LONDON. — There was always a danger that war in the region that was the birthplace of three monotheistic world religions would become, in one form or another, a war of religion. For all these religions are exclusivist and singularist -- each promises something special to its believers, its martyrs, its elect, its saved, that non-believers cannot attain, and each sees itself as uniquely valid.
What we see here is Western fundamentalism at its most naked.
That the West should have seen its faith in God mutate into belief in the miracles wrought by its own science and technology, and degenerate into an economistic ideology, has done nothing to weaken its universalizing mission in the world.
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq offers a peculiarly symbolic affront to the West, apart from the oil issue. For Kuwait, like the other emirates and sheikhdoms, like the city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, is one of the most dramatic embodiments on earth of Western economic magic. For it is a desert mirage made material, plugged into the human-made life-support system. Transported into some of the most inhospitable places on earth, the technosphere of hanging gardens, air-conditioned shopping malls full of the most expensive offerings that the bazaars of the West can create, the fully equipped hospitals and schools, are characteristic of societies that must buy in everything they need.
They exemplify the most extravagant dependence on the import of all commodities and services, except the holy ichor that is the life-blood of the Western economic system. They are shining monuments to the power of human beings to live independently of the resource-base of the earth; a celebration of the conquest of nature.
The fact that they can be sustained only at the expense of environmental ruin and monstrous social injustice elsewhere in the world is rigorously excluded from the accounting system that had given Kuwait the ninth-highest per-capita income in the world before it was invaded by Iraq.
Impoverishment in the South has been, and continues to be, dynamically related to the growth of the Western economies and to those new-rich entities that help to keep them going. In 1990, about $50 billion was officially transferred from poor to rich countries in terms of debt service and loan repayments. When to this is added all the wealth that does not pass through normal financial channels, such as adverse terms of trade, the brain drain, capital leakages, official and unofficial remittances of transnational corporations, economist Martin Khor of Malaysia estimates the total to be four or five times that amount.
War in West Asia is seen by the poor as a pyrotechnic display of spendthrift indifference to both human life and resources. As such, it is only a dramatic intensification of the more ''normal'' development process. It is a making visible, at an accelerated tempo, of the effects of a slower, daily wear-and-tear of the fabric of the planet. The ''environmental terrorism'' attributed to Saddam Hussein because of the oil spillage into the Gulf is viewed with skepticism by many Third World people who have seen the West wage war on their environment since the early colonial period.
By 1860, for instance, the British had already stripped the teak forests of Malabar for shipbuilding and railway construction. Since then, the story of the relationship between North and South has been one of social and environmental ruin: destruction of sustainable agriculture for cash crops, the violent raising of revenue from what were non-cash economies, replacement of food security by export-oriented plantations.
Today, the inhabitants of the last intact enclaves of the earth's resource-base -- the Yanomami in Brazil, the Lumad in the Philippines, the Penan in Sarawak -- are being destroyed. As Third World governments seek to service bottomless debts to the West (44 percent of the 1990 budget of the Philippines), they must extract more tropical hardwoods, more minerals, more fish protein, more food for European and American cattle. And those displaced must go and squat in the slums of Manila, Bombay and Sao Paulo.
The orgy of militarism, machismo and mindlessness in the Gulf causes more casualties than those killed in action: the 40,000-or-so lives extinguished daily by malnutrition and avoidable sickness. The ability of the United States to carry 500,000 troops across the world eclipses the most fabulous transportations by magic carpet of the Thousand And One Nights, and its capacity to feed them speaks eloquently of what may be accomplished when the will is present.
Not that the resources mobilized for war would otherwise have been applied to the alleviation of want. Little benefit would have accrued to those who yield their last breath within sight of global plenty, for they do so outside a market system that has no measure to record either their pitiable existence or its silent passing.