Waiting for Iraq

7 November 2004

Waiting for Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

Most Americans don’t realise how much the rest of the world opposed their country’s invasion of Iraq, because most US mass media shield them from the knowledge. Watching the domestic service of CNN just after the election, I heard three different newsreaders in the same day explain to their American audience that France and Germany had been “cool” to the American attack on Iraq.

They weren’t “cool” to it; they opposed it utterly. They saw it as an illegal act intended to undermine the entire multilateral system and replace it with a unilateral system in which America is the global policeman — indeed, the global judge, jury and executioner. They refused to support it at the United Nations, and in that refusal they had the support of every other great power except Britain. So what do all these great powers — France, Germany, Russia, China, and India — do now?

They were never that confident that President George W. Bush would lose the election, or that Senator John Kerry would make much difference if he won. They know that there is now a broad consensus in the United States on the desirability of imposing a “Pax Americana” on the world through the unilateral exercise of overwhelming US military power. They will never accept that, but they still want to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States as that would also destroy the multilateral system. So they are hoping that the war in Iraq will erode US popular support for the whole unilateralist adventure.

To be specific, they are hoping for the rise of an anti-Iraq-war movement in the United States like the one that ultimately destroyed popular support for the US war in Vietnam a generation ago. And they need it to happen soon, because their no-confrontation policy has a limited shelf life. It must succeed before popular pressures at home push them into open confrontation with the US.

So how fast can Iraq go bad in the eyes of the American public? In Iraqi eyes, of course, it has already gone bad, with every opinion poll since last spring showing massive support among Arab Iraqis for the resistance forces and a huge majority in favour of immediate US withdrawal. But it is Americans who must be convinced that the whole neo-conservative project for re-ordering the Middle East and establishing US global hegemony is foolish and doomed.

That may take more time than is available, for what US public opinion responds to is American casualties. If too many American soldiers get killed in Iraq, then the public will eventually pull the plug on the war, just as they did on Korea in the 1950s, on Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, on the US military intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s, and on Somalia in the 1990s. But how many is too many? That depends.

American military deaths in Iraq are now nearing 1,100, but there is little likelihood that the total will rise as fast as it did in the Vietnam war. American soldiers are basically fighting lightly armed guerillas in Iraq, not a regular army like North Vietnam’s, and US tactics are deliberately designed to minimise American casualties by a massive use of firepower, especially air power.

This does have the side-effect of killing large numbers of Iraqi civilians. A survey of 33 randomly selected Iraqi neighbourhoods conducted in September by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and published online by the British medical journal “The Lancet” late last month concluded that there have been between 100,000 and 200,000 “excess deaths” among Iraqi civilians since the March, 2003 invasion, and that most of these deaths were due to American air strikes in civilian areas. But Iraqi deaths have little impact on American public opinion.

The number of American military casualties that the US public will tolerate fluctuates over time, and is certainly much higher than it was before 9/11. Nobody knows what the magic number actually is now, but it is probably well above a thousand American dead a year. It remains to be seen if Iraq will cause American casualties on a much larger scale than that.

Iraq is already a quagmire for the US armed forces: even as thousands of American troops prepare to level the defiant city of Falluja, the city of Samarra, which US forces allegedly “pacified” in September, is slipping out of their control again. But it is a relatively small quagmire, and it may not produce a powerful anti-war movement in the United States as quickly as the other great powers hope. Especially if al-Qaeda, freed from the need to abstain from terrorist attacks on the US for fear of sabotaging President Bush’s reelection, manages to carry out an attack or two, however small, on US soil.

If the US does not change course, the other great powers will eventually give up on the waiting game and move to counterbalance and contain American power. That would mean alliances, arms build-ups, all the lethal nonsense we thought that we had left behind us. Nobody wants to go down that road, but they inevitably will if US policy doesn’t change. We probably have a few years before that starts, but we don’t have a long time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“American…opinion”)