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Beyond the Drumbeat: Iraq, Preventive War, ‘Old Europe’

Arno J. Mayer is Professor Emeritus of history at Princeton University and author of numerous works including Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History(Pantheon Books, 1988) and The Furies: Violence and Terror in The French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton Univeristy Press, 2000). He dedicates this article to the memory of his editor and friend, Angus Cameron.

The letter of support, signed by the leaders of eight European countries last January, for the Bush administration’s inexorable push for war with Iraq was both singularly ideological and shortsighted. The list of values that the signatories claim to share with the United States is altogether unexceptionable: “democracy, individual freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.” But there is a crying omission: free-market capitalism. This omission is all the more striking since there is no fathoming the infamous terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 without bearing in mind that its main target was the World Trade Center, a prominent symbol and hub of globalizing capitalism.

It is no less striking that the signatories should still, at this late date, embrace the hallowed but highly debatable Cold War interpretation of the presumably indispensable place of the United States in the recent history of Europe: “Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity, and farsightedness, Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: Nazism and Communism.” The facts are that in both world wars Washington was an ally of last resort. In 1914–1918, as in 1941–1945, Europe’s blood sacrifice was immeasurably greater and more punishing than America’s. To be sure, the Allies might not have won the day without Uncle Sam’s intervention; perhaps one should recall that Washington’s contribution was primarily material, financial, and ideological.

Certainly during the Second World War the Red Army contributed infinitely more “blood, sweat, and tears” than the U.S. military to turning the tide of battle against the Axis powers in Europe. Had the Red Army not broken the back of the Wehrmacht in 1942–1943, more than likely the American-led landings in Normandy in June 1944 would have turned into a tragic bloodbath. Moreover, during that war, unlike the European and Soviet noncombatants who died in the millions, the United States civilian deaths were infinitesimal by comparison. This anomaly largely explains the avenging furor of Americans in the wake of September 11, which ended the self-perceived innocence of U.S. exceptionalism. Protected, as always, by two oceans, the United States means to keep its own casualties to an absolute minimum. It may even be said to be looking for, perhaps demanding or even buying, cannon fodder (and sinews of war and occupation) among both the cautious governments that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has labeled Europe” and the mainly eastern European countries we might call the “new-old Europe.”

Inasmuch as the eight signatories implicitly subscribe to the Bush administration’s loudly trumpeted and not so novel doctrine of preemptive or preventive war, they ought to remember that the logic of preventive war played a central role at two crucial turning points of the Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century: in July–August 1914, Kaiser William II and his advisors precipitated war to forestall the balance of military power turning to the advantage of the Entente in 1917, when Tsarist Russia was expected to complete the modernization and preparedness of its armed forces; in the spring of 1941, Hitler rushed into war against the Soviet Union to avoid having to face Stalin in the spring of 1942, when the Red Army was expected to complete its modernization and preparedness. Since this history is as well known to the “new-old” Europeans—seeking to demonstrate fealty to their new American friends—as it is to the cautious schismatics of the “old,” both Europes might wish to remind their Washington colleagues that the logic of preventive war also significantly informed the preparation and timing of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. And they might want to remind Bush and his strategists that all three meticulously planned preventive wars had enormous unintended consequences: Verdun, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima.

It is a truism that the United Nations Security Council, to “maintain its credibility” must “ensure full compliance with its resolutions.” But that “credibility” surely must require rectification on another score on which there has been a crying omission or silence: since at least 1967 the Security Council has closed its eyes to Israel’s consistent violation, if not disregard, of successive UN resolutions. Could it be that like the governments of the old-new Europe-particularly the governments of Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Italy, perhaps in an excess of New Testament charity, blindly side with Israel against the Palestinians in atonement for their nefarious role in the Judeocide? Needless to say, for its own political and geopolitical reasons the United States supports, not to say imposes, this naked incongruity, if not duplicity.

There is, of course, no denying or minimizing the despotism of Saddam Hussein and his regime. But America is known to have nurtured such Frankenstein monsters in the past, and today the world accommodates not a few such despots in the third world. This raises the question of why America, as it renews Woodrow Wilson’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy,” obsessively focuses on Saddam Hussein, portraying him as a crossbreed of Stalin, Hitler, bin Laden, and Satan. Surely, it is sheer hyperbole to claim, “the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security.” This characterization echoes yesterday’s demonization of successive Soviet leaders and their regime. Compared to the late Soviet Russian superpower, which between 1945 and 1989 was contained without recourse to war, in military and ideological terms Iraq is a pygmy.

If lraq’s economic base were the cultivation of tulips for export, rather than the world’s second largest oil reserve, the United States would turn a blind eye to Baghdad’s arsenal of weapons, which is not really all that much out of the ordinary. Ever since before the outbreak of war in 1914, control of the Mesopotamian and Arabian oil fields has been a major stake in the diplomacy of the Great Powers. During and immediately following the First World War, Britain and France all but divided the greater Middle East’s oil deposits between themselves, the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 serving as a road map. Created overnight in the wake of the Great War, Iraq was the big prize, and it went to Britain. In compensation London yielded nearly one-quarter of the oil production of Iraq’s Mosul region to France, which secured oil-less Syria. London’s regional hegemony was bolstered by its continuing control of the Suez Canal and its mastery of Palestine.

The Great War confirmed that in times of war and peace oil was, in the words of the then–French Premier Georges Clemenceau, “as necessary as blood,” particularly for imperial Europe and the United States—what we know as the “first world.” After the Second World War the United States supplanted Great Britain as the dominant power in the greater Middle East. The inability of London and Paris to preempt Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 not only confirmed their demise as world powers, it affirmed the consolidation of America’s military and economic hegemony in Mesopotamia and Arabia. With this region’s oil resources of greater importance today than ever before, the White House is not about to permit any challenge to its domination of the Middle East, which is vital to Washington’s imperial reach, including its leverage over the other economies of the first world as well as that of China. As part of the new power arrangements, Washington means to give privileged access to Middle Eastern oil to the United Kingdom, to the disadvantage of France and Germany which, along with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg are the core of the authentic “New Europe,” whose economy bids fair to one day challenge America’s economic and dollar primacy.

There is a whiff of ideological affinity between and among the members of the emergent “axis of virtue” that proposes to fight the emergent “axis of evil,” especially since “New Labourite” Tony Blair’s support is strongest among Britain’s—and Australia’s(!)—Tories. In point of fact, the White House, perhaps mimicking the late Soviet Kremlin’s relation to its clients, means to preside over an aggregation of like-minded governments and submissive regimes (a veritable “fifth International”), and any country that refuses to fall in line will be excommunicated—or worse—for siding or fellow-traveling with the enemy. In this perspective, in the (not too likely?) event that they will stay the course, for seeking a third way Schroeder’s Germany and Chirac’s France might well become the functional equivalent of yesteryear’s Yugoslavia (which had been communist but outside the Warsaw Pact), writ large and strong. Tito redivivus!

At this juncture Iraq is not an end in itself: for the United States Iraq is a pawn, a way station in the evolving geopolitics and geo-economics of its imperial power. But for the genuinely New Europe it is a test and measure of its growing political and economic autonomy and muscle in the world system.

It is natural for America to try to head off or slow down Europe’s emancipation by rallying, in particular, the ex–Warsaw Pact countries whose first debt and loyalty now are to NATO rather than to the European Union. It is no less natural, however, for this union, which recently bid them welcome, to demand that they face up to their responsibility and make their oath. (As for England, perhaps it should not be discouraged from applying to become the fifty-first state of the American Union.)

Meanwhile Europeans, all too familiar with the wages of war, should remind Washington that classical cross-border wars, in the mode of von Clausewitz, are all but a thing of the past. As Israel is learning by experience, a war on terror(ism) cannot be won by bombing a seat of government, overthrowing a regime, and dismantling an armory. In thinking and preparing for tomorrow’s uncharted hybrid warfare, the European Union’s strategic elites ought to stress the importance of combining a new generation of military weapons and tactics with a new generation of political, social, and cultural policies without which the blight of terror will be difficult, if not impossible, to contain.

2003, Volume 54, Issue 10 (March)
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