Global Policy Forum

The Arch of Globalization


What Do You Make of the US Invasion of Iraq?

By Abdel-Moneim Said*

June 5, 2003

It will always be hard to impose meaning on what happened in Baghdad, from the time the crisis flared up until hostilities broke out, the Ba'athist regime collapsed, and Saddam fled to some as yet unknown destination. There are moments, however, which we fancy we can make some sense of: how the Iraqi regime came to power, for example, and why it got embroiled in four wars. But this story is more than just the sum of its parts. We need to keep track of the intricate web of links and twists that make up the whole. We need to identify the patterns that emerge and explore their potential meaning. We need to take into account the context in which the crisis unfolded, from the moment the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441 until the moment President George W Bush alighted from a helicopter aboard USS Abraham Lincoln to declare that military operations in Iraq were now over and that for the US, anything was now possible in the Middle East and the Arab region.

There are 10 different versions of the Iraqi story which became popular immediately before and during the war. The first version links the war with globalisation. Obviously, the process of globalisation predates the war on Iraq -- indeed it predates several recent wars -- and it is still going strong as I write. EU enlargement, stronger ties between North and South America, closer cooperation among Asian and Pacific countries (APEC), and the incessant improvement of communication technology together provide sufficient indication that globalisation is still moving full steam ahead. Current waves of technological progress are bringing untold change to the capitalist market, but in an uneven, unsynchronised manner. These changes are felt everywhere, but the reaction to them differs from one place to another. Countries vary in their ability to respond to and cope with these transformations.

If we try to visualise the course of globalisation, it would resemble a giant arch. At one end, it would rise from the Magellan Straits, where North and South America meet, increasing in breadth as it soars over North and South America, covering Canada and the North Pole, then travelling east, crossing Greenland and Iceland, until it approaches Europe. There, the upper layer of the arch would thicken out, assuming the shape of an upside-down crescent. As the arch approaches Russia, with its domestic turmoil and economic woes, it would shrink until it had almost dissolved away. But it would soon regain its former girth and substance as it rises over the Asian-Pacific ridge -- Japan, China, Indo-China, and Southeast Asia -- travelling on across New Zealand until it came at last to rest at the edge of Antarctica.

Globalisation, as described by this image, is far from complete. Many areas are absent, removed from the main thrust of events. Africa is largely left out. So is Russia, even though it is a member of the G-8. The area most conspicuous for its absence, being so close to the route which the globalisation arch takes, is the Middle East. Broadly defined, the Middle East includes the Turkish, Persian and Arab communities living on the stretch of land which extends from China's borders to the Atlantic shores. These communities seem to have their own reasons to be suspicious of the course of globalisation and the meaning which it bears.

This is why the Middle East, and the entire Arab region, is so important. A few Islamic countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, seem to have thrown in their lot with the globalisation process. Muslims in China are also making a major effort to participate in this quest, through science and knowledge. Turkey is definitely a part of this ongoing attempt to reshape the 21st century. The Arab region is perhaps the only region where enthusiasm for globalisation is singularly lacklustre. Indeed, this region experiences recurring outbursts of resistance not just against globalisation in the strict sense, but also against any kind of reform that may happen to be affiliated with it. Many in this region see globalisation as a form of unspeakable evil and hegemony. The obvious cause for this attitude is America and Israel. The fact that the former is the uncontested leader of globalisation and that the latter is its ally in this cause, is enough for many to conclude that something truly diabolical must be in the offing.

The Anglo-Saxon war against Iraq can easily be interpreted in this context, where globalisation is the keyword. The free flow of goods and services, and even of human beings and ideas, across national borders implies the destruction of all obstacles and barriers, including conventional ways of thinking. When communism collapsed, it brought down with it an entire world. Fifteen independent republics came into being on the grave of the former Soviet Union, and an equal number of states gained freedom in east and central Europe. Ten of the latter have recently been admitted to the EU and more are now being integrated in the far- reaching international capitalist market.

Whenever chauvinistic ethnic nationalism had threatened to disturb the course of trade and investment, action has been taken: as is demonstrated, for instance, by the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Afghanistan war was another example. The aim in the latter case was to liquidate the terrorist threat to international lines of communication and transport, and to ensure the uninterrupted flow of goods, tourism, and capital. Likewise, the Anglo-Saxon war on Iraq was no more than a military exercise designed to remove barriers to globalisation. The war, thus understood, was an attempt to keep oil flowing and markets open. In a sense, it sought to make the Middle East, its countries and societies, more accessible, more vulnerable to the mechanisms of globalisation -- something which a decade of the peace process and one previous Gulf war had visibly failed to accomplish.

During the 1990s, US policy aimed to change the Middle East and the Arab region through multilateral talks in the context of the Arab- Israeli peace process. These talks focussed on economic cooperation, water, and the environment. Several so-called Middle East economic conferences were organised in Casablanca, Amman, Cairo, and Doha. Their aim was to create an extensive capitalist market, so as to strengthen links between the region and the process of globalisation. For a while, this seemed like it might work: many of the conferences and related gatherings were organised with US and European participation and were inspired by the world's foremost globalisation club, the World Economic Forum of Davos. But all of these efforts came to nothing. The borders of the Middle East failed to open up. It was therefore necessary -- analysts and experts argue -- to breach these borders at their most vulnerable spot. Once Iraq has been conquered and democracy established there, the argument went, the region would follow suit -- the globalisation of the Middle East would finally become possible.

A second version of the same story shares some of its traits with the previous one. The world, some argue, is still cleaning up the wreckage of the Cold War. In one sense, then, the war on Iraq was merely one of many attempts to remove the debris of the Cold War era. Following the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, a number of evil or "rogue" states -- to use US terminology -- were unfortunately left standing: North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These outposts of the old world are now being liquidated. Iraq has fallen, and the rest should soon follow suit.

A third version tells the story quite differently. What matters is not globalisation or the end of the Cold war, but the "American Empire", as Robert Kagan, a leading US neoconservative, calls it. In 1776, America was born on the east coast of North America, a country of three million people. Within two centuries, this state had extended its influence from coast to coast and across oceans, buying land (Louisiana, Alaska), conquering territories (Texas), and wielding immense economic and military power abroad (western Europe, Japan). Over the past decade, the American Empire has extended its influence eastward, with NATO accepting the membership of states from the "new Europe". Southeast Asia is under control, with the Americans and the Australians cooperating in East Timor. Indonesia has been pacified, and the empire has now moved on to sort out Afghanistan, then Iraq. The Middle East is next.

A fourth version agrees with the previous argument as regards the imperial tendencies of the United States, but reaches different conclusions. Imperial expansion, according to this version, occasionally aims to impose a system of values born out of a multi-ethnic political structure. The Roman Empire made a point of spreading Roman law in the lands under its control. The Islamic Empire propagated Islam as a value system and a way of life. In other cases, however, imperial expansion is motivated purely by the colonialist desire to exploit other people and steal their wealth. The French, British, Portuguese, and Spanish empires -- in the past three centuries and particularly in the 19th century -- were little more than gigantic machines designed to bleed dry the countries and nations of the Third World, deprive them of their natural wealth, and at times force them into slavery. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Iraq, according to this version, does not aim at promoting any imperial set of values, but simply seeks to exploit the resources of Iraq and the region, particularly oil.

A fifth version dismisses the notions of value systems and exploitation altogether. The war on Iraq, this interpretation argues, is a result of "excess capacity" within the United States, a capacity that has necessarily to be utilised in one way or another. A country that controls 30 per cent of world income and sustains ambitious space programmes cannot just stand idly by, waiting for its next spaceship to return from Mars. It has to use its power against some target -- Iraq just happened to be a suitable one. This is not a new phenomenon. When the British Empire was in control of a mere eight per cent of world income, the result was a terrible excess of power that had this country sending its fleets out across oceans far from their home, that tiny, overcast island where the sun never shines and the moon is seldom seen.

This has been the case with all empires that had such a surplus of unused power, ever since the dawn of history, from the first Pharaonic dynasty onward. Even Saddam Hussein experienced the same urge. When the Ba'athist regime had US$60 billion in monetary reserves, and a well- equipped and well-trained army, Saddam had no qualms about invading Iran without the consent of the UN Security Council. Left with an army of a million soldiers, after the end of the Iraq-Iran war, he then went into Kuwait, also without a UN Security Council mandate. Now the situation has been reversed. The excess of US power has brought foreign forces to Mesopotamia, and once again, the UN Security Council has been the last person to be consulted. In my next article, I will review the remaining five versions of these events, and discuss the conclusions we may draw from them.

About the Author:The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.