The World's Other Superpower. (Articles)

By Schell, Jonathan | The Nation, April 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

The World's Other Superpower. (Articles)

Schell, Jonathan, The Nation

As the war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised a "campaign unlike any other in history." What he did not plan or expect, however, was that the peoples of earth--what some are calling "the other superpower"--would launch an opposing campaign destined to be even less like any other in history. Indeed, Rumsfeld's campaign, a military attack, was in all its essential elements as old as history. The other campaign--the one opposing the war--meanwhile, was authentically novel. In the pages that follow, The Nation gives a snapshot of it in fourteen countries. If news has anything to do with what is new, then this campaign's birth and activity are the real news. What emerges is a portrait of a world in resistance.

Although there is an abyss of difference between the means of the two campaigns, there are also a few notable similarities. Both are creatures of the Information Age, which underlies the so-called "smart" technology on display in the war as well as the Internet, which has become the peace movement's principal organizing tool. Both are global--the United States seeks to demonstrate its self-avowed aim of global military supremacy, and the peace movement is equally determined to reject this. Not only is the whole world watching, as people used to say, the whole world is defending itself. Yet both campaigns are at the same time surprisingly agile, able to change their tactics and timing in response to events. Most interesting, perhaps, both conceive of power at least as much in terms of will as of force.

The first days of the war, for example, produced a surprise when the United States, instead of immediately showering missiles and bombs on Baghdad to produce "shock and awe," as predicted, instead carried out a limited strike aimed at killing Saddam Hussein and perhaps his sons. The goal, in the hideous phrase that now trips off so many tongues, was "decapitation" of the regime. Rumsfeld made clear the larger purpose in his briefing. He entertained the hope that the regime would collapse without a fight. "We continue to feel that there's no need for a broader conflict if the Iraqi leaders act to save themselves and to prevent such further conflict," he said, and proceeded to give these leaders a set of explicit instructions, as if he were already running Iraq: Do not destroy oil wells, do not blow up bridges, etc.

The unexpected twist in strategy generated a spate of admiring commentary. National Public Radio's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Gjelten, marveled that the new Administration policy was heavily "psychological." "The clear hope here was that somehow this regime will just collapse," he commented. "Maybe the war won't even be entirely necessary." And in an article called "A War of Subtle Strategy," the military analyst William Arkin called the new way of proceeding a "thinking man's war." In truth, however, the policy was less novel than the commentators were suggesting. History is filled with episodes of great armies drawing up before the gates of cities and demanding their surrender on pain of annihilation. (In Shakespeare's Henry V, for example, Henry menaces the inhabitants of Harfleur with plunder, rape and massacre if they do not yield up their town, and they do yield.) To have one's way without a fight is indeed the dream of every empire. Such is the strategy, for that matter, every time someone points a gun at someone else and orders "Hands up!" Far from being what Arkin calls a "middle ground--militarily and politically," such a tactic brings to perfection the policy of brute force--of shock and awe. The devastation threatened is so irresistible and crushing that its mere approach is meant to make the enemy surrender out of sheer terror. It aims to crush the will before the body is crushed.

Within a few days, however, the strategy of bloodless terror seemed to be foundering, as Iraqi forces proved willing to fight, and American and British forces were lured into cities where guerrilla operations against them began. …

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