Global Policy Forum

War on Terror: Coming Apart at the Seams


By John Horvath

March 20, 2004

The fallacy of nation building by intervention

As the first anniversary of the US invasion in Iraq of 2003 passes, there is definitely not much to cheer about. A year after, the bombs keep falling, and although coalition forces are well entrenched within the country, it's anything but under control. At the same time, mass demonstrations against the US and its puppet regime, coupled with ongoing attacks throughout the country, is proof that Iraq is anything but the happy, prosperous place that George Bush had promised it would. Although most acknowledge that Saddam was a brutal dictator, it still doesn't mean that what had replaced him is any better.

Outside of Iraq, meanwhile, where the reality of the occupation is largely unfelt, the first anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is likewise a somber affair, albeit for a different reason altogether. The statistics say it all. So far in the "war on terror" initiated since 9/11 (upon which the invasion Iraq was justified), the US and its allies have been responsible for over 13,000 civilian deaths. According to the website Iraq Body Count, this figure includes not only the over 10,000 civilian killed in Iraq, but also over 3,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, another death toll that continues to rise long after the world's attention has moved on.

Even worse is climbing number of casualties among coalition forces: almost 700 had been killed so far, with the US suffering over 575 soldiers killed in Iraq. The number of wounded is equally startling, with the US suffering 3,300 casualties with almost 3,000 of them from hostile action, this according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

Elsewhere in the world over the same period, paramilitary forces hostile to the US and its western allies have killed 408 civilians in 18 attacks worldwide. Adding the official 9/11 death toll (as of October 29th 2003), this brings the total to just under 3,500, which is about a quarter of the number killed by the US their allies.

9/11 hadn't changed anything
This blood-spattered balance sheet in the "war on terror" just confirms what many have been warning of all along: that nation building by military intervention simply doesn't work. And yet what most people have forgotten is that this was exactly what George Bush and his cronies had promised they would not do if they were elected in 2000. Their position then was quite clear: the US military was stretched too thin across the world, and the US wasn't going to be in the business of nation-building. In essence, they rejected outright Clinton's policy of "humanitarian intervention".

Rudyard Kipling: The White Man's Burden
Take up the White man's burden --
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild --
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man's burden --
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times mad plain.
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.
Take up the White Man's burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Naturally, the quick answer to all of this is 9/11, that it had "changed everything". Upon close inspection, however, it's obvious that the terror attacks hadn't changed anything, but merely provided an excuse to continue American policy as defined by Clinton in the post-cold war years -- with more intensity. Since 9/11, the US military has deployed troops in over 37 additional countries, for a worldwide total of 138.

The 1990s was an awkward period for US foreign policy because it wasn't fighting a global crusade of some sort (the Cold War was over and the war on terror hadn't yet begun). Hence, the concept of nation building by military intervention was defined along the lines of "humanitarian warfare". After an initial failure in Somalia, the Balkans was where this new concept was first put into practice, first to "end the war in Bosnia" (when all sides already showed signs of battle fatigue) and then in the so-called "liberation" of Kosovo. Those two actions pushed to the fore two general misconceptions: that the UN was ineffective and powerless (hence the massacre at Srebenica) and that the US had to shoulder the "white man's burden" (after all, the EU was powerless to stop the bloodshed that was happening on its doorstep).

Nation building isn't pursued for the benefit of those being helped or liberated Even to this day, most American pundits point to the success of such interventions as justification for the present push toward nation building, despite the fact that in both cases the problems have remained unresolved. In fact, it should come as no surprise that in the Balkans these same problems have now resurfaced, and that NATO is quickly sending troops to the area in an attempt to ease the tension. Yet this merely reinforces the fallacy of nation building by military intervention: both Bosnia are Kosovo are political basket-cases. They are both unable to govern themselves and require a constant military presence.

This raises troubling questions for the Middle East, in particular Afghanistan and Iraq, where the notion of "humanitarian warfare" and nation building by intervention faces even more obstacles. Ironically, prior to the invasion of Iraq George Bush had publicly scolded the UN for not endorsing his war, with American pundits subsequently questioning the future of the UN. Most had then concluded that the UN had in fact lost its relevance in the modern world.

Oddly enough, these same pundits and politicians are now looking to the UN for a safety line. They are desperate to have the international organisation back in Iraq and to help with the task of nation building. Furthermore, they would like the UN to give its seal of approval to the new government structures that are being put into place.

Yet while the UN has had a few examples of successful nation building projects in the past, its main problem is in the way the international body itself is structured. The organisation is hamstrung by its present structure of five permanent members with veto power. This unequal balance of power doesn't bode well for international co-operation. Meanwhile, in both Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the war on terror, the UN and the Red Cross were still able to get some work done despite the restrictions that were imposed on them. It was only when these organisations followed in the wake of military intervention that they themselves became targets. It could be argued that the UN and Red Cross were able to achieve more in helping Afghans and Iraqis prior to the war on terror than they are able to do now under the shadow of the US military.

All this is not lost on members of the US coalition which, one year after the invasion of Iraq, looks to be coming apart at the seams. Not only Spain, but Poland also voiced its regret for joining with the US in Iraq. In the case of Poland, part of the reason for its regret at having gone along with the American coalition has to do with an overall disenchantment toward the west, brought about its experience with the process of EU membership.

Clearly, nation building isn't pursued for the benefit of those being helped or liberated, but exclusively for those doing the building. While in the west people are misguided into thinking that its being pursued as a noble or just cause, elsewhere people have come to see it for what it really is: a new form of colonialism and imperialism. The difference between then and now is that 21st Century pundits don't have the eloquence of poets like Kipling to justify the White Man's Burden.

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