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Jonathan Schell's most recent book, THE UNCONQUERABLE WORLD, showed how a series of people's movements, most of them mostly nonviolent, have during the past century toppled governments or social systems thought to be all-powerful — especially in military might. In this article he looks at the latest attempt at creating such an all-powerful system — the Bush Administration's effort to create a global US empire — and assesses its errors and failures.

The Empire Backfire

[from the March 29, 2004 issue of The Nation]

The first anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq

has arrived. By now, we were told by the Bush

Administration before the war, the flower-throwing

celebrations of our troops' arrival would have long

ended; their numbers would have been reduced to the low

tens of thousands, if not to zero; Iraq's large store

of weapons of mass destruction would have been found

and dismantled; the institutions of democracy would be

flourishing; Kurd and Shiite and Sunni would be working

happily together in a federal system; the economy, now

privatized, would be taking off; other peoples of the

Middle East, thrilled and awed, so to speak, by the

beautiful scenes in Iraq, would be dismantling their

own tyrannical regimes.

Instead, 549 American soldier

and uncounted thousands of Iraqis, military and

civilian, have died; some $125 billion has been

expended; no weapons of mass destruction have been

found; the economy is a disaster; electricity and water

are sometime things; America's former well-wishers, the

Shiites, are impatient with the occupation; terrorist

bombs are taking a heavy toll; and Iraq as a whole, far

from being a model for anything, is a cautionary lesson

in the folly of imperial rule in the twenty-first


And yet all this is only part of the cost of

the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. To weigh the

full cost, one must look not just at the war itself but

away from it, at the progress of the larger policy it

served, at things that have been done elsewhere—some

far from Iraq or deep in the past—and, perhaps above

all, at things that have been left undone.

Nuclear Fingerprint

While American troops were dying in Baghdad and Falluja

and Samarra, Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan

businessman, was busy making centrifuge parts in

Malaysia and selling them to Libya and Iran and

possibly other countries. The centrifuges are used for

producing bomb-grade uranium.

Tahir's project was part

of a network set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father"

of the Pakistani atomic bomb. This particular father

stole most of the makings of his nuclear offspring from

companies in Europe, where he worked during the 1980s.

In the 1990s, the thief became a middleman—a

fence—immensely enriching himself in the process.

In fairness to Khan, we should add that almost everyone

who has been involved in developing atomic bombs since

1945 has been either a thief or a borrower. Stalin

purloined a bomb design from the United States,

courtesy of the German scientist Klaus Fuchs, who

worked on the Manhattan Project. China got help from

Russia until the Sino-Soviet split put an end to it.

Pakistan got secret help from China in the early 1970s.

And now it turns out that Khan, among many, many other

Pakistanis, almost certainly including the highest

members of the government, has been helping Libya,

Iran, North Korea and probably others obtain the bomb.

That's apparently how Chinese designs—some still in

Chinese—were found in Libya when its quixotic leader,

Muammar Qaddafi, recently agreed to surrender hi

country's nuclear program to the International Atomic

Energy Agency (IAEA). The rest of the designs were in


Were Klaus Fuchs's fingerprints on them? Only

figuratively, because they were "copies of copies of

copies," an official said. But such is the nature of

proliferation. It is mainly a transfer of information

from one mind to another. Copying is all there is to

it. Sometimes, a bit of hardware needs to be

transferred, which is where Tahir came in. Indeed, at

least seven countries are already known to have been

involved in the Pakistani effort, which Mohamed

ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, called a "Wal-Mart" of

nuclear technology and an American official called

"one-stop shopping" for nuclear weapons.

Khan even printed a brochure with his picture on it listing all

the components of nuclear weapons that bomb-hungry

customers could buy from him. "What Pakistan has done,"

the expert on nuclear proliferation George Perkovich,

of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ha

rightly said, "is the most threatening activity of

proliferation in history. It's impossible to overstate

how damaging this is."

Another word for this process of copying would be

globalization. Proliferation is merely globalization of

weapons of mass destruction. The kinship of the two i

illustrated by other details of Tahir's story. The Sri

Lankan first wanted to build his centrifuges in Turkey,

but then decided that Malaysia had certain advantages.

It had recently been seeking to make itself into a

convenient place for Muslims from all over the world to

do high-tech business. Controls were lax, as befits an

export platform. "It's easy, quick, efficient. Do your

business and disappear fast, in and out," Karim Raslan,

a Malaysian columnist and social commentator, recently

told Alan Sipress of the Washington Post.

Probably that was why extreme Islamist organizations, including Al

Qaeda operatives, had often chosen to meet there.

Global terrorism is a kind of globalization, too. The

linkup of such terrorism and the world market for

nuclear weapons is a specter that haunts the world of

the twenty-first century.

The War and Its Aim

But aren't we supposed to be talking about the Iraq war

on this anniversary of its launch? We are, but war

have aims, and the declared aim of this one was to stop

the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In

his State of the Union address in January 2002, the

President articulated the threat he would soon carry

out in Iraq: "The United States of America will not

permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten

us with the world's most destructive weapons." Later,

he said we didn't want the next warning to be "a

mushroom cloud." Indeed, in testimony before the Senate

Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin

Powell explicitly ruled out every other justification

for the war. Asked about the other reasons, he said,

"The President has not linked authority to go to war to

any of those elements." When Senator John Kerry

explained his vote for the resolution authorizing the

war, he cited the Powell testimony. Thus not only Bush

but also the man likely to be his Democratic challenger

in this year's election justified war solely in the

name of nonproliferation.

Proliferation, however, is not, as the President seemed

to think, just a rogue state or two seeking weapons of

mass destruction; it is the entire half-century-long

process of globalization that stretches from Klau

Fuchs's espionage to Tahir's nuclear arms bazaar and


The war was a failure in its own terms because

weapons of mass destruction were absent in Iraq; the

war policy failed because they were present and

spreading in Pakistan. For Bush's warning of a mushroom

cloud over an American city, though false with respect

to Iraq, was indisputably well-founded in regard to

Pakistan's nuclear one-stop-shopping: The next warning

stemming from this kind of failure could indeed be a

mushroom cloud.

The questions that now cry out to be answered are, Why

did the United States, standing in the midst of the

Pakistani nuclear Wal-Mart, its shelves groaning with,

among other things, centrifuge parts, uranium

hexafluoride (supplied, we now know, to Libya) and

helpful bomb-assembly manuals in a variety of

languages, rush out of the premises to vainly ransack

the empty warehouse of Iraq? What sort of

nonproliferation policy could lead to actions like

these? How did the Bush Administration, in the name of

protecting the country from nuclear danger, wind up

leaving it wide open to nuclear danger?

In answering these questions, it would be reassuring,

in a way, to report that the basic facts were

discovered only after the war, but the truth i

otherwise. In the case of Iraq, it's now abundantly

clear that some combination of deception,

self-deception and outright fraud (the exact

proportions of each are still under investigation) led

to the manufacture of a gross and avoidable falsehood.

In the months before the war, most of the government

of the world strenuously urged the United States not to

go to war on the basis of the flimsy and unconvincing

evidence it was offering. In the case of Pakistan, the

question of how much the Administration knew before the

war has scarcely been asked, yet we know that the most

serious breach—the proliferation to North Korea—wa

reported and publicized before the war.

It's important to recall the chronology of the Korean

aspect of Pakistan's proliferation. In January 2003

Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that Pakistan

had given North Korea extensive help with its nuclear

program, including its launch of a uranium enrichment

process. In return, North Korea was sending guided

missiles to Pakistan. In June 2002, Hersh revealed, the

CIA had sent the White House a report on these

developments. On October 4, 2002, Assistant Secretary

of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly

confronted the North Koreans with the CIA information,

and, according to Kelly, North Korea's First Vice

Foreign Minister, Kang Suk Ju, startled him by

responding, "Of course we have a nuclear program."

(Since then, the North Koreans have unconvincingly

denied the existence of the uranium enrichment


Bush of course had already named the Pyongyang

government as a member of the "axis of evil." It had

long been the policy of the United States that

nuclearization of North Korea was intolerable. However,

the Administration said nothing of the North Korean

events to the Congress or the public. North Korea,

which now had openly embarked on nuclear armament, and

was even threatening to use nuclear weapons, was more

dangerous than Saddam's Iraq.

Why tackle the lesser problem in Iraq, the members of Congress would have had

to ask themselves, while ignoring the greater in North

Korea? On October 10, a week after the Kelly visit, the

House of Representatives passed the Iraq resolution,

and the next day the Senate followed suit. Only five

days later, on October 16, did Bush's National Security

Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, reveal what was happening in

North Korea.

In short, from June 2002, when the CIA delivered it

report to the White House, until October 16—the period

in which the nation's decision to go to war in Iraq wa

made—the Administration knowingly withheld the new

about North Korea and its Pakistan connection from the

public. Even after the vote, Secretary of State Colin

Powell strangely insisted that the North Korean

situation was "not a crisis" but only "a difficulty."

Nevertheless, he extracted a pledge from Pakistan'

president, Pervez Musharraf, that the nuclear

technology shipments to North Korea would stop. (They

did not.) In March, information was circulating that

both Pakistan and North Korea were helping Iran to

develop atomic weapons. (The North Korean and Iranian

crises are of course still brewing.)

In sum, the glaring contradiction between the policy of

"regime change" for already disarmed Iraq and

regime-support for proliferating Pakistan was not a

postwar discovery; it was fully visible before the war.

The Nation enjoys no access to intelligence files, yet

in an article arguing the case against the war, thi

author was able to comment that an "objective ranking

of nuclear proliferators in order of menace" would put

"Pakistan first," North Korea second, Iran third and

Iraq only fourth—and to note the curiosity that "the

Bush Administration ranks them, of course, in exactly

the reverse order, placing Iraq, which it plans to

attack, first, and Pakistan, which it befriends and

coddles, nowhere on the list."

Was nonproliferation,

then, as irrelevant to the Administration's aims in

Iraq as catching terrorists? Or was protecting the

nation and the world against weapons of ma

destruction merely deployed as a smokescreen to conceal

other purposes? And if so, what were they?

A New Leviathan

The answers seem to lie in the larger architecture of

the Bush foreign policy, or Bush Doctrine. Its aim,

which many have properly called imperial, is to

establish lasting American hegemony over the entire

globe, and its ultimate means is to overthrow regime

of which the United States disapproves, pre-emptively

if necessary. The Bush Doctrine indeed represents more

than a revolution in American policy; if successful, it

would amount to an overturn of the existing

international order.

In the new, imperial order, the

United States would be first among nations, and force

would be first among its means of domination. Other,

weaker nations would be invited to take their place in

shifting coalitions to support goals of America'

choosing. The United States would be so strong, the

President has suggested, that other countries would

simply drop out of the business of military

competition, "thereby making the destabilizing arm

races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalrie

to trade and other pursuits of peace." Much as, in the

early modern period, when nation-states were being

born, absolutist kings, the masters of overwhelming

military force within their countries, in effect said,

"There is now a new thing called a nation; a nation

must be orderly; we kings, we sovereigns, will assert a

monopoly over the use of force, and thus supply that

order," so now the United States seemed to be saying,

"There now is a thing called globalization; the global

sphere must be orderly; we, the sole superpower, will

monopolize force throughout the globe, and thus supply

international order."

And so, even as the Bush Administration proclaimed US

military superiority, it pulled the country out of the

world's major peaceful initiatives to deal with global

problems—withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol to check

global warming and from the International Criminal

Court, and sabotaging a protocol that would have given

teeth to the biological weapons convention. When the UN

Security Council would not agree to American decision

on war and peace, it became "irrelevant"; when NATO

allies balked, they became "old Europe." Admittedly,

these existing international treaties and institution

were not a full-fledged cooperative system; rather,

they were promising foundations for such a system. In

any case, the Administration wanted none of it.

Richard Perle, who until recently served on the

Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, seemed to speak for

the Administration in an article he wrote for the

Guardian the day after the Iraq war was launched. He

wrote, "The chatterbox on the Hudson [sic] will

continue to bleat. What will die is the fantasy of the

UN as the foundation of a new world order. As we sift

the debris, it will be important to preserve, the

better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the

liberal conceit of safety through international law

administered by international institutions."

In this larger plan to establish American hegemony, the

Iraq war had an indispensable role. If the world was to

be orderly, then proliferation must be stopped; if

force was the solution to proliferation, then

pre-emption was necessary (to avoid that mushroom

cloud); if pre-emption was necessary, then regime

change was necessary (so the offending government could

never build the banned weapons again); and if all thi

was necessary, then Iraq was the one country in the

world where it all could be demonstrated.

Neither North Korea nor Iran offered an opportunity to teach these

lessons—the first because it was capable of responding

with a major war, even nuclear war, and the second

because even the Administration could see that US

invasion would be met with fierce popular resistance.

It's thus no accident that the peril of weapons of ma

destruction was the sole justification in the two legal

documents by which the Administration sought to

legitimize the war—HJ Resolution 114 and Security

Council Resolution 1441.

Nor is it an accident that the

proliferation threat played the same role in the

domestic political campaign for the war—by forging the

supposed link between the "war on terror" and nuclear

danger. In short, absent the new idea that

proliferation was best stopped by pre-emptive use of

force, the new American empire would have been

unsaleable, to the American people or to Congress. Iraq

was the foundation stone of the bid for global empire.

The reliance on force over cooperation that was writ

large in the imperial plan was also writ small in the

occupation of Iraq. How else to understand the

astonishing failure to make any preparation for the

political, military, policing and even technical

challenges that would face American forces? If a

problem, large or small, had no military solution, thi

Administration seemed incapable of even seeing it. The

United States was as blind to the politics of Iraq a

it was to the politics of the world.

Thus we don't have to suppose that Bush officials were

indifferent to the spectacular dangers that Khan'

network posed to the safety of the United States and

the world or that the Iraqi resistance would pose to

American forces. We only have to suppose that they were

simply unable to recognize facts they had failed to

acknowledge in their overarching vision of a new

imperial order. In both cases, ideology trumped


The same pattern is manifest on an even larger scale.

Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some

willingly and some not, on an arduous, wrenching,

perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of

learning how to live as one indivisibly connected

species on our one small, endangered planet. Seen in a

certain light, the Administration's imperial bid, if

successful, would amount to a kind of planetary coup

d'etat, in which the world's dominant power take

charge of this process by virtue of its almost

freakishly superior military strength.

Seen in another, less dramatic light, the American imperial solution ha

interposed a huge, unnecessary roadblock between the

world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent task

that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge:

saving the planet from overheating; inventing a humane,

just, orderly, democratic, accountable global economy;

redressing mounting global inequality and poverty;

responding to human rights emergencies, including

genocide; and, of course, stopping proliferation a

well as rolling back the existing arsenals of nuclear

arms. None of these exigencies can be met as long a

the world and its greatest power are engaged in a

wrestling match over how to proceed.

Does the world want to indict and prosecute crime

against humanity? First, it must decide whether the

International Criminal Court will do the job or entrust

it to unprosecutable American forces. Do we want to

reverse global warming and head off the extinction of

the one-third of the world's species that, according to

a report published in Nature magazine, are at risk in

the next fifty years? First, the world's largest

polluter has to be drawn into the global talks. Do we

want to save the world from weapons of ma

destruction? First, we have to decide whether we want

to do it together peacefully or permit the world's only

superpower to attempt it by force of arms.

No wonder, then, that the Administration, as reported

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in these pages, has mounted an

assault on the scientific findings that confirm these

dangers to the world [see "The Junk Science of George

W. Bush," March 8]. The United States' destructive

hyperactivity in Iraq cannot be disentangled from it

neglect of global warming. Here, too, ideology is the

enemy of fact, and empire is the nemesis of progress.

If the engine of a train suddenly goes off the rails, a

wreck ensues. Such is the war in Iraq, now one year

old. At the same time, the train's journey forward i

canceled. Such is the current paralysis of the

international community. Only when the engine is back

on the tracks and starts in the right direction can

either disaster be overcome. Only then will everyone be

able to even begin the return to the world's unfinished