To the victor the spoils
I grew up in Kenya, and believed in America. It was easy to do in those days. To a child’s eyes, America seemed to stand for freedom and liberty, for the power of the individual, for wonderful affluence. On the other side were arrayed a bunch of undesirables: dour Russians intent on taking away everyone’s personal liberties; sinister and malevolent Arabs fixated on wreaking terrorist havoc. It was easy to know which side of the line to be on.
America also produced all the things that delighted me then: cartoons and action movies, detective stories and rip-roaring TV shows. As a teenager I began to read Time and Newsweek, and The Reader’s Digest. My world-view was reinforced: America and Britain stood for decency and rectitude, and were our only protection against communists, socialists and terrorists who sought to destroy the world we knew.
I wish my simple outlook had survived. I wish I had not started to think for myself. I wish I had never known about Hiroshima: that a plane called Enola Gay dropped a single bomb onto a civilian city, vaporised everything in its immediate vicinity, started fires over a four square-mile area, killed 70,000 people immediately, injured another 70,000 and irradiated a whole generation. I wish I never knew that other means were available to end the Second World War, but that the Americans chose not to consider them.
I wish I’d never heard about Agent Orange: a mixture of toxic herbicides that was dropped on Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 to defoliate forests and destroy enemy crops. 50 million litres were used, and have caused cancers, birth defects, skin diseases and grotesque malformations in a generation of Vietnamese.
I wish I never knew that America supported and financed some of the worst dictators in history. That Americans averted their eyes from the massacres and outrages perpetrated by these men, for political and commercial gain. I wish I had not stumbled on the fact that both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were creations of the CIA. The knowledge that America has bombed 21 different countries since the Second World War should have passed me by.
But I do know these things, and cannot un-know them. Despite this, I held on to my belief in America as a force for good in this world, justifying it thus, as many do: that there is no place for moral certainty in global affairs; that in an imperfect world America still stands for what is right and desirable; that without America in place the world would be reduced to irredeemable chaos. John F. Kennedy declared half a century ago that ‘the US will never start a war’. I believed him.
George W. Bush and his gang of neo-conservatives have undone that final belief. America has started a war on the flimsiest of reasons. It has attacked a sovereign state and deposed its government.
The pre-war spin went as follows: Saddam Hussein was a mad and bad dictator who held huge stockpiles of very dangerous weapons whose use against the USA and its allies was imminent. He was intimately close to Al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations. You and I may have questioned this; the American people apparently did not. A New York Times/CBS News survey revealed the startling fact that 42 per cent of the American public believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11 2001 attacks. And an ABC news poll says that 55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supported al-Qaida. There’s not a shred of evidence to support any of this, but hey, when did that get in the way of believing anything?
The war did not last long. Did anyone actually believe it would? That the world’s most powerful nation could lose a war to a bunch of rag-tag Arabs? That a country that spends USD 280 billion annually out of its Gross Domestic Product of USD 10 trillion on military expenditures, could be cowed by impoverished desert folk? No, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld (he who looks like he was born sneering at Arabs and liberals) was right: it didn’t take much to pound Iraq into dust.
But what is the post-war reality? No weapons of mass destruction have been found, and none were used by mad-and-bad Saddam in the war. Could it be that he had none? Surely not, that’s the reason we attacked him in the first place.
Reconstruction: how’s that going? Well, the UN has been asked to keep away. USAID is organising it all, and is putting very lucrative contracts out to tender. Airport and port rebuilding and management, roads and bridges, hospitals and medical supplies, schools and textbooks. So much to be done. One catch though: only American firms need apply. As Canadian writer Naomi Klein put it: ‘(Iraq) is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned and open for business.’
In fact American forces had very clear priorities in Iraq: oil fields were immediately secured and protected; museums containing centuries-old artefacts of huge historical value were allowed to be plundered by all-comers, while the occupying forces stood by and watched the spectacle. America, a 200-year-old youngster, focuses on economic wealth. It had no value for the records and relics of the 7,000-year-old society it has taken over.
Politically, the USA is in total charge of events. The emerging aim is to rule post-Saddam Iraq directly through an American governor-general. Such a blatant form of imposition has not been seen since the days of the British empire. And the Pentagon’s preferred leader-in-waiting, Ahmad Chalabi, is a man of very dubious credentials indeed, having been tried and sentenced, in absentia, by a Jordanian court to 22 years’ jail on charges of embezzlement and fraud. Apparently the man ran a dubious bank that thrived on patronage and then collapsed, with millions of dollars of deposits disappearing into thin air. He sounds like he’d be at home in Kenya!
What about the Iraqi people: this was really about liberating them, right? They, too, managed to debase themselves considerably by indulging in an ugly orgy of looting and plunder. It was sad to see that a religion that places such profound emphasis on respect for private property had been so superficially understood and accepted by such a large number of Iraqis. For a few crazy days, it became acceptable to go out and break into any shop, museum or warehouse you pleased, and take whatever loot you could lay your grimy hands on. Why? Because there was no one there to stop you. Truly, the underlying nature of human beings is a very depressing thing.
America was itself born in a war against a hated colonial oppressor. Today, this former champion of sovereignty and self-determination is firmly in the empire business. Its government believes in the utter and indisputable superiority of the American way. It will apparently stop at nothing to impose this way on the rest of the world. Do us all a favour, American citizens, and throw Bush and his demented gang out at the elections next year. Then, we may learn to respect you again.
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