only when the engine is back on the tracks and starts in the right direction can either disaster be overcome. Only then will everyone be able to even begin the return to the world's unfinished business.