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By What Authority?
The American Empire and the Future of Peace




Chaiwat Satha-Anan

Director of Peace Information Center, Foundation for Democracy and Development Studies
Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University

TFF associate


March 24, 2003


The war against Iraq has already begun after passing the deadline given by the President of the American empire. Some three hundred thousand men and women, using the most advanced weapons in the history of war, are attacking Iraq, another country, aiming to change its political leaders and regime. In the past few nights, thousands of missiles set Baghdad alighted, sending "shock and awe" to the regime waiting to be "decapitated" by the sword of the empire. At the time of this writing, the US-led ground forces continue their activities, some at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers from Ancient Baghdad. According to figures given by both sides, the number of lives lost from the attack have been strikingly low as a result of the advanced technology of killings used. It goes without saying, however, to assume that as war continues, number of civilian casualties will rise. Saddam Hussein crimes for this "punishment" include being a violator of international order, alleged possessor of weapons of mass destruction, liar to the world about the secrets of these weapons, and being a cruel tyrant who puts his own people to immense sufferings.

The issues that occupy the minds of many include not who will "win" this war, since this is almost a certainty, but how long will this war last? In what ways are this war fought? What latest technology are used and with what devastating results? Others worry about the effects of this war on "us", especially "our economy ". Policy makers are wondering how their countries should behave under the circumstances? Those with a little longer perspective, or perhaps left with no other choices, begin to ask questions about the reconstruction of Iraq and their roles in it.

This article seeks to explore into the future(s) of peace after this war ends by first understanding the changing nature of the US and the long-term consequences of Bush's war against Iraq. Then conditions necessary for the future of peace at this moment in history will be advanced.

The American Empire

The attack on Iraq in 1991 led by President Bush- the father, was important because it represented the US as the only power capable of managing international justice, not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right. Now in March, 2003, President Bush- the son, argues that in addition to assure the country's national security, the war to disarm and dethrone Saddam Hussein is necessary at this moment precisely to "enforce the just demands of the world" in pursuit of "the security of the world". Writing in December 2002, Brian Urquhart , former under-secretary of the United Nations, pointed out that even if the war against Iraq is successful, its immediate political consequences could still be disastrous. Among other things, it might distract the international effort in a war against terrorism at a dangerous moment. In the confusion of battlefield, chemical and biological weapons, believed to exist, may easily fall into the hands of terrorists. It might well destabilize weaker governments especially in the Middle East, and create dissension between the people and their governments, which would in turn strengthen extremists' politics. It would certainly provide a new generation of recruits for some terrorist organizations.

These latter points are shared by the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. In Berlin on February 22, 2003, he raised the question if military attack on Iraq would strengthen or undermine international terrorism? That the threat of terrorism will be strengthened as a result of this war is confirmed by none other than President Bush in his ultimatum given before the world on March 18, where he acknowledged that in connection to this war, such a threat to America and the world, is possible, though not inevitable. Yet, he was certain that these "enemies…would fail." Morale boosting at a time of war aside, it is important to understand how it is possible for the US President to make such a claim with that kind of certainty.

During the last century and especially after the end of cold war, the US has been increasingly expected to assume the central role in the emerging new world order by serving international organizations, including the UN, international monetary and humanitarian organizations, in pursuit of public good. The US was called in to intervene militarily in regional conflicts from Haiti to the Persian Gulf, from Somalia to Bosnia. In other words, the American "empire", as the embodiment of universal values in pursuit of global right, has come into existence by the world context that has continuously called it into services through time. Under the present circumstances, where the exercise of its almost limitless power has been made possible by technological supremacy, combined with a close to religious self understanding that it is in possession of "ideas that conquered the world", namely: a particular kind of peace, democracy and Freedom-especially free market, the US has developed and committed to a sense of mission to advance human liberty which, according to Bush- the son, "is felt in every life and every land". It therefore went into this war against Iraq believing that the times of containment and deterrence were over and the only option left is to quickly "decapitate the regime" without listening to dissenting voices, not in the UN nor elsewhere in the world.

If this is indeed the case, the continuing perception of the US as the most powerful country on earth, in terms of its military might and economic supremacy pursuing "national interest", may be conceptually inadequate. Perhaps, an alternative would be to conceptualize the US in the process of metamorphosis from a country into an empire. In Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explained that this concept is characterized by a lack of boundaries which posits a regime that effectively encompasses the spatial totality. The empire rules over the entire "civilized" world without temporal limit as a result of its sacred understanding as having reached its "end point". Its rules operate and penetrate all dimensions of the social world through economic and cultural practices so extensive that there are those under its rule who yearn to be its subjects. Empire also claims to dedicate itself to a perpetual and universal peace outside of history. In contrast to a country, it has a sense of mission which is beyond national interest, but carried out, in many instances almost religiously, in the name of universal values aiming to benefit all human beings in the world.

President Bush ' s decision to go to war against Iraq has generated so much outrage in the Muslim world. After the first day of attack against Iraq, the headline in the popular Malay-language Utusan Malaysia reads: "America fights Islam". Pakistan's Nawa-I-Waqt, the second-largest Urdu daily, said, " America has sown the seed of discord among the Islamic Ummah (community of believers)". An Imam at Jakarta's Al-Azhar mosque told his congregation this Friday that "a superpower (the US) is attacking a weak country. These people will not stop waging war against Islam." An Imam at a local mosque in Bangkok, which I attended, offered his du'a (supplication) after the Friday prayer for the victory of the Iraqi mujahideen (fighters in the cause of religion). Despite vehement denial by US officials, most recently by the US secretary of Defense, that this is not a war against any people or religion, it could very well be seen as dangerously giving substance to the prevailing myth in the Muslim world that this is a war against Islam. In this sense, these headlines and remarks reflect a common perception among Muslims that "we" are abused by the mighty empire engaging in a profoundly unjust and unauthorized war.

President Bush, however, points out in his March 18 speech, that the US and its allies "are authorized to use force" in attacking Iraq under UN Security Resolutions 678 and 687 issued in the early 1990s. That the US chose to enforce it is "not a question of authority" but "a question of will."

It is important to note, however, that the question "by what authority?", asked by many, goes beyond the legality of UN resolutions because the question itself is religious. According to The Bible, when Jesus was walking in the temple in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him with the question: "What authority have you for acting like this?" Jesus replied with a question: "John's baptism, what was its origin, heavenly or human?"(Mark XI: 27-30; Luke XX: 2; Matthew XXI: 23)

This war has been opposed even before it started by so many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as evident from all kinds of peace protests around the world because it is overwhelmingly believed to be unjust. It is unjust because of at least two conditions: it fails to convince people that it is necessary; and the US empire decided to drag the world to war by itself without the UN Security Council. A question of legitimacy posed in religious terms might be: by what authority have the empire in seeking to reinvent the nations of the world in its own image?

Functioning as an empire, believing in its unmatched might and "eternal" value of freedom, and seeking to reinvent the nations of the world in its own image, the US is charting a new course in world affairs because it has produced a de-civilizing process of the international system. First, this war has seriously weakened the UN system so much so that there are people in the streets who begin to question the benefit of its continued existence. Second, it has upset an accepted international norm of positioning the use of force as the last resort. Third, when President Bush-the son, said on March 18 that the US was acting now because "the risks of inaction would be far greater" since "the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over" in one or five years, it was setting a precedent, not only that "might is right" but also that "might used as pre-emptive measures is right."

There were 111 armed-conflicts in 74 locations around the world from 1989-2000. Some analysts suggest that from 1989-1997, Asia-Pacific could be seen as the area with "the largest number of major armed conflicts than any other region". Since an empire also rules by setting rules in cultural practices, imagine now the world where the UN has little or no role left in coping with deadly conflicts; where conflicting countries are relying more on violence and war since "the last resort" can be reached quickly; and where the speculations of the other's motivation is sufficient to justify "our side's use of force" in cases plagued with histories of long-standing conflicts.

What then could be the future of peace?

The Future of Peace

There are two conditions conducive to the future(s) of peace in this world at this moment in history: avoiding despair and refusing hatred. Working towards the first condition, the legitimacy of the UN needs to be strengthened while providing space for peaceful protests against the war. The world still needs space for states to engage in dialogues and setting rules that would constitute a civilizing process of international order not unlike the historical establishment of the universal declaration of human rights. Choosing sides for governments cannot but take the problem of UN's legitimacy into serious considerations. Common people, regardless of their religious beliefs, also need to engage in politics by ways of voicing their disagreements. Giving space for dissension in their own societies would render them out of despair. When facing an emerging empire, both of these spaces are crucial to bring the world out of the state of despair characterized by a sense of powerlessness, which breeds violence in all shapes and forms including terrorism.

Deceptions and demonization of the others are war's close siblings. Both effectively generate hatred of the others. In refusing hatred, I can't help but think of a little known American woman, Rachel Corrie.

Rachel is a 23-year old woman from the town of Olympia in Washington. Her parents, Craig and Cindy, wrote later that Rachel was raised to appreciate the beauty of global community and that she was filled with love and a sense of duty to her everyone wherever he/she lives. As a member of the Grassroots International Presence for the Protection of Palestine, she went to Southern Gaza to do her work of protecting others with nonviolence. On March 16, 2003, she tried to prevent the Israeli army from destroying the homes of Palestinians in Rafah refugee camp by laying down in front of the vehicle to block its path. She was killed when one of the bulldozers piled sand on her body. Cindy and Craig Corrie wrote that they were proud their daughter was able to live her convictions of giving her life trying to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

On March 17, the refugee camp in Southern Gaza saw an American flag. Often burned as a sign of protest, this time some 1,000 Palestinians marched through the refugee camp, holding a stretcher draped with an American flag as a sign of mourning. A Palestinian farmer said: "We fly a US flag today to show our support to all American peace lovers, those like Rachel." That day, the line dividing people into piles to be convenient objects of hatred was gone. Rachel Corrie has done a great deal to fight hatred with her courage. She paid for it with her own life. Her story needs to be told and retold of an American, and there are others, who give their lives for peace without harming nor hating others.

Between the conducts of taking lives by an empire and giving life by this young woman, which of these two Americans' actions could better bring the world and American society a sustainable security and long-lasting peace?



© TFF & the author 2003  


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