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L’ultimo spenga la luce

La guerra in Iraq è ufficialmente finita. Anche se, nei fatti, già era finita molto tempo fa quando, pochi giorni dopo il suo inizio le truppe USA erano entrate a Baghdad, aprendo le porte ad una sanguinosa occupazione sullo sfondo d’una guerra civile. Questo è quanto ha deciso il presidente degli Stati Uniti d’America, Barack Obama, il giorno del ritorno a casa dell’ultimo contingente USA da combattimento, chiudendo un’avventura che, personalmente, sempre aveva apertamente osteggiato. Dopo 8 anni, almeno 300.000 iracheni morti, 4.500 soldati americani caduti e mille miliardi di dollari bruciati, insieme ad una buona fetta del prestigio morale degli Stati Uniti, che cosa resta della guerra che, secondo George W. Bush e la destra americana, doveva marcare i tempi e la qualità del nuovo millennio. Molto poco e, di certo, nulla di quanto i suoi ispiratori avevano boriosamente preconizzato. Ed allo stesso tempo molto, se per “molto” si intende la lezione d’una guerra che mai avrebbe dovuto cominciare.

Sul tema pubblichiamo, tra i molti articoli dedicati al tema, due analisi che ci sono parse particolarmente lucide. Quella di Christopher de Bellaigue, pubblicata dalla New York Review of Books e quella di Andrew J. Bachevic pubblicata dal Washington Post.

What Remains

Di Christopher de Bellaigue

The world has changed a great deal since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003–thanks in part to that invasion and to the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. And yet, watching President Barack Obama welcome home the troops at Fort Bragg on December 14, and the media coverage of that event, it struck me that one thing has not changed. Despite the vast expenses incurred by news organizations following the occupation, and the considerable time that politicians in Washington spent debating its merits, many Americans continue to see in Iraq a reflection of their own country’s ideals and contradictions. They will remember Iraq as an American trauma. But it was, above all, an Iraqi trauma.

The country that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have left behind is free of Saddam Hussein, but it is needy and volatile and may tip back into sectarian war. In addition to 4,500 US soldiers, well over 100,000 civilians have lost their lives. Millions have fled into exile or have had to leave their homes in Iraq, ancient Christian communities have been obliterated, and only a shared pursuit of oil revenues keeps the country’s most important groups (the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds) precariously united. Even for a president seeking re-election, Obama’s description of Iraq as “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” seems unduly optimistic.

The ramifications of the US-led coalition’s failure extend far beyond Iraq’s borders. Had the operation in Iraq succeeded, Iran could well have been next. Obama’s Iran policy is relatively cautious, relying on containment through sanctions and, possibly, acts of sabotage. But there can be no doubt that the power of Iran in Iraq and in the region has increased as a result of the US invasion. It is hard to imagine America and its allies again launching such a vast military enterprise, or presenting it as part of something so obscure and unexplained as a “war on terror.” America’s failure in Iraq marks the end of a century of ill-judged invasions, coups, and other attempts by western powers to manipulate events in the Middle East. It is an important moment.

The neocons regarded intervention in Iraq as a means of establishing a beachhead for liberal, democratic values in the region. From Baghdad, ran the theory, these values would spread across the Arab world and also into (non-Arab) Iran. The theory had two flaws. The first was that freedom and democracy can also be used by Islamists to take power–-which is what has happened in Iraq, where many of the plausible liberals favored by Washington early on have faded from view. Second, there was a contradiction between liberal slogans and the use of force to invade and control another country. The Bush administration trumpeted its commitment to human rights, but the freedom of a person to speak or associate is a charade if the government representing him or her makes policy on the basis of outside pressure, or spirits criminal suspects away to be tortured in foreign jurisdictions. This is why Bush’s promotion of democratic reform in the Arab world aroused such mistrust; it was accompanied by strong-arm tactics redolent of British or French colonial administrators.

Recent pro-democratic upheavals in the Middle East have had little connection with the policies of the Bush administration. The first of these happened not in Tunisia in December 2010, but more than a year earlier, on the streets of Tehran. In June 2009, millions of Iranians agitated for the removal of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad before their movement was crushed by the security forces. The US had no part in the events. A year and a half later, revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt sensed Obama’s distaste for old-fashioned intervention when they threw off their US-backed rulers. The US’s role in the civil war that overthrew the Qaddafi regime was limited by Obama’s multilateralist approach–as is now American participation in the campaign to dislodge Syria’s Bashar Assad. People in the Middle East are finding that they can act without asking the permission—or worrying about the reaction—of a superpower.

Some parts of the region have not known such freedom since before World War I. European influence rose as the Ottoman Empire declined in the nineteenth century, but in the three main centers of regional life, Istanbul, Tehran and Cairo, men inspired by the parliamentary democracies of the West became the most important force in politics. The power of the Ottoman and Persian monarchies was eroded; in Egypt, nationalists agitated for independence from British rule. Women were more visible and active in urban society than they had ever been.

Outsiders and their rivalries interrupted this hopeful advance. The Ottoman Empire was destroyed during World War I and most of its Arab possessions parceled out among the victorious allies. Britain and France then set up speculative new states which could only be stabilized through authoritarian regimes in thrall to foreigners. (Iraq was one). Escaping colonization, Iran and the new Republic of Turkey installed authoritarian regimes of their own as a way of warding off the powers.

World War II was relatively benign in these parts, if one discounts the battlefields of North Africa, the Allied invasion of Iran, and the establishment of Israel in Palestine. But the effects of an epic hangover, the Cold War, took half a century to clear. From 1945 to 1989 the region’s development was stymied by the rivalry of Moscow and Washington, with both sides favoring dictators that could be bought and, when expedient, promoting Islamic militancy. In 1953, Britan and the US toppled Mohammad Mossadegh, the region’s most convincing democrat, after he showed unwelcome independence from western interests. Following the demise of the Soviet Union the Americans discovered new wars to fight–against the enemies of Israel; against Saddam (now less biddable than he had been); against al-Qaeda. This policy expired in 2011, even if its main beneficiary, the religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, is still intact.

The drama of the Arab upheavals has not ended. Islamist parties will make electoral gains, as they already have in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco and are poised to do in Algeria. It is folly to expect, as the neocons did, that Middle Eastern countries will interpret the language of rights and the practice of democracy only in the light of foreign experiences. It will take years for Muslims in the Middle East to find the accommodation with democracy and modern institutions that the more progressive of their forebears were seeking on the eve of World War I. Even then we may not like the result. Our ability to influence the debate is limited. We should rejoice that it is happening at all.

The example of Iraq shows that government by mistrusted outsiders is likely to fail. Rory Stewart, a British civil servant who had a governing post in the provinces of Maysan and Nasiriyah following the invasion, has written of the “guilt” of administrators such as himself at the contradictions of their position:

We felt we needed to stay, but felt ashamed of occupation. We were controlling the lives of people who had not invited us in and who had not voted for us. We wanted to justify the invasion by doing some good; but we knew little about the people who surrounded us, or their culture…people were going to be killed almost whatever we chose to do.

They were killed, and they continue to be, albeit at a lower rate–some 230 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the beginning of December.

There are other dangers. The unraveling of Iraq’s national power-sharing agreement bodes ill for sectarian harmony in the future. With Iran as a powerful neighbor, and Syria as a conflicted one, the country is awkwardly placed. For all that, Obama’s decision was the only one he could have taken: America had to leave Iraq because it should never have been there in the first place. In the words of Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, “We in the United States need to recognize that, yes, some of [the Iraqi people] are grateful for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but by and large they don’t want us there and don’t want us to stay.”

December 21, 2011, 3:25 p.m.


Copyright © 1963-2011 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.


The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq marks the end America’s great expectations

By Andrew J. Bacevich,

In American history, every now and then we get a definitive ending. The crash of October 1929 ended the Roaring Twenties; VJ Day ended World War II. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq this month, while less dramatic, also marks the passing of an era.

Launched in 2003 amid assurances of a rapid victory, the war is ending nearly nine years later with the United States settling for considerably less. Undertaken to demonstrate our supremacy, the war has instead revealed the stark limits of American power. It has laid waste to the post-Cold War era of great expectations once thought to define the future.

Remember the 1990s, which opened with the Soviet Union in its death throes and the United States riding high? The Cold War reached a peaceful conclusion, and a new historical chapter, seemingly rich with promise, dawned. Led by the United States — its preeminence affirmed in 1991 by Operation Desert Storm — the world was moving from darkness into light.

While preparing Americans for their first military encounter with Saddam Hussein, President George H.W. Bush heralded the approach of a “new world order.” Lacking poetry, his formulation never caught on. So in Washington, politicians and commentators were soon vying to provide a more vivid rendering of the age. This effort yielded three broad claims.

The first claim was ideological: The collapse of communism signified the triumph of liberal democracy, a victory deemed definitive and irreversible; viable alternatives for organizing society had ceased to exist. The second claim was economic: The end of the Cold War had unleashed the forces of globalization; with the unimpeded movement of goods, capital, ideas and people, previously unimaginable opportunities for wealth creation beckoned. The third claim was military: Advanced information technology was revolutionizing warfare; armed forces able to exploit that revolution would gain unprecedented effectiveness.

Americans took it for granted that their own approach to democracy should and would apply universally. They believed themselves better positioned than any would-be competitor to capitalize on the promise of globalization. As for high-tech military power, Desert Storm had already testified to American prowess; what some were calling the Revolution in Military Affairs would translate a clear edge into permanent supremacy.

These claims together fostered an exuberance bordering on the ecstatic. “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation,” President Bill Clinton declared in his second inaugural address. As the “world’s greatest democracy” and with an economy that was “the strongest on Earth,” the United States, Clinton predicted, would soon “lead a whole world of democracies.”

Newt Gingrich’s vision tracked neatly with Clinton’s. “No country has ever had the potential to lead the entire human race the way America does today,” the Republican speaker of the House pronounced in 1996. “No country has ever had as many people of as many different backgrounds call on it . . . for advice about how to create free government, free markets, and a military that can operate within the rule of law.”

History had rendered a verdict: The future belonged to America and to those who embraced the American way.

For anyone unwilling to accept that verdict, there was U.S. military power. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” journalist Thomas Friedman wrote in 1999. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

Then came 9/11, which left the almighty superpower looking less like history’s architect than its victim. From the outset, President George W. Bush’s response to this affront sought not simply to avert further attacks on the American homeland, but to quash suspicions that history might not be tilting in America’s direction after all.

“As long as the United States of America is determined and strong,” Bush assured the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, “this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world.” As for those obstructing the onset of this age of liberty, the president dismissed them as “heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” destined to end up “in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

So the “global war on terrorism” was implicitly — even primarily — an American war for global preeminence, waged to validate the claims of Washington’s post-Cold War consensus. Removing any doubts about U.S. determination and strength had become an imperative.

This meant unsheathing the hidden fist. After all, 20th-century wars, cold as well as hot, had played a central role in certifying American beliefs and practices. The Bush administration expected war in the 21st century to replicate this achievement. Affirming U.S. military primacy was the key to upholding American ideological and economic prescriptions. Around the world, Washington’s writ would become law.

From this perspective, designating Saddam Hussein as Enemy No. 1 made a great deal of sense. Granted, Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Hussein’s regime had only the most negligible links to al-Qaeda. And, of course, Iraq’s stockpile of nuclear and biological weapons turned out to be a figment of fevered imaginations. But critics who employed such facts to charge the Bush administration with deception or incompetence missed a larger point: The real aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to demonstrate that the United States still called the tune to which history marched. For such purposes, Hussein’s ramshackle regime presented an ideal target.

To choose war is always to roll the dice. In this case, however, given the weakness of Hussein’s legions and the self-evident might of the world’s sole superpower, the dice seemed loaded. All that remained was to win the inevitable victory and reap the rewards.

And for a tantalizing moment, victory seemed within reach. On March 20, 2003, U.S. forces entered Iraq. On April 9, Baghdad fell. On May 1, Bush, in naval aviator’s garb, landed on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate what U.S. forces had achieved, with a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” providing a backdrop for his remarks.

The 9/11 hijackers had imagined that “they could . . . force our retreat from the world,” the president said. “They have failed.” Rather than retreating, America was on the march, with more victories to follow and history restored to its proper course. Speaking with characteristic certainty, Bush referred to Operation Iraqi Freedom in the past tense.

Yet, in Iraq, complications ensued. The war there had only just begun. It dragged on for years, claiming many victims. Prominent among them was the very future that Americans insisted was all but foreordained.

As measured by the number of U.S. troops killed, maimed or otherwise scarred, the Iraq war ranks as a comparatively modest affair. Even taking into account the far larger number of civilians killed, injured or displaced, Iraq trails well behind the really big wars of the modern era. Not casualties but consequences define the significance of this lamentable episode. There it ranks ahead of Korea and Vietnam — neither marking a decisive historical turn — and even alongside World War II. Back in 1945, the United States had accrued vast stores of moral and political capital. Thanks to Iraq, those stores are now all but depleted.

After Iraq, the future no longer bears the label “Made in the USA.” In places such as China, alternatives to liberal democracy stubbornly persist and show no signs of flagging. Where demands for democracy sound the loudest — as in the Arab world — the outcome may not favor liberal values. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the American model, today damaged and more than slightly tarnished, is only one among several.

Confidence that globalization will (or should) define the economic future has taken a nose dive. While we’ve been making war, rising economic powers have been making hay, frequently at American expense. At home, meanwhile, deference to the market has produced corruption, recklessness and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Furthermore, even if globalization works for the some, it’s by no means certain that it works for the many — a point to which Occupy Wall Street protesters insist on calling attention and one that political leaders ignore at their peril.

Only in the realm of military power has American dominance remained unquestioned, as politicians and generals constantly assert. Yet after years of fighting in Iraq, and with the Afghan war and other “overseas contingency operations” continuing, the value of that claim is fading. No doubt U.S. forces have matchless combat capabilities. Yet the sad fact is that they cannot be relied upon to win. Merely avoiding defeat has become a staggeringly expensive proposition.

The beliefs to which the end of the Cold War gave rise — liberal democracy triumphant, globalization as the next big thing and American dominion affirmed by a new way of war — have all come to rest in that unmarked grave reserved for failed ideas. Those who promoted and persisted in the Iraq war wielded the shovel that helped dig the hole. This defines their legacy.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and retired colonel in the U.S. Army, is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War” and editor of the forthcoming “The Short American Century: A Postmortem.”




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