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March of folly

It is typical of the cynical tone of what passes off for ?strategic discourse? in India that there is little discussion in it of the profound immorality, illegality and irrationality of the war of aggression on Iraq, or its colossally tragic human consequences.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2003 13:33 IST
Praful Bidwai
Praful Bidwai

It is typical of the cynical tone of what passes off for ‘strategic discourse’ in India that there is little discussion in it of the profound immorality, illegality and irrationality of the war of aggression on Iraq, or its colossally tragic human consequences.

Within that discourse, morality is for the effeminate, weak-hearted, lily-livered — just as, domestically, all talk of human rights is a mere diversion from the ‘real’ agenda of combating terrorism.

If that sounds gross after Iraq’s civilian death toll of 600-700, and especially after this week’s butchery at Najaf and Nasiriyah, consider the content of the three things that some of our ‘experts’ told us. First, the war’s ethics and legality shouldn’t concern India — unlike the ‘realities of power’; it’s best to be on the winning side. Iraq may not have deliverable weapons of mass destruction (WMD); even if it did, inspections would probably have removed them more effectively and cheaply than war. But, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, India must “balance” its position: “Whatever the rights and wrongs” of the situation, India’s relations with “other nations” (read, the US and Britain) shouldn’t be “defined by a single issue”. In other words, once America decides to go to war, it’s silly to take a principled stand.

Second, America would win the war hands down. ‘Shock-and-awe’ would instantly break the Iraqi forces’ will to fight. As Dick Cheney put it on March 18: “Significant elements of the Republican Guard” would simply “avoid conflict” with American forces. Some Indian ‘experts’ even said everything would be wrapped up “within a few days”. Some fantasised about how the attack would begin on a moonless night, ‘decapitating’ the Saddam leadership, crippling military telecommunications, and leaving Iraq defenceless. None of this happened.

Third, purely military manoeuvres, not politics and public perceptions, would fully determine the war’s outcome. Civilian casualties would be negligible owing to ‘humane’ ‘fourth-generation’ weaponry. In any case, perceptions can be manufactured and ‘managed’ through 750 ‘embedded’ reporters. No resistance to a lightning US victory is possible.

Events have belied each of these predictions, just as they derailed US war plans. It now transpires that these plans were based on flawed assumptions, bad intelligence and technocratic hubris. Rumsfeld & Co forgot about Iraq’s people and their amazing determination to repulse their country’s invasion.

Growing popular and militia resistance to the Anglo-American coalition means the war probably won’t end in days. Baghdad will confront the war coalition with infinitely tougher challenges — urban warfare, close-quarter or street fights, fidayeen ambushes — than the fighting around southern cities did. This will take a huge civilian toll as well as coalition casualties. That will affect popular perceptions and shape military options.

The US will win the military battles. But it could lose the larger political war. Its political objectives are already compromised, as is Anglo-American credibility. That’s where global public opinion, the ‘second superpower’, comes in. To it, doing the ‘right’ thing matters, not the ‘easy’ thing.

So, even ‘realistically’, New Delhi may have misjudged just who’s the likely victor! Its blurred vision has certainly detached the national interest from principle. That’s why our ‘strategic community’ bleats about how India must emulate the US and settle scores with Pakistan — militarily.

And now, Prime Minister Vajpayee has added a particularly narrow, parochial angle to the Iraq policy by telling NDA leaders last Sunday that the “Kashmir issue” has prevented the government from “coming out more strongly” against the US war on Iraq. Never have we so diminished India’s broad foreign policy horizons to such a self-pitying window. Even the decade-long disorientation produced by the Cold War’s end didn’t generate such a shrunken self-perception.

Yet, clearly, this war isn’t just about Iraq, Saddam or WMD. It’s about redrawing the Middle East’s political map, controlling global energy resources, maintaining the pro-US bias in international financial flows and trade balances and, above all, establishing world hegemony on a scale never before seen — by rewriting the rules of international relations altogether! Resisting such a war for Empire will create opportunities and expand spaces that promote a just, equitable and peaceful global order where might isn’t right.

India’s people, like the world’s public, have a major stake in such a better world. But this war will make the world much worse: by ‘normalising’ brute force, discrediting tolerance and negotiation, promoting the view that fear and terror can alone suppress terror — thus legitimising terrorism itself. No less than President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a close US ally, warns that the Iraq war will create “100 new Osama bin Ladens... [T]his war will have horrible consequences”.

Surely, having a hundred Bin Ladens, some of them in our neighbourhood, cannot help India’s Kashmir policy, whatever that might be. Surely, we cannot be so myopic as to supplant sound foreign policy doctrines by antipathy towards our neighbours. Surely, our embrace of nuclear weapons shouldn’t degrade us morally so low as to make us forget that WMD disarmament remains a worthy global goal, but one that the war coalition contemptuously rejects, even though it hypocritically wants to disarm Iraq of WMD!

Those who speak of ‘the national interest’ after severing it from universal principles and moral balance should read historian Barbara Tuchman: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history… is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests... Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role… It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs…” (The March of Folly)

Are we bent upon this march?

First Published: Apr 04, 2003 00:00 IST