The prophecy of Robert Kagan is now appearing before us. Kagan set off a firestorm across Europe last summer with his essay “Power and Weakness.” The neoconservative intellectual argued that Europe and America no longer share a common worldview, casting into doubt the future of the venerable Atlantic alliance. The combined efforts of France, Germany and Belgium to deny military assistance, in the form of AWACS surveillance planes and anti-missile batteries, to NATO member Turkey as a defense against possible Iraqi aggression, have created an intractable deadlock.
We’re uncertain if these nations will eventually live up to their obligations in Turkey, but we do know that the creditability of NATO has already undergone irreparable harm. To see how this week’s events in Brussels will affect the future of conflict, let’s take a detour for a moment.
A few weeks ago, I began to wonder what motivated individuals to oppose the Persian Gulf War. I had incredibly vague memories that there were some protests in Washington challenging the Gulf War, but these seemed to fizzle out as the war progressed. In retrospect, the conflict appears unequivocally justified. Iraq had violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign state for the sole purpose of economic gain. The United States and its allies won the approval of the U.N. Security Council to repel Saddam’s forces from Kuwait.
Simultaneously, the Iraqi government represented an unrestrained form of barbarism. Witness the Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan. Human Rights Watch estimates about 100,000 Kurds were killed with weapons as gruesome as mustard gas and the nerve agent Sarin. The mastermind of the Anfal campaign, Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid better known by the charming moniker, “Chemical Ali,” said of the Kurds, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community, and those who listen to them!” Imperial ambition, war crimes and a multilateral effort to oppose Iraqi aggression means a just war, QED. But maybe I was missing something, a few details that had been lost over the course of a decade.
Looking back on the opinion pieces and arguments against war from that era, it looks as though the cognoscenti had become stuck in time for 20 years. Looking at newspaper coverage of the time, allegations of imperialism and racism were pervasive. A sense of fatigue and powerlessness marks the historical record. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote, “Increasingly it appears that there can be no military solution.” Vietnam Syndrome infected the arguments against war and prevented opinion makers from discerning the true nature of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
Surely, there would be numerous references to the Kurdish genocide in the popular media. A Lexis-Nexis search of “major papers” for both 1990 and 1991 finds just six entries with the word “Anfal.” Even more troubling – all six appeared following the conclusion of the Gulf War. A calm, objective, rational analysis of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would have demanded action against Saddam. Instead, the chattering classes were reliving the experience of Vietnam, attempting to divine the probable outcome and possible consequences based on a past conflict that had no relationship to the Gulf War.
We can see this form of behavior right now as writers struggle to find the historical analogues of the current Iraq crisis. Some thinkers get their lessons from World War II (Andrew Sullivan), some from Kosovo (the editors of The New Republic), others seek their oracle in Vietnam (Immanuel Wallerstein) and one person has even looked to the Roman invasion of Iraq in 53 B.C. as the key to predicting the result of a contemporary intervention (she seems a bit batty, however).
Returning to the original purpose of this exercise, if NATO and the U.N. Security Council fold to the advocates of unconditional peace, liberal multilateralists will have lost the pragmatic appeal of their position. The memories of this failure will set back the mission of international organizations indefinitely. Go to NATO, they said. Go to the Security Council, they said. A reasonable solution will be brokered. Now, these promises look like na