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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 69, February - March 2003


Is Bush The Terrorists' Dream President?

By Rebecca Johnson

Millions of people took to the streets in February to try to prevent an escalation of war on Iraq. Why? Certainly not to condone Saddam Hussein. Peace and social justice movements across the world have consistently condemned Saddam's brutal regime - not least in the 1980s, when the US, British, and other governments blithely supplied Baghdad with arms, including materials for chemical and biological weapons. When chemical warfare was then inflicted on Kurds and Iranians, it provoked shockingly little objection from the Western governments of the day. Now, with breathtaking hypocrisy, Saddam's atrocities against his own people are evoked as a reason for unleashing the world's most sophisticated panoply of weaponry - against those same people.

Faced with demonstrations larger even than the massive European anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s, Tony Blair attempted to belittle the marchers, contrasting their good fortune in living in free societies with the miserable suppression of human rights in Iraq. By implication, to live in a democracy is wonderful, but to actually exercise democratic rights on an issue as important as war is somehow naïve and illegitimate. But can the views of so many people, representing such a diversity of background and interests, be so easily dismissed? In London's million-plus march, for example, there were pacifists and retired military officers; Women against Fundamentalism and signed-up representatives of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and half a dozen other faiths; pragmatic business leaders and anti-war activists opposed to all weapons of mass destruction, in whoever's hands.

What, then, united the marchers? A mixture, it seemed, of scepticism, concern and hope about the future, and a recognition of our own responsibility.

Scepticism - about the true motives and objectives of the Bush-Blair cheerleaders, and their poorly evidenced arguments that a bloody war is the only way to neutralise the threat posed by Iraqi weapons and ambitions. This either/or reductionism - conflict or appeasement - is as dangerous as it is simplistic. Those are not the only choices, but in portraying war as the only morally defensible option, the Bush-Blair axis runs the risk of fulfilling its own dire prophecies and provoking unmanageable future threats to our common global safety and security.

Concern - that fuelled by corporate greed and Bush's own form of fundamentalist 'good vs. evil' extremism, the United States is profoundly misreading the security challenges of the 21st century, particularly as they relate to regional security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and asymmetric warfare. To declare a war on terrorism is to misunderstand terrorism. Terrorism is the outcome and expression of complex, overlapping phenomena. It is not something that can be defeated or eradicated once and for all, and there may always be small groups prepared to use violence, generally against civilian targets, to maximise attention when they feel politically marginalised. The point is to minimise and mitigate the worst effects of terrorism; most crucially now, to prevent terrorists killing and poisoning large populations with nuclear, chemical or biological agents. Deeper levels of disarmament and verified controls over these WMD-usable materials are needed more than new military hardware. In the future, the weight and sophistication of a country's armaments are likely to be one of the least relevant indicators of its ability to protect its citizens and engage effectively in building national, regional and international security. While addressing the roots and causes will not change the most fanatical minds, political action can isolate the diehards from their support communities. Most importantly, terrorism cannot be assuaged by fulfilling its objectives and resorting to paranoia, excessive secrecy, or distortion of our democratic freedoms and civil rights.

And hope - that international law and the multilateral disarmament and arms control regimes that arose out of the carnage, nationalism and miscalculation of the 20th century can provide a more equitable basis for future global security. Not because we think law and regimes suffice or work perfectly, but because their collectively responsible basis for resolving conflict can continue to be improved upon, providing fewer opportunities for abuse of leadership and power than other systems. For this reason, those who care about the United Nations should beware pinning their hopes on a further resolution that will be used to cut short the inspections and launch all-out war. The Al Qaeda-Saddam link is tenuous, at best. If the evidence and rationale are weak, but the arm-twisting vigorous, a further UN Security Council resolution would not legitimise war, but would risk delegitimising the UN.

Far from being supportive, acquiescent or ignorant of terrorism, those opposed to this frenzied push for war on Iraq recognise that it will exacerbate rather than address terrorist threats. Paradoxically, in his absolutist approach and impatience, Bush may be the terrorists' dream president; like them, he seems to regard negotiation and compromise as signifiers of weakness and force as the ultimate decider.

© 2003 The Acronym Institute.

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