After war comes peace. With peace must come justice, or it will be meaningless. It is one of the most enduring lessons of history.
With the end of the Bush presidency in sight and the desire for change strong, the next president’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 will be a turning-point. George W. Bush will retreat from the White House into retirement, leaving America exhausted, confused and polarized after eight years of foreign wars and domestic crises. His legacy will pass on to his successor. The conduct of the Bush administration has affected the lives of numerous people at home and abroad. As we approach something new and historic, a number of scenarios come to mind. The future not only depends on who will succeed Bush – John McCain, the old warrior, or Barack Obama, who increasingly looks like a renaissance man in the 21st century. It also depends on the nature of events to follow. They could force the hand of the incoming president.
Energy and the economy have become the main concerns in America and around the world. Seven years on, Americans, in growing numbers, have turned against the ideologues who manipulated fear to advance their own expansionist ambition. Americans want the next president to concentrate on rebuilding the economy and improving their lives. They remain conscious of the terrorist threat. But they are no longer willing to support foreign wars at great cost.
The Bush-Cheney administration has tormented hundreds of millions of innocent people around the world in the ‘war on terror’, although Afghans and Iraqis have borne the brunt. An unsettling realization has been building up among Americans of the extreme hardships and strong resentment this has caused abroad. It is time to make peace with the alienated and try to recover at least some of the wasted capital of sympathy the United States had earned immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
I am reminded at this point of something said by Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, among others. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” Gandhi asked, “whether mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?” The Bush administration’s wars are an expression of a mindset seriously infected with arrogance, reckless ambition and a passion for warfare, even against its own people.
What if, therefore, the next administration decided in favor of a rapid military withdrawal from Iraq to concentrate on the task of economic recovery? Iraq was invaded on a false pretext and against the advice of the U.N. weapons inspectors. Kofi Annan, then U.N. secretary-general, said the invasion was illegal. But a hasty retreat would be fatal, whether it was triggered by the new American president’s desire to cut the losses or because the Iraqi government told the U.S. occupation forces to leave. A swift withdrawal would leave the present Iraqi regime more vulnerable and it might not survive. The Iraqi regime is dominated by the Shi’a majority. Its relations with Iran are close – contrary to the original U.S. designs for the oil-rich Middle East. If the Iraqi regime found itself in imminent danger, it would become even more dependent on Tehran.
The creation by the United States of a-hundred-thousand-strong Sunni militia, described as the Awakening Council movement, evokes memories of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, armed and financed by the CIA in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Until recently, many of these Sunni tribesmen belonged to Al-Qaeda. But they were lured with money and weapons by the Americans around 2006. In October 2008, America transferred the responsibility of paying their salaries to the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi regime, which has strongly resisted pressure to incorporate them in the armed forces. If the militiamen were not paid in future, with or without the occupation forces being there in Iraq, they could change their uniform. They could just as easily turn against America and its allies as the Mujahideen did in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War in 1991. The risks of what the Bush administration has done for short-term gains are huge.
The conflict in Iraq and the broader ‘war on terror’ have added great uncertainty in the region. They have contributed to the energy crisis and the worldwide economic slump. If the internal conflict in Iraq escalated again, the consequences would be catastrophic. The Iraqi state structure would be threatened. The military and the police, already fragile, would find that they are no match to a rebellious Awakening Council and other armed groups.
Extreme caution would therefore be required on the part of the incoming administration in Washington. A sudden, rapid withdrawal would involve great risks. So would the insistence on maintaining the U.S. military presence ‘for a hundred years’, as John McCain said. It is obvious that the Iraqis do not want U.S. troops. And the American economy cannot bear the drain caused by foreign military adventures. Withdrawal has to come, but the timing is of the essence. The next president must avoid a repeat of the 1990s Afghan scenario, total lawlessness and the rise of the Taleban, in Iraq.
We will have to wait and see whether the new president can show a capacity to relax a little and not be so obsessed with having client regimes everywhere. The persistent stubbornness of President Bush to reshape Afghanistan and Iraq in his own vision has been like pouring oil to fire. A perilous consequence of the Iraq war has been the neglect of Afghanistan. Seven years after the Taleban were removed from power, Kabul and other towns are under siege. It is a reminder of the period when Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation and Mujahideen guerrillas encircled the main population centers. The present conflict has spread throughout Pakistan and spilled over into India. Western experts admit the situation is spiraling out of control.
It would be refreshing if the next U.S. president decided that stability was more important than intervention to impose and maintain puppet regimes abroad. Instead of the edict of George W. Bush – ‘with us or against us’ – his successor allowed governments which fell short of offering total support to America, always. The tendency to prop up dictators around the world was no longer rampant in Washington. There was a long-term strategy to encourage stability, not coercion to turn vulnerable nations into satellite states. The U.S. administration understood that war and economic renaissance could not happen together, but were alternate scenarios.
Conflict in the Middle East, high oil prices and economic downturns have had an unhappy relationship since the 1973 Arab-Israel war. Political turmoil and record energy prices have once again brought an economic slump with them. And the Palestinian problem, the main cause of the broader crisis in the region and beyond, remains unresolved. The urgent need to reduce America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil is at the center of the national debate. America has the necessary technological expertise and financial muscle to push for rapid progress towards alternative sources of energy. But its resolve has been weak ever since the 1973 Middle East war and subsequent oil crisis. Today, calls like ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ may appear to provide short-term answers, but will play havoc with the environment. Their real cost would be very high.
Solar and fuel-cell energy technologies must be among tomorrow’s solutions. Would the incoming president have what it takes to make America ready for a giant leap in a relatively short period? Would he take on the corporate world? Even if it turned out to be the case, I do not believe that the consequences of an energy revolution within a decade are fully appreciated. The impact of such a revolution on the oil-producing countries would be serious. To deprive them suddenly of their main – in many cases the only – source of income would be to leave them on the road to state failure. Saudi Arabia comes to mind immediately, but there are others in Asia and Africa. To make sure that they do not join the league of failed states, potential terrorist havens, would be as important for the successor of President George W. Bush as reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and rebuilding the economy.
Remember the words of the English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon: “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.”
The above article appeared in CounterPunch and ZNet on 23 October 2008.