The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

Commentary III: Learning from the War on Iraq

 John Agnew

Department of Geography, University of California, Box 951524, Los Angeles, California    9009–1524    U.S.A.

It is small comfort to those whose lives have been ended, distorted, and disrupted by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that the war might have lessons to teach about future geopolitical conflicts. Each of the commentators tends to take this tack, particularly those with greater physical and cultural distance from Iraq itself. Distance makes for less immediacy and the possibility of less emotive response. This brings me to my first point, one made indirectly by a number of authors, but most clearly by Paul Reuber. This is that we must refuse to accept the dehumanizing reifications and pernicious geopolitical abstractions that reduce large groups of people and places to “Iraq,” “the Arab world,” and “the Middle East.” It is upon this basis that the ability to wage war against entire peoples is made possible. This is not to say, as Reuben seems to suggest, that simply changing language would do the trick. It is patterns of thought and practice, with deep historic roots, that are responsible for the modern geopolitical imagination. They will not easily be undermined and challenged, when they are so institutionalized in the contemporary world. That said, and moving on from the sort of critique that Reuben provides, part of the task of political geography is to lay out what an alternative world-geographical imagination might be like (Agnew 2003).

This connects to a second point, again suggested by a number of authors but made most eloquently by Gertjan Dijkink. This is the fact that the United States is a particularly dangerous superpower or empire because both the elite and the general population tend to see a blank on the world map beyond American borders. Or, as Simon Dalby puts it, what seems to matter is related to a simple bifurcation between inside and outside the borders of the United States, and not to the particular qualities of either side or the cultural and political variance within and between. In other words, the American geopolitical imagination is a particularly threadbare one, easily filled, as in European medieval maps, with signs such as “There be monsters,” where others might see a rich tapestry of real people and places. Some of this is simple ignorance of the world because of the atrocious condition of American high school education or because of a commitment to this or that ideology (apocalyptic Christianity, microeconomics, etc.) that does not require knowledge of real places. But some is also a wilful refusal, emanating from the idea of the United States as blessed by divine grace, to entertain the idea of a world of equally valuable people and places. Walter Hixson does a masterful job, in brief compass, of showing how this arose and why it matters. Of course, this image of an empty world awaiting fulfilment from American action seems doubly problematic when the U.S. government is led by someone actually proud of his ignorance of the rest of the world (and of the United States, for that matter, except as an investment surface for him and his friends). But, it should be added, regimes in the Arab world, not least that of Saddam Hussein, have made tempting targets for U.S. politicians looking for something to “hit” after the embarrassment of 11 September 2001. It may be easier said than done, but as the Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), in exile in France, expressed it in a recent article, only if regimes come to power that respect their populations rather than exploit them will they ever manage justifiably and even successfully to resist what just happened in Iraq (Esber 2003).

A third point is how the roots of the war and its conduct have been communicated, largely of course to an American audience. After all, they are the ones who have potential votes in U.S. presidential elections. Everyone else, irrespective of the impact of decisions made by U.S. governments, must sit on the sidelines. Perhaps other parts of the world should petition for U.S. citizenship rights (Debray 2003)? Several commentators focus on media presentations of the war’s origins and coverage. To James Sidaway the advent of the Arab-language, satellite news station al-Jazeera meant that the U.S. media, particularly CNN, no longer had free rein to represent the conflict. In some places this might have mattered. But I do not think that it did in the U.S. In the U.S. media stories about the causes of the war changed almost daily in the months preceding the invasion. Some days it was about the presumed links of Iraq’s governing regime with the Al Qaeda terrorists allegedly behind the terror attacks in the U.S. of 11 September 2001. Many Americans apparently still believe that this was somehow beyond doubt, notwithstanding the fact that no one would be more pleased with the demise of Saddam Hussein and the possibility of replacing him with a radical Islamic regime than Osama bin Laden, the presumed leader of Al Qaeda. Other days it was the “weapons of mass destruction,” presumably at Saddam and his terrorist friends’ disposal. Now that these have failed to materialize, a third claim, about deposing a dictator (why this one?) and imposing “democracy,” has become the dominant refrain. Once troops were deployed, reasons became less important. Supporting the troops and what James Sidaway rightly calls the “scandalous jingoism” of the U.S. media ruled the roost. But closely following the White House line was already well established. There could be little better evidence than this of the impact of the corporate takeover and redirection of the American news business at the behest of the most “corporate-friendly” U.S. government since the 1920s. Simon Dalby emphasizes how the war was presented as a “new” kind of war, presumably with a new strategy and limited “collateral damage.” In fact, as he says, it turned out to be very much a conventional sort of war, indeed something of a World War II–style blitzkrieg, with a very high death toll of Iraqi soldiers and not a few civilians.

Many American opponents of the war argued that it was all about oil, as do several of the commentators. Not only do I think that this is mistaken factually—Iraqi oil eventually could have been brought to market profitably by U.S.-headquartered firms, without an invasion—it was also mistaken strategically. Many Americans actually thought that oil might be a good reason for going to war! So, even the war’s opponents turned out to help it along. It would have been better had they focussed rather more on the problematic “nation building” implicit in starting the war in the first place. It is the potential fallout from the war that makes for a fourth point and that could have provided a powerful standpoint for the war’s opponents. Ian Lustick argues very clearly that, from a U.S. point of view, this will turn out to have been a very stupid war. I could not agree more. Not only was it unnecessary to fulfil most of the declared goals of the war; it is daily producing circumstances in a defeated and disordered Iraq that will further fuel terrorism against the United States and Americans around the world. In seeing a parallel between the U.S. and medieval Mongol invasions of Iraq, Lustick, echoing similar comments by Yahya Farhan and Hilal Khashan, is suggesting that the self-portrait of the U.S. government as a “freedom giver” is likely increasingly to conflict with the image of conqueror adopted by large segments of public opinion in the rest of the world. As Dalby claims, with considerable justification, this image and its consequences will be compounded when the U.S. military, having had its war, walks away from the infinitely more complicated task of peacekeeping and leaves Iraq in a similar mess to that it has left in Afghanistan.

A fifth and final point: How can this disaster-in-the-making be undone? Ian Lustick and others strongly emphasize the need to re-establish a world order based on “rules.” One of these would be to outlaw the kind of preventive war the Bush administration has now adopted as the centrepiece of its international policy. Currently, the administration is modelling itself after the strike-first-ask-questions-afterwards policy of the Sharon government in Israel, rather than that of all the internationally oriented U.S. governments that have preceded it for the past 50 years or so. The question arises, which country will be next? Withdrawal of U.S. support might work in overthrowing the government of Saudi Arabia (a putative U.S. ally, but hated by the neo-conservatives who seem to be making U.S. foreign policy these days), but a much more activist stance will be required elsewhere. Simon Dalby rightly says that a return to international rule-based U.S. behaviour will happen only if there is a regime change in the U.S. He gives a brilliantly succinct overview of what this would take and the pressures against it. In the end, however, we must return to Paul Reuber’s and Gertjan Dijkink’s more general arguments. Nothing much will really change until Americans (1) learn to live with the world and (2) understand that living with the world means knowing, respecting, and valuing people and places elsewhere, even when they are different from you. Unfortunately, I cannot be optimistic that this will happen without a whole lot more suffering, including in the United States itself.


Agnew, John. 2003. Geopolitics: Re-Visioning World Politics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Debray, Régis. 2003. Letter from Xavier de C***. New Left Review 19(January/February):29–40.

Esber, Ali Ahmad Said. 2003. La condanna di noi arabi: il Potere che schiaccia l’Uomo. Il poeta siriano Adonis: “L’Iraq di Saddam violento come quello del passato. Occorre rifondare la nostra cultura per metterla al servizio della democrazia.” Corriere della Sera (Milan), 19 April: 8.

  (Submitted 19 May 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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