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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 49

Some Reflections on Gulf War

Wednesday 28 November 2007, by P N Haksar


[(On the occasion of the ninth death anniversary of Parmeshwar Narain Haksar (September 4, 1913-November 27, 1998), the eminent administrator and diplomat, we reproduce the following piece that was published in Mainstream (May 11, 1991).)]

In one of his books, the perceptive British historian, Sir Louis Namier, observed that arguments, howsoever cogently presented by the weak and supported by facts, are apt to cause annoyance and are likely to be dismissed as mere quibbles. We are intensely aware of this. Nevertheless, we must persist in our endeavour to articulate what we feel and think with full knowledge that we may cause annoyance.

Throughout human history, the wielders of both the spiritual and temporal powers have contemptuously dismissed all those questioning their morality and wisdom, as mere fools and dreamers. We derive sustenance from the assurance of Jesus that some day the Meek will inherit the Earth. We continue to dream that some day humanity will learn, by a process of reductio ad absurdum, that humanity has reached a stage in its capacity for destruction, where it must eiher hang together or hang separately. The logic of raw power and the logic of the deepest stirring of humanity in this last decade of the twentieth century somehow remain in a state of unresolved conflict. The recent war in West Asia has certainly demonstrated the logic of raw power. But it has yet to establish a structure of durable peace in this tortured area. It was tortured by janissaries of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. When that Empire rotted from within, because of the venality of its Sultans and the onslaught on it by the British imperial strategy of riding both an Arab horse as well as Zionist steed, the peoples of this area felt no relief. On the contrary, the history of this area up to this date is a history of the frustrations of all the components of humanity living in the vast area stretching from Iran to the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coasts.

The application of raw power in a display of most uptodate varieties of technologies was sought to be camouflaged by making it appear that the war in the Persian Gulf was, in biblical terms, a just war fought under the banner of the United Nations. The result, however, is that the UN as a possible instrument for securing world peace, stability and justice, is severely damaged. Even the high office of the Secretary-General of the UN has been damaged.

It is an old maxim that “he who comes to equity must come with clean hands”. The obligation on the part of those who speak in the name of equity, justice and law, to abide by the imperative of these words is greater than of those who, by definition, represent the evil. President Saddam Hussein was represented as such an evil. But can we say, in all conscience, that those who fought this evil in the name of the UN have clean hands? We fear that the wide masses of people all over the world, and more especially in the Arab lands, are today in a more disturbed state of mind than they were at the commencement of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Sooner, rather than later, it is this turbulence in the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs and others, which will count. One fails to observe any sign of wisdom and statesmanship and a long-term view of history amongest the victors.

Familiar as we are with the mindsets of all those who have wielded power throughout the ages, we were left with a feeling of extreme unease as we witnessed the Gulf war. This war has failed to give us either the vision of a new world order or even of regional peace and security. The Gulf war has also brought a sense of unease and disquiet in Europe because it has raised the question of the involvement of NATO bases in a war fought away from the frontiers of Europe. The Gulf war has also tragically brought to the surface both racialist and religious fundamentalist undertones. No one looking for a new world order can be attracted by the packaging in which the Gulf war has been presented hitherto.

In a century which has witnessed the decline and fall of the Manchu Empire, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the Czarist Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Dutch Empire, the Portuguese Empire, as well as the impact of human consciousness on the political structures set up in the Communist states, is it realistic to contemplate the possibility of the setting up of the so-called unipolar world based on the might of the United States of America, even assuming that the exercise of that might is tempered by some feeling and concern for the fate not only of this earth but of all humanity at large? The answer should be obvious. The tendency towards unilateralism on the part of the USA will only bring suffering and grief and not Pax Americana. The United States is faced with a serious problem of rethinking and re-evaluating its manifest destiny. Similar questions would confront the European powers as well as Japan.

THE American “unilateralism” is not our invention. It forms part of a debate within the United States. We presume that a person like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would not be accused of being ‘anti-American’. In an article published in the prestigious American journal titled Foreign Affairs in its Winter issue of 1987/88, he has made very thoughtful and perceptive remarks about ‘unilateralism’. We quote below what he wrote then as an exponent of the foreign policy of a Democrat:

Unilateralism breeds the arrogance of ignorance, and ignorance breeds bad policy….

Unilateralism breeds something more than ignorance: it breeds illegality.

It might be argued that Arthur Schlesinger’s critique was in the context of the performance of the Reagan Administration. It is true that both the Secretary of State, James Baker III, as well as President Bush have effected a change in the style of their functioning. However, we are not certain whether the change of style is translated into a change in substance. The power structure within the United States, whose interests President Reagan as well as President Bush represent, remains essentially unilateralist. That is one reason why we have serious misgivings about the Gulf war ushering in a new world order under the leadership of the United States of America. The policy-making processes in the United States have, for a very long time now, led to the liquidation of the State Department. That Department has been de-professionalised. It has been in a state of siege laid by the Pentagaon and the itinerant Presidential Advisers in the National Security Council. In the context of this historic decline of the principal Department of State, we have doubts about James Baker III imparting to the making of American foreign policy the dimension derived from his own personal sensibilities.

Surveying more closely the aftermath of the Gulf war, our serious misgivings about creating a structure of durable peace in that region persist. We see no evidence of wisdom which would harmonise the Arab-Israeli conflict, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, the Iranian perceptions of its national interests, as well as Arab nationalism whether expressed in secular terms, or worse still, in religious terms. The United States will also be faced with a serious dilemma about the extent of its involvement in a variety of civil strifes, more particularly in Iraq and elsewhere too. The pattern of such involvement in Latin America, Africa and in Afghanistan upon date has not been seriously questioned. The setting up of American naval and air bases in the region are not an appropriate response to the problems of political and social stability in this entire area.

Anyone contemplating the events leading to the Gulf war cannot but ask the questions: How did it all happen? One answer is obvious: It happened because President Saddam Hussein committed a blatant act of aggression on the sovereign state of Kuwait and compounded that offence by annexing that state. This explanation reminds us of the simplistic explanation given at the time of the commencement of World War I. We were then told that it began because an Archduke was murdered in Sarajevo. In our view, the Gulf war is one more manifestation of unresolved conflicts of this region since the end of World War I. The British imperialist strategists maintained some sort of equilibrium in this area on the strength of the British Indian Empire. Indeed, the Persian Gulf was often referred to as the Curzon Lake. No serious attempt has been made by the Western powers as well as the USA to address themselves to the real problems of this region. The real aspirations of the people of this region have never been a matter of concern for the geo-strategists. Consequently, all these structures, built here in the name of security, have collapsed in the past. The Middle East Defence Organisation fell apart. The idea that Iran, with the Shahenshah as its head, could give security did not work. The involvement of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey under the cover of ‘Regional Cooperation’ is in shambles and the moral and legal pretensions of the policy-makers were fractured by the Turkish aggression against Cyprus and the continued occupation of a part of Cyprus by Turkey. The United States’ policy in this region has also wavered. We will call as our witness Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once again. In his article, to which we have already made a reference, he has described the anatomy of the vacillation of American policy. We quote below what he wrote in his article from which we have already quoted earlier.

The Reagan Administration first followed a policy of neutrality; then veered toward Iraq, a policy culminating in the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1984; then courted Iran with arms shipments on the grounds of Iran’s supreme geo-political importance to American security; then in order to recover Arab confidence and to pre-empt the Soviet Union, veered toward Iraq again, despite the Iraqi assault on the USS Stark and the death of 37 American sailors.

Then Reagan decided to raise the military stakes in the Gulf against Iran—the very country he had been secretly arming a short time before. This was a decision taken without consultation with America’s allies and with only sketchy notification to Congress. There was no evident effort to think through next steps, and the US Navy did not even have the capacity to protect itself against Iranian mines. The reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers—again no consultation with allies—goes far to place the United States in the hands of two countries, Kuwait and Iraq, that have an obvious interest in drawing us into war against Iran. “American naval forces in the Gulf,” as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report put it in October 1987, “are now, in effect, hostage to Iraqi war policy.” An Iranian victory over Iraq would plainly be against the interests of the West, but the United States cannot do much by its little self to prevent it. Only as a last resort has the Administration turned to the international instrument it should have used from the start—the United Nations.

It might be argued that the United States followed the advice given by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. by ensuring that the Gulf war was conducted under the auspices of the UN. But, as we have argued, the UN drapery was too diaphanous. We are also left with a feeling of extreme unease by the testimony given by the last US Ambassador to Iraq who was held, mysteriously, incommuni-cado for no statable reason. The text of the telegram she sent to the State Department reporting the conversation she had with President Saddam Hussein has also not been so far released.

IN view of all that we have stated in the preceding paragraphs, it would seem to us that the origins of the Gulf war need further investigation not because of any idle curiosity, but because one ought to know precisely what considerations weighed with the policy-makers in Washington when we are being given comfortable assurances about the new world which is informed by liberty, equality, fraternity and would embrace the real problems of the peoples of the world. As we write these lines today, we see no evidence of either the Europeans or the Americans showing any concern for evolving a viable world order. In the absence of such a world order, we are, howsoever reluctantly, compelled to share the judgement pronounced on the Gulf war by correspondent of the Guardian Weekly, David Marquand, in his article published in the March 17 issue of the journal. He writes as follows:
In the first truly high-tech war in history, the United States has triumphed more completely than at any time since the Union armies crushed the Confederacy. An American war, started by an American President in pursuit of an American objective, has been won, with breath-taking ease, by the crushing weight of American technology. No wonder the Soviet generals are worried.

Overwhelming military superiority went hand-in-hand with overwhelming political pre-eminence. The Arab members of the coalition were American clients. Britain was an enthusiastic American subaltern. despite mutinous moments at the beginning, France ended as an unenthusiastic one. The rest of Europe was out the game altogether—divided, confused and lacking in both will and capacity to pursue a policy of its own. The Soviet Union had a policy, but was too weak to make it effective. The uneasy power balance of the Cold War era is, in short, in ruins and no new balance has replaced it.

On present form, the much vaunted new world order will be indistinguishable from a Pax Americana…..a bankrupt world policeman, haunted by the sense of economic failure and anxious to compensate for it, may well be more dangerous than a rich and confident one. And, by a familiar paradox of pure-heartedness, the fact that the United States is not naturally an imperialistic or hegemony-seeking nation makes the prospect of a Pax American more worrying rather than less.

Good policemen are not pure in heart, and nor are good world policemen. They know that force has its bitter part to play in human affairs; and because they know this they also know that force should be used sparingly, for limited ends and in limited ways. Cynical, imperialis-tic peoples like the British and French have absorbed this bleak wisdom into their bloodstreams, though in this terrible century even they have sometimes forgotten it. The Americans never learnt it.

Because they are pure in heart, they cannot fight limited wars. To fight a limited war would be to concede that the enemy is not utterly evil. And unless the enemy is utterly evil, war is not justified at all.

The savage devastation of the South in the American Civil War, the insistence on unconditional surrender in the Second World War, and the demonisation of Saddam and dismissal of the Soviet peace initiative in the Gulf war are all part of the same syndrome. In each case, an essentially anti-militaristic people could be mobilised for war only by convincing itself that the other side was vile beyond compare. In each case the result was that only total victory, bought by total destruction, would do.

Such a people simply cannot be trusted with the overwhelming superiority they now enjoy—not because they are wicked or jingoistic or power-mad, but because they are too high-minded and too convinced of their own moral rectitude for a world painted in shades of grey.

If David Marquand’s perception—that the Gulf war was, as he says, “an American war, started by an American President in pursuit of an American objective”—is correct, then we can, with a fair amount of certainty, assert that the United States’ Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, carried out her assignment with high professional competence. That assignment could not be any other than leading President Saddam Hussein up the garden path. It is our shrewd guess that the telegram which Ambassador Glaspie sent to the State Department which has still not been made public, must have contained Ambassador Glaspie’s report about President Saddam Hussein’s intention in respect of Kuwait. It appears to us that throughout the tragic Gulf war, President Saddam Hussein’s own political perceptions have proved to be grievously wrong.

His perceptions, born out of the US support during Iran-Iraq war about the US’ intentions, were tragically faulted. He was also proved wrong in assuming that he could somehow drag Israel out into the arena of conflict and thus turn the war into an Arab-Israeli war. His perception about the response of the people in the Arab lands that they would engage in widespread and intense acts of terrorism was also proved wrong. However, it is not for the first time in history that one discovers that Presidents and Prime Ministers, who ought to know better, do not actually relate their obsessive perceptions to the actual reality. One recalls how the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Neville Chamberlain, perceived that his pact with Hitler would, as he put it in 1938, bring “peace in our time”. In less than a year after that famous pronouncement, World War II began.

In our view, for aught it may be worth, there is a persistent falsity in the perception of geo-strategists of the West that control over the oil riches of the Middle East is necessary for the peace, stability and prosperity of the Western world. In our view the Western dominance of the Middle East has generated, from time to time, serious explosions in this area. The time has, therefore, come to replace the old concept of dominance by a new concept of building political and economic structures in the Middle East which would not outrage the passionate feelings for freedom and dignity among the Arabs. It is not impossible to contemplate an acceptable international regime guaranteeing free flow of supplies of oil at remunerative prices for its producers. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ought to acquire a vested interest in ensuring a structure of durable peace in West Asia. We deeply regret that so far we have failed to see a reflection of our vital interests in peace and stability in West Asia in the way we have reacted to the Gulf crisis. The approach has been ad-hoc. West Asia and North Africa constitute areas of vital concern not only to us in India, but to our entire subcontinent.

We cannot conclude these reflections without observing that President Saddam Hussein did not realise that the military doctrine of the coalition forces, built up against him under the leadership of the United States, was bound to use “maximum force against the enemy” under the inspiration of Baron von Clausewitz who has now migrated to the Pentagon. The declared enemy, of course, was President Saddam Hussein and his Iraq. President Saddam Hussein’s seeming assumption that the war could be confined to Kuwait was thus faulted. We, however, in no way justify the vast and terrible destruction wrought in Iraq. The sufferings of the Iraqi people move us deeply. Indeed, it is an immense tragedy that all the efforts made to ‘humanise war’ which, in a sense began with Henry Dunant’s contemplation of the battle of Solferino, have been negated in Iraq. In 1949, a new convention was adopted which was born out of extreme concern for the protection of civilians in times of war. That convention has been torn to shreds in the way the war was conducted over Iraq. The members of the Security Council who authorised “the use of force” have also to answer the question, namely, what parameters they prescribed for the use of such force?

Finally, it seems to us that the Gulf war has once again put on trial the very concept of civilisation. Once again in human history, the Pharisees, the Philistines and the scribes have gathered together in an act of crucifying the spirit of love and compassion. We are still hopeful that men and women in all continents of this Earth, endowed with ordinary sensibility, would increasingly contemplate the Gulf war with horror, as the beginning of a world disorder rather than the harbinger of a New World Order. They would also observe with a deep sense of anxiety that the Gulf war has already started promoting bullish sentiments in the Arms Bazaar.

(March 31, 1991)

[This appeared as the Editor’s comment in Man and Development, (vol. XIII, no. March 1991), of which P.N. Haksar was the Editor.]

(Mainstream, May 11, 1991)

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