Iraq – set up for a fall
Gwydion M. Williams writing as ‘Michael Alexander’ makes an apology for having believed bits of American propaganda, and then considers the future.
The Gulf war was as much a media as a military event. Both sides of the operation were done very cleverly. And the cleverest part was building up Saddam Hussein as a dangerous world-threatening tyrant. A small, moderately prosperous Third-World country, with a population of just 17 million, was set up as a serious enemy for the combined armed might of Britain, France and America. When the said small country collapsed rapidly, its destruction seemed heroic rather than predictable.
I freely admit, I fell for it. There was some reason to believe that the war would cost a lot of Western lives, although it was always obvious that the odds were heavily against Iraq. On paper, the Iraqi army seemed strong. But it is just not possible to get hundreds of thousands of good soldiers out of such a small population. As a highly mechanised army the Iraqis were vulnerable to air power, superior technology and superior coordination. Then there was the British contribution. Americans have a history of making drastic errors in large-scale military operations. But the British Army, after the drastic failures in the early part of World War Two, seems to have acquired the knack of good military organisation, and to have kept it to this day. Arnhem was a calculated risk, that would have greatly shortened the war had it come off. Suez was a political, not a military blunder. Various colonial wars were mostly won, even if the political friends of the defeated insurgents then had to be put in power, as in Kenya. In Malaya and in Oman, the British Army achieved what the Americans failed to achieve with much larger forces in Vietnam.
Bush fought a war to minimise Western casualties, and to establish American global hegemony. He has shown little regard for his Arab ‘allies’ He has treated the United Nations with total contempt, turning it into a subservient tool of his foreign policy. He has shown no concern for the lives of ordinary Middle East citizens. As the Belfast Northern Star put it on February 23rd:
“the military agents of the United Nations have said that they feel ‘comfortable’ about killing the people in the air-raid shelter. The BBC tried to do a damage-limitation exercise on that statement. It claimed that the word ‘comfortable’ is a technical military term meaning in that context something entirely different from what it means in ordinary language. But that is patent eye-wash …
“The war is a political contrivance in which there is no element of political spontaneity. The language used from the start is the language of public relations. Its purpose is to overawe and intimidate the Arab mind. It has been a media exercise as much as a military exercise…. When a General tells the press that he is ‘comfortable’ about having killed 400 civilians in an air-raid shelter, he is not using technical jargon more appropriate at a staff meeting. He is projecting an image. Bush himself used the same word early on January. He said he made his decision to launch a war, and was comfortable with it.”
In the ground war, the Allied forces achieved a ‘kill ratio’ of perhaps 100 to 1. It may even have been more than this. At the time of writing, there are still no definite figure~ for Iraqi casualties, and the US seem in no hurry to release a figure. The Saudis say at least 85,000. Whatever it is, we can be fairly sure that Bush will feel ‘comfortable’.
He must also be feeling more than comfortable about the horrors that the Iraqis inflicted on the Kuwaitis, especially after it was clear that Iraq was losing the war. Without them, there would be much more anger about what was done to defeated and almost defenceless Iraqi soldiers, and to wholly defenceless Iraqi civilians.
Had Bush really cared about the lives of Kuwaiti Arabs, he might have peacefully negotiated Saddam out of Kuwait back in August, or else made a discreet phone-call to Baghdad before August 2nd to stop the invasion from ever happening. But there is no sign that Bush ever cared about what Saddam was doing to Kurds or Iraqi Arabs. Bush has in fact left Saddam free to go on doing such things, or else be replaced by another dictator who might perhaps kill even more.
The propaganda about the vast power of Iraq had three purposes. Firstly, public opinion was already taken care of, in case the war should go badly – and nothing military is ever quite predictable. Secondly, public euphoria could be expected if the war went as anticipated. Thirdly, the peace movement would be left discredited, after predicting horrors for Western troops that failed to materialise.
In this context, ‘public opinion’ means only the nations of the West. Arab and Muslim public opinion has been thoroughly enraged. Its anger will not express itself in time to stop Bush being re-elected, and it could be that this has been Bush’s main objective all along. But it will be expressed. And in the long run, the hegemony that Bush has established cannot be defended without the loss of American lives, in a way that will not be acceptable. As I said in Bush the Boss-Man, the West would damage its interests by breaking Iraq.
We now have an odd situation in which Iraq is crippled but not necessarily broken. Saddam may fall, or he may survive and take vengeance on anyone foolish enough to suppose that Bush was their friend. If he falls, Iraq may simply disintegrate, or be partitioned, or fall under the influence of either Iran or Saudi Arabia. No one can really be sure.
The Gulf operation has been called imperialism. But the old-style imperialists at least had a definite idea of the world, that they tried to impose on other people. If you did what they wanted, they would look after you – often with great courage and dedication. Bush, however, has left all of his Arab allies in the shit. President Assad of Syria is especially vulnerable, and Bush may well be regarding this as a smart move. Nothing that might happen to Assad would cause me any grief. But Bush’s actions make continuous instability almost inevitable.
It was Suez that undermined the pro-British government that Britain had carefully developed over several decades in Iraq, and created a chronic instability in Iraqi society that required someone as ruthless and nasty as Saddam Hussein to impose some sort of order. Nasser suffered military humiliation both during Suez and later in the 6 Day war, and yet remains a hero to Arabs. A man who resists and is then beaten unconscious has more dignity that one who grovels to superior power. Americans seem never quite to have understood the difference – in their eyes both are ‘losers’. But Arabs are likely to take a different view of the matter.
This article appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.