Of the real motives that prompted the US-led invasion of Iraq, economic gain and political control are at the top of the list of many analysts. These motives are not legitimate reasons for going to war. The reasons that nations usually give for going to war have to do with self-defense and self-image. Fictitious and fanciful though these reasons may often be, it is the continuing faith in them that determines the morale and happiness of nations. That is why they are of primary interest.
The United States eventually gave up the war in Vietnam not because it could not win it militarily, but because a morally exhausted people lost faith in their reasons for being there. They had been made to believe they were there to help defend the South Vietnamese against communist North Vietnam. But it became evident that not many South Vietnamese were keen about being defended by America. The poorly-armed Vietcong fought a long and fierce guerilla war that showed the world what they thought of America: an imperialist invader rather than a liberator.
The war in Iraq shares many important similarities with the Vietnam
War. Consistent with its self-image as a defender of freedom, America is once more projecting herself as a liberator. This time, however, liberation is being offered as a byproduct of the preeminent objective to terminate the threat against America. In the way America sees it, the invasion of Iraq is primarily an act of preemptive selfdefense against a dangerous regime armed with weapons of mass destruction. The events of Sept. 11 gave this scenario a plausibility and urgency that the quest for Iraqi freedom alone would not have been able to provide.
But it is one thing to start a war, and another to finish it. George W. Bush has vowed to finish this war. Whether the American people and global public opinion will allow him to do so indefinitely is another matter. The longer it takes to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime, the more time there will be for the American nation to doubt the official line for going to war, and to entertain demoralizing notions about the real motives behind the war.
In almost every official briefing on the conduct of the war since day one, a reporter was bound to pop the crucial question: “Have you found any chemical or biological weapons yet?” The answer to this question is as important to the American public as its need to see signs that the Iraqi people are welcoming the Coalition forces as liberators. A strong moral ethos among many average Americans makes them support this war not solely out of a selfish need to feel secure in a post-9/11 world but out of a sense of duty.
So vital is the maintenance of this self-image to the American public that it has actually shaped the conduct of the war. The battle of perception has become as important as the military battle itself. It would hurt America severely if it won the latter at the expense of the former. That is the reason for all those round-the-clock media briefings and the hundreds of journalists “embedded” among the Coalition troops. The presence of a third party is supposed to ensure a morally transparent war.
For the US to sustain the claim that this is a war for Iraqi freedom rather than for Iraqi oil, it has to manifest humanitarian concern for Iraqi civilians. Its troops have to show a readiness to take extraordinary risks to ensure that ordinary civilians are not killed in the crossfire. They cannot be seen as a conquering horde bent on destruction and pillage, and degradation of a nation’s sacred symbols. Most important of all, their behavior on the ground must be such as to win the trust of the people they have sworn to liberate. These are real constraints to modern warfare.
Equally urgent, of course, is the early detection of those weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam does not use them in this war, the world has to be convinced that he actually has them. Someone credible has to find them, someone with the authority to tell the difference between real and planted evidence. That was the role of the United Nations weapons expert teams, whose work and capability the US chose to ignore when it went to war without the approval of the United Nations.
This war is teaching us that there is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look good or bad by re-description. When a bomb fell on a Baghdad market killing a number of civilians, US forces said Saddam’s own bombs were misfiring and killing Iraqis. When soldiers at a US checkpoint fired at a bus that had ignored warning shots, killing 7 women and children, US spokesmen put the incident in the context of a car bomb that had killed American soldiers at another checkpoint. America’s CNN and Britain’s BBC have tried hard to sound neutral and objective in their reportage, yet the American and the British slant has been so palpable in every report that it cannot be missed. We can be sure that the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera is performing for the Arab world what CNN and BBC are doing for the West.
By the time this war ends, the gulf between US perceptions and those of the Arab world in particular will be so huge one cannot imagine them being bridged by any neutral party. Not so much as an independent body but as a set of procedures for settling differences and ending deadlocks, the United Nations has been the first casualty of this war. The second one could be America’s moral identity. A new Iraq and a new UN will surely emerge from this war. But, as in the aftermath of Vietnam, self-doubt could torment the American nation for a long time.
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