16 March 2013
Iraq Ten Years Later
By Gwynne Dyer
Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.
The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.
That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.
Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.
Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.
Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.
The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?
Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.
The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.
The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.
There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?
The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.
The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)
None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?
Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)
14 March 2013
The Koreas: The Risk of Miscalculation
By Gwynne Dyer
The joint US-South Korean military exercises known as “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have got underway, and so far the heavens have not fallen.
The American forces have not launched an unprovoked assault on North Korea, despite the strident claims of Pyongyang’s media that the exercises are a cover for exactly such a plan. In fact, joint exercises on this scale – they only involve 13,000 American and South Korean troops – have been held every year of the past forty, and pose no threat whatever to North Korea.
Neither has North Korea chosen to “defend its sovereignty”, as it recently threatened to do, by launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes against both the United States and South Korea. It could certainly do huge damage to South Korea, bur despite its successful nuclear and missile tests in the past three months it still lacks all but the most rudimentary capability to hit the United States.
Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February had twice the explosive power of the last one in 2009, but nobody believes North Korea’s claim that it has also made its bomb small enough to fit on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Nor does the Unha-3 missile, which Pyongyang used to launch a satellite in December, have the guidance systems and re-entry technology necessary to deliver such a nuclear weapon onto an American target – which would have to be in western Alaska, since that is the limit of the rocket’s range.
There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un’s regime is feeling extremely peeved about the international response to its weapon and missile tests, which has included tighter United Nations trade sanctions that got unanimous support in the Security Council. Even North Korea’s only ally, China, voted for them.
In a particularly peevish gesture, he has even cut the military hotline between the two sides at Panmunjom. (If you think there’s going to be a crisis, the last thing you want is a secure and rapid means of talking to the other side.) But it’s really just an empty gesture: an alternative military communications line, used to monitor cross-border workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, remains open.
But it’s a long way from feeling peeved to feeling suicidal. Any North Korean nuclear attack on an American target would be answered by immediate US strikes that would annihilate the military and civilian leadership in Pyongyang, obliterate its nuclear facilities, and probably destroy much else besides. So North Korea’s threat to launch a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States, or even against South Korea, is totally implausible.
However, the young and inexperienced North Korean leader may feel the need to prove his mettle to his own military commanders by taking some more limited action against the US-South Korean exercises. That sort of thing can easily go wrong.
There is a widespread perception in South Korea that Seoul was caught off-guard by North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan and its artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong island in 2010. North Korea paid no military price for either action, and South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, who took office only two weeks ago, needs to show South Koreans that she is not going to let that happen again.
She probably also hopes that a promise of prompt and severe retaliation will deter North Korea from any future attacks of that sort. So she has engaged in some rhetorical escalation of her own.
She has warned North Korea that any further attacks will be met by instant retaliation that targets not only the units involved in the attack, but also North Korea’s high command.
No doubt this is only intended to deter any such North Korean attack, but in practice it means that there will be much more rapid and uncontrollable escalation if Pyongyang makes a token attack anyway.
Even a conventional war in the Korean peninsula would be hugely destructive. Just north of the “Demilitarised Zone” between the two countries is the largest concentration of artillery in the entire world, and the mega-city of Seoul is within long artillery range of the border.
North Korea’s population is considerably smaller than South Korea’s, but the North maintains the fourth largest army in the world. Its armed forces operate mostly last-generation weaponry, but the equipment is well maintained and the soldiers appear to be well trained. The last war between the two countries killed over a million people and left all the peninsula’s cities in ruins – and that was over sixty years ago.
If North Korea ignored Park’s warning and made some local attack to demonstrate its displeasure, and Park then felt obliged to act on her threat to go after the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation, things could get very ugly very fast.
So far the US-South Korean exercises have gone off smoothly, but the risk of a serious miscalculation first in Pyongyang and then in Seoul is real, and the exercises still have more than a week (until 25 March) to run.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“In a particularly…open”; and “North…ago”)
10 March 2013
Afghanistan: The Najibullah Syndrome
By Gwynne Dyer
“Yesterday’s bombings (in Afghanistan) in the name of the Taliban were aimed at serving the foreigners and supporting the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and keeping them in Afghanistan by intimidating us,” said Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai on Sunday. What on Earth could he have meant by that?
The “foreigners” he is talking about are the troops from the United States and various NATO countries in Europe that have been in Afghanistan for the past dozen years. They will almost all be gone by the end of next year. Can Karzai seriously think that the Taliban bombs in Kabul and Khost last Saturday, which killed 19 people, were meant to get the Americans, British, Germans et. al. to keep their soldiers in Afghanistan longer?
If he were the leader of al-Qaeda, you can imagine him saying that. It was always al-Qaeda’s goal to get Western military forces entangled in military occupations in the Muslim world, in the belief that that would nurture popular hostility both to the West and to the local leaders who collaborated with it. But Karzai IS a collaborator, parachuted into Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001.
He may have won the first presidential election in 2005 legitimately, but by the second election in 2009 he has so unpopular that he was only re-elected thanks to massive vote-rigging, tacitly condoned by the United States. And when the Americans leave, he had better leave with them.
So what is all this nonsense about the Taliban bombs being an attempt to persuade the “foreigners” that they have to stay, and to “intimidate” Karzai and his cronies into letting them stay? It can best be explained as a manifestation of the “Najibullah syndrome”.
Najibullah was the Communist leader who ruled Afghanistan during the latter stages of the Soviet occupation and immediately after the Russians left. When the Taliban finally took Kabul in 1996, he was tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets behind a truck, and then hanged from a traffic light. It can be safely assumed that Karzai and his cronies, when they contemplate the forthcoming American departure, are acutely aware of this precedent.
This leads to various flailing attempts by members of the regime to distance themselves from the American occupation forces who originally boosted them into power. Karzai has been increasingly vocal in criticising the NATO forces in Afghanistan, as if he had nothing to do with their presence in the country, and didn’t owe his presidency to them.
Let’s deconstruct that remarkable statement of Karzai’s. The message is that he is an Afghan patriot who is trying to make the “foreigners” go home, whereas the Taliban are trying to keep the Americans and their NATO allies in the country to further their own nefarious purposes. It makes no sense whatever, but what else can he say? That the Taliban are winning, the Americans are getting out, and he is doomed?
He’s not really doomed. Since the constitution does not allow him to run for the presidency again, he can easily leave the country for “health reasons” or whatever before the foreign troops depart. He must have salted away enough money abroad to live quite well in exile, as have almost all the other members of the regime. So why does he act as though he might have a future in post-occupation Afghanistan?
The Najibullah precedent is instructive here, too. The former collaborator with the Soviet occupiers stubbornly believed that the Taliban would understand that his motives had been pure, and after all he was a Pashtun like them. He refused to leave Kabul before the Taliban took over, even though numerous friends implored him to. Karzai apparently suffers from the same delusions, and may eventually suffer the same fate.
This is not to say that the Taliban will overrun all of Afghanistan after the NATO forces leave. They will undoubtedly gain control of the Pashtun-majority south and east, and they will probably take Kabul. They didn’t gain control of the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minority regions in the north of the country last time, and they may not do so after this bunch of foreigners leave either.
The likeliest post-occupation outcome in Afghanistan, therefore, is a reversion to the situation that prevailed there before 2001. Karzai will either leave or be tortured and killed, as will most of his senior collaborators. Pakistan will be the dominant influence in Taliban-controlled parts of the country, and the minorities will have to fend for themselves.
If this is the final outcome, what have the “foreigners” been doing in the country for the past twelve years? Several thousand of their soldiers have been killed, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, and things will be about the same after they leave as they were before they arrived – apart from the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps, which were dealt with before the end of 2001.
For the NATO alliance, which has been searching for a new role ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Afghan operation at least helped to justify its enormous budget. For the United States, it never made sense from any point of view. And for Afghanistan, it was merely the continuation of a disaster now more than thirty years old.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He’s not…fate”)
5 March 2013
Venezuela After Chavez
By Gwynne Dyer
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” said Georges Clemenceau, prime minster of France during the First World War, and promptly died to prove his point. He was duly replaced, and France was just fine without him. Same goes for Hugo Chavez and Venezuela.
“Comandante Presidente” Chavez’s death on Tuesday came as no surprise. He was clearly coming home to die when he returned from his last bout of surgery in Cuba in December, and since then everybody in politics in Venezuela has been pondering their post-Chavez strategies. But none of them really knows what will happen in the election that will be held by the end of April, let alone what happens afterwards.
Venezuela never stopped being a democracy despite 14 years of Chavez’s rule. He didn’t seize power. He didn’t even rig elections, though he used the government’s money and privileged access to the media to good effect. He was elected president four times, the first three with increasing majorities — but the last time, in 2012, he fell back sharply, only defeating his rival by 54 percent-44 percent.
That is certainly not a wide enough margin to guarantee that his appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, will win the next election. Maduro will doubtless benefit from a certain sympathy vote, but that effect may be outweighed by the fact that Chavez is no longer there in person to work his electoral magic. If his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were to lose that election, it would not be a tragedy.
Chavez was an unnecessarily combative and polarising politician and a truly awful administrator, but he has actually achieved what he went into politics for. Twenty years ago Venezuelan politics was a corrupt game fought out between two factions of a narrow elite. Now the task of using the country’s oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor majority is central to all political debate in the country.
In last year’s election, the Venezuelan opposition parties managed to unite behind a single presidential candidate, Enrique Capriles, whose political platform was basically “Chavismo” without the demagoguery. In previous elections, the opposition had railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism, and lost by a wide margin. Capriles, by contrast, promised to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies, and lost very narrowly.
Over the past dozen years Chavez’s governments have poured almost $300 billion into improving literacy, extending high school education, creating a modern, universally accessible health-care system, build housing for the homeless, and subsidising household purchases from groceries to appliances. What made that possible was not “socialism”, but Venezuela’s huge oil revenues.
Capriles had to promise to maintain these policies because the poor – and most Venezuelans are still poor – won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that. He just said that he would spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believed him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s slapdash administration.
Venezuela today has the fairest distribution of wealth in the Americas, with the obvious exception of Canada. Venezuela’s “Gini coefficient”, which measures the wealth gap between the rich and the poor, is 0.39, whereas the United States is 0.45 and Brazil, even after ten years of reforming left-wing governments, is still 0.52. (A lower score means less inequality of income.)
For all of Chavez’s ranting about class struggle and his admiration for Fidel Castro, this was not achieved in Venezuela by taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. It was accomplished by spending the oil revenue differently. He changed the political psychology of the country, and it now has the potential to be a Saudi Arabia with democracy.
That is not a bad thing to be, and the Venezuelan opposition has finally grasped that fact. It remains for Chavez’s own party to understand that it has actually won the war, and to stop re-fighting the old battles. A spell in opposition might help it to come to terms with its proper role in the new Venezuelan political consensus: no longer an embattled “revolutionary” movement, but the more radical alternative in a more or less egalitarian democracy.
This will be hard for the PSUV to do, because the people around Chavez are still addicted to the rhetoric and the mindset of “struggle”against the forces of evil that they see on every side. Nicolas Maduro, for example, could not resist claiming that Chavez’s cancer had been induced by foul play by Venezuela’s enemies when he announced the leader’s death.
One day, Maduro promised, a “scientific commission” would investigate whether Chavez’s illness was brought about by what he called an enemy attack, presumably by the United States. Ridiculous, paranoid stuff, and it shows just how far the PSUV has to travel to take its proper place in a modern, democratic Venezuela. But the journey has begun, and it will probably get there in the end.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Over…administration”)