Sun, 02 Mar 2003

Coming full circle from ashes of Hiroshima

We're all to blame for the option of first resort

Simon Tisdall Guardian News Service London

The approaching Middle East convulsion is hardly an aberration. America has been fighting wars all our lifetimes, from Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf to Serbia, Afghanistan and now, again, in Iraq. Its wars have flared hot and brief, as in Libya in 1986, and Somalia in 1992. They have run cold and long, as in its 40-year global confrontation with the Soviet Union. They have been fought by proxy, as in Angola and Mozambique, or behind the scenes as in Lebanon and Cambodia.

They have been waged covertly as in Chile and Cuba, Nicaragua and El Salvador; or by invitation, as in the current Colombian "war on drugs" and the Philippines leg of the "war on terror".

The degree of offensive action ranges from punitive strikes, as in the one-off cruise missile attack on Sudan in 1998 to massed, full-fig firepower, as in Kuwait in 1991.

A new departure came last autumn with the CIA's unabashed, remote-controlled "hit" on alleged al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But grand-scale or low-key, up-front or underhand, the threat or fact of armed American intervention to reinforce its immense economic and political leverage, while never absent since 1945, is now omnipresent in today's unbalanced, unipolar world.

U.S. behavior is hardly unprecedented in conception, if not in scope. American presidents merely follow the imperial powers, most obviously the 19th-century British and French gunboaters whose colonies, satrapies and influence they have usurped.

Like them too, self-deceptively perhaps but with more objectively convincing reasons, the U.S. also believes it acts to uphold values and ideals such as democracy and free speech. Thus George W. Bush's warlike designs upon Iraq, North Korea, Iran and beyond mark no exception to the established American or indeed, the historical rule.

Bush vows to wage war against America's enemies "to secure the peace". That this war, again in Bush's own words, will be continuous, global and indefinite is but a logical extension of a U.S. pre-eminence that came of age amid the ashes of Hiroshima.

That "peace" may never arrive is another logical deduction. America's ascendancy, if it is to be maintained and extended, requires a constant readiness to fight.

Yet, for all America's preening, resented might, the U.S.- driven Iraq convulsion is only happening because others connive in it. All or nearly all are complicit. Periodic, violent upheavals of this kind appear to constitute a natural, even essential element in the human condition.

From Marathon in 490 BC to the Somme in World War I, from Agincourt in 1415 to Austerlitz in 1805, war has been and often remains an option of first resort, not last. War may be morally reprehensible. War may be hell. But as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, it is a brutal constant to which a ritual obeisance is paid.

War exudes a terrible fascination. Exciting is not the right word. Perhaps stimulating is, in the sense that Lord Tennyson implied when he lauded "that world-earthquake, Waterloo!" War enthralls and appalls. It sets the blood racing, the patriotic juices flowing, and the protesters marching.

It defines a confused, confusing world in welcome black and white. It enables one "to take a stand". For ordinary people, unless the bombs are actually aimed at them, it becomes a vicarious contest of winners and losers, of heroes and villains. For political leaders, war is the ultimate power-play. All can play the war game. All look for advantage. And to this extent, Iraq is not "America's war" at all. It is everybody's doing.

Take Iraq's neighbors. All without exception are opposed to an attack; yet most will go along. For Turkey, haggling to the last bazaar bean, war means a bonanza windfall of perhaps US$ 26 billion in U.S. assistance -- and, perhaps, a chance to zap the Kurds. For Iran, it is an opportunity both to see off the old foe, Saddam, and build needed bridges with the Great Satan.

For Jordan and Egypt, U.S. guns and butter flow -- $1 billion apiece by some estimates; nor do the Gulf states lag behind. Yet through the Arab League they warn of the unwisdom of conflict.

Even Israel, keen to bash the Baghdad bogeyman but asked to stand aside, parlays its self-restraint into a wider argument for $12 billion in US aid. This is money for almost nothing; even better, it is payment for having others do what Israel itself cannot. Oh, what a lovely war!

What holds true for the neighbors applies equally to non- permanent UN security council members whose votes the competing principals covet -- the "middle six". Angola, Cameroon and Guinea all signed up to Jacques Chirac's recent African summit declaration supporting France.

But in this poker game, that merely raised the stakes. All three, like Mexico, Chile and Pakistan, are now under enjoyable, potentially lucrative siege from senior British, U.S. and French diplomats.

Expect more millions in aid and credits to slide under the counter before the die is finally cast; expect, too, more statements of principle about the evils of war.

The Iraq convulsion is playing out at many other self- incriminating levels for which America alone cannot be held responsible. For many in Europe's chancelleries, Iraq is but a tool for boosting a flagging self-esteem. For Russia, Iraq is a chess game in which the pieces are old debts, future oil interests and the Chechnya pawns.

For China, such international upheavals always have a financial bottom line. But Beijing's interest in establishing the principle of legal, preemptive armed intervention and prolonged occupation of somebody else's country will not be lost on Taiwan or, indeed, on the Tibetans.

And North Korea, angry at being ignored in the excitement, and like a baby in a pram, repeatedly throws its rattle on the floor. Nobody has yet picked it up. When the Americans eventually do, the war-dance may begin all over again. Japan, in consequence, talks of building its own nuclear weapons, just in case. And so, from Hiroshima in 1945, we come full circle.

It is all connected. The historical continuum in which Iraq forms but an episode is as inescapable as it is shaming. And in a sense, all are culpable. The U.S. march on Iraq is merely the latest, sick manifestation of a world that for all its supposed modernity, remains addicted to war.

Humankind's self-destructive, self-interested apocalyptic urge is the real, abiding enemy within. Beware that old Armageddon buzz. It's the thrill that kills.