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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

VAN CREVELD GETS THE NEW MIDDLE-EAST HALF RIGHT AND HALF COMPLETELY WRONG Martin van Creveld is a very respected strategic thinker and author of one the must-read books for the post-Cold War era, The Transformation of War. His piece in the IHT today is however a little less praiseworthy.

As the promise to advance the Iraqi elections to mid-2004 shows, the United States will lose - in fact already has lost - the war.

I’m not so sure, the holding of elections in Iraq would be a good indicator of the gradual path to victory. No?

The Americans will leave the country in the same way as the Soviets left Afghanistan: with the Iraqi guerrillas jeering at them.

I don’t know what makes him so sure, and he chooses not to tell us either, which is rather disappointing. So what when the guerrillas win?

Assuming that Saddam Hussein is behind the guerrilla attacks, no doubt he will try to assume control of the country again. If he is strong enough to do this, then the situation ante quam will be largely restored; imagine Saddam thumbing his nose at Bush as he did at Bush's father.

Just imagine that. It would be quite a farce. Is this likely? I cannot for the life of me imagine that Bush Jr’s government could allow that to happen. And what if it did? The consequences would be truly catastrophic. Saddam would become the world’s no1 anti-American hero, any remaining amount of Western military credibility would be wiped out, the West indeed would have proved itself to be the weak horse as which Ossama bin Laden taunted us for our decadence, and what then would stop al Quaeda moving into Iraq as Saddam’s guests after such a successful co-operation (“Just think what else we can achieve together!”). We can’t afford to lose in Iraq now, because that will only intensify the problem manifold:

. . . Iraq will probably disintegrate into three parts, a Shiite south, a Sunni center, and a Kurdish north. Judging by the fact that the last-named has never been able to overcome its tribal divisions, none of the three is likely to develop into a proper, centrally ruled state. The most likely outcome is three mini-Afghanistans that will serve as havens for terrorist activities throughout the Middle East.

The West cannot afford to let this happen and if push comes to shove, there are many options as yet unexplored in settling the current troubles in Iraq: more troops (needed anyway), shutting down Iraq’s borders (long overdue), setting up an extensive monitoring infrastructure (an electronic Big Brother), putting an extensive network of checkpoints around the neighbourhoods from which the attackers are coming (like in Northern Ireland back when) and ultimately, if we get really desperate, we could always fall back on putting the population in the problem areas in protected hamlets (like in the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s). Some of these options are rather ugly, particularly the last one. But, as I said, if push comes to shove we might need to do it. If even these extreme measures fail, then, and only then, will we really have failed and lost the war.
Van Creveld is right about the threat Iraq poses to the surrounding regimes. While it is true that a stable Iraq that looks set on a course a slow democratisation and liberalisation would have positive effects on its neighbours by encouraging more reasonable government there, the opposite could also materialise if the visual instability in Iraq remains for too long. On another point of his I’m also not so sure:

In the short run, the greatest beneficiary of the war is Israel. The destruction of Iraq has created a situation in which, for the first time since Israel was founded in 1948, it has no real conventional enemy left within about 1,000 kilometers, or 600 miles, of its borders. If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had any sense, he would use this window of opportunity to come to some kind of arrangement with the Palestinians. Whether he will do so, though, remains to be seen.

Remains to be seen. Indeed. But that’s not my concern here. I don’t buy the line that the removal of Saddam has been such a great boost to Israeli security. In January 1991 Iraq was genuinely dangerous for Israel, even on a purely conventional level, but by March 1991 Iraq has ceased to exist as a conventional military power. This is also completely ignorant that Israel hasn’t really been under a credible conventional threat for decades. The twin threats facing Israel are terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in Islamist hands. The main foe for Israel has thus been Iran, a fact van Creveld must surely be aware of. It is perhaps ironic in a way that this piece should appear the day after Israel’s intelligence chief said that Israel’s existence today was more threatened than ever since 1948 because of Iran’s looming nuclear weapons, a programme he said would soon go “beyond the point of no return”. There is of course an aspect to Iran’s weapons programme that van Creveld explains:

Even before America invaded Iraq, the Iranians, feeling surrounded by nuclear-capable U.S. forces on three sides (Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics, the Gulf), were working as hard as they could to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to match. Now that the United States has proved that it is prepared to fight anybody for no reason at all, they should be forgiven if they redouble their efforts.

That sounds logical, but completely misses the point that the Iranian regime declared goal is to wipe Israel off the map (see my post of September 23rd). Hopefully the Iranian people will by then have cast off their dictatorship, which has been rapidly losing ground in the population and even needs to hire Arab foreigners to maintain its iron grip in the country. Van Creveld thinks this will not make much of a difference:

Even if the Islamic Republic were overthrown, the new government in Tehran would surely follow the same nationalist line as its predecessor.

Except the problem isn’t a nationalist Iranian bomb, but an Islamist one. Under the shah Iran had already started tentative explorations of nuclear weapons with the help of Israel and possible other Western countries. Iran’s nuclear weapons under a new government would be less of an acute threat than it is now, but van Creveld is right that is should be discouraged because:

A nuclear Iran would most likely be followed by a nuclear Turkey. Next would come a nuclear Greece, a nuclear Saudi Arabia and a nuclear Egypt.

Well, that’s something to look forward to. Not. How to deal with that is the real big question in the Middle East today, so it’s a shame van Creveld doesn’t bother.

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