The coming war with Iraq is probably a topic that's engaging the US and the international community at large in a debate of a magnitude not witnessed since the Gulf War in 1991. What has been extremely impressive in the current debate is the ability of the US President, George Bush, to mould the domestic and international debate to his liking. Whether this is a carefully constructed strategy to talk tough so as to be able to get a compromise or a divided administration trying to put together policies at random to see what works, the end-result is that the Bush Administration has been able to get its way on most issues so far.
First, Bush scared the rest of the world into thinking that he was going to war. As a result he is likely to get a stronger inspections regime from an energized United Nations that few thought possible a few months back. And now he has obtained a powerful resolution from the US Congress that gives him extraordinary flexibility in deciding how and when to confront Iraq, even before he has faced a direct military threat.
Gradually, but steadily, he also seems to be getting support from the major powers at the UN. Both France and Russia are veering around to supporting a tough UN resolution, granting automatic approval for military action if Iraq fails to comply with a new inspections program.
But the debate still lingers on. The US haste in taking on Saddam Hussein is being questioned. "Why now?" is a question that is being repeated ad nauseum. It is being argued that by invading Iraq the US would get diverted from its primary goal of confronting and destroying Al-Qaeda. The risks of attacking Iraq and the possible nightmare scenarios, where the weapons of mass destruction are used by Iraq and Israel, are being recounted. The rise of anger and hatred against the US, which is exactly what the US should be working against, is being seen as a result of this operation.
But as has become clear in the last couple of days, the critics have lost the debate. And this is because they have been asking wrong questions. Their questions have been of a tactical nature whereas the real issue here is the US grand strategy in the post-Cold War phase. For the US, the international system has been in a flux since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With no real enemy in sight, the US foreign policy was stumbling from Bosnia to Somalia to Kosovo to Haiti. The events of September 11, 2001, however, brought this transition to an end and gave the US foreign policy a coherence it so badly desired.
The main purpose of American foreign policy was to confront an enemy, and a worthy successor to the Soviet Union finally emerged in the form of international terrorism. It is interesting to note how the war on terrorism has been used by the US to take on hostile regimes and expand its military presence around the world. The most important addition has been Iraq.
Behind the blizzard of claims and counterclaims of the last two months - about whether Iraq is violating the UN sanctions; about whether Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction; about whether America should "go-it-alone" or build an international coalition - a more important and subtler process is at work. It is to clearly define the character of American power and its proper role in the world. This has even led to the US propounding a new doctrine for the world, a doctrine that may well define the next century of global politics. And that's the Bush doctrine - First-strike war to achieve peace. Like the Monroe doctrine and the Truman doctrine of the yesteryears, this doctrine also provides the US with a grand plan for the world.
Then came the National Security Strategy of this Administration, sending perhaps the strongest signal till date since the end of the Cold War that American wants to carve out an even more ambitious role for itself in the world. It declared that the US forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.
And make no mistake, the US has already started working towards this end. It started with the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then it expanded to include countries as diverse as Philippines, Georgia and Yemen where the US military has gone ostensibly to lend support to local efforts at counterinsurgency. And now it's the turn of the Persian Gulf where the US desires to put in place a new socio-political framework, serving its interests in the region better. Iraq is only a starting point. The US is now even ready to invade and occupy Iraq so long as democracy does not take roots in the country, much like it did in Japan and Germany after the second World War. So much for an administration that came to office with a particular disdain for "nation-building."
This is a vision of great sweep and imagination, almost evangelical in its underpinnings. But for better or for worse, this is the current debate all about. It is not about Iraq or Saddam Hussein. It is not about the UN weapons inspection regime. It is not about weapons of mass destruction either. It is about America's grand strategy, about its role in world politics. And in this debate those who focus on "small" issues like Iraq are bound to lose and have, in fact, already lost. And this should be kept in mind by India as it tries to come to terms with this new debate on Iraq and should frame its response accordingly.
The writer is a Research Scholar in the Dept of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (USA).