The loneliness of America
India - March 29:
As the war in Iraq enters its tenth day, there have been two big surprises — one to do with the military campaign itself and the other to do with the manner in which Indians have responded to it.
It is now clear — no matter how much Ari Fleischer dissembles or Donald Rumsfeld lies — that the war is not going the way the Americans and the Brits had thought it would. A fortnight ago, I was in London and heard the predictions that Tony Blair’s supporters were making.
Their view was that anybody who opposed the war risked making a fool of himself or herself. What would happen was this: the Americans would pound Saddam Hussein into submission by bombing the life out of Baghdad. Then, ground troops, spearheaded by elite British regiments, would enter Iraq to a rousing welcome from the local people. The forces would be hailed, not as invaders, but as liberators and in five days or so, it would all be over. Saddam would be dead, Baghdad would have fallen and Allied forces would have shown the world that Iraq did possess weapons of mass destruction after all (even if the Allies had to plant the damn things in the first place to make a propaganda point.)
At that stage, said advocates of the war, all the woolly-headed British liberals and cowardly French politicians who had foolishly opposed the war would be shown up as humbugs who shirked from the duty of liberating an oppressed people and ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction.
Well, it sure as hell hasn’t worked out that way.
Even George W Bush now admits that this might be a long war. As for how long, that in Bush’s wonderful words “is unknowable”. And on US TV, analysts now reluctantly concede that the war “is running behind schedule”, as though it is a live TV event that has inconveniently lingered on after prime-time.
Worse still, many of the assumptions on which this campaign was launched now seem to have been mistaken. From all accounts, the Americans commenced hostilities before they were ready because they had credible intelligence that Saddam was at a certain location. They bombed that location and believed they had killed him. When he turned up alive, they claimed that he was, at the very least, seriously wounded. When this too could not be sustained, they said they had probably killed his son Uday instead. Even this has yet to be established.
Then, there’s the funny business of the cities that the Allies claim to have captured. Each evening we are told that they have conquered everything in their path only to be reminded the following morning, that they are still ‘“encountering resistance”. Thus, they “conquered” Basra on the fourth day of the war, and still continued to fight to get into the city for days afterwards.
Next, there’s the even funnier business of the Iraqi resistance. If we believed the US media, then the Iraqi army and paramilitary forces were in disarray. Nobody would fight; they would all surrender. Only the Republican Guard would do battle but this would only happen in the final stages of the war, when US forces reached Baghdad. Yet, each day, the correspondents “embedded” with US regiments reluctantly concede that “Iraqi resistance has been stronger than expected”.
Not that the Iraqis need to bother to fight. The Allies seem to be losing more men to so-called “friendly fire” than they are to enemy action. On Thursday, 30 US marines were shot by another group of marines. Americans keep killing Brits by mistake. A British ITV correspondent has been killed — it seems likely that he too was a victim of “friendly fire”.
And finally, the question the world is asking: where is the rousing welcome that the Allied liberators of Iraq were expected to get?
As far as we can see, the Iraqis may not be wild about tyrannical old Saddam Hussein. But that doesn’t mean that they want to be bombed and invaded by oil-thirsty Americans who then expect to be thanked for doing the Iraqi people the great favour of destroying their cities.
None of this is to say that the Iraqis have a hope in hell of winning. No country in the world can stand up to the might of the United States. Nor can anybody face up to the might of the US media — when a missile flattened a Baghdad marketplace we were told by American TV channels that the suicidal Iraqis did it to themselves. And among the howls of outrage over Iraqi treatment of Allied POWs (why is it OK to show Iraqis troops surrendering but outrageous to show Americans in custody?) there has been little sympathy for the scores of innocent civilians who have been murdered; mere statistics in a round-up of “collateral damage”.
But it is now clear that the war is not going to be the five-day picnic the Allies had expected. Many days down the line, after hundreds more have lost their lives, after many other Iraqi towns have been flattened, the Americans will probably be able to claim victory and tell the battered and shattered Iraqi people that they have been “liberated”.
But the question will remain: was it worth it?
Which brings me to the second surprise of the last week. I wrote, four weeks ago, of being surprised to discover how many educated Indians opposed the war in Iraq.
But nothing had prepared me for the waves of anti-Americanism that the commencement of hostilities seem to have unleashed.
Indians — and especially educated Indians — like the United States. We see American movies, we eat American hamburgers (how significant that even McDonald’s wrote a letter to the HT distancing itself from the US!), we drink American colas, we like to go to the US on holiday and we want to be able to afford to send our kids to American universities.
The single greatest achievement of George W Bush — from an Indian perspective — is to have made us overcome our love of, and respect for, all things American and to have transformed us into a nation that is solidly opposed to US policy towards the world.
The extent of anti-Americanism among the middle class has both shocked and shaken me. When Indians hear about Americans failures, they cheer; when we hear about American foul-ups, we giggle; and when we see Americans lecturing the world about the conflict between good and evil, we first sneer and then we seethe.
All this suggests that America is in more trouble than it realises. It is still the greatest super-power in the world. But then it was already the most powerful country in the history of humankind in 2001. And that still didn’t stop 9/11 from happening.
That horrible tragedy gave America an opportunity to do two things. It had a chance to take on the menace of global terrorism and to hunt down the Osama bin Ladens of the world. And it also had an opportunity to finally confront global anti-Americanism and dispel the anger and hatred that many people felt towards America.
Under George W, it has blown both chances. Osama bin Laden is alive and well and living in Pakistan. The world’s Muslims hate America even more than they did before 9/11. But this is the really spectacular bit — even those of us who rallied to America’s side in the horrible aftermath of 9/11 have been alienated and distanced.
Seldom can America have been so friendless. Seldom can it have miscalculated as massively as it did about the likely progress of this war (At least, not since Vietnam). And when victory does come, seldom will have a victor have felt so alone.
Which suggests that America’s real problems will begin after it defeats Iraq : how then will it win over the rest of the world? Having won the war, it will lose the peace.