A hollow war

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

According to the morning papers, Baghdad is burning and Basra has been stormed. But what is the war for? Neither the pro-war justifications nor the anti-war explanations stand up to scrutiny.

The pro-war lobby claims it is a war to disarm Saddam, because he poses a threat to world peace. President Bush says the USA refuses to ‘live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder’ (1). Forget weapons inspections – anyone who believes the world’s only superpower is under threat from a failing state in the Middle East needs their head inspecting.

The UK Guardian describes the invasion of Iraq as the ‘most one-sided war in history’. Where the apparently threatened USA has a defence budget of $364 billion, the apparently threatening Iraq spends $1.5 billion on defence (2). Allied forces have 600 of the world’s best fighter planes in the Gulf – Iraq has 300 attack aircraft, and apparently only half of them are serviceable, with the rest in dire need of ‘spare parts’ (3).

In its arsenal of ‘world-threatening weapons’, Iraq is said to have about 40 Scud missiles (also known as ‘flying dustbins’). And it has fired nine of those already, all of which exploded in mid-air or missed their targets. As Bush talks up Saddam’s threat to the world, on the ground his commanders admit that this war is a no-contest. ‘It’s not a fair fight’, says US Lueitenant General James T Conway. ‘But we didn’t intend it to be.’ (4)

The pro-war lobby also claims the war is to liberate the people of Iraq. But consider the fate of Iraq’s Kurdish population, who were apparently liberated by the Gulf War of 1991 when they were granted limited self-rule in northern Iraq. Over the past 12 years, allied forces have turned a blind eye to Turkey’s incursions into northern Iraq to combat Kurdish forces. For the USA and the UK, keeping sweet with NATO ally Turkey easily trumped any nonsense notion of Kurdish ‘liberation’.

And what kind of war of liberation ends in occupation? Apparently, US forces intend to ‘take complete control of post-Saddam Iraq for an indefinite period’ (5). After that, they plan to hand power over to an American civilian, or an ‘American of stature’, who will, again, control Iraq for an indefinite period. The idea that you can drop bombs and occupy a country in the name of ‘liberation’ takes Orwellian doublespeak to new heights.

The anti-war lobby’s explanations for the war are similarly unconvincing. Some argue that it is a war for Empire, part of an American attempt to ‘remake the world in its own image’. But the Iraqi crisis appears to have exposed America’s deep uncertainty about its image around the world, and its caution about imposing that image (whatever it might be) on to others.

Despite the military might and postwar plans, President Bush says: ‘We have no ambition in Iraq – except to remove a threat…’ (6) One military commander warned his troops not to act like a conquering force. ‘We will not fly our flags in [this] country’, he said. ‘The only flag which will be flown in this ancient land is the Iraqis’ own.’ (7) No American ambition, no American flags – it seems that some in the US camp want the war in Iraq to look as non-American as possible.

America’s defensiveness is captured in its calls to respect Iraqi culture. Bush says US forces are invading Iraq with ‘respect for its citizens, for their great civilisation and for the religious faiths they practice’ (8). A British commander on the ground told his troops: ‘Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly here.’ (9) Of course, the allies have no respect for Iraqi people or culture. The focus on ‘treading lightly’ reveals an uncertainty about their own image and mission, and how they play around the world.

The anti-war lobby also claims that the war in Iraq is for oil. But since when did Saddam’s regime, or anybody else’s for that matter, pose an obstacle to American control of oil supplies in the Middle East? For all the anti-war claims that this is an economically motivated war, some economists argue that a war for oil doesn’t add up. One report says: ‘[T]he expense of a US war and occupation will far outweigh any benefit from Iraq’s 2.5 million barrels of oil a day.’ (10)

US and British leaders are especially defensive about the war-for-oil allegations. In last night’s address to the nation, prime minister Tony Blair said America and Britain would ‘put money from Iraqi oil in a UN trust fund so that it benefits Iraq…and no one else’. Apparently, the Bush administration has made a leaflet for distribution in Iraq ‘and elsewhere’, explaining why this isn’t a war for oil, such is its desire not to appear imperialistic.

So what’s the war for? The Iraqi crisis has little to do with anything inside Iraq, whether it be Saddam’s weapons, oil or the beleaguered Iraqi people. Rather, it is a crisis that was made in the USA. Iraq was forced back to the top of the international agenda by America’s own foreign policy concerns. In January 2002, as the West’s war on terror dragged on aimlessly in Afghanistan, Iraq suddenly became the big issue again – a focal point for Washington’s post-9/11 attempts to reassert some sense of mission on the world stage.

Yet America’s caution about its role in the world has made this a defensive offensive, already characterised by shifting deadlines and staggered starts. It is a hollow war, launched by hollow men in Washington and London. An unknown number of Iraqis, and some American and British troops, are dying for nothing.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) President Bush addresses the nation, George Bush, 19 March 2003

(2) ‘Heavyweight Americans take on bantams of Baghdad’, The Times (London), 21 March 2003

(3) ‘The most one-sided war in history’, Guardian, 20 March 2003

(4) Marine predicts brief bombing, then land assault, Peter Baker, Washington Post, 17 March 2003

(5) General Franks ‘to run Iraq after war’, Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003

(6) President Bush addresses the nation, George Bush, 19 March 2003

(7) ‘We may not all live, but there will be no time for sorrow’, Sun, 20 March 2003

(8) President Bush addresses the nation, George Bush, 19 March 2003

(9) ‘We may not all live, but there will be no time for sorrow’, Sun, 20 March 2003

(10) Blood, oil and Iraq, Michael Hirsh, Newsweek, 10 March 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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