A Foreign Policy of Tit-for-Tat Violence

WILLIAM PFAFF

July 01, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- Iraqis of an age to remember the 1920s will have memories to attach to the attack made last weekend by U.S. missiles on the headquarters of Iraq's principal intelligence service.

From 1920 to 1932 Iraq was a League of Nations mandate under British administration, which for practical purposes meant that it was a latter-day colony of strategic interest to the British Empire, at the time obsessed with control of the land route to India. Control of Iraq involved pacification of the Bedouin tribal nomads of the Iraqi desert, who regarded government as distant and arbitrary and were often at war with one another as well as with the government in Baghdad.

British colonial practice in the past had been to use troops to sanction rebellion against the civil administration, but Britain in the 1920s was poor and militarily overstretched. The new Royal Air Force had an economical answer, which it called ''air control.'' The RAF proposed to control the marauding Bedouin tribes from the air. A tribe that had rebelled against authority or broke the rules of tribal warfare would have its tents and camels bombed. This was expected to keep the Bedouin in order. No troops were required.

The principle was that of the gunboat ''diplomacy'' of an even earlier period. When the ''natives'' became obstreperous (this was usually in China, where the colonial powers and the U.S. enjoyed extraterritorial privileges and kept naval units) a gunboat would be sent to shoot them up. It was claimed that this was the only language they understood.

Of course, it did not really turn out that way. In the end the Western powers were ejected from Asia, and the U.S. itself went through more than a decade of lacerating debate over who ''lost'' China -- ending in the Vietnam War, meant to stop the ''loss'' of still another Asian nation. What eventually was lost in Vietnam was the American nation's domestic tranquility and moral confidence.

President Clinton is receiving the usual congratulations from the usual people for killing a certain number of individuals in central Baghdad in order to communicate to Saddam Hussein America's displeasure at his having tried to kill George Bush. He is also receiving the usual criticisms from the usual people for having caused civilian deaths (''collateral damage'' is the term or art), failing to consult the allies, jeopardizing established friendships among the Arabs or for simple bad judgment.

The Washington press, with its usual concern for appearances rather than reality, debates whether doing this made Mr. Clinton ''look'' strong or weak, enhancing his image or degrading it by making him seem willing to act militarily only when there is no chance of the victim's hitting back -- at least directly.

The affair is unfortunately familiar on all counts. By my memory, the U.S. has been doing this since the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964. I was myself, in the 1960s, tediously employed in drafting a number of speculative exercises in ''escalation theory'' and scenarios of ''tit-for-tat'' exchanges of violence with America's various enemies, each blow supposedly conveying a ''message'' to the other side, deterring him from further violence or intimidating him from carrying out some malevolent action. It all proved a waste of time.

People say that violence is the only language a man like Saddam Hussein understands. They are quite right. He understands it much better than people in Washington do. He has been on the receiving end of more violence than Bill Clinton, Anthony Lake and Warren Christopher can possibly imagine undergoing themselves. He has seen just what it can and cannot do.

Violence has killed thousands of his soldiers and impoverished his people, but it has aggrandized his personal power. It probably has had the net effect on his people of mobilizing them, solidifying their support for him as the sole visible agent of defiance of the United States.

It has deprived him of Kuwait, but Kuwait is not of personal importance to him: Power is what concerns him, and successive events in his war, over the last three years, with the United States and the U.N. coalition, have aggrandized his own power. Naturally he may end with a shot in the back, delivered by an ambitious colleague. But that will have had nothing to do with what George Bush, and now Bill Clinton, will have done to ''punish'' Iraq.

I say there is nothing surprising about the weekend raid, and the justifications and legal rationalizations that have accompanied it. This kind of thing has become the American practice. However, I would ask if this is really a practice we wish indefinitely to go on with?

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