Saturday, December 30, 2006

Book Review

Inspired by MadJenny, I've decided to review a book here from time to time, when I actually get a chance to read them (I've been pretty good of late). Given my tastes, expect a lot of:

  1. Non-fiction, especially history, politics, philosophy, religion, war and technology

  2. Graphic novels and comic collections

  3. Genre fiction, especially speculative fiction

Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq by Gwynne Dyer (2003)
Dyer wrote this book in three weeks over the period when the Bush administration was moving towards the invasion of Iraq. Dyer, a Canadian journalist based in London, specializing in international politics, is probably best known for his CBC series War and its companion book. His column is published in newspapers worldwide. I had the pleasure of seeing Dyer speak while I was an undergrad (despite being in the middle of finishing two fourth-year papers and working on very little sleep and very much espresso), on the topic of NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia and Kosovo. For the record, Dyer considered the campaign a great success, and perhaps the only time in history when a military action was won solely through air power.

Ignorant Armies of course turns out to be a fairly prophetic piece, its main weakness is that even a seasoned commentator like Dyer could not predict the incredible bungling the Bush administration and the Pentagon in this conflict. Dyer's focus is more on the effect a US invasion of Iraq would have on the global order, fearing a diminishing of international law and the legitimacy of the United Nations.

In both this and its companion work, Future Tense: The Coming World Order?, Dyer advocates on behalf of the UN. While many commentators criticize the UN for failing to save the world, Dyer maintains this was not its original purpose. In his view, the UN has succeeded in the primary goal of its founders: to prevent another war between the major world powers. While the world since 1945 has seen no end to violence, such violence has been contained to smaller-scale wars and terrorist actions, and not the total mobilization of world powers towards a war footing. The UN and the international order has done this in two ways, basically by saying: a) wherever national boundaries are drawn now is where they will stay; it is no longer legitimate for nation-states to acquire territory by force, and b) no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another. Violations of either are in theory to be punished by the UN or its Security Council. In practice, especially in the post-colonial era, this was not always upheld (a little thing called the Cold War tended to make Security Council consensus a pipe dream), but it was upheld enough that the major powers more or less followed these protocols, and the smaller powers lined up behind either the Americans or the Soviets, and for the most part, followed suit as well.

Unfortunately, the non-interference directive above means the UN has not always been successful in upholding another one of its founding principles--the universal protection of human rights. However, it has perhaps blunted such activities as compared to pre-1946. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States certainly did not eliminate racism, but it did succeed in making racism a dirty word. In the past, racist rhetoric was common, even accepted at face value. Today, being openly racist will destroy you in the public eye, and probably cost Virginia Senator George Allen reelection. No one wants to be known as a racist, even if they are one. Likewise, although genocide and ethnic cleansing still occur, they are almost universally condemned. Whether the political will exists to do anything about it, or whether the great powers consider dealing with it worth violating the other founding principle of the international equilibrium (the sovereignty of nation-states), is another matter altogether.

However, just as racist rhetoric seems to be on the rise again, so too is the kind of imperialism and eliminationism we saw in the pre-1946 world. So-called experts and political leaders now speak openly of imperialism and ethnic cleansing, and this frightens Dyer. Should the international order collapse, the great powers would fall back on alliance-systems and imperialist spheres of influence, the kind of order that resulted in the brutality of colonialism from the Renaissance up until a few decades ago, and two savagely destructive world wars.

Focused on this possible outcome, Dyer speaks less about the occupation of Iraq. (For any educated onlooker, the invasion's success was a foregone conclusion.) It's likely he (like many others) could not predict such blunders as the disbanding of the Iraqi army; trusting Iranian stooge Ahmed Chalabi; recruiting the inexperienced children of influential neoconservatives to rebuild Iraq's social institutions, despite their ignorance of the Middle East and their intent to use Iraq as a laboratory for their political agendas, regardless of the efficacy of such ideas; and ignoring the State Department's input into the project completely.

Ignorant Armies is a short and riveting read, but ultimately fell short of predicting the true outcomes of the invasion of Iraq.