Dick Cheney and the Two 21st Centuries;
On Nukes, Vice President Confuses Television with Reality
I caught a clip of Dick Cheney on Sunday saying that “in the 21st century,” the US could stay in Iraq and ensure that a stable government was established that could defend itself.
I was struck by his invocation of the 21st century, as though it were automatically on the side of the US, or more especially on the side of American hawks.
It is true that the 21st century is characterized by sophisticated American military weaponry. Although, sometimes maybe the equipment is too sophisticated by half, as with the Osprey.
But even though the 21st century allows the US to deploy enormous air craft carriers and to light up targets with a laser so that smart bombs can take them out, it is not a century that guarantees that Cheney will get his way in Iraq.
The 21st century is also the century of independence for the countries of the global south. It is the century that followed on wave after wave of decolonization, during which the French were shown not to be able to stay in Algeria, the British were kicked out of the Indian subcontinent, and the Dutch had to relinquish Indonesia.
The French conquered Algeria in 1830 after a spat set off when the local ruler or Dey slapped the French ambassador across the face with a horse fly swatter. Algeria was at the time probably only 10 percent urban, and lacked modern industry. My guess is that the literacy rate was 3 percent or so, and the literate were mainly in Algiers and Oran, the cities. The Algerians put up a years-long struggle against the French with rural, tribal and Sufi resources, but ultimately the French were able to prevail. They had more and better guns. But by 1956 urbanization had advanced, there was more wealth in the Arab economies, and networks of literacy, radios, etc., had been established. The Algerians were socially mobilized and could be politically mobilized by the FLN. The
French tried hard to put down the independence movement. There were 11 million Algerians, and something like 50 million French, and the French were willing to see nearly 1 million Algerians die in the struggle.
But in the end, the French failed. In part, this outcome derived from American pressure, since Washington was afraid that a prolonged and genocidal French counter-insurgency campaign would push the Algerians into the Communist camp. Europe is likely to return Eisenhower’s favor with regard to the US in Iraq, since the Europeans are petrified that the US will turn the Muslim world toward al-Qaeda.
So actually the late 20th century and the 21st century aren’t on the side of the US project in Iraq. Iraqis are much more socially and politically mobilized now than the Algerians were in 1960. Iraq is farther away from the US by orders of magnitude than Algeria was from France, and far less important to its public. (The French had declared Algeria to be “French soil.”)
You could instance Britain in India just as easily, or for that matter the Soviets in Afghanistan. And, the contests, while uneven, are increasingly less so. India now has a multi-billion dollar software industry. Cheney is still living in a day of the white man’s burden (you have to wonder whether the history of White/Native American relations in Wyoming shaped his views on these things.)
The Sunni Arab guerrillas in Iraq enjoy all the advantages of internal social and political mobilization– sophisticated tactics, high-powered munitions, excellent networking and communications. They benefit from a vast Sunni Arab hinterland of support that includes the oil millionnaires of the Gulf (there are a lot of them and they hate to see fellow Sunnis mistreated) and the committed young professionals of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, the Sudan, and North Africa.
Against 6 million truly mobilized people, a mere 160,000 foreign troops is unlikely to prevail. The US lacks good intelligence on the guerrillas, and there is no prospect of it getting better intelligence soon. In fact, every year more Sunni Arabs hate us than the year before.
Cheney has been watching the television show “24” too much, and says he is worried about terrorists getting a nuke. That prospect is actually very, very remote. Cheney worries about high tech terrorism because he does not understand low key social mobilization. He is worried about the wrong thing. Slum kids with RPG-29s and GPS systems are the real threat to his plans.
There are two 21st centuries, that of the Osprey on which Cheney is depending, and that of the national liberation movements. There is the 21st century of the aircraft carrier and that of the suicide bomber. There is the 21st century of the Tomahawk missile and that of the religiously inspired crowd, hundreds of thousands strong, who demonstrated at Najaf last Monday (about which everyone has already, unwisely, forgotten).
It is precisely because it is the 21st century that the US is unlikely to be able to stay in Iraq in the way Cheney imagines.
When Cheney and his pals came back into office in 2001 after Clinton defeated them in 1992, the terrorism czar Richard Clarke was amazed at how hung up they still were on Iraq and threats posed by lumbering rogue states. They had not seen the rise of al-Qaeda and discounted asymmetrical struggles. Clarke said that it was as though they had been frozen in amber since 1992.
But since Cheney & Co. don’t even so much as seem to know about how Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah kicked Britain out of India, it would be more accurate to say that they have been frozen in amber since 1945. They haven’t understood the social history of decolonization.
The Project for a New American Century was always a project for a new American empire, an empire of the old rickety nineteenth-century sort. Its time passed a long time ago. Peoples of the global south don’t have to surrender their independence to European district commissioners anymore. They have enough biopower to forestall that fate.
Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Cheney.