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

Geopolitics, the Bush Doctrine, and War on Iraq

Simon Dalby

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive Ottawa ON K1S 5B6 Canada

War on Iraq

As the bombs and cruise missiles struck Baghdad in late March 2003, many of the clichés about war seemed all too apt. Plans didn’t survive the first contact with the enemy; truth was an early, if not the first, casualty; the fog of war swirled thickly through the political statements. But as the initial hazy allusions to shock and awe as a strategy cleared, some matters stood out as in need of comment. Not least, the frequent failure to put events in their geopolitical context.

            For all the hype about shock and awe and the ability of American forces to achieve what the textbook on the subject specifies as rapid dominance, this war looked very much like a rerun of a number of 20th century military campaigns (Ullman and Wade 1996): tanks moving rapidly past cities to cut deep into opposing forces territory; bomber airplanes targeting enemy communications centres and facilities in the capital city. Shock and awe looked very much like the blitzkrieg tactics developed by the German Wehrmacht in the 1930s. The fact that it now uses American F-117 stealth fighters and Abrams tanks rather than Stuka dive-bombers and Panzers does not fundamentally change the basic mode of military operations.

            This matters, not as a matter of military history, but because the shock and awe strategy is designed to paralyze and destroy the will of a regime to fight. It is not about winning hearts and minds, or convincing a population that invading forces that bomb their towns and shell their cities are their friends. In short, this is a military technical practice that presupposes a rational foe with a centralized command and control system. It is not necessarily a politically smart strategy; coupled to an explicit statement that the regime of Saddam Hussein would go, this strategy offered no political alternative to the Iraqi leadership to do anything except fight to the bitter end. There were no promises of political accommodation after the tanks had rolled by and the cruise missiles struck their targets. This isn’t a strategy: it is about obliteration and unconditional surrender. Consequently, it is a very violent business. Fortunately, it seems many Iraqi soldiers had the good sense to abandon their equipment and leave the field, reducing the scale of the destruction and the number of immediate fatalities.

            Propaganda is part of this campaign, but this is always a dangerous matter when tempers flare and peoples are attacked. Suggestions that the Americans came as liberators are a central part of the argument from the Bush administration; obviously this was a political strategy of sorts, but one that relied on a strange assumption that Iraqi people understood the world in a similar manner to that of American political leaders. Quite why the Iraqi population would immediately welcome the Americans and British, after the havoc wreaked on their state in 1991 and a subsequent 12 years of economically damaging sanctions and repeated aerial bombardments, was not at all clear to most people who stopped to think about the politics of this war. Ethnocentrism has long bedevilled military strategy (Booth 1979); the early stages of the war suggested that once again assumptions of political rationality do not easily translate across cultural and language barriers.

            Which brings us to the heart of the matter that traditional strategists have long noted: War is, to borrow the phrase from Clausewitz, a continuation of politics by other means. But war also has its own dynamics of escalation and innovation. By its nature, war potentially spills over to engulf other peoples and places beyond those of the initial protagonists. It is why politicians who understand their craft so rarely resort to it when other options are available. It is also partly why diplomats and peace activists alike abhor its use as an instrument of policy; it is not only violent and destructive, but potentially capable of spinning out of control in a manner that renders the original objectives of the struggle moot. At least, this is a common argument about war between states and the pattern of violence that plagued Europe until the middle of the 20th century.

            In some ways, this suggestion of warfare as an extension of both Blitzkrieg tactics and the confrontation between two states captures parts of the reality of events in March and April of 2003. It is certainly the overall framing of the struggle that the special issue of Newsweek magazine suggests in its special report in its 31 March edition. Pictures of smoke over Baghdad and columns of military vehicles lined up in the desert awaiting orders to invade Iraq convey a powerful reprise of earlier campaigns between conventionally armed forces. The rhetoric of liberation also refers back to the good war of the 1940s, when American forces tackled a Nazi dictator who oppressed the peoples of Europe.

            But such analogies only hold to a point; they become vulnerable to critique when placed in the largest context of the pattern of contemporary world power. When simple questions of politics, of modes of rule and legitimate action, are juxtaposed with geographical matters of where and in what circumstances military action is occurring, the significance of what is happening in Iraq becomes the subject of more complex debate. In short, we need to attend to the problematique of geopolitics to understand the meaning of contemporary events, not just for the peoples of the Middle East, but in other parts of the world too. Clearly the military dimension of this is important, but it is not the whole story; global economic change, as well as the debates about civilizational clashes, not to mention larger social changes in many parts of the world, need to be discussed as well as the drive for military dominance that has been renewed in the aftermath of 11 September (Agnew 2003).

            What follows in the rest of this essay below offers no truth, no final correct analysis of the current predicament; it suggests only the broad contours of a more nuanced interpretation of contemporary violence. It leads clearly to a suggestion of the need to challenge militarism and empire. Above all, it suggests the importance of critical intellectual activity in the face of political power—not to speak truth to power, but as a matter of critical geopolitics (Ó Tuathail 1996; Dalby 2002), to undertake the task of understanding the truths that power uses. It implies the need for solidarity on the part of intellectuals with the peoples of the world who suffer violence and injustice, and the need for political thinking that avoids the emotionally easy satisfactions of polarized particularism in the face of aggression.


Using the geographical term “Middle East” to designate the current arena of warfare suggests the historical legacy of imperial specifications of the region. The term comes from earlier British imperial designations of the world, which have been maintained on the maps and in the geopolitical imaginations of policy makers. This legacy matters in the memories and the practices, Arab populations in the region, peoples once again under fire from British forces. But rather than engage in yet another analysis of the troubled history of Iraq since the British drew the boundaries of the modern state from the remains of the Ottoman empire 80 years ago, what the connection to the past suggests is that the pattern of imperial power here is what needs investigation. The troublesome boundaries of the region are a legacy of imperial power, but the intervention of another imperial power is central to the contemporary crisis.

            The Bush administration’s justifications for action refer to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and its refusal to comply completely with a variety of United Nations resolutions. The political rhetoric in Washington is framed in terms of the liberation of Iraq and the extirpation of weapons of mass destruction, the failure of which now, somehow, despite UN silence on such matters, requires the elimination of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party infrastructure. These so-called weapons of mass destruction were supposedly in danger of falling into the hands of international terrorists just waiting for another opportunity to attack the United States. Critics suspect more sinister motives concerning either access to oil supplies or the need to resolve a looming economic crisis in the United States by stimulating the economy through huge contracts to reconstruct a devastated Iraq. Double standards related to North Korea, which really has weapons of mass destruction, are also invoked.

            The analogies above with World War II tactics and the invasion of a sovereign state ruled by a dictator suggest a geography of autonomous autarkic states in conflict, a realist world of states struggling for dominance in a competitive world. The Bush administration’s rhetoric suggests that America is threatened, at least indirectly, by the Iraqi regime, although the precise mechanism of how this threat might actually be operationalized is imputed in a dubious logic drawn from the events of 11 September 2001, rather than actually demonstrated in any meaningful way. The obvious antipathy of Al Qaeda to the Baath regime in Baghdad is papered over with suggestions that Saddam Hussein’s support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers links him inextricably to global terrorism.

            But in the larger context of world politics a few moments reflection suggest that this is not a struggle between states that are in any way equal. The United States has a population ten times larger; its military budget is in the order of a hundred times larger. This is much more obviously a struggle between an imperial power and a client state that stepped out of line than it is between two roughly equivalent nation states, as the world war two analogy and the invocation of nationalist rhetoric in the United States suggests. But it also taking place in a crucial part of the world, one that has large supplies of petroleum, the one substance that is now absolutely essential to the operation of the global economy. Access to supplies of essential raw materials has always been a key part of the operations of empires, whether it was grain from Africa to feed Rome, rubber in the 19th century in the case of Belgium and what became the Congo, or now petroleum to supply the global system dominated by the United States.

            In short, the conflict is about both blood and oil. It is about terror in various guises and global politics; it is about states too, and peoples. It is also about a lot more than this. It is about power, but as the previous few paragraphs here have hopefully made clear, it is also very much about how the world is to be understood and represented. As in most wars it is also a struggle about meaning and legitimacy, about identity and who should be mobilized to fight for precisely what. Sacrifice and violence need justification. How the geographical framings implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the current discursive representations work as part of this struggle is a matter for geopolitical analysis and critique.

Imperialism Redux

The term empire is back in vogue. Using it to specify current events suggest that what is happening in Iraq in 2003 is part of a long-term historical pattern. Commentators note that the British forces fighting round Basra are retracing the steps of the forebears in 1914, as well as in the World War II, not to mention those who fought in 1991 in the same region. This has become a habit. The promise of liberation and the introduction of the benefits of civilization is not a new rhetorical device either. What is relatively new in historical terms is the introduction of American troops into the region. Earlier historical denunciations of the evils of empire likewise prefigured the current critiques of empire from peace activists, who protested on 15 February 2003, literally around the world, against the Bush administration’s preparations for war.

            The reintroduction of the term into political discussions in North America and Europe is a useful development (Hardt and Negri 2000; Bacevich 2002). But its uncritical deployment to denounce the actions of the Bush Administration and also the actions of Israel misses an opportunity to deepen the analysis of contemporary developments and offer a more pointed critique. What specific form of imperialism is this? And why Iraq rather than other places? What is the geopolitical understanding on the part of the intellectuals of statecraft who have shaped the Bush administration’s policies and how does it suggest it may be opposed? Above all else, this political struggle is one that has to be played out in North America, even though the direct victims of violence may be in other parts of the world, and in particular, the Arab peoples.

            Alain Joxe (2002) gets to the heart of the matter of the contemporary form of imperialism by describing the United States as presiding over an empire of disorder. This is a system of military dominance and economic power that extends around the world, but not one of direct rule and political administration. The impulse of American rulers has been to intervene militarily to support or challenge local rulers, to bolster or depose, but rarely to directly administer. In the words of George Bush in his State of the Union speech to the American Congress in January 2003, America “exercises power without conquest.” The consequences of this mode of rule are, in Joxe’s terms, disorder. Violence and incorporation within the global economic order are coupled to the refusal to conquer and administer. No wonder that American power is resented in so many parts of the world, even as the lure of the American way of life continues to draw millions towards the middle class dream of automobile-driven suburban bliss.

            The rhetoric in George Bush’s State of the Union speech also suggests that Americans sacrifice in the name of liberty on behalf of peoples in many parts of the world. While this is easy to dismiss as nonsense by those suffering directly from American military actions, it is important because of what it reveals about how the world is understood and how American exceptionalism is invoked to justify all sorts of actions. It implies very clearly that all peoples actually are like Americans, really wishing to have the political freedom to engage in becoming rich, a goal understood largely in economic terms. But in making this connection, the specific modalities of American political and military power are occluded.

            Coupled together, the assumption of power without conquest and the assumption that American interventions are always on behalf of the peoples of the world, who share American aspirations but are thwarted in these by the presence of non-democratic rulers, suggest an anti-imperial exercise of power, one in the interests not of Americans, but of the whole world. A universal anti-imperialism disguises imperial power. This is a powerful discursive construction, premised on a geopolitical representation of a world divided, one that has civilized societies at the centre, but hostile, dangerous, and unstable sources of threat elsewhere. Its messianic subtext, America the righteous will win in the end when it spreads its message and its means to all of the world’s peoples, promises more of the same in a complex world of globalization and enormous inequities. No wonder Osama Bin Laden fulminates about the evils wrought by “crusaders” on the Arab lands.

Maps of the War-Makers

Inside and outside were largely separate in the imaginative geography of Americans until the episode of 11 September when the wild zones spectacularly invaded the supposedly safe political spaces of New York and Washington (Dalby 2003). Threats from the wild periphery had come to America. The necessity of dealing with the wild zones suggested a strategy of military engagement that took the form of a “war on terror.” This war supposedly required the destruction of regimes and societies that harboured terrorists. Quite who the terrorists were remained a murky matter; Afghanistan was attacked rapidly and military action, coupled with political turmoil there, resulted in the fall of the Taliban. Subsequently, the world was warned of an axis of evil, which managed to lump North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, three very different regimes and societies into one camp. But the most obvious point here is the one that is most important: these matters are specified in a strategic register, one of violence and competition, rather than as problems in a global society that needs collective solutions.

            In early 2003 this geopolitical specification of the world into dangerous wild zones requiring military intervention was taken to its logical apotheosis by one Pentagon scholar in drawing a new map of the world in terms of surrounding the wild unstable zones and actively shrinking them. The periphery of the world economy is precisely where Thomas Barnett (2003), a professor of war analysis at the U.S. Naval War College, argues that the threats to world order are generated. As the world waited for war in Iraq in early 2003, he published an article in the popular men’s magazine Esquire suggesting that the problems of warfare and threats to the United States came from the part of the world not integrated into the arrangements of globalization. In Barnett’s terms, the non-connected “Gap” in globalization was the source of threats to the functioning “Core” of the world system.

            The regional specifications are simple but evocative: “Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder.” This is the Core. In contrast there is also a Gap: “But show me where globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and—most important—the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists” (Barnett 2003). All of which requires, so this logic goes, American intervention to change the nature of these places. Which is why Barnett thinks that war on Iraq is a good thing.

            But the geography of this specification leaves much to be desired. While it does capture some of the overall logic of contemporary global politics as a struggle over the terms of integration within the global political and economic system, it relies far too much on a simplistic division of the world into geographical categories that suggest indigenous causes in the remote periphery as the sources of all troubles, and simultaneously deny the importance of the connections between the core and periphery that are a source of at least part of contemporary violence (Kaldor 1999). The possibility that the violence and instability might be in part related to actions in the core is specified as not worthy of serious consideration. Terrorism is, according to Professor Barnett, global and incubated there without any relationship to actions here.

            But this is, at least in the case of the events of 11 September, a profound misreading of the geography of terrorist violence. As I argue elsewhere (Dalby 2003), the goals of Al Qaeda were much more obviously aimed at the American presence in “the land of the two holy places” and the support of successive American administrations for the ruling house of Saud. Whether designed to encourage the removal of American troops directly, which obviously failed, or to provoke dramatic military intervention in the region, which has finally occurred, the clear goal was not global, but very specifically related to grievances concerning both secular and sacred matters in the Arabian peninsula specifically and in the Arab world more generally.

            Reducing the globe to simplistic matters of wild zones and tame zones, or in Professor Barnett’s terminology, “core” and “gap,” facilitates the reduction of the messy complexity of geography into simple categories that can in turn facilitate technical policies and military practices designed to control the wild zones. Interventions premised on such fantasies of control are part and parcel of geopolitical thinking (Ó Tuathail 1996). Contemporary American thinking about war is all about these conceptual abstractions and the related technological specification of the world as targets, coordinates, friendly, and hostile zones. Conceptual abstraction of this sort is an inherently violent practice, but when coupled to the policy agenda of such organizations as the Project for the New American Century (Donnelly 2000), in the war atmosphere of Washington in the aftermath of 11 September, which suggested the appropriateness of attacking any and all potential foes, it takes on an especially ominous quality.

Doctrines of Pre-emption and Pre-eminence

Announced in the “National Security Strategy of the United States” in September 2002, the Bush doctrine suggests nothing less than abandoning the last half century of international law, by taking matters of global security unilaterally into the hands of the United States. While the basic assumption on which the United Nations is based, that of collective defence and war, being legal only when agreed to by the UN Security Council, has been breached frequently, the attack on Iraq and its justification in terms of the right of preventative defence or pre-emption is an especially unsettling precedent, precisely because of the nature of regime change that is promised by the Bush administration. The whole purpose of the United Nations was to delegitimize states’ taking matters into their own hands; defence is understood as legitimate—initiating aggression across international frontiers is not. This basic assumption has now been abandoned by the most powerful military state on the planet. This is an ominous precedent, and one that most of the protesters around the world objecting to this war are especially worried about. Because hanging over the matter of war in Iraq is the question of, in the words of the Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, “Who’s next?”

            This question suggests that regime change is also in danger of becoming a habit. It was supposed to be precisely what the United Nations would protect the world against. National self-determination and independence were tied to promises of non-intervention and the insistence that international actions would only be a last resort in the face of direct aggression. Whatever the Bush administration rhetoric, it is extremely hard to suggest that Iraq was a threat to any state in February 2003. But the habit of regime change seems to be catchy. Belgrade, Kabul, an apparently botched attempt in Caracas recently, and now Baghdad. The list is growing and the doctrine of pre-emption and the willingness to use force is decidedly worrisome.

On the other hand, the question of interventions is hugely complicated by the obvious need to bring assistance to some peoples in this world suffering from famines and “complex humanitarian emergencies” in various places. To protect aid workers and ensure food supplies, medicines, and other necessities get to refugees sometimes requires military intervention too. The discussion of “human security,” which also insists that states have the obligation to treat their peoples decently suggests an obligation to intervene in cases of state violence against minorities (International Commission 2001). This logic was invoked in the case of Kosovo, another war that was, by most standards, an illegal military intervention. The convention of non-intervention is breaking down in many places; the juxtaposition of this with increased movements across frontiers in diasporic populations and now the much greater willingness of the American state to use military force as tool of imperial policy, suggests that global governance is moving into a new era, where states and non-intervention are less important principles than they have been for the last few decades. Our geopolitical categories need to catch up.

            But the doctrine of pre-emption is also linked directly to the related matter of maintaining American pre-eminence in military matters. While the precise costs of the war on Iraq remain unknown, what is clear is that the United States military budget is far larger than that of any other state. Including the extra appropriations for the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq, on top of the already large U.S. military budget, suggests that the American military is now spending nearly half of all the military expenditure on earth. (But, nonetheless, it is still no more than about 3% of American GNP, a rate well below that of cold war expenditures.) This, combined with the constant technical innovation by the American forces, much of it in the form of increased accuracy and improved intelligence systems, or “force multipliers,” in the arcane jargon of strategic thinking, means that American forces now have the ability to destroy regimes in many places around the world. Pre-emption as a strategy is tied directly to this strategic pre-eminence. The capabilities make the strategy possible. But that does not mean that these weapons can be used easily in all cases; the world is a complicated place both militarily and politically.

            American public opinion tends to be very supportive of American troops once combat occurs, at least, it is in so far as a clear enemy is identified and effectively portrayed as a threat to America. Support for interventions when this is not the case is much less strong. Unilateral interventions are also not so favourably looked upon as those justified by international coalitions and the United Nations, a point that produced the farcical enumerations of states supporting the coalition by administration officials in the early days of the war on Iraq. But rallying around the flag as an act of patriotism, and the politics of silencing dissent during wartime, remain powerful. The point about political dissent is that it is most important prior to the military interventions, when it might have the political effect of preventing the outbreak of hostilities. It is much more difficult in the circumstances of warfare, when the logic of polarization feeds on the practical dangers to “our” troops. On the other hand, it also works more effectively in demanding an end to imperial actions on the part of troops who are obviously occupying foreign lands and suffering casualties as a result of their presence as unwelcome intruders on foreign soil.

            Even American military pre-eminence does not mean that destroying regimes on the other side of the world is all that easy. The two recent cases have been relatively easy. Afghanistan was easy because of the ongoing civil war there and the propensity of many warlords there for rapid shifts of allegiance. The fall of the Taliban was triggered by American military intervention and the use of airpower, in conjunction with so called “special forces.” This combination suggested a new mode of warfare and a new mode of imperial intervention, which did not require long-term military occupation. Iraq was substantially disarmed in the 1990s by sanctions and intermittent but persistent bombing raids. Its remaining military equipment was seriously outdated by the time full-scale hostilities were resumed after a 12-year hiatus. Above all, Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons. Chemical and biological agents are a problem, but difficult to use in warfare at the best of times, especially so against fast-moving ground troops, not to mention aircraft, where American power is unchallenged.

North Korean regime change would be a difficult, but far from impossible military operation for American forces, always assuming that China’s political ties to the current regime could be removed, and that the South Koreans, and possibly the Japanese, who know about the damage that nuclear weapons do to cities, could be convinced that the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and severe damage to their economies were worth the price if American forces did not manage to destroy North Korean nuclear weapons before they were used. Iran is not an easy target either, although presumably Libya and Syria would be less militarily difficult. Then Cuba, where American envoys are already causing a stir by complaining that dissidents they were meeting with have been imprisoned? Another pretext in the making, in time to ensure a Bush administration victory in Florida in 2004?

            Thinking in such ways is all about the hubris of empire, suggesting that American power is more than just that of a nation state. Clearly, there is a sense of a military capability here that allow, the remaking of the wild zones of the world, “the Gap,” in Professor Barnett’s cartography. Such fantasies of control are, however, how geopolitics as a mode of knowledge works. Knowing the world as a whole, to allow its parts to be specified and controlled from an imperial centre, is what the modern geopolitical imagination is all about (Agnew 2003).

Resources and Geopolitics

But what such geopolitical imagination and related maps don’t reveal is the importance of the flows and connections across the national frontiers that comprise the dominant entities in the modern geopolitical imagination. In particular, they do not show the patterns of resource extraction from the gap or, in particular, the flow of petroleum and other raw materials into global commerce. Violence is tied to resource wealth in many places. The recent literature on these matters refers to resource wars and the resource curse (Renner 2002). It does so because there is frequently a pattern of violence and extreme political authoritarianism in regions where there is immense wealth to be gained by the exploitation of resources. In areas without a diversified economy and in states where a major source of revenue for government comes from natural resources, there is a tendency for elites to appropriate the rent from the resource streams and for everyone else to struggle for a share of the wealth (Le Billon 2001). The political consequences are frequently violent. But in addition, the chances of economic innovation and the development of other economic activities are stunted because living off the rent is an easier strategy for those who control this wealth. There are notable exceptions to this pattern, Norway being both a democracy and an oil exporter. But in places like Nigeria oil wealth has fed a political process that is both repressive and unstable. No wonder petroleum is sometimes called the Devil’s excrement (Watts 2001).

            Part of the political difficulties in the Middle East is precisely because of the huge petroleum wealth, especially in the Gulf States and in Saudi Arabia. Iraq likewise sits on immense reserves of petroleum. The wealth and power conveyed to those who control the revenues is not exactly evenly distributed. Especially in the case of petroleum, the difficulties of the resource curse are compounded by its widespread use, literally fuelling the global economy. The dependence of much of the world on supplies from the Middle East is only likely to grow in the coming decades in the absence of serious innovations in industrialized parts of the world to reduce dependence on oil. There is little sign of such innovation in North America, at least, a point that leads Worldwatch Institute researcher Michael Renner (2003) to argue that the war in Iraq is really a war to maintain the automobile lifestyles of America and against policy innovations such as the Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto protocol, in particular. The general refusal to be bound by international law and convention is something for which the Bush administration is becoming noted.

            In this context, it is not surprising that Americans are concerned with what is happening in the Middle East. But there is more to this than simple nationalism and the intervention of foreign powers. There is also the matter of long-standing imperial support for ruling regimes, with all the political consequences this has in the region. American support for the Shah of Iran, imposed by the Americans as ruler in the 1950s, is the classic case. But the pattern works on the Arab side of the Gulf too. Victor Davis Hanson (2002) goes so far as to suggest that ruling Iraq and controlling its oil supplies would, in the medium term, allow Americans to withdraw support from the house of Saud and hence allow reform in Saudi Arabia, which would eventually dry up the financial support for Islamist political movements in many places, support which the house of Saud has paid for to deflect criticism at home. This vision of remaking the political arrangements of the Middle East has, of course, been brought into sharp focus in the aftermath of 11 September. Ironically, dramatic political change in the region is also Osama Bin Laden’s expressed wish. The parallels between the imperial visions of military historians in the United States and Al Qaeda is noteworthy, although, of course, each expects its own, very different, friends to be in control in the region when the dust settles.

Looking into the Future

In times of political violence there is a responsibility on the part of intellectuals to make sense of the crisis and critique the simplistic claims of those who rush to war. The transparently inadequate case concerning weapons of mass destruction made by the Bush and Blair governments in the lead up to the war was just that, transparently inadequate, as commentators quickly pointed out. It didn’t help university professors teaching courses that dealt with these matters that some of the documents on matters invoked by political leaders were obviously plagiarized (Lyall 2003). But apart from the incompetence, or possibly the bureaucratic infighting, that this reveals in the intelligence agencies supposedly making the case for war, it suggests clearly that this was simply a pretext for a military decision already taken as part of a larger geopolitical calculation on the part of the Bush administration.

            The policies of pre-eminence and pre-emption are the key to understanding what is going on in Iraq; they may be the key to the next few years also. But this is a foreign policy agenda that is driven by a small but influential group of intellectuals and political operators, who have used the events of 11 September to change American foreign policy and have triumphed in Washington in recent months (Lind 2003). They have done so primarily because they seized the opportunity presented by the war on terrorism to militarize other aspects of American policy. These are mostly civilians, driven by an ideological agenda to remake the world according to their own view of American prosperity. In the aftermath of 11 September the complete unwillingness of the Democratic Party to challenge the interpretation of the world as a dangerous place in need of pacifying, gave Perle, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz their chance.

All of which suggests that it is the political struggles within the United States in the coming few years that are the key to the geopolitical picture. This Bush administration may well fall, in a similar manner to that of its predecessor, in the elections in 2004, because of economic difficulties. But it is entirely possible, too, that if the American attempts to put an administration in place in Baghdad go badly wrong and American troops are dragged into ugly scenes of riot control or urban guerrilla warfare, political support for what increasingly looks like an imperial conquest might slip away quickly. It is important to remember that the easy part of the war on Iraq is nearly over. Driving tanks up the highways to Baghdad and using airpower to destroy the heavy weapons and communications infrastructure of the Iraqi military is what the American military is best equipped and trained to do. Long-term occupation, or “conquest,” in President Bush’s phrase, is much harder and not part of what America supposedly does.

But if the United States administration decides to impose its will on the population of Iraq directly in a military occupation, and in the process violates the “exercise power without conquest” theme in American policy, then matters may take on a different political hue. Political violence against civilians and the attempt to control civilian society by military means has a long and bloody history of failure (Carr 2002). If the Bush administration tries to carry out such an imperial role in the coming months and years, then political engagement among international protesters, other politicians, and those parts of the American population who are horrified by the violence and the political ineptitude of the Bush administration is a matter of importance. Such engagements are always fraught in times of war, when questioning the wisdom of policy is so easily dismissed as unpatriotic, if not much worse. Nonetheless, it is in the heart of America that this debate needs to occur; Mike Moore and Oprah Winfrey have voiced clear opposition to the war and begun to challenge the violence and fear that are such powerful political forces in America. Lewis Lapham (2003) likewise has argued forcefully against the Bush administration’s policies. They can use all the help they can get from their friends.

On the other hand, military victories do literally change the facts on the ground. A quick demolition of the Baath party apparatus and the emergence of a competent administration not requiring a lengthy American military presence in a post-war Iraq might vindicate the Bush administration’s gamble with force. It would embolden the administration for other adventures; the list of states that might potentially threaten American power, and hence be targets for pre-emption, is lengthy. The United Nations would appear even more irrelevant; international legal limitations on the use of force likewise, and the stage could be set for a series of imperial adventures based on the use of overwhelming American firepower.

War on a Small Planet

But this returns the discussion to the most basic point that has to always be remembered in discussions of global politics in the last while; the specification of the world as a dangerous place requiring warfare in response is the most important political assumption, and the one that has to be challenged directly. In present circumstances, this is not easy to do. But it is important to remember that the Al Qaeda network could have been tackled as a problem of international crime, and especially so if the international financial dealings of Bin Laden’s network, and especially the Saudi part of it, had quickly been put under scrutiny; the Baath regime in Iraq had been effectively contained and substantially disarmed. Political change there was never going to be easy, but a sustained long-term peaceful effort by the international community, and the Arab states in particular, was never given very serious consideration.

This planet is becoming a smaller and more connected place, one that badly needs to demilitarize all sorts of relationships. Above all, the easy resort to military action is a matter that needs attention in the heart of American politics. Recognition of international responsibilities is much harder than drawing maps of cores and gaps and sending in the marines. While obfuscation and the fog of war are not unexpected in the current circumstances, the argument in this short paper suggests that tackling the major dilemmas of our times is not something that is easily promoted within the conventional categories of territorial states or within a strategic register of armed rivalry between them. Protesting against the Bush administration’s foreign policy in the case of Iraq is a good first step, but more fundamentally, challenging political thinking based on the simplistic cartographies of them and us, territorial states, not to mention such categories as gaps and cores, is long overdue. We need a much more complicated series of maps of flows and interconnections, identities and places, than conventional political geography usually allows.

Focusing on the theme of empire and its contradictions is, I hope, a useful start but not an intellectual strategy that answers either all the problems of identity or violence or global political economy in general. But it does suggest both very old imperial patterns and the reinvention of the will to rule others, if not the whole world. Coupled to the rearticulation of American exceptionalism in the terms of rooting out evil and making the world safe for, well, at least American consumption—this is a strategy likely to be unwelcome in many parts of the world. But Michael Renner’s (2003) point about this being a war for a petroleum-fuelled future that is in violation of climate change limitations is also important. So, too, are plans in Washington to ignore the international criminal court. Imperial hubris tied to national exceptionalism suggests that both need to be critiqued.

What global protest movements and the long range reach of American military might both suggest clearly is that the insistence that politics is still a matter of what happens within the precise boundaries that the cartographies of sovereignty and principles of non-intervention have long used to represent the world is no longer a tenable basis on which to build either scholarly analysis or a political program. This political autism is not helpful in many ways. The task of contemporary scholars, and especially geographers, is to tackle these categories, what Michael Shapiro (1997) has termed “violent cartographies,” and show to our students and the larger public that these maps obscure the important connections that link us to fellow humans and the natural environment, across so many apparently impermeable boundaries. What happens in Washington is especially important, but this is less and less a matter of “American” politics.


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(Submitted 10 April 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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