Was I the only one who sensed a sort of plaintive-ness in the president’s assertion? “The no-fly zones are enforced on a daily basis,” said George W. as he touched lightly on the decision of British and American warplanes to dump bombs on targets outside the no-fly zone. “It’s part of a strategy.”
You could almost hear him saying to himself something like “At least I hope it is. I hope my advisers and the Brits aren’t completely out to lunch on this one. If we’ve been doing it for 10 years there must be some sensible reason for it. Right?”
If President Bush had some private doubts as to whether there really is a strategy or whether stepping up the bombing of the evil Saddam (or those already victimized by his regime) he would have been correct. The question Americans should be asking é they aren’t getting much help from most elements of the establishment media or their anointed talking heads é is fairly simple but not easy to answer. Just what core American interest is involved in maintaining no-fly zones over Iraqi territory 10 years after Bush I decided to end the Gulf War when he did é after the Iraqis were driven out of Kuwait but before anything resembling an offensive further into Iraq could be implemented?
There has been speculation about which interests really might be benefited by expanding the bombing of Iraq é and at least according to Tuesday’s news possibly expanding it more in the near future.
Some say it helps oil interests, and one of the immediate consequences of the bombing was an up-tick in world oil prices due to speculation that Iraq would take what it has on offer off the world market. This was followed by speculation that the OPEC oil cartel of governments is almost ready to order production cutbacks, which would drive world oil prices up even more. So at least in the short run the bombing seems to have worked to increase the future incomes of oil producers.
Some say the real concern here is the security of Israel. Upon Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister in Israel Saddam Hussein announced that he would be accepting volunteers for a huge volunteer army to conduct a mighty jihad that would finally drive the nasty Jews out of Jerusalem. Most observers believe he was bluffing, but, some would-be analysts speculate, a few bombs near Baghdad might send the message that he better not. The irony is that the most immediate aftermath has been the issuance of gas masks in Israel in anticipation of the possibility that Saddam’s threatened retaliation for the U.S.-British bombing raids might involve some sort of violent incursion against Israel.
Some say that the bombing was really pushed by the British, that Royal Air Force pilots had noticed more potshots and closer misses at British planes in the last month or so and had demanded stern action by their government. So the anglophilic internationalists in charge of foreign policy at the erstwhile breakaway colony responded when the Motherland called. The Brits seem to be pleased with developments and ready to ask the U.S. to bomb some more. So maybe it serves British interests.
Given the opposition to and criticism of the expanded bombing from European countries like France and Russia and what seems to be renewed support for Saddam Hussein (who had been something of a forgotten factor in the Middle East equation) among ordinary Arabs throughout the Middle East, you might argue that the bombing benefited Saddam. Whether the demonstrations reflected genuine and widespread pro-Saddam sentiment in the West Bank, Jordan and elsewhere (it’s likely most Middle Eastern Arabs know he’s no prize, even as most Democrats in this country always knew Clinton was a scoundrel) demonstrations did take place and did bolster Saddam’s prestige. The coalition Bush I cobbled together to support the Gulf War in 1990 has disintegrated, with many key members actively criticizing Britain and the United States.
So a number of entities might stand to benefit from the expanded bombs over Baghdad. But what benefit does the United States get? What core national interest of the United States is so clearly at stake that the only choice is to drop bombs? What interest of US citizens and consumers will be advanced by this action?
As nearly as I can tell, the only US interest in keeping up the pressure on Saddam is so vague as to be almost impossible to express in a concrete fashion. It shows we mean business and won’t be pushed around by a tinpot tyrant? It shows that the new president is a willing to drop bombs as the last president? It enhances our prestige as a firm opponent of the evil Saddam? It reinforces our sense of the leadership that befits a superpower?
One could assert any of the above and expect nothing but softballs from most of the media. But one would be hard-pressed to make anything resembling an intellectually respectable case that any of the above are core interests of the United States (whatever those are) or that dropping bombs outside the no-fly zone was the only or even the best way to advance those interests, vague as they are.
One of the reasons US leaders so seldom spend time or energy trying to determine or defend the US national interest is that they have fallen into the trap of our times when it comes to international relations. Having been educated in state schools or private schools that endorse a statist agenda, they have come to believe as an article of faith é the kind of thing that is considered so self-evident that serious argument isn’t required é that nationalism is passé at best and a cover for isolationism or the lust to indulge in something like ethnic cleansing at least.
There are two way one could view international relations. (Well, actually there are dozens of ways and numerous qualifications one might put on the bifurcation I’m propounding, but I’m trying to simplify to get to something like principles here.)
The first uses a metaphor some have proposed for a free society. Some people say a genuinely free and civil society is one in which I control 100 percent of my own actions and resources and 0 percent of the actions and resources of others é which obliges me to work with others on the basis of mutual agreement rather than through plunder or putting a gun to their heads. Nobody who uses this metaphor believes that such a balance has been achieved anywhere in the world’s history, and some doubt that it will ever be achieved. But it offers an ideal toward which those who want to see freedom practiced as well as celebrated can aspire.
Translating the metaphor to the international sphere one would suggest that a proper international order is one in which each national entity is viewed as being 100 percent sovereign within its own borders and exercises 0 percent sovereignty over other countries. There are still college international relations courses in which this ideal is taught as the basis of international relations and international law properly understood é and in a few cases as a description of the world as it is. But while nobody believes the 100-zero balance is likely to be achieved é some countries will always be more influential than others even if they don’t employ coercion to impose their will é this is one possible way to envision a properly run world.
The other possible way to view the international order is to think trans-nationally é to view nationalism and the nation-state as a relic, or as a stepping-stone on the path to the kind of institutions that are really needed to ensure peace in the world é a powerful world government, or at least powerful institutions like the U.N. that can enforce universal standards on recalcitrant nation-states that just haven’t been enlightened yet.
I would contend that most policymakers and scholars in international relations, at least in the United States, buy into the second view of the world to one degree or another. And not only do they see their mission of enlightenment to embrace building powerful international institutions with the will and the resources to slap the recalcitrant into line, they see this vision é ever more powerful international or transnational institutions é as the only alternative to a cramped, cribbed, bigoted, inward-looking, backward and unenlightened isolationism.
So when they look at the world out there, most US policymakers of both major parties seldom even think about anything so “narrow” as the US national interest. It’s far more enlightened and forward-looking to have a global vision, one that places the interests of transnational institutions, or the needs of a famine-stricken population (although not the ones caused by US or UN sanctions), or the vision of peace enforced by a proper centralized peacemaking world body ahead of mere US interests. And they do this so automatically that they hardly know they are doing it.
As suggested, this is not the only possible paradigm for international relations. Indeed, a strong case could be made that peace and progress are more likely in a world in which the first paradigm é treat all countries as sovereign within their borders, maintain trade and tourism policies that are as open and unrestricted as possible and keep political and military entanglements to a minimum é governed the actions of most statesmen.
Unfortunately, most American elites have fallen into the habit of equating internationalism with trans-nationalism. So they do all manner of things that have no relationship to US interests but instead serve some vague and vaporous transnational agenda.