Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Gwynne Dyer, "The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq" (2007)

Dyer has written a captivating, approachable, opinionated and authoritative discussion of how the war in Iraq came about, and how, built on a foundation of ill-thought out strategic choices, the long-term unintended and unforeseen consequences of that war might have devastating effects for US foreign policy goals.

One strength of Dyer’s approach is that he does not write in a way that depends on a deep familiarity with the historical, political, military or social conditions within which the war occurs. He certainly writes far above a “Middle Eastern conflict for Dummies” text; perhaps it might be called “Middle Eastern conflict for young diplomats”.

Key to Dyer’s analysis is consideration of three factors often touted as justifications for concern with Iraq, if not the second US war on the region. The first is the idea that Saddam Hussein was tantamount to a Middle Eastern Hitler, seeking lebensraum and riches from his immediate neightbours. Second, is the prospect of Hussein’s Iraq having capacity – if not using – weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The third is the threat radical, militant Islam, particularly Shias, was believed to posed.

As Dyer clearly lays out, it is quite likely that the initial conflict that brought the US into direct conflict with Iraq, the invasion of Kuwait, represented a fundamental breakdown in communication between two cooperating, if not allied nations. The US had supported Iraq in its decade-long war with Iran, and the record suggests that Iraq believed – such as in its discussions with Madeleine Albright – that the US was not opposed to the invasion of Kuwait. Telescoping this problem into the future, illustrated by other examples, it is easy to see how US intervention in the region has often been intended to play forces off against each other, to limit the expansion of any particular force, and particularly during the presidency of G.W. Bush, to ensure that no meaningful counter-force to US dominance could arise in areas of US-concern, if not the globe. As the need to address US debt rises, as global powers rise to counter US hegemony, and as the nature of political power changes during the 21st century, however, the US may find itself facing a region with a deeply entrenched hostility to the US, and bent on avenging a previous generation’s humiliations.

The second concern presents an interesting dilemma. As most people know now, Iraq did not possess WMDs. It is even quite likely that the US knew this going into the second war. What is not often talked about is the widespread awareness that Iraq had already used chemical and biological weapons in its 1980s war with Iran, uses that were sanctioned, if not assisted by the US. Having armed an ally, much as was done in Afghanistan with the mujahideen, the US found itself within a decade, having to fight against a country armed largely with US weaponry. The argument that has been used to sabre-rattle against Iran is very similar to that which was used to justify attacking Iraq: Iran may have nuclear weapons, or be seeking the capacity to build them. Dyer observes that the economy of the country precludes its ability to generate a meaningful nuclear development program, let alone an arsenal that could provide any kind of sensible deterrent to Israel’s overwhelming nuclear armaments. For these reasons, the proposal that Iran might develop nuclear weapons should not be taken too seriously.

Finally, with regard to the rise of a militant stream of devout Shia Muslims, Dyer suggests that the cadre of radicals is not reflective of the larger Shia sensibilities. Additionally, if there is radicalization, it is as a result of US activities, not the other way around. In this respect, the rather unreasonable US response to 9/11, parsing the events as an act of war by a nation rather than as a terrible but singular terrorist attack, has hastened the downfall of the United States as it strives to fund multiple foreign wars, fight terrorism at home and abroad, and see its economy and politics succumb to a dangerous form of singularism of goal and absolutism of control.

Perhaps the most effective and thought-provoking chapter of The Mess They Made is the one Dyer devotes to exploring the role of Israel in the Middle East. From his perspective, political division within Israel, and the competing desires to achieve peace while not yielding any territory acquired through military conquest has served to exacerbate tensions surrounding Israel’s future. Noting its substantial military buildup (Israel has more nuclear missiles than Britain, for instance, and has not been shy in suggesting that it would use them if necessary, and not just on Arab neighbours), Dyer suggests that if it seeks lasting peace, or at least hopes to indicate a willingness to bargain in good faith with its neighbours, it will need to at some point accept a two-state solution with Palestine. When considered with respect to waning US power, and growing enmity towards the US in the Middle East, and the important role the US has played in supporting Israel internationally for the last fifty years, the implications are substantial. The next generation could see growing pressure on Israel to come to the table regarding Palestine, and a growing militarism from within Israel as a response to the perceived threat of growing demands from its neighbours. This militarism might serve to be particularly dangerous in light of the significantly diminished military, particularly offensive, capacity of the country’s neighbours.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Chester Brown, "Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography" (2004)

I had high hopes for this graphic novel. Not too long ago I reviewed Chester Brown's Paying For It on this blog. I had seen his Louis Riel book many times in book stores, and been intrigued. I had browsed through it briefly. I know someone who assigned it as a text for the students taking a history course concentrating on Canadian history since 1867. It seemed to be right up my alley. I was suspicious that a graphic novel could not do Riel and the Metis conflicts with Canada justice, however. My suspicions were right.

Maybe I'm a politics and history geek. Maybe I demand too much of a graphic novel. As a particular kind of tool, for a particular kind of audience, this work may be a great 'teaser' work. The very format of the graphic novel - or perhaps this particular graphic novel - simply did not allow the ambiguity and complexity of the situation to be well communicated. Instead, it offered the kind of guilty Canadian anti-nationalism that Jack Granatstein so lamented a few years ago in Who Killed Canadian History?

Yes, this is a quick read. Yes, it's about the kind of topic that I'd be glad to see high school students reading about. Yes, it's by Chester Brown, whose Yummy Fur series I loved. No, it's not that great a book if you're interested in Canadian history and capable of reading straight prose for more than ten minutes.