Being misinformed about what’s going on in politics seems to be the norm these days. Why is clarity so elusive? No answer really. All the news seems to leave us with today is a series of unanswered questions …..
….. by Paul D Kennedy
Perhaps one of the greatest thrills of the past year was, especially for those of us who were trapped here in 1990, the sight of that monstrously ugly statue in Baghdad being toppled over and then dragged away like the fetid thrash it represented. Cheers and tears of joy all round. But since then?
Well, the first surprising thing, after all the lead-up to the short sharp war, was that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Had Colin Powell been fibbing when he gave his expository lecture, backed up with flip-charts, photos and video clips, at the UN?
Perhaps. The real reason, and a very good one, for the Iraq Freedom War was just that – to free the Iraqi people from Saddam. And who can argue with such a goal? The man was an amoral monster of destruction and G Bush Jr was only doing what his Daddy should have done when he had had the chance twelve years before. But why weren’t the Americans more honest about their actual goal?
I suppose the next and perhaps most surprising thing about the whole show was the resistance. Who would have thought that the Liberators were to be looked upon as Conquerors so soon? Not many of us, I guess, though those paragons of hindsight, the CIA, are now claiming they predicted it all along.
Much of this resistance seems to have been self-inflicted. As usual the Americans showed crass insensitivity to the local culture. Using male soldiers to body-search female civilians, for example, is guaranteed to cause anger, distress and rejection in this part of the world (and in a lot of other places besides). So why didn’t the Americans use female combat soldiers at their check-points in post-war Iraq? Was it ignorance, a lack of fore-thought or just old-fashioned triumphalism? Or was it done deliberately to provoke?
Perhaps the real reason for our surprise at the resistance was that we were all too narrowly focused on Iraq itself. In retrospect, though, could anyone be really surprised that Iraq began to fill with foreign infiltrators, both Islamic fundamentalist and Arab nationalist?
After all the fundamentalists were suddenly having a very hard time in Saudi, at American insistence, and what better place to run to than Iraq – easy to get in to and with a cause that could be reinterpreted to suit their own. And the nationalists suddenly had an arena where they could fight using the hit-and-run tactics of successful guerrilla groups. Iraq is a big wide flat area, hard to defend on the ground, unlike tiny Israel with its internal fortifications and an army that is well-experienced in fighting small groups of lightly-armed resisters.
Ah, Israel! The one thing that gets all Arabs singing the pan-Arab anthem. Though the Americans fail as ever to see it, there is no doubt that Pan-Arab nationalism does exist, not perhaps with the degree of strength envisaged by Nasser before his final disappointment but with a strength that is certainly stronger than European nationalism. The sort of crude sniping that arises between European states, such as the British, French, Italians and Spanish, now and then, never seems to happen between Arab leaders. That there are no Berlusconis in the Arab World may be because Arabs are naturally more polite than Europeans, but I don’t think so. The real reason is that Arabs have a sense of nationalism that Europeans lack. And what really gets them going is Occupied Palestine.
The biggest conundrum is this part of the world is America’s biased, unremitting and almost always uncritical support for Israel, no matter how far Sharon steps beyond the pale, no matter that he continues to target Palestinian leaders, military and political, even after they have declared a ceasefire. What better way to scupper the so-called road-map?
What does America do when Israel, contrary to every agreement it has signed since Oslo, continues to create new Jewish settlements on Arab land? Nothing. Yet Americans must know, from their own history, short though it is, and that of their immigrant fore-fathers, that the ownership of land is dear to the heart everywhere and is a major way in which people express their identity. When people are deprived of their land unjustly, war of some sort is nearly always the result. Yet when Israel starts a new settlement on what they have already agreed is Palestinian land, always on the grounds that they need room for a growing population (shades of Hitler’s lebensraum?), America says little and does nothing.
As European baby-boomers we grew up believing that America was the land of the free, the land where any man or woman – negros apart, perhaps – could make it on their own terms. It was the land of fair play, where all were equal before the law. Were we wrong?
The fact that the prisoners on Guantanamo have been there for almost two years, interned without trial, has not really shaken our belief in the fairness of America, even though the continuing detention of so many for so long, far longer than any possible need for interrogation, suggests that human and civil rights in the USA are the rights of American citizens only, in blatant contradiction to our cherished notion that these rights are universal. What is finally shaking our belief in the fairness of America is that country’s unwavering and uncritical support for Israel.
The real question, and one of utmost importance in this part of the world, is: why does America support Israel beyond the limits that most of us view as being morally acceptable? Suppose Israel had never existed. Would it really make any difference to America and the rest of the world if Israel had never come into being, if another solution had been found for the remnants of European Jews, if they have been absorbed into the United States itself?
The answer is: yes, the world would be a far more peaceful place. The Arab world would not be in turmoil. The number of wars fought in the last fifty years would have been significantly reduced. The excuses some Arab dictators have been giving for years, that repression was and is necessary to build strength for the coming war to liberate Palestine, would have been impossible. The list is endless.
America is honest enough in that it publicly states that its foreign policy is based, not on moral principles, but on its self-interest in the wider world. But is that self-interest really served by its uncritical support, financially, militarily and diplomatically, of the State of Israel? The answer cannot be: yes, because it’s costing the US many friends who are more important, by far, than Israel.
But the ‘no’ answer begs another question. What is it that enables Israel to bend America to its will?
Are there sufficient historical and ethnic ties between the Israeli and American people as a whole? Unlikely; there are too few Jews in America.
Is the financial linkage between the Jewish establishment in America and political contributions so strong that senior politicians in the USA, once elected, are beholden to Jewish financiers? Perhaps; but the linkage is hardly strong enough to allow American Jews to dictate American foreign policy.
At the time of the Balfour Agreement in 1917 that signalled British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the British cabinet contained several Christian fundamentalists, including the prime minister Lloyd George, who believed that the Messiah would come again when the Jewish people had been restored to their native land – foretold, they claimed, in the Bible – and that it was their duty to help in the restoration. We all know that G Bush Jr is a born-again Christian, after a boozy career in Harvard, who believes in the old Biblical laws of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, as can be seen from his record on the death penalty when governor of Texas. But are his Christian beliefs, or those of his advisors, fundamentalist enough that he will support Israel right or wrong. Perhaps; but again unlikely.
Israel has long been seen as a client state of the USA, has long been seen as a country dependent on the USA for its very existence through financial and military aid. But nowadays it seems to be more than a simple dependent client state. Parts of the US’s foreign policy seem to be controlled by Israel.
How come the tail is now wagging the dog?
Or is it?
That Israel has weapons of mass destruction of a sophisticated and highly developed nature is accepted by many international observers and commentators. But other countries also have these weapons, notably India and Pakistan, yet they are unable, or perhaps do not try, to use them to exert leverage on American policy.
Israel’s alleged WMDs are shrouded in mystery, denial and a refusal to allow international inspections of its facilities. Nobody is too sure as to what and how much the Israelis have.
In 1993 the US Office of Technology Assessment, which reports to Congress, stated that Israel had undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities and an undeclared offensive biological warfare programme. Not a surprising conclusion considering that in 1992 an El Al cargo plane, en route for Israel, had crashed into a block of flats in Amsterdam, after which hundreds of people in the area became mysteriously sick, though they had not been hurt by the crash. The Israelis finally admitted six years later that the chemicals the plane was carrying included dimethyl methyl-phosphonate which is used for making sarin. But DMMP can be used for other purposes, surely?
But even if the Israelis do have biological and chemical weapon capabilities, the destructive powers these weapons confer are unlikely to be such that they are now masters of an American puppet. But nuclear weapons are another matter entirely.
The Israeli nuclear industry was initially developed in the 1950s and 1960s with the help of the French, Norwegians and Americans. Of course starting a nuclear industry in an arid region, where the hydro-generation of electricity is not viable and at a time when desalination technology was still in its infancy, makes sense and does not necessarily imply that the acquirer of nuclear technology has bomb-making ambitions.
These ambitions however were seemingly confirmed in 1986 when Mordecai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician, supplied the Sunday Times in London with a supposedly detailed account of Israel’s progress on nuclear weapons. Vanunu was kidnapped by Mossad and taken back to Israel where he got 18 years in goal. Since then he has been kept in solitary confinement and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say when he does get out in a year or so. But one thing is for sure: you don’t put a guy out of circulation for nearly two decades for telling tales that can easily be proven false through international inspection.
Nevertheless, if Israel has really been developing its own nuclear weapons, surely it would have had to test them? You cannot test a nuclear bomb in secret and Israel has never, it seems, been detected testing a bomb, either in the atmosphere or underground. But do you really need live testing to perfect your bomb?
When the main nuclear powers agreed to suspend nuclear testing some years ago they did so a bit tongue-in-cheek. Nowadays, using super-computers, you can simulate mathematically the behaviour of nuclear explosives. So you can design and built a nuclear weapon without ever having to test it and still be absolutely sure that it will work. At least three of Israel’s universities are said to have several super-computers each. If this is so, Israel doesn’t really have to live-test its nuclear weapons to ensure they will work in anger.
Estimates of the number of bombs Israel has in its arsenal, by those who believe it actually has them, vary widely, from at least one hundred to more than four hundred. If the actual figure is somewhere in between, say about two-hundred and fifty, this means that Israel has more bombs than Britain (with less than 200) and has the fifth largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Is it really believable that such a small, relatively insignificant country, could have such fire-power?
Then again nuclear bombs aren’t much use if you cannot deliver them. According to a CIA memorandum of 1974, the design of Israel’s Jericho II missile, which has a range of 1500km, doesn’t make sense unless it was actually designed to accommodate nuclear warheads. But this is not the same as saying with certainty that the Jericho II was designed for regional nuclear strikes.
The Israelis also have a rocket for launching satellites, the Shavit. According to some experts this could easily be converted into an intercontinental ballistic missile, secretly, using those super-computers to model the forces, such as heat and shock waves, which act on a long-range missile as it re-enters the atmosphere. As a missile, the Shavit would have a range of 8,000km, putting London, Moscow and all of India well within range. Pity the Germans, who have been forbidden nuclear weapons since the end of World War II, if a flood of holocaust rage were to erupt suddenly. Provided, of course, the conversion that might be possible has actually been carried out.
Much of Israel’s air-force to is said to be nuclear capable, and those who claim to know say that some Israeli F-16 pilots have been trained for nuclear strikes. They have also, it is said, been trained to fit chemical or biological weapons within minutes of being ordered to attack. Perhaps this is the source of that ludicrous ‘45 minutes’ claim in the famous report by British intelligence to Downing Street on Iraq’s WMD capabilities – MI5 got the country, not the capability, wrong!
If Israel really does have WMDs and the ability to deliver them, the implication is that it is capable of devastating the Arab states around it. And if it really has the ability to deliver a nuclear strike from the far west of Europe to the eastern most part of India then it could, if it thought it necessary for its survival, start a world-wide war.
Is this the reason the tail is now able to wag the dog? Anytime the Israelis have a problem or are wont to create one, all they have to do is threaten to go nuclear and the Americans will come running to help them, no matter what.
Can this really be so?
Who knows? Finding the simple unadorned truth in all this speculation seems well-nigh impossible.
It was the impression that Saddam actually had WMDs that provided the causis belli for the destruction of his regime, an impression that Saddam encouraged.
He did indeed have chemical weapons at one time and used them on the Kurds at Halabje in 1988. The ruthlessness that this signalled was used to panic the Kurds in late March 1991 when Iraqi helicopters, during Saddam’s counter-attack on Pershmegas and rebelling Jash militias, dropped flour on them. The Kurds, normally extremely brave warriors, fled believing that they were undergoing a rerun of Halabje. But no chemical weapons were used, just ordinary flour. The threat alone was the decisive factor and Saddam, as always when it came to ways to terrorise people, was a quick learner.
As for biological weapons, knowledge not technology is the key to their development. As knowledge is fairly freely available and the few bits of relatively unsophisticated equipment needed to convert that knowledge into useable weapons can be obtained easily, it was reasonable to assume that Saddam had biological weapons or could create or recreate them quickly if needed (in 45 days?). But it looks like they were scrapped along with Iraq’s nuclear weapons programmes, which were not very far advanced due to a lack of technology, after the revelations of Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s late son-in-law, in 1995.
But as Saddam had learned in 1991, he could use the threat of WMDs very effectively without actually having them. So he never stood up in public to say categorically that he did not have any WMDs. If he had done so, he would have lost all credibility on the street in the Arab world, and that was one thing he never wanted to lose. So he bluffed on. And that bluff signed his regime’s death warrant, and his own if that homicidal maniac is ever caught.
But does Israel really have the bomb? Or is it playing the Saddam game? Could the Israeli bomb, along with the Vanunu epidsode, be just a bluff to keep the Arabs in line? The answer is not at all clear. And we have come no nearer in answering the main question: why does the USA support Israel beyond all moral limits?
And then there is the bigger question that keeps popping up: what exactly are the objectives of American foreign policy in this part of the planet, from Central Asia to the Med? That there is no clear answer is very frustrating, intellectually and in practical business terms.
Now that Afghanistan has been broken up into little fiefdoms that are not, and can never be, a threat to anyone, and are easily controllable with a judicious blend of cajolery and inducements, what was the real long-term objective when the Taleban were driven out? And what is the American military presence in Central Asia expected to protect? Is Iraq going to survive as a single entity or will it be allowed to break up? And what of Saudi Arabia?
I suppose the real conundrum is the drivers of US foreign policy. Is American foreign policy the result of the industrial-military alliance in the USA that is said to have come into existence during the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s? Or is it driven by an alliance between the government and big business, as represented by corporations such as Halliburton, that needs a continuing supply of post-war reconstruction contracts to keep American labour in employment and corporate America in profit? Or is it just that America has finally advanced beyond republicanism into imperialism and that its foreign policy is driven by nothing more sinister than an innocent need to flex its muscles in public?
Who knows the answers to all those questions? I certainly don’t, though I wish I did. When I read the newspapers and watch TV these days, the only thing that is clear is that all is murky, very murky indeed, and that clarity is, as ever, elusive.
© Paul D Kennedy, November 2003
This article was first published in the Arab Times in the After Iftar section during Ramadan 2003. Muslims fast throughout the day during Ramadan and Iftar is the time just after sunset when the fast is broken. The hour or two following Iftar is considered by Muslims to be a time that should be set aside for reflection.