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[casi] White man's burden

Monday, September 01, 2003 Elul 4, 5763

      White man's burden

      By Ari Shavit

      The war in Iraq was conceived by 25 neoconservative intellectuals,
most of them Jewish, who are pushing President Bush to change the course of
history. Two of them, journalists William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer,
say it's possible. But another journalist, Thomas Friedman (not part of the
group), is skeptical

      1. The doctrine

      WASHINGTON - At the conclusion of its second week, the war to liberate
Iraq wasn't looking good. Not even in Washington. The assumption of a swift
collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime had itself collapsed. The
presupposition that the Iraqi dictatorship would crumble as soon as mighty
America entered the country proved unfounded. The Shi'ites didn't rise up,
the Sunnis fought fiercely. Iraqi guerrilla warfare found the American
generals unprepared and endangered their overextended supply lines.
Nevertheless, 70 percent of the American people continued to support the
war; 60 percent thought victory was certain; 74 percent expressed confidence
in President George W. Bush.

      Washington is a small city. It's a place of human dimensions. A kind
of small town that happens to run an empire. A small town of government
officials and members of Congress and personnel of research institutes and
journalists who pretty well all know one another. Everyone is busy
intriguing against everyone else; and everyone gossips about everyone else.

      In the course of the past year, a new belief has emerged in the town:
the belief in war against Iraq. That ardent faith was disseminated by a
small group of 25 or 30 neoconservatives, almost all of them Jewish, almost
all of them intellectuals (a partial list: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz,
Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Eliot Abrams, Charles Krauthammer), people
who are mutual friends and cultivate one another and are convinced that
political ideas are a major driving force of history. They believe that the
right political idea entails a fusion of morality and force, human rights
and grit. The philosophical underpinnings of the Washington neoconservatives
are the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Edmund Burke. They also admire
Winston Churchill and the policy pursued by Ronald Reagan. They tend to read
reality in terms of the failure of the 1930s (Munich) versus the success of
the 1980s (the fall of the Berlin Wall).

      Are they wrong? Have they committed an act of folly in leading
Washington to Baghdad? They don't think so. They continue to cling to their
belief. They are still pretending that everything is more or less fine. That
things will work out. Occasionally, though, they seem to break out in a cold
sweat. This is no longer an academic exercise, one of them says, we are
responsible for what is happening. The ideas we put forward are now
affecting the lives of millions of people. So there are moments when you're
scared. You say, Hell, we came to help, but maybe we made a mistake.

      2. William Kristol

      Has America bitten off more than it can chew? Bill Kristol says no.
True, the press is very negative, but when you examine the facts in the
field you see that there is no terrorism, no mass destruction, no attacks on
Israel. The oil fields in the south have been saved, air control has been
achieved, American forces are deployed 50 miles from Baghdad. So, even if
mistakes were made here and there, they are not serious. America is big
enough to handle that. Kristol hasn't the slightest doubt that in the end,
General Tommy Franks will achieve his goals. The 4th Cavalry Division will
soon enter the fray, and another division is on its way from Texas. So it's
possible that instead of an elegant war with 60 killed in two weeks it will
be a less elegant affair with a thousand killed in two months, but
nevertheless Bill Kristol has no doubt at all that the Iraq Liberation War
is a just war, an obligatory war.

      Kristol is pleasant-looking, of average height, in his late forties.
In the past 18 months he has used his position as editor of the right-wing
Weekly Standard and his status as one of the leaders of the neoconservative
circle in Washington to induce the White House to do battle against Saddam
Hussein. Because Kristol is believed to exercise considerable influence on
the president, Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, he is also perceived as having been instrumental in getting
Washington to launch this all-out campaign against Baghdad. Sitting behind
the stacks of books that cover his desk at the offices of the Weekly
Standard in Northwest Washington, he tries to convince me that he is not
worried. It is simply inconceivable to him that America will not win. In
that event, the consequences would be catastrophic. No one wants to think
seriously about that possibility.

      What is the war about? I ask. Kristol replies that at one level it is
the war that George Bush is talking about: a war against a brutal regime
that has in its possession weapons of mass destruction. But at a deeper
level it is a greater war, for the shaping of a new Middle East. It is a war
that is intended to change the political culture of the entire region.
Because what happened on September 11, 2001, Kristol says, is that the
Americans looked around and saw that the world is not what they thought it
was. The world is a dangerous place. Therefore the Americans looked for a
doctrine that would enable them to cope with this dangerous world. And the
only doctrine they found was the neoconservative one.

      That doctrine maintains that the problem with the Middle East is the
absence of democracy and of freedom. It follows that the only way to block
people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is to disseminate democracy
and freedom. To change radically the cultural and political dynamics that
creates such people. And the way to fight the chaos is to create a new world
order that will be based on freedom and human rights - and to be ready to
use force in order to consolidate this new world. So that, really, is what
the war is about. It is being fought to consolidate a new world order, to
create a new Middle East.

      Does that mean that the war in Iraq is effectively a neoconservative
war? That's what people are saying, Kristol replies, laughing. But the truth
is that it's an American war. The neoconservatives succeeded because they
touched the bedrock of America. The thing is that America has a profound
sense of mission. America has a need to offer something that transcends a
life of comfort, that goes beyond material success. Therefore, because of
their ideals, the Americans accepted what the neoconservatives proposed.
They didn't want to fight a war over interests, but over values. They wanted
a war driven by a moral vision. They wanted to hitch their wagon to
something bigger than themselves.

      Does this moral vision mean that after Iraq will come the turns of
Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

      Kristol says that he is at odds with the administration on the
question of Saudi Arabia. But his opinion is that it is impossible to let
Saudi Arabia just continue what it is doing. It is impossible to accept the
anti-Americanism it is disseminating. The fanatic Wahhabism that Saudi
Arabia engenders is undermining the stability of the entire region. It's the
same with Egypt, he says: we mustn't accept the status quo there. For Egypt,
too, the horizon has to be liberal democracy.

      It has to be understood that in the final analysis, the stability that
the corrupt Arab despots are offering is illusory. Just as the stability
that Yitzhak Rabin received from Yasser Arafat was illusory. In the end,
none of these decadent dictatorships will endure. The choice is between
extremist Islam, secular fascism or democracy. And because of September 11,
American understands that. America is in a position where it has no choice.
It is obliged to be far more aggressive in promoting democracy. Hence this
war. It's based on the new American understanding that if the United States
does not shape the world in its image, the world will shape the United
States in its own image.

      3. Charles Krauthammer

      Is this going to turn into a second Vietnam? Charles Krauthammer says
no. There is no similarity to Vietnam. Unlike in the 1960s, there is no
anti-establishment subculture in the United States now. Unlike in the 1960s,
there is now an abiding love of the army in the United States. Unlike in the
1960s, there is a determined president, one with character, in the White
House. And unlike in the 1960s, Americans are not deterred from making
sacrifices. That is the sea-change that took place here on September 11,
2001. Since that morning, Americans have understood that if they don't act
now and if weapons of mass destruction reach extremist terrorist
organizations, millions of Americans will die. Therefore, because they
understand that those others want to kill them by the millions, the
Americans prefer to take to the field of battle and fight, rather than sit
idly by and die at home.

      Charles Krauthammer is handsome, swarthy and articulate. In his
spacious office on 19th Street in Northwest Washington, he sits upright in a
black wheelchair. Although his writing tends to be gloomy, his mood now is
elevated. The well-known columnist (Washington Post, Time, Weekly Standard)
has no real doubts about the outcome of the war that he promoted for 18
months. No, he does not accept the view that he helped lead America into the
new killing fields between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But it is true that
he is part of a conceptual stream that had something to offer in the
aftermath of September 11. Within a few weeks after the attacks on the Twin
Towers and the Pentagon, he had singled out Baghdad in his columns as an
essential target. And now, too, he is convinced that America has the
strength to pull it off. The thought that America will not win has never
even crossed his mind.

      What is the war about? It's about three different issues. First of
all, this is a war for disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
That's the basis, the self-evident cause, and it is also sufficient cause in
itself. But beyond that, the war in Iraq is being fought to replace the
demonic deal America cut with the Arab world decades ago. That deal said:
you will send us oil and we will not intervene in your internal affairs.
Send us oil and we will not demand from you what we are demanding of Chile,
the Philippines, Korea and South Africa.

      That deal effectively expired on September 11, 2001, Krauthammer says.
Since that day, the Americans have understood that if they allow the Arab
world to proceed in its evil ways - suppression, economic ruin, sowing
despair - it will continue to produce more and more bin Ladens. America thus
reached the conclusion that it has no choice: it has to take on itself the
project of rebuilding the Arab world. Therefore, the Iraq war is really the
beginning of a gigantic historical experiment whose purpose is to do in the
Arab world what was done in Germany and Japan after World War II.

      It's an ambitious experiment, Krauthammer admits, maybe even utopian,
but not unrealistic. After all, it is inconceivable to accept the racist
assumption that the Arabs are different from all other human beings, that
the Arabs are incapable of conducting a democratic way of life.

      However, according to the Jewish-American columnist, the present war
has a further importance. If Iraq does become pro-Western and if it becomes
the focus of American influence, that will be of immense geopolitical
importance. An American presence in Iraq will project power across the
region. It will suffuse the rebels in Iran with courage and strength, and it
will deter and restrain Syria. It will accelerate the processes of change
that the Middle East must undergo.

      Isn't the idea of preemptive war a dangerous one that rattles the
world order?

      There is no choice, Krauthammer replies. In the 21st century we face a
new and singular challenge: the democratization of mass destruction. There
are three possible strategies in the face of that challenge: appeasement,
deterrence and preemption. Because appeasement and deterrence will not work,
preemption is the only strategy left. The United States must implement an
aggressive policy of preemption. Which is exactly what it is now doing in
Iraq. That is what Tommy Franks' soldiers are doing as we speak.

      And what if the experiment fails? What if America is defeated?

      This war will enhance the place of America in the world for the coming
generation, Krauthammer says. Its outcome will shape the world for the next
25 years. There are three possibilities. If the United States wins quickly
and without a bloodbath, it will be a colossus that will dictate the world
order. If the victory is slow and contaminated, it will be impossible to go
on to other Arab states after Iraq. It will stop there. But if America is
beaten, the consequences will be catastrophic. Its deterrent capability will
be weakened, its friends will abandon it and it will become insular. Extreme
instability will be engendered in the Middle East.

      You don't really want to think about what will happen, Krauthammer
says looking me straight in the eye. But just because that's so, I am
positive we will not lose. Because the administration understands the
implications. The president understands that everything is riding on this.
So he will throw everything we've got into this. He will do everything that
has to be done. George W. Bush will not let America lose.

      4. Thomas Friedman

      Is this an American Lebanon War? Tom Friedman says he is afraid it is.
He was there, in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, in the summer of 1982, and
he remembers it well. So he sees the lines of resemblance clearly. General
Ahmed Chalabi (the Shi'ite leader that the neoconservatives want to install
as the leader of a free Iraq) in the role of Bashir Jemayel. The Iraqi
opposition in the role of the Phalange. Richard Perle and the conservative
circle around him as Ariel Sharon. And a war that is at bottom a war of
choice. A war that wants to utilize massive force in order to establish a
new order.

      Tom Friedman, The New York Times columnist, did not oppose the war. On
the contrary. He too was severely shaken by September 11, he too wants to
understand where these desperate fanatics are coming from who hate America
more than they love their own lives. And he too reached the conclusion that
the status quo in the Middle East is no longer acceptable. The status quo is
terminal. And therefore it is urgent to foment a reform in the Arab world.

      Some things are true even if George Bush believes them, Friedman says
with a smile. And after September 11, it's impossible to tell Bush to drop
it, ignore it. There was a certain basic justice in the overall American
feeling that told the Arab world: we left you alone for a long time, you
played with matches and in the end we were burned. So we're not going to
leave you alone any longer.

      He is sitting in a large rectangular room in the offices of The New
York Times in northwest Washington, on the corner of 17th Street. One wall
of the room is a huge map of the world. Hunched over his computer, he reads
me witty lines from the article that will be going to press in two hours. He
polishes, sharpens, plays word games. He ponders what's right to say now,
what should be left for a later date. Turning to me, he says that
democracies look soft until they're threatened. When threatened, they become
very hard. Actually, the Iraq war is a kind of Jenin on a huge scale.
Because in Jenin, too, what happened was that the Israelis told the
Palestinians, We left you here alone and you played with matches until
suddenly you blew up a Passover seder in Netanya. And therefore we are not
going to leave you along any longer. We will go from house to house in the
Casbah. And from America's point of view, Saddam's Iraq is Jenin. This war
is a defensive shield. It follows that the danger is the same: that like
Israel, America will make the mistake of using only force.

      This is not an illegitimate war, Friedman says. But it is a very
presumptuous war. You need a great deal of presumption to believe that you
can rebuild a country half a world from home. But if such a presumptuous war
is to have a chance, it needs international support. That international
legitimacy is essential so you will have enough time and space to execute
your presumptuous project. But George Bush didn't have the patience to glean
international support. He gambled that the war would justify itself, that we
would go in fast and conquer fast and that the Iraqis would greet us with
rice and the war would thus be self-justifying. That did not happen. Maybe
it will happen next week, but in the meantime it did not happen.

      When I think about what is going to happen, I break into a sweat,
Friedman says. I see us being forced to impose a siege on Baghdad. And I
know what kind of insanity a siege on Baghdad can unleash. The thought of
house-to-house combat in Baghdad without international legitimacy makes me
lose my appetite. I see American embassies burning. I see windows of
American businesses shattered. I see how the Iraqi resistance to America
connects to the general Arab resistance to America and the worldwide
resistance to America. The thought of what could happen is eating me up.

      What George Bush did, Friedman says, is to show us a splendid mahogany
table: the new democratic Iraq. But when you turn the table over, you see
that it has only one leg. This war is resting on one leg. But on the other
hand, anyone who thinks he can defeat George Bush had better think again.
Bush will never give in. That's not what he's made of. Believe me, you don't
want to be next to this guy when he thinks he's being backed into a corner.
I don't suggest that anyone who holds his life dear mess with Dick Cheney,
Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.

      Is the Iraq war the great neoconservative war? It's the war the
neoconservatives wanted, Friedman says. It's the war the neoconservatives
marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when September 11 came, and they
sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. So this is not a war that the masses
demanded. This is a war of an elite. Friedman laughs: I could give you the
names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block
radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year
and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.

      Still, it's not all that simple, Friedman retracts. It's not some
fantasy the neoconservatives invented. It's not that 25 people hijacked
America. You don't take such a great nation into such a great adventure with
Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard and another five or six influential
columnists. In the final analysis, what fomented the war is America's
over-reaction to September 11. The genuine sense of anxiety that spread in
America after September 11. It is not only the neoconservatives who led us
to the outskirts of Baghdad. What led us to the outskirts of Baghdad is a
very American combination of anxiety and hubris.

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