A shiny new regime

We can all take it as read that various shivers have gone down various spines in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The real question is whether one is going down ours.

A military victory over Iraq—indeed even a fairly quick one—was always inevitable, even if the initial resistance proved greater than expected. The big issue was always going to be the peace and how the world would be remade. Where does George Bush—or John Howard for that matter—take it from here?

The shock and awe was partly about sending an unequivocal message to the rulers of those states that their days were numbered. It was also a clarion call to the people living under their oppressions that the US was serious about destroying havens of terror, about wanting democracy, the rule of law rather than arbitrary tyranny, free markets and free and transparent institutions, and that US policy—military, diplomatic and economic—was henceforth to be directed to that end.

That’s the theory, anyway.

There is a case for a new colonialism, and for concluding that most of the people on earth would be better off with a rule of law—and disinterested, paternalistic but benevolent Western-oriented administrators supervising their institutions, and building market economies out of the wreckage of Third World socialism, religious, tribal ethnic violence, and the despotism and opportunism of the current leaders. One has only to think of Zimbabwe, Ghana, Papua New Guinea or Sudan to accept that almost anything else would be better for the inhabitants than the mess their leaders have made of things.

The medicine has been about for quite a while, and any number of US-dominated institutions—the World Bank, for example—have been attempting to force it down various throats, but with little success in making the people more free.

‘You will be free—free to build a better life instead of building more palaces for Saddam and his sons,’ President Bush told Iraqis in his moment of military triumph. A Bush whose primary recipe for rebuilding a faltering US economy consists of tax cuts for the rich which, by allowing them to build palaces, will create jobs for the poor.

‘Free to pursue economic prosperity without the hardship of economic sanctions,’ said the leader of the nation that enforced the sanctions. ‘Free to travel and free to speak your mind,’ from a representative of the three nations working hardest to close the door against economic and political refugees.

‘Free to join in the political affairs of Iraq. And all the people who make up your country—Kurds, Shia, Turkomens, Sunnis and others—will be free of the terrible persecution that so many have endured,’ as he announced an interim government of Saddam oppositionists with personal records even marginally less attractive than those of the warlords who now rule the liberated Afghanistan.

In Iraq itself, the old tyrant will be little mourned, but the new tyrants, whether of the coalition of the willing or from the various opposition groups, will be scarcely more welcome. The problems will be aggravated by the process of de-Ba’athification: in Saddam’s nation, as in much of the Third World, political parties are the actual administrative machinery of the state.

Even the new politicians will know that the first step in assembling any electoral credentials will be to be anti-American—or anti- members of its coalition, particularly if they too rush in with their carpet bags. Iraqi resentment will soon flare at the imposition of an alien order and at the reimposition either of an exile leadership almost as much discredited as Saddam, or of moral and economic colonisation by the United States.

The reconstruction of a civil society will not only take time and patience, but involve the reconciling of internal and external tensions that even Saddam himself, with a reign of terror, could scarcely control. Just as loosening the grip of a centralised Yugoslavia produced atomisation, civil war, and genocide—not to mention interventions by interested neighbours—so too is there a risk of implosion in Iraq. And when the ripples reach Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the effect will be more, rather than less repression—if only to keep communal violence in check.

It’s equally frightening that many of the coalition’s strategists simply do not get it, so far as any understanding of the forces that produced September 11 are concerned. One does not need the shelter of a rogue state to run a terrorist network. Nor, generally, is it despots who can produce the ideas for which people will commit suicide. A fresh wave of Muslims, and not only from the Middle East, share the sense of humiliation that Iraqis now feel as a result of the feat of Western arms. Their response will be to conclude that conventional military confrontation is a waste of time. It is the tactics of the guerrilla, particularly the urban guerrilla, and tactics against Western citizens, such as at Bali and on September 11, that will most demoralise and hurt the new colonisers. In such wars, which can only be lost, never won, massive technological superiority counts for little—and free institutions can even prove a handicap, if fresh Western security legislation is any guide.

The peace, if there is to be one, depends on the greater battle of ideas. It cannot be won in councils of the coalition, but only among the world community and among the people who need to be liberated. Don’t hold your breath.

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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