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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Democracy Died at the Gulf, Part II

Richard Falk, Center of International Studies, Princeton University

Section II

Discussions of the failures of modernity have been so frequent in recent years that they now seem rather tedious. Nevertheless, the Gulf War summons us to reconsider these failures anew. The extent to which modernity offers a mandate for unequal war remains obscure. The inner logic of modernity is reflected in the evolution of warfare over the centuries, the progressive shift from fighting prowess to relative technological capability, what Anthony Giddens has identified as the displacement of "the traditional warrior ethic that flourished when warfare was associated with spectacle and display."[Anthony Giddens, Violence and the Nation State (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985), p. 230.]

The technologizing of war has proceeded in two directions: the deliteralization of war, or what Mary Kaldor convincingly calls the development of "the imaginary war," [Mary Kaldor, The Imaginary War (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).] too awful to fight as a matter of intention, but a pervasive dark cloud dominating the political landscape; and the Nintendo war, in which money inserted at one end of the great electronic apparatus generates a technopower that inflicts one-sided destruction at the other end and which depends for its reality on denying the weaker side sufficient technological and political means to fight back effectively. The Cold War was an imaginary war; the Gulf War is better understood as a Nintendo war.

In order to make the world safe for Nintendo war, the adversary must be given enough technology to make warfare plausible, but not enough to leap over the technology gap, and put the outcome in doubt. The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is crucial in this respect, as is the denial of other weapons of mass destruction and the effective means of long range delivery. Iraq was an important enemy because it seemed to be mounting a challenge to the reality of the technology gap. It possessed chemical weapons and was pursuing both nuclear and biological capabilities. Moreover, the Scud missiles, although largely ineffective, disclosed an ability to expand the scope of the battlefield beyond the target society, a capacity neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan possessed. [It is also a matter of political will. Saddam's tactics were called "terrorist" because they expanded the battlefield, not because civilians were victimized.]

Terrorism against Western targets was an additional means to carry the war beyond Iraq/Kuwait, and even the dumping of oil in the Gulf and the fires in the Kuwaiti wells can be understood as desperate attempts by Iraq to inflict excruciating pain in retaliation. Bush's "new world order," should it take hold, will attempt to deepen the vulnerability of the entire non-Western world to Nintendo war, both by widening the technological gap through a process of continuous innovation that improves the effectiveness of electronic warfare and by increasing the control and surveillance over Third World acquisitions of any weapons that erode the invulnerability of the West. The sinister underlying drive is now, metaphorically and potentially, to turn the entire Third World into a condition of vulnerability, as in the Kuwaiti/Iraq desert, giving night vision and precision munitions the capacity to do in jungle and mountain terrain what they achieved in the more receptive settings of the Gulf War. At the same time, every attempt will be made in these years to keep the scenarios of an imaginary war in the North as latent as possible, retaining much of the weaponry but seeking to redirect political energy toward a more collaborative East-West framework. The Gulf War both embodies and prefigures. The military commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, summarized the dynamic of the war with a hunting image: "it's been like a beagle chasing a rabbit. It's been all pleasant surprises." [David Lamb, "Schwarzkopf Says Iraqi Forces Are on 'Verge of Collapse'," International Herald Tribune, Feb. 21, 1991, p. 3.]

In a similar mode, the media referred to the last phases of the ground war as "a turkey shoot." These images capture the essence of Nintendo--the hunter armed with fantastic weapons pursuing the hunted at no self-risk. But the abandonment of a high intensity imaginary war is also relevant because of Soviet diplomatic support for the war and the consequent mantle of United Nations legitimacy. This new world order was threatened on the one side by the Scuds, but also on the other side by the Soviet peace initiatives that almost brought the war to an end prior to its ground phase. The Bush Administration made no secret of its resentment at the time of this initiative. White House leaks to the media indicated that Bush was "biting his lip" to refrain from lashing out at the Soviets and spoiling the illusion of consensus about Desert Storm; more discreetly, government officials let it be known to the press that Gorbachev's efforts to end the Gulf War before its ground phase, even achieving the stated United Nations and United States goal of unconditional Iraqi withdrawal, had done more harm to Soviet- American relations than "all the head-knocking in the Baltics." [Jack Nelson, "Gorbachev Plan Risks Ties With U.S., Analysts Say," International Herald Tribune, Feb. 22, 1991, p. 3.]

It is evident that the new world order as it was conceived in Washington is about North/South control and surveillance, not about values or a better life for the peoples of the world. Whether this geo-strategy for the next phase of U.S.-led world capitalism will be successfully maintained is highly uncertain. Even the "victory" in the Gulf may appear in retrospect mainly as a crucial step in the final unraveling of Western hegemony. The oil wells aflame in Kuwait may be seen not only as an ecological disaster and an economic waste but also a beacon that Islamic masses will follow in a spirit of militant anti-Western fundamentalism. The American war machine may in the end imperil control over Gulf oil to a greater extent than Saddam's expansionism. As the ceasefire approached, units of the Republican Guard were permitted by coalition forces to escape to the North so that they could turn their guns on the Iraqi resistance in Basra, and thereby deny Iran political gains in the region from the outcome of the Gulf War. Recall that earlier during the 1980s Saddam was less threatening to Western regional interests than Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution, that still earlier the Islamic fundamentalists were viewed as an ally against leftist threats to the stability of the Shah's rule, and even earlier, in 1953, a constitutional form of nationalism under Mossadegh in Iran was overthrown, with the help of the CIA, to make way for the Shah. The opportunism of Western influence in the Middle East has been mainly guided by considerations of oil and regional hegemony, as shaped, in turn, by the commitment to Israeli security interests.

It is also evident that the Gulf War promises a new life for Star Wars, but now adapted to a South/North axis of conflict, as well as a more generalized and intensified effort to extend the technologies of Nintendo war into space. Similarly, there will be some restrictions on arms suppliers in the North to prevent future acquisitions by countries in the South of weaponry and technologies that threaten the military invulnerability of the North. Whether even these restrictions will ever be made operational is questionable. One can expect formidable pressures to be mounted, especially by U.S. arms exporters, to lift restrictions. This will enable the suppliers to cash in on the performance of their weaponry in the Gulf War, to contribute their earnings to the reduction of U.S. trade deficits, and to offset reduced demand in the North due to the ending of the Cold War. The U.S. Government may even tempt Third World countries to aspire after some form of regional invulnerability, thereby both increasing the demand for expensive weapons items and building the case at home for a bigger R & D (research and development) effort so as to retain the decisive military edge in the North.

More broadly, there are many other problematic aspects to the Bush redesign of world order; can the United States continue to offset its economic and societal weaknesses by relying so heavily on its military muscle? Will not West/West economic rivalry induce the formation of security alternatives in Europe and Asia to avoid continued dependence on the United States? Will the Soviet Union avert a slide into chaos or reversion to some variant pre-Gorbachev policies? Will economic distress in the Third World generate an array of political challenges to current arrangements? Will a new South/North split, anchored in the hostility between Islam and the West produce a variant of the Cold War, though without the constraint of mutual deterrence? Is there the will and capability among the global elites to meet the various demands of ecological decay?

Section III

Modernity also has a normative dimension that can be associated with the United Nations Charter as a visionary instrument pointing the way to a less violent global order rather than the United Nations as a political actor (in tension with its own Charter) offering itself as an instrument available to the power structure of the state system. The Gulf War dramatized the tension between visionaries and geopoliticians, confirming that the latter are in firm control and enjoy a widespread popularity in the constitutional democracies. The miles of yellow ribbon festooning American residential and commercial areas in celebration of victory in a one-sided war has been as depressing as the devastation of Iraq by what hailed as the unveiling of World War III weaponry. Indeed, one crucial aspect of American triumphalism has been the degree to which the Gulf War affirms U.S. technological prowess over Europe and Japan, implying that military technology is the real test of "civilization," temporally displacing United States anxiety about economic over-extension and the prospects of decline. Visionaries and progressive forces were effectively marginalized in this war. They were disorganized by the collapse of socialist thinking at the end of the Cold War, confused by the demonic persona of Saddam Hussein, distracted by the apparent recourse of the United States to internationalism in response to aggression, and quickly swayed by the intoxicating thrill of a painless victory that included the decimation of an aggressive Islamic society. Anti-war efforts were widespread in the United States and Europe, but incoherent, lacking an alternative conception of a new world order, and therefore caught between an outdated and arid "anti-imperialism" and a predisposition towards a "pacifism" that lacked any credible response to aggression. The complexities of a sophisticated view of peace-oriented collective security did not lend itself to political mobilization. Such a view would have had to include energies directed towards sanctions; towards containment of any further Iraqi and defensive deployments; towards diplomacy, especially in relation to a long deferred and overdue Middle East peace conference with Palestinian self-determination at the top of the agenda; towards resolution of the Kurdish question; towards regional security arrangements; and towards enhancing respect for the United Nations Charter and the autonomy of the Security Council as imposing real constraints on superpower discretion. At this stage of recovery from the reality of the Gulf War, those of us associated with struggles for peace and justice are confronted anew by Bush's master project that has proclaimed a geopolitical destiny under the banner of "a new world order." This project is itself being constituted as an international innovation of historic significance, but it is more correctly interpreted as a resumption of what seemed successful to power-wielders in the nineteenth century, "a long peace" at the geopolitical core of techno-financial power and one-sided mastery over the non-Western world. The Gulf War revives the plausibility of aspiring to master the South. It approaches the task with an almost religious finality and with patriarchal zeal, including the vision of North domination of the South by means of the militarization of space, which is itself a frightening prospect that literally encompasses the entire world. Such a conception of order is quite content to witness the spread of Lebanonization in countries of the South, reserving the interventionary option for exceptional cases where crucial resources or strategic chokepoints are threatened by hostile forces or where a country in the South seems on the verge of acquiring the sort of military capability and political will that endangers the sense of Northern invulnerability. Such a project, while particularly menacing through its technological properties, is but the latest stage in a long struggle that has gone on for several centuries in a variety of settings. While it is necessary to acknowledge the distinctiveness of this latest set of moves connected with weapons innovations, it is also imperative to realize that military superiority has rarely controlled the forces of political change for very long. It may influence and condition shifts in tactics and perceived opportunities in a variety of specific circumstances by those whose struggle is against oppression and on behalf of greater equity and solidarity. The ebb and flow of history has proceeded with great force during the past decade, raising hopes here, dashing them there, suggesting, above all, that the present casts a short shadow: What seems definite beyond ambiguity, at this juncture, is almost predictably likely to be superseded in significance within a period of months or, at most, a few years. This new reality calls for adjustment. The Cold War had for several decades cast a relatively long shadow: the structure of conflict and alignment was unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. One might not have liked what one saw ahead, but the perceptions seemed reliable and were rather surprise-free on essential. At the same time, there are also hopeful signs, including many opportunities to reestablish confidence that the struggles for a just world order will not be long diverted from their course by the post-Gulf War triumphal proclamation of a new world order. The revealed roots of war in the political culture of the West suggests that analysis, action, and hope must be recast along more radical lines touching directly on the deep structures of political life. It is necessary to confront the unpleasant truth that militarism is, or can be, "democratic," and that so long as beliefs, myths, and glory remain bound to the traditions and imagination of patriarchy there can be no fundamental challenge mounted against the war system. Perhaps, most depressing, is the degree to which women as well as men seem patriarchally entrapped. Perhaps, the very drastic circumstances brought about by the Gulf war, especially in light of the collapse of a socialist alternative, will prompt the rising of a new progressive outlook that can reestablish hope and provide the grounds for political action in the 1990s. As never before, it is essential to challenge the fantasy of technocratic empire with a dream of political community based on mutual respect, human rights, participatory democracy, and a political culture that disavows violence and war. An earlier version of this essay appeared as "Reflections on the Gulf War" in Alternatives, Spring 1991, and in the Revue d'Etudes Palestiniennes, No. 44, Autumn 1991: 33-49.

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