Ignorant Armies: Sliding Into War in Iraq

by Gwynne Dyer
ISBN: 0771029772

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A Review of: Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq
by Alexander Craig

Publishing, like war, is a risky business. Dyer wrote this book just before the Second Gulf War began. Fortunately, he's a highly experienced journalist, and the gamble paid off. The final chapter, over a fifth of the book, "How Bad Could It Get?", is speculative, based in part on the assumption Saddam Hussein would be captured early on in the conflict. Even here, however, the reader, playing the Monday morning quarterback, can spot the shakiness of some of the US assumptions, concerning such things as surgical strikes, and clear, precise intelligence.
There are a number of strong threads in this book-for example, one dealing with Israel, "the dwarf superpower". One of the strongest is on how the US thinks, right down to the citizens of New York, where "the powerful tradition of American exceptionalism misled them into thinking that invulnerability was their birthright."
As his first chapter, "A Needless War" indicates, Dyer thought this war needn't have taken place, or that at least UN inspections should have continued first. He provides a useful taxonomy of terrorism and gives a racy summary of the historical background of earlier conflicts between the West and the Muslim world.
A Saudi poll, or "classified opinion survey" carried out by the Saudi Interior ministry in October 2002, found that "95 per cent of educated Saudis in the 28-41 age group agreed with Osama bin Laden's views on America." How does this come about? What can be done about it?
In perhaps his strongest chapter, "The Law of Mixed Motives", Dyer assesses the post-September 11 scene. He gives full marks to the US role in Afghanistan, but assails the mistaken tactics adopted after the speech using that fateful phrase "the axis of evil."
The motives, as the author says, are mixed on both sides, and his skilful dissection of recent history lets us disentangle some of the factors. History, it's been said, is a series of errors, and some of the factors in this latest series can be traced back quite clearly.
Saddam Hussein "thought he had a firm if unofficial alliance with the United States after the war with Iran, and utterly miscalculated America's response to his annexation of Kuwait in 1990 because he knew little about the world outside Iraq. In his famous conversation with US ambassador April Glaspie in the summer of 1990, Saddam thought he was getting American clearance to invade Kuwait when he spoke to her about Iraq's territorial claim to the country and she replied that the US had "no opinion." Glaspie, on the other hand, had no idea that Saddam could be so ignorant as to imagine he could get away with a straight-forward cross-border invasion. She took his remarks as being purely hypothetical, and went off on holiday. That blunder, rather than some fiendish master plan, is how he fell into the desperate situation he has been in for the past dozen years."
Overall, the author is perhaps too optimistic. He hails the role of television, and international public opinion in ending the Cold War, and giving human rights a weightier part in international affairs.
Yet as he himself quotes George Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union Address : The "course of this nation does not depend upon the decisions of others." It was, Dyer points out, "a declaration of independence from the world that drew prolonged applause from the joint houses of Congress."
In an earlier speech to West Point cadets, in June 2002, Bush stated: "The military must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world. All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price." The price Canada's new government, along with the rest of the world, has to pay is finding ways to face this new reality. The US can decide unilatarerally to intervene "without any obligation to refer to the international institutions we have spent generations to build, unless it's certain in advance they will agree to support the United States's position."
Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's, talking about American optimism and insularity, sums it up as: "We don't want to know about the past, only the future." The Iraq conflict looks likely to be with us for quite some time to come: anyone wanting to understand its past, as well as its possible future, will find Dyer's book useful.

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