Looking out for Number One

Published: Sunday | January 7, 2007

"There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favours from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure ..." - George Washington

Who shows no pity deserves none. Not even the saints shed tears at Saddam Hussein's hanging. He began as an assassin, gained power through blood, and ruled without mercy. Perhaps 100,000 died in his 1987-1989 Anfal anti-Kurdish campaign. In 1988 he used chemical weapons to kill at least 5,000 civilians in Halabja.

Yet, even then U.S. President Ronald Reagan refused to impose sanctions and France and Britain still traded with Iraq. Saddam was a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Which was why the West supplied him with weapons throughout his unprovoked 1980-1988 war on Iran.

He invaded Kuwait in 1990, and a U.S. coalition chased him back to Baghdad. President George Bush Sr. said it was up to the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Taking this as a promise of support, rebels seized 14 of the 18 provinces. But U.S. commanders allowed Saddam's Republican Guard and helicopters to crush the revolts. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 died. Saddam stayed in power as the West adopted a containment policy.

sudden transformation

Soon after the 9/11/2001 New York World Trade Center destruction, President George Bush Jr. started demanding that Saddam destroy his "weapons of mass destruction", or face war. Saddam was now dubbed a mass murderer too dangerous to be allowed to remain in power - though United Nations inspectors could find no evidence of Iraqi WMDs. So Saddam was duly attacked, deposed, hunted down, caught, tried and hanged.

There was no real logic to Saddam's sudden transformation in Western eyes from 'necessary strongman' to 'vicious tyrant to be removed at all costs'. Iraq was far less dangerous in 2003 than in 1991, and had nothing to do with 9/11. As to brutality, well perhaps 40,000 died when Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad used artillery to crush a 1982 Hamas uprising. But he died peacefully in office unharassed by outside forces.

So why the rush to get rid of Saddam? No one seems to know. Maybe the U.S. simply figured he no longer served any purpose and saw an easy way to reassert its authority in the oil-critical Middle East. If so, it badly miscalculated. The Iraq invasion has been a disaster all around. America has spent close to a trillion dollars and lost over 3,000 lives, more than in 9/11. Probably more Iraqis have died in the post-2003 civil war chaos than Saddam ever killed.

Some call Iraq 'Bush's Vietnam'. But it more closely resembles the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike Saddam, Afghan President Hafizullah Amin was killed quickly. But after nine years and 15,000 dead, the Soviets were forced to leave a shattered Afghanistan that has still not recovered. The billions wasted were perhaps a main cause of the Soviet empire's collapse.

America is too fundamentally healthy for the Iraq invasion to be anything more than a pinprick. But it increasingly seems as pointless as the Soviet/Afghan incursion, and has badly damaged America's international influence. 'THE WORLD'S ONLY GLOBAL SUPERPOWER!', as it never tires of boasting, is looking more and more like a paper tiger. If it can't even subjugate a small, broke country like Iraq, why should China or even Syria or Iran or North Korea fear it? No one pays attention to Dubya Bush's threats these days. But he's gone in two years. Thank God for democracy!

global politics

As to the hypocrisy of it all, well that's how global politics works. Everyone looks out for number one. America's critics love to dwell on her faults, and she has plenty. But probably a lot less than any other dominant nation in history, except maybe 19th-century Britain.

Ever since 1688 Britain has justified its conquests as 'furthering the cause of liberty', and since 1776 America has claimed its wars 'make the world safe for democracy' - even with criminal cupidity like the Opium, Mexican and Indian wars. The yawning gap between 'freedom and justice' proclamations and their often blatant rapacity infuriate idealists and send people like Noam Chomsky off the deep end. Yet has there ever been a country that did not put its own interests first?

History knows two kinds of great powers - those which do as they wish and to hell with anyone who gets in the way, and those which do what is best for themselves but try to ameliorate the ill effects of their 'me first' policies. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are among the former, Britain and America, the latter. Jamaica is a case in point. Just compensation or not for hundreds of years of brutal exploitation, Britain did bequeath us a stable democracy.

Expecting powerful countries to act out of completely disinterested benevolence is, as George Washington said, 'an illusion, which experience must cure.' He knew whereof he spoke. Washington was one of the few men to ever lead a successful revolution and yet voluntarily surrender power. But when voted president, he - a slave-owner himself - never tried to abolish slavery in America. Cruel as it was, plantation slavery was seen as an economic necessity by the great powers of the time. Which is why when the Haitian slaves freed themselves in 1791, first Britain and then France and America tried to reimpose black servitude.

slave revolutions

Those seeking justice in history's pages must weep for the Haitian Revolution, the only successful large-scale and generalised slave revolt known. Haiti only remained free after repelling the greatest powers of the day. Not even a conspiracy between Napoleon and Jefferson, two supremely able men, was enough to overcome its heroic defence of hard-won liberties. Yet fearing slave revolutions of their own, the slaveholding powers blockaded Haiti.

France only recognised it in 1833 when paid 150 million francs in compensation for French losses in the revolution. This crippled the economy. To the half-slave U.S.A., a successful black country next door would embolden African Americans' reach for freedom. So only in 1862, when Civil War setbacks caused Lincoln to proclaim slave emancipation and weaken the South, did the U.S. recognise Haiti. As desired by slave powers the young country fell into chaos, and never really recovered. Nor has it ever been strategically important enough for the U.S. or any other power to truly help better its lot.

For the strong pay attention to the weak only when there is something to gain. If the Middle East did not contain half the world's oil, it would matter as little to Western powers as Africa does. But any great disruption in the Arab world might cause world oil supplies to contract, prices to soar and the global economy to implode. So naturally Iraq and Palestine and Lebanon have to be closely monitored, even if far more people died over the past year in Sudan's Darfur than in all these places combined.

Last year the fundamentalist Islamic Courts movement brought stability to previously governmentless since 1992 Somalia. Somalis were joyful at being able to move about freely for the first time in 15 years. But because the regime was suspected of sheltering terrorists, a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion has chased it out. Apparently the principles of self-determination and national sovereignty only apply to some. Yet could America afford to run the risk of a new Taliban and Al-Qaida arising in Somalia?

Small, powerless nations with nothing at stake love to noisily claim the moral high ground. But like it or not, we smug Jamaicans have the same interests as the U.S. Few here know or care about genocide in Darfur. But a big oil price jump and sudden gas price spike would no doubt fill our streets with protesters.

Hypocritical America? Let he who is without sin ...

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