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The new crusade: it's about ideology, not oil
March 28, 2003
Now that the long-predicted Iraq war is a reality, it is worth looking at possible post-war scenarios. What is the driving force behind the war? What is the desired end point? What are the likely outcomes?
There are a number of obvious factors: first, the American desire to mould the world in its own image, a sort of updated 'manifest destiny', with their ideas of democracy, McDonald's and an MTV culture. The US has the will and the means to impose its fiat through a pax Americana. The lure of oil is part of the picture, as the Americans would prefer to keep their own reserves in the ground and use up West Asia's supply. It is also true that the military-industrial-media complex needs a good little war periodically to keep its production going and to field-test new weaponry.
But what has become more obvious is the moralising angle. I am astonished at the venom expended on France just because it dared to foil American designs on a UN Security Council mandate. French fries have become 'freedom fries'! Frenchmen and even the hitherto revered French cuisine have become persona non grata! This is more than a little pouting, and can only be explained in moral terms
The Americans have always had a moralising streak; after all, the ruling WASP population is derived from the Puritans, who were kicked out of England for being unbending fundamentalists. There is a tendency on the part of Americans to be self-righteous, fire-and-brimstone types who see the world in Zoroastrian black-and-white, good vs evil stereotypes. They are not particularly moral people, but good at moralising and believing, literally, that God is on their side.
A large majority of Americans profess to be Christian believers; many are literalist believers in the Bible. Note the success of apocalyptic books about the so-called Rapture and the coming 'end of the world.' Clever cult leaders such as Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts have taken full advantage of unthinking flocks to build up hugely profitable business empires.
In this Manichean worldview, there always has to be an Evil to balance the Good that America is supposed to represent. When Ronald Reagan talked about the 'Evil Empire,' he meant it literally, and it resonated as such with a lot Americans. For a long time, the Soviet Union supplied the Evil. After its demise, for some time China was the main candidate. Then, fortuitously, along came 9/11 and Osama bin Laden and Islamists. It turns out they are the perfect enemy, and with good reason: they have the same Manichean worldview, only with roles reversed.
There are a lot of Christian fundamentalists (and neo-conservative Jews) in the Bush Administration. They view with alarm the strategic future of West Asia, and especially the future of Israel. On a tactical level they are also worried about sites viewed as holy, like the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa mosque, the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Nativity, all under dispute between Islamists and Christians/Jews.
A number of leading lights on the American Right put together a plan a while ago that outlined their view of the world: this included massive increases in military spending, an assertive forward approach to bilateral issues, and so forth. Much of this has now become institutionalised in the Bush Administration's policies. Which simply goes to say, Samuel Huntington was right after all: this is becoming a clash of civilisations. It was but a Freudian slip when George W Bush talked about a crusade.
For, despite loud protestations that the 'war on terrorism' is not a war on Muslims, the reality of it is a war on Islam, or more precisely, on Islamism. The unstated objective of the attack on Iraq is likely to be to contain Islamic power, to redraw the map of West Asia and make it a US protectorate, much like Japan after World War II. If so, this has serious implications for India.
West Asia has existed in its current form for only a few decades, as sovereign states mostly ruled by dictators. Previously, they were largely colonies, first of the Ottoman Turks and then of various European powers, especially the British. When these nations were merely inhabited by desert Bedouins, this did not much matter. However, with oil wealth, as well as the dispute with Israel, they have begun to matter.
What if the Americans were secure in the knowledge that Iraq and its oil reserves -- the second largest in the world -- were safely in the hands of a friendly post-Saddam Hussein regime? The US would feel free to uproot the House of Saud, for one thing. They have been treated as sacrosanct, even though they are the moneybags behind a global scheme to radicalise Islam through Wah'abi madrassas. Emboldened by an easy victory in Iraq, the Americans are likely to depose the House of Saud.
What if Saudi Arabia were to be taken over by the Americans? This would be a humiliating and bitter defeat for the Islamists, who have been propagating their fierce and triumphalist brand of Islam which glorifies the victories of Islam. There are two possibilities: one is that the 'Arab street,' that is, public discontent in West Asia, will boil over in massive anti-American fury and that these new American colonies will become ungovernable. The other possibility is that the average Arab will just carry on. It is not entirely clear which is more likely but I think it is the latter.
An Arab friend of mine suggests that attempts to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia may be counter productive, for the proportion of Islamists among the population is high, and it may bring to power someone even more retrogressive than the House of Saud. Americans will have to run the country as an occupied state, a colony. They may even redraw the boundaries in the region, for example separating oil-rich provinces in Saudi Arabia from pilgrim centers. They may fundamentally alter the national boundaries, too.
In this scenario, the loss of funds from Saudi Arabia, and the loss of face from an American occupation of the country, will have a devastating effect on Islamist groups like Al Qaeda. This may lead them to efforts to impose pain on Americans, whereby terrorist attacks on US interests will go up. But unless they are able to mount some truly spectacular attacks on the US, the Americans will endure. They are also taking steps to systematically emasculate 'sleeper' cells in their country; I am sure they will not hesitate to take harsh steps against suspected Islamists living in America.
What does all this mean for India? Plenty on the minus side of the balance sheet. First, energy supplies needed for India's growth will be under the control of the US, which is a dubious ally. Second, there might be unrest among Muslim Indians in the wake of the war in Iraq: remember that the Khilafat movement, about the removal of the Caliph in distant Turkey, led to the horrifying Moplah Rebellion in Malabar. Third, the demoralisation of Islamist forces may nudge the Pakistanis into a desperation attack on India: as they may well be, as Musharraf has said, a target once the US sorts things out in West Asia.
On the plus side, reduced enthusiasm for jihad is clearly a good thing for India. The defeat of the Islamists will be a setback for our strategic enemy China, which has assiduously cultivated a Sino-Islamic axis and supplied Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and possibly Libya, Syria etc. with weapons of all kinds. Finally, the destruction of various multilateral power structures where India had no part to play -- NATO lies in tatters, and so does the UN Security Council -- will mean that India will be able to do more bilaterally from positions of some strength, especially as its economic power increases.
All in all, this is a deeply disturbing and volatile situation with highly uncertain outcomes. In addition to the human rights issues associated with the long-suffering population of Iraq, these strategic issues make Gulf War II a watershed. It would behoove the Americans to remember that hubris goes before nemesis. And Indians to remember that this clash between fundamentalists is not our problem: let us keep a very low profile.
The Gulf War II