Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The limits of power (1)

14 July 2003


True power consists not in the exercise of force but in the ability to bring about the desired outcome. It is always easier to start something than to control where it goes.

Tony Blair is a powerful man. Out of his personal political determination he could send tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, sailors and airmen to attack Iraq. George Bush is even more powerful. He sent two hundred thousand. For Blair, at least, it was quite an effort. He really had to work his power in the face of concerted opposition. For Bush it was easier; more a matter of when, not if.

Power like that breeds delusions. Blair, for one, saw clearly the wickedness of the Iraqi regime. From the perspective of his admirable moral universe it seemed that only good could come from the destruction of it. Heaven knows what Bush thought, but it seems certain that both men believed that sufficient justification would flow from the fulfilment of the act. The full horror of the regime would be exposed and the Iraqi people would be expressively grateful for their deliverance from it.

Perhaps they are, the ones who are living. The dead, of course, are not grateful, but neither are they sorry. Most Iraqis are probably more relieved than grateful. Relieved that it (the war, mostly, but also the regime) is over and that they are still alive.

The difficulty for Blair and Bush is that they cannot make the Iraqi people grateful. Their strategy for the aftermath of war depends upon it but their power does not stretch that far. Bush can be forgiven. He has forgotten only the brief horror of Somalia and the extended failure of Vietnam. But the British Prime Minister has forgotten the historical legacy of the British Empire, and there is no excuse for this. In the purlieus of Downing Street that legacy is everywhere: it is hard to miss.

The empire encountered almost every sort of people and almost every sort of political arrangement. It was flexible in its approach to them, applying various administrative models from colonialism to client status to direct rule. The British were never fastidious about how they exerted their influence but they were forthright enough to ensure that they did exert it. Masterly opportunists, they were supremely successful in the exercise both of political pressure and minimum but effective force.

This impression of effortless power was at the crux of the achievement. It sustained political institutions that were completely alien to the peoples over whom they ruled. But when it came to dismantling the apparatus the illusion was, of course, short lived. Post-colonial institutions were put in place that aped those of the "mother" country, and like a stage set shaking in a wind they survived just long enough for the departing cast to make their exit with dignity. Then the sound of tearing canvas and snapping wood cut through the rumble of the rising storm.

So it is with Iraq. The British have already been there, they've installed their puppets and they've seen them fall. But because the British officer class remains a superb interpreter of the doctrine of minimum force they will, in the course of this reprise, build new relationships that are beyond the reach of their less polished U.S. counterparts. So, once again, the British government is congratulating itself on the effortless superiority of its armed personnel while forgetting how ephemeral is the influence that flows from it. No external power can control what happens when the forces leave.

The Americans believe they are being shot at by the remnants of the Ba'athist regime. It suits them to believe that, since it does not deny the logic of their project, and to some extent it is true. Sadly, it is only the beginning. The British know that the six personnel killed recently in southern Iraq died not for political reasons but because an invisible line in a delicate relationship had been carelessly crossed. So, instead of re-donning their flak jackets and their steel helmets the British officers on the ground will be going back in to rebuild that relationship and to re-establish the careful balance between tolerance and control.

As the Ba'athist influence, stronger in the U.S. area of control than the British, subsides, the residual fear of the former regime will gradual evaporate. The Americans hope that this will encourage the Iraqi population to co-operate. Those who share the U.S. vision for their country will no doubt do so, but for the majority who do not share it the removal of the Ba'athist threat will do no more than encourage them in their own variously radical but consistently anti-U.S. agendas. How the American forces react to this new development will have a big influence on the success of their mission in the medium term.

Iraq is not an ungovernable country. It is partly to the credit of the secularism and educational policies of the Ba'athists that this should be so. The house of cards that the Americans are piecing together in the form of the interim administration is not doomed to fail, necessarily, but its success depends at least upon the American agenda for Iraq not obstructing its natural evolution. That agenda is murky, but if it turns out to be narrowly self-interested it is unlikely to tolerate an Iraqi government commanding genuine popular support.

There can be only two outcomes. If Blair didn't tell Bush this then he should have done.

Either: the American display of military force continues, suffers casualties and becomes entrenched in a lengthy stalemate against mounting, disparate opposition united only in its antipathy to the allied occupation

or: the house of cards stays up long enough for the Americans and their allies to make a dignified departure. In which case what happens next may remain within American influence but is beyond American control.

It may nor be a palatable choice, but it is a choice of sorts. With a presidential election coming up one would have thought the or was preferable to the either. But whether the backroom geo-strategists of the White House will so readily abandon their ambitions is uncertain. And Mr Blair's army is tied to the tails of their coats.




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