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Iraq War A Replay Of History's Worst

by Jim Lobe

The Lamps Are Going Out
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- As the likelihood grows of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq by week's end, one can almost hear the doors of history creaking open, recalling James Joyce's lament that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

But what the doors will open upon remains a subject of great doubt and, except for all but a few of the most committed war hawks here, palpable anxiety.

The notion that the world will be entering a new epoch emerged quite clearly March 17 when the leaders of Britain, Spain and Portugal joined President George W. Bush in making clear that, regardless of what the United Nations Security Council does, war is definitely on its way, and very soon.

The question is, what is the new era, and are there times we can look to in the past that could help define it?

Historical references in the public debate over war in Iraq have been few, exaggerated and trite.

The most common, constantly evoked by war hawks, is the Munich analogy, a reference to the "appeasement" practiced by Britain and France which, caved in to Adolf Hitler's demands in 1938 to take over the mostly German-populated Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

As put by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust memoirist, Nobel Peace Laureate, and recent high-profile visitor to the Bush White House: "Had Europe's great powers intervened against Adolf Hitler's aggressive ambitions in 1938 instead of appeasing him in Munich, humanity would have been spared the unprecedented horrors of World War II."

"Does this apply to the present situation in Iraq?" he asked. "It does. Hussein must be stopped and disarmed," Wiesel declared, who makes it a point not to comment on Israel's actions in the occupied territories.

But the Munich analogy makes only the most superficial sense to most analysts, who insist that Saddam was effectively stopped in his tracks by the 1991 Gulf War, and a sanctions regime, now boosted by a UN inspections process, has so weakened Iraq's army that U.S. planners think they can prevail in an attack within a few weeks, if not days.

"Hitler conquered all of Europe from the Arctic to the Aegean and from the Atlantic to Stalingrad," according to Pat Buchanan, a right-wing pundit and former Vietnam hawk. "And Saddam? He invaded Kuwait, a sandbox half the size of Denmark, and got tossed out after a 100-hour ground war. His country has been over-flown 40,000 times by U.S. and British planes and he has not been able to shoot a single plane down. He has no navy, a fourth-rate air force, a shrunken, demoralized army." Buchanan has been a constant target of the pro-Likud war hawks in the administration for his criticism of Israel.

A gloomier analogy that has gained attention is July-August, 1914, the prelude to WWI. In that case, the protagonists made a series of assumptions -- among them that the balance of power in Europe would prevent war and if war broke out anyway, it would be very short -- which turned out to be catastrophically wrong.

The study by historian Barbara Tuchman, 'August 1914', described the "march of folly" by great statesmen into a war in which some 13 million men would die in battle, a war that destroyed the European aristocracy, ushered in the Russian Revolution and laid the groundwork for WWII.

As noted by 'New York Daily News' columnist Pete Hamill, even the rhetoric is familiar today. "Whoever in the case of a European war was not with me was against me," Kaiser Wilhelm II said in those perilous months when, according to Tuchman, "believing themselves superior in soul, in strength, in energy, industry and national virtue, Germans felt they deserved the dominion of Europe."

One can see similar miscalculations today. The Bush administration's certainty, for example, that if it showed determined leadership the rest of the world, including Turkey, Russia, and France, would surely fall into line, has been shown to be completely misguided.

Last week's assassination of the prime minister of Yugoslavia, recalling Austrian Archduke Ferdinand's assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 that set the dominoes tumbling toward WWI, seemed eerily coincidental.

Going back even further in time, some analysts ask whether we are facing a moment as consequential as 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending the 30 Years' War and establishing the modern nation-state system and the high-sounding principles of international law, including non-intervention, which have been more honored in the breach than the observance.

The new U.S. strategic doctrine of pre-emption and Bush's loss of patience with the Security Council in order to wage war against Iraq "pose a head-on challenge to the pluralism of the Westphalian system," says Helena Cobban, a Middle East specialist.

"He expresses a messianic conviction that he knows what's best for everyone in the world, along with an insistence that he needs no one's permission to impose it" she wrote last week - precisely the kind of thinking that fuelled the religious wars of Europe.

Indeed, some war boosters agree, arguing that the reality of the modern world and weapons of mass destruction require major changes in the international order.

"The president has to reshape fundamental attitudes toward those norms [of international order], or we are going to have our hands tied by an antiquated [international) system] that is not capable of defending us," said Richard Perle, the Pentagon's influential and hawkish Defense Policy Board chairman, recently. Perle's defense-related business dealings were the subject of a critical 'New Yorker' article by award-winner Seymour Hersh.

Which reminds some of October 1935, when Italy's invasion of Ethiopia went unopposed by the League of Nations, effectively killing that body's "relevance," as Bush might say.

But in today's case, it could be argued that Washington and London are playing the role of Italy, rather than Abyssinia.

"An announcement in advance to an international body that you will do what you want anyway was one of the ways that the belligerents undermined the authority of the League of Nations," said Australian historian Stuart MacIntyre in the London 'Guardian' recently.

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Albion Monitor March 19, 2003 (

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