Iraq isn't another Vietnam

Group about Greeks

Power and vainglory

Iraq isn't another Vietnam - it's much worse. The images of abused prisoners
demonstrate not just American depravity, says the philosopher John Gray, but
the folly of waging war as a moral crusade

19 May 2004

Misguided from the start, the war in Iraq is spiralling out of control. Any
legitimacy the occupying forces may ever have possessed has been 
destroyed, and
there are signs that Iraqi insurgents are coming together to mount a 
of resistance that could render the country ungovernable. With even more
damning images likely to find their way into the public realm in the near
future, the United States is facing an historic defeat in Iraq - a blow to
American power more damaging than it suffered in Vietnam, and far larger 
in its
global implications.

The inescapable implication of currently available evidence is that the 
use of
torture by US forces was not an aberration, but a practice sanctioned at the
highest levels. Undoubtedly there were serious breaches of discipline, 
and the
blank failure to understand that they had done anything wrong displayed 
by some
of the abusers does not speak well for the levels of training of sections of
the US military.

Abuse on the scale suggested by the Red Cross report cannot be accounted 
for by
any mere lapse in discipline or the trailer-park mentality of some American
recruits. It was inherent in the American approach to the war. American
military intervention in Iraq was based on neo-conservative fantasies 
about US
forces being greeted as liberators. In fact, as could be foreseen at the 
it has embroiled these forces in a brutal and hopeless war against the Iraqi
people. From being regarded as passive recipients of American goodwill, they
are now viewed as virtually subhuman. If, as seems clear, British forces are
innocent of anything resembling the systemic abuse that appears to have been
practised by the Americans, one reason is that they do not share these

The resistance mounted by the Iraqi insurgents can be compared to the
anti-colonial liberation struggles of the 1950s, but the closest 
parallels with
the intractable conflict now under way are found in Chechnya, which 
remains a
zone of anarchy and terror despite the ruthless deployment of Russian 
and the systematic use of torture for more than a decade. It was the 
of an intractable guerrilla conflict that led many soldiers in the 
Pentagon to
express deep reservations regarding the war. When the civilian leadership
launched the invasion of Iraq, US forces were plunged into a type of 
for which they are supremely ill equipped.

In the wake of Vietnam and Somalia, American military doctrine has been 
on "force protection" and "shock and awe". In practice, these strategies 
killing anyone who appears to pose any threat to US forces and 
overcoming the
enemy through the use of overwhelming firepower. Effective in the early 
of the war when the enemy was Saddam and his regime, they are deeply
counter-productive when, as in Iraq today, the enemy comprises much of the
population. As Douglas Hurd has observed, filling the hospitals and 
is not the best way to win hearts and minds. The effect has been to make the
conflict more savage. It is in circumstances such as these that torture 
routine. In Iraq over the past year, as in Chechnya, and before that in 
where the French fought a similar dirty war, anyone could end up a victim of

In subjecting randomly selected Iraqis to abuse, American forces are 
a well-trodden path, but the type of torture that has been practised has 
distinctive features. Unlike the Russians or the French, who inflicted 
of physical pain as well, US forces in Iraq appear to be relying mainly on
techniques that focus on the application of intense psychological 
pressure. In
order to soften up detainees they have swept up from the streets, they have
used disorientation, sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation. These 
are all
forms of abuse that would damage any human being, but leading naked 
Iraqi males
around on dog leads and covering their heads with women's underwear look 
techniques designed specifically in order to attack the prisoners' 
identity and
values. The result is that an indelible image of American depravity has been
imprinted on the entire Islamic world.

It remains unclear how these techniques came to be used in Abu Ghraib 
What is evident is that from the start of the war on terror the Bush
administration has flouted or circumvented international law on the 
of detainees. It unilaterally declared members of terrorist 
organisations to be
illegal combatants who are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva
Convention. The detainees held at Guantanamo Bay fall into this 
category, and
so apparently did the Taliban and al-Qa'ida suspects who were captured in
Afghanistan. Being beyond the reach of international law, they were 
liable to

In Iraq, the Bush administration evaded international law by a different 
They outsourced security duties at Abu Ghraib and other American detention
facilities to private contractors not covered by military law and not 
by the Geneva Convention. In effect, the Bush administration deliberately
created a lawless environment in which abuse could be practised with 

Some of the lawmakers who watched video stills of the sexual abuse of Iraqi
women by US personnel in a closed session on Capitol Hill in Washington last
week have described the behaviour they witnessed as un-American. Maybe 
so, but
it was made possible by policies emanating from the highest levels of 
leadership. The torture of Iraqis by US personnel is an application of 
the Bush
administration's strategy in the war on terror.

Tossing aside international law and the norms of civilised behaviour in this
way is self-defeating. Not so long ago, the clash of civilisations was 
just a
crass and erroneous theory, but after the recent revelations it is 
becoming a
self-fulfilling prophecy. In toppling Saddam, the Americans destroyed an
essentially Western regime, not unlike the Stalinist Soviet Union in its
militant secularism. In doing so, they empowered radical Islam as the single
most important political force in the country.

The immediate beneficiary of the torture revelations is likely to be 
Iran - a
fact that seems to have been grasped by Ahmed Chalabi (the Iraqi imigri that
the neo-conservatives believed would take the country to American-style
democracy), who appears to be forging links with the Iranian regime. At a
global level, the principal beneficiary is al-Qa'ida, which is now a more
serious threat than it has ever been.

The Bush administration's self-defeating approach to terrorism is 
of a dangerous unrealism running right through its thinking. For Paul
Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defense Secretary, and other neo-conservatives, the
solution to terrorism was to "modernise" the Middle East. For them, that 
overthrowing many, if not most, of the area's regimes and replacing them 
secular liberal democracies. They appear not to have noticed that the 
secular regimes were authoritarian states such as Syria and Iraq. In the 
East today, as in Algeria in the past, democracy means Islamist rule.

In part, the attack on Iraq was simply another exercise in the type of
neo-Wilsonian fantasy that is a recurring feature of US foreign policy, 
but it
was also an exercise in realpolitik - and a resource war. A key part of the
rationale for the invasion was to enable the US to withdraw from Saudi 
which had come to be seen as complicit with terror and inherently unstable.

If it was to pull out from Saudi Arabia, the US needed another source of 
Only Iraq has it in sufficient quantities - hence the drive for regime 
In this Dr Strangelove-like vision, once Saddam had been removed and Iraq
remodelled as a Western-style democracy, the oil would start flowing. 
The war
would be self-financing, and the world economy would move smoothly into the
sunlit uplands.

Things have not turned out quite like that. Oil prices have risen, not 
and they could easily rise further. Partly this is a result of the 
desperate security situation in Iraq. The Americans did more than overthrow
Saddam's despotic regime; they also destroyed the Iraqi state, with the 
that the country is now in a condition of semi-anarchy.

Given the ill-judged attack by US forces on the Shia holy city of Najaf 
and the
likelihood that the beheading of Nicholas Berg by Islamist militants will be
followed by more such atrocities, the level of violence in the country will
almost certainly escalate. In that case, Iraq will be the scene of a mass
exodus. International organisations and Western oil companies will leave and
any prospect of rebuilding the country will be lost. Where will that 
leave Iraq
- and its oil?

The exodus will not be confined to Iraq. Western companies are already 
Saudi Arabia, the producer of last resort in the global oil market. 
by the worsening situation in Iraq, forces linked to al-Qa'ida have 
their attacks on Saudi targets. Economists may say that the world need 
not fear
another oil shock, but they have forgotten the geo-political realities. 
oil is still hugely important, and any sign of increased instability in the
country is immediately reflected in the oil price. The impact of a major
upheaval in the kingdom would be incalculable.

The US cannot afford an ongoing war in Iraq, but the price of a quick 
exit will
be high. Even so, it looks clear that that is exactly what is about to 
After the torture revelations, "staying the course" is no longer 
feasible. This
is not because the American public has reacted with massive revulsion to
evidence of the systematic abuse of Iraqis - as has been the case in Britain
and other European countries. Rather, Iraq and its people are now viewed 
with a
mix of bafflement and hatred, and a mood of despair about the war has 
set in.
Most Americans want out - and soon. Locked in internal dispute, the 
have not so far been able to grasp the nettle. The pressure on President 
to announce that America has completed its mission with the handover of
sovereignty may well prove overwhelming.

If he decides to cut and run, Bush may yet survive the dibbcle in Iraq. 
No such
prospect beckons for Tony Blair. It was his brand of messianic 
liberalism that
dragged Britain into the war. For the Prime Minister, going to war in Iraq
offered an intoxicating feeling of rectitude combined with the 
reassuring sense
of being on the side of the big battalions. But American invincibility was a
neo-conservative myth, and the notion that Blair can survive the hideous 
that is unfolding in Iraq is as delusional as the thinking that led to 
the war
in the first place. It cannot be long before he is irresistibly prompted to
seek new avenues for his messianic ambitions.

In the US, American withdrawal will be represented as a reward for a job 
done. The rest of the world will recognise it as a humiliating defeat, 
and it
is here that the analogy of Vietnam is inadequate. The Iraq war has been 
far more quickly than that in South-east Asia, and the impact on the 
world is
potentially much greater. Whereas Vietnam had little economic significance,
Iraq is pivotal in the world economy. No dominoes fell with the fall of 
but some pretty weighty ones could be shaken as the American tanks 
rumble out
of Baghdad.

The full implications of such a blow to American power cannot be 
foreseen. One
consequence is clear enough, however. The world has seen the last of liberal
imperialism. It died on the killing fields of Iraq. It is no consolation 
to the
people of that country, but at least their sufferings have demonstrated the
cruel folly of waging war in order to fight a liberal crusade.

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE. His book 'Al 
Qaeda and
What it Means to be Modern' is published in paperback by Faber & Faber 
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