Getting used to a new world order
By M J Akbar
When end of year coincides with end of decade, the number of theme-questions for a columnist multiplies by 10. Most are as boring as an honest obituary. But one did hear an unusual question: Have you changed your mind about anything in the last 10 years?
I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent downward slither of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s for two non-sustainable reasons: Principle and self-interest. In retrospect, the second is more comprehensible than the first. As a journalist one had a vested interest in free expression, and the Soviet regime was its boring antithesis. But that is so last century. There is today a vacuum where once lay the brooding, looming Soviet shadow, a force which kept its own citizens under a form of house arrest and yet, inspired enough fear in Anglo-American hawks to restrain their imperial tendencies. Would the Bush-Blair partnership have invaded Iraq in 2003 with such impunity if Uncle Stalin, or even Cousin Brezhnev, had been living in the Kremlin?
My faith in principle was foolish. Principle is an impotent yardstick if it is used to measure Saddam Hussein but not Tony Blair. Few emperors have been as airily indifferent to their own deceptions as Blair has been on Iraq. The politician who sent Britain to war against the will of his own party, told British television some days ago that he would have invented another excuse if he had been caught out on the weapons-of-mass-destruction subterfuge. Blair now admits what we knew all along — that the Iraq war was never about its stated cause.
Coincidentally, President Obama chose to dwell on the complexities of a just war in his Nobel Peace prize speech, delivered around the time Blair was shrugging off any pretence to morality. If the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was based on a lie, were those who resisted American troops fighting a just or an unjust war? How many more nations would Bush-Blair have sought to conquer had there been no resistance in Iraq?
Obama waded into uncharted territory when he stated a proposition with the confidence of conviction: That a holy war could not be a just war. He was, of course, taking a sideswipe at jihad, understandable in the context of his need to be closer to American opinion than Muslim dogma. In the process, he slashed at Hinduism. Its two great texts, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are war epics, and a Hindu would be aghast to hear that the holy wars of Lord Rama in Lanka and Lord Krishna at Kurukshetra were unjust. The moral code of most eastern faiths is deeply ingrained into popular belief, for we remain believers. Obama will probably be surprised to learn that the iconic holy warrior in the Holy Quran is David, king of the Jewish people.
The balance of power between the principal victors of the Second World War, the alliances led by the US and the Soviet Union, has given way to an imbalance in which the space for a legitimate counterweight has been handed over to shadow armies impelled by private agendas but mobilized in the name of nationalism. Patriotism gives theocratic movements strength that they might never have achieved by a more transparent declaration of intent. This was the story in Iraq; this is the shifting narrative in Afghanistan. In Iraq, most of the insurgents have been co-opted into the system, where they bide their time, waiting for local politicians to self-destruct and American forces to leave. They will shape Iraq to their will when they get the opportunity. In Afghanistan they have history and geography on their side.
A nebulous battle zone is perfect territory for shadow-warriors like the terrorist David Coleman. We must not confuse him with cannon fodder like Kasab; he is much higher in the Lashkar-e-Taiba hierarchy. His expertise in terrorist tradecraft is evident from the confusion: Was he double-crossing the Americans or triple-crossing them? (As for India, Coleman needed only to cross a line, for which we happily provided a visa.) Coleman wore a cover, which could have been stitched from a perfect spy story: He became an informer for the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. He could now trawl, with American blessing, the drug-trade marts between Mumbai and Af-Pak. Maybe, we should call this region Maf-Pak.
In the best of all possible worlds, we would have had a quasi-Brezhnev as head of a muscular Union of Semi-Socialist Soviet Republics in which Pravda was as free as The Times of India. What we have is a single superpower, America, in offensive-defensive siege mode, focussed on its own security even if the collateral damage is visited upon an ally. That seems like a policy worth imitating.
Appeared in Times of India - December 20, 2009