Canadian writer, filmmaker and journalist Gwynne Dyer (whose weekly column on international affairs appears in 175 newspapers worldwide and who is CBC-TV's principal commentator on the war) has written a new book, Ignorant Armies, an account of the strategy behind the September 11 attacks and the reasons for an American strike on Iraq.
From the back cover:
"Around the world thoughtful people are asking one vital question: How could an unspeakable terrorist act carried out by a small group of Islamist zealots, most of them Saudi Arabian, result in war being declared on Iraq, a country with a brutal but firmly secular government that had no known connection with 9/11? Is it a grotesque mistake, a sinister plot, or just the strategic equivalent of a highway pileup?
Far too many politicians and journalists who should know better have swallowed the story that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the West, that his weapons of mass destruction are about to fall into the hands of suicidal terrorist fanatics, and that we must invade Iraq before the Beast of Baghdad eats us, hair and all. And too few observers have pointed out that the weapons are not very dangerous, that Saddam has been successfully contained for over a decade without a war, and that the emperor has no clothes."
If historical ingratitude were a crime, the chattering classes of the West would be facing life sentences at hard labour. The luckiest generation in history, the people who got their future back because World War Three was cancelled, think that the world has changed forever just because a few terrorists have chosen them as targets.
About three thousand human beings were killed in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. That makes “9/11” the worst single terrorist incident in history, and it all played out on live television, so the immediate shock and outrage was entirely understandable. But the actual loss of life on that day was on the same order as the monthly death toll from traffic accidents in the United States – and there was almost no follow-up to those terrorist attacks, whereas the other loss occurs every month.
Numbers do matter. At least half the American population would have died in a World War Three fought with nuclear weapons. Therefore World War Three was an awesome possibility, one that could actually have ended American history. Only one American in a hundred thousand died on September 11, and not one in a million has been killed in terrorist attacks since then, so the new terrorism, viewed in this context, is virtually a non-event.
It is the media coverage that gives terrorism such huge apparent importance, of course – modern terrorism is almost entirely a media phenomenon – but it is nevertheless astonishing how big it has made this event seem, and how long it has kept it inflated. Even in 2003, the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 still shape American and Western foreign policy – or at least they are still being used, without much dissent, as justification for policies that may in fact have other motives and goals. September 11 did not change the world, but it is being used in an attempt to change the world.
This is not 1939, when great moral and ideological issues were involved, or even 1914, when at least great armies were involved. For all its modern technological trappings, this feels more like one of the colonial wars of the late nineteenth century – say, the Spanish-American War of 1898, Washington’s first excursion into imperialism. The pretext for the American attack on the Spanish empire on that occasion was an explosion that sank the battleship Maine in Havana harbour, killing over a thousand Americans. There was actually no evidence to connect the Spanish government with the disaster (sound familiar?), but the war was popular with the American public because it was over quickly, cost little, and allowed the United States to control Cuba for quite a few years, the Philippines for half a century, and Puerto Rico and American Samoa for good.
But the Spanish-American War was really a side-show. The main event at the turn of the last century was the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, when Britain, the world’s greatest power, cooked up an unjustified war of aggression against the little Afrikaner republics of southern Africa, not because they were nasty – though they were, at least towards foreigners and blacks – but because they had one valuable resource that the imperial power craved: gold. Then, as now, everybody else disapproved of war, but chose not to lie down in front of the steamroller. Then – and maybe now – the war turned out to be a lot longer and harder than the planners calculated. And though Britain won it in the end, the war marked the beginning of a steep half-century decline that ended its superpower status. Could that happen to America too?
Almost certainly not: the United States today is far more dominant, relative to the other great powers, than Britain was in 1899. But there could be a modest silver lining if things get bad in Iraq, in the sense that if the Bush administration has a thoroughly miserable experience in the Middle East over the next year or so, the American right wing might be cured of its current fantasy that the United States can actually run the world. We should not wish for the lesson to be taught in this way, however, for the price would be too high, and sooner or later the unilateralist tide in the United States is bound to recede with or without disasters in the Middle East.
How bad could it get? The worst-case scenario is a bloody ground war in Iraq, perhaps followed by a lengthy and debilitating American occupation; the overthrow of existing, pro-Western regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan by Islamist revolutionaries; the expulsion of the Palestinians from their remaining footholds west of the Jordan River (which would foreclose any hope of a general Arab-Israeli peace for the indefinite future); a large rise in oil prices and a prolonged global recession; and more and bigger terrorist attacks by Islamist groups on Western targets than has been the norm up to now. That is a lengthy tale of woe, but not all of it is likely to happen. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, or even of the Middle East. There have been bigger upheavals in the past half-century, and most of us are still here.
Nevertheless, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 set in motion an avalanche of events, clearly connected in some senses though hugely different in character and motive. The largest of those events, it now appears, will be a war of considerable size in the Middle East, and it is worth the effort to try to understand the goals and strategies of the major players, American, Islamist, Israeli and Iraqi. What did the planners of al-Qaeda actually hope to achieve with their attacks on the United States, and how serious a threat to the status quo are they? How has American strategy responded and mutated in the months since then – and in particular, why did the subject change from al-Qaeda to Iraq? Has there really been a revolution in military affairs that now enables technologically advanced military powers to fight and win wars virtually without casualties, and could it be the foundation of a lasting Pax Americana? Is Saddam Hussein dangerous to anybody other than his immediate neighbours? Indeed, is he even dangerous to them any more?
I should mention that I do not oppose war in the right cause on principle. I supported using military force under United Nations authority to drive Saddam Hussein’s army out of occupied Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1990–91 because invading your neighbours is wrong. More recently I supported military action in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, because attempted genocide is also wrong. My unease about the motives and probable consequences of the Second Gulf War (as it will probably be called) are specific to this occasion.
To write a book about a war before it starts – without even being certain that it will start – is to give rather too many hostages to fortune. But it still seems worthwhile to try make sense of the recent past and present, especially as the near future may not make much sense at all.