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the american century



IN A February 2002 article ‘The Gun is on the Table, and Iraqis Await Their Liberators’ the New York Times’ William Safire wrote ‘When a dramatist places a gun on the table in the first act, the astute playgoer knows that the weapon will be used before the drama ends’. Slightly over a year later, the third act is starting in a drama which could be called ‘The American Century’, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies has provided us with a useful programme for following Act Three. However, given the number of sub-plots in the play, and the number of characters some of them with only walk on parts, one really needs a different programme for each act.


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Act One takes place largely in Iraq, but many of the actors have died before the play started. The key event is the 1980-1988 War between Iran and Iraq. This was as close to a ‘re-make’ of World War One that we are likely to see: wave after wave of soldiers fighting for a few yards of land, untrained youth cut down, the use of poison gas, the war ending with a million dead and no change in the Iran-Iraq frontier which had been the reason – or the pretext - of the war. As with all Middle East tales, it took twice as long as the European original. However the war poets did not write in English so we have no images of poppy fields nor ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever Iran’.

I had thought that the Iran-Iraq War was a bad thing from the start and was involved in some modest NGO efforts to see if mediation was possible before the drawn-out official mediation by the United Nations started in Geneva. I do not recall that we were numerous in these mediation efforts, and third-party government efforts were also few. The Henry Kissinger quote ‘I hope they both lose’ seems to have been a generalized attitude, although there may have been efforts I do not know. I know more fully, however, how little outcry there was over the use of poison gas. I had been involved since 1975 ( the 50th anniversary of the 1925 Protocol banning the use of poison gas) with NGO efforts to strengthen the 1925 Protocol, especially by adding provisions for a complaint-investigation mechanism as none were set out in the Treaty. When the first accusations of Iraqi use of poison gas were raised, I contacted all the ambassadors of the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament. There was only mild interest – exclusively on the part of smaller States. The investigations into poison gas use, finally authorized by the Security Council, took a great deal of time, and the results received little publicity. I find somewhat ironic the current outcry about the use of poison gas by Iraq from States which did nothing at the time.

As a footnote to the 1980-1988 War, there was the Iraqi attack on Kuwait – basically an effort to pay the war debts by going where the money was. Thus there were more dead, and Kuwait became a holding area for US troops. Iraq is more divided than before. With so much dialogue on the use of force, one need not be too astute to think that violence might come.

Act Two suddenly shifts to Afghanistan, and one needs a new programme to see who the actors are. Act Two has all the difficulties of most Russian novels: too many actors, changing roles with often the same actor playing several parts. There are too many minor parts – intelligence agents who sneak about, arms merchants, drug merchants, oil company employees, Sufi mystics and narrow Islamic legalists, lots of refugees. There is no unity of place, and attention shifts to Pakistan, then to Central Asia. There is no love interest and few heroes. Act Two ends with a feeling of confusion. There is much suffering but no sense of direction. One fears that the act will be made into films ‘The Return of Bin Laden’ and ‘The Last Ayatollah’.

Act Three returns to Iraq, but even astute playgoers are not clear about the relation of Act Two to Act Three. However Toby Dodge and Steven Simon have put together a most useful guide to the cast of characters and possible actions for Act Three. The papers were originally presented at a workshop in October 2002 on ‘Iraqi Futures’ so that the emphasis is on the internal context. There is little on the potential role of the United Nations, of the UN arms inspectors or on the strength of anti-war public opinion which has become a sudden sub-plot of the last months. However, there is one important chapter which is not focused on the structure of Iraqi society: Judith Yaphe’s ‘America’s War on Iraq: Myths and Opportunities’. She analyses Washington’s myths and myth-makers, giving us some idea as to why the play is called ‘The American Century’ and listing some of the broader political-strategic-economic factors at work.

Isam al Khafaji in his ‘A Few Days After: State and Society in a post-Saddam Iraq’ underlines all the diversity and tensions within Iraqi society and their reflections in the State administration. There is a good chapter by Amatzia Baram on the new role of tribes in Iraqi politics as the State has had to give up some of its administrative power. Michiel Leezenberg deals with Iraqi Kurdistan with some useful bibliographic references as Kurdish politics has so many sub-plots – not to mention the relations with Turkey – that a whole study would be necessary to understand what is going on. Feleh Jabar in his ‘Clerics, Tribes, Ideologues and Urban Dwellers in the South of Iraq’ gives a good image of the complex reality of the area and of the role of Shi’ite groups.

Act Three is likely to be complex with many but few outstanding actors. The hope of some of the US ideologues who collaborated in writing the play that Iraq can be transformed into a light to the gentiles seeking democracy seems unlikely. It is more certain that the area will keep writers on strategic studies busy for some time. To what extent those saying ‘No to War in Iraq’ will be able to structure themselves into a transnational movement for peace and justice will have to be seen. It is certain that we must be more than astute playgoers.

Réne Wadlow

Iraq at the Crossroads : State and Society in the Shadow of Regime Change. Toby Dodge and Steven Simon(Eds.).OUP for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2003.




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