India File: The vengeance of the powerless

By MANI SHANKAR AIYAR  |  March 23, 2003 at 9:23 AM
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AGARTALA, India, March 23 (UPI) -- And so, at the end of the day, we of the lesser breed count for nothing. Washington decides who lives, who dies. If we shut our mouths and follow the leader, we live. If we do not, we might still live, but on sufferance. Thus is the arrogance of power consummated. How are those of us less endowed than the world's sole superpower to cope with this superpower's new world order?

One option is acquiescence. Better to live on our knees than die on our feet. Better to be co-opted into the corridors of power than feebly protest on the margin. Crumbs off the plate are better than being kept off the high table. Best to accept that we have neither the military might nor the economic power nor the political clout to stand up for ourselves. Better still to hope that loyalty will find its reward in the bone thrown to the dog.

All through history there have been leaders and people overawed by power. But if that is all there is to history, history would have ended long ago.

I recall a conversation with a British diplomatic colleague in war-ravaged Hanoi in November 1968. He picked up the saucer of the coffee cup he had been sipping and said to me earnestly, "A U-2 flying 60,000 feet above sea-level can cross all of Vietnam in 10 minutes and take a photograph from that height which would show up the pattern on this saucer as clearly as your naked eye sees it. How can these guys on bicycles," he added, pointing to the street outside, "hope to match such power?"

But the street outside was where the Ho Chi Minh trails began. We would see the guys on bicycles leaving home and family every day, their arms and gear strung along their bicycle handlebars. And it was they who won. They won because, as Mary McCarthy underlined in her immortal anti-war polemic, "Vietnam," "Charlie can say Yankee go home, but we cannot say, Charlie go home. Because Charlie is already home."

I do not believe the Bush fire on Iraq, which began an hour before this column started being written, will be over before this is printed or put on-line. Its outcome is as uncertain as is every encounter between David and Goliath. Most times it is the bully on the block who wins. But sometimes, the meek inherit the earth.

I think the Saddam regime will hold out much longer than Washington believes precisely because Iraq knows that it has no hope of matching U.S. fire-power. Back in 1991, Saddam was relying on his battle-hardened armed forces -- the fourth largest in the world; battle-hardened fighting the Iranians for eight long years on behalf of the Americans. Not only in numbers and experience, but also in armaments, the Iraqi armed forces were tops in the Arab world, equipped with the state-of-the-art best the CIA had donated them plus all the West had on offer which money could buy -- and oil-rich Saddam did not lack for that.

Munitions available to the Iraqis in 1991 included anthrax components supplied by the United States, nuclear plants supplied by France, and chemical/biological weapons factories set up with Western collaboration. Saddam, therefore, thought he could meet the United States and its allies on their terms -- with their munitions, their technology, their military training, and their strategies and tactics.

But for that very reason, The Mother of all Battles packed up in 24 hours. In a contest between the weak and the strong, the weak cannot fight the strong on the stronger adversary's ground, nor with the stronger adversary's weapons. In a symmetrical contest, the stronger will always prevail.

This time, however, Saddam is counting on asymmetry -- not weapons but the Iraqi people's will to independence, their sense of human dignity, their outrage at being bombed to freedom and wealth. Bush, of course, asks the same question as Stalin: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

Yet history advances because of asymmetry. The weak overcome the strong by resort to goals that are not the stronger party's goals, by means that are not the stronger party's means, by outflanking the strengths of the strong with an asymmetrical world-view and an asymmetrical value system.

It does not always work. But the symmetrical response always fails. Whether it is Hannibal taking an elephant across the Alps or the Belgian franc-tireur taking on Kaiser Wilhelm I's troops in 1870. It is the militarily asymmetrical that can turn the tables in a military confrontation between unequals like ordinary Russian at Stalingrad deciding oppression under Stalin was preferable to oppression under Hitler and grinding down the most invincible infantry army in modern history, the German Sixth, to prove it.

In political terms, the classic example of asymmetry winning out is the Indian freedom movement, Gandhi matching violence with non-violence; his answering the enforcement of colonial law with the demand that the authorities enforce it with all the severity at their command to show up imperial justice for the injustice it was; fasting in protest -- to endanger his life, not the lives of his opponents; calling off a mass movement involving millions because one small group of his followers in one obscure village had strayed from the path and set fire to a police station; ordering his "soldiers" to not raise a finger let alone a gun against the massed military might of the Empire. Gandhi could never have forced the British out. He shamed them into their scuttle.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is no Gandhi. Tragically, as Albert Einstein said of Gandhi, "Generations to come will scarce believe one such as he walked upon this Earth." So, the asymmetrical path that Saddam takes will be terrorism, unleashed in the heartland of America or its nearest and dearest -- read Israel, probably as Bush Gulf War II enters the final phase of an Iraqi Gotterdammerung. Saddam needs millions to man an army. He will need no more than hundreds to mastermind terrorism.

Of course, Saddam is unlikely to physically survive. But he will leave behind many hundreds more than willing to avenge themselves on those who wantonly bombed their country and killed so many thousands of their countrymen and women. They cannot be terrified into submission. And their weapon will be terrorism, terrorism as lethal as the cruise missile which says, "Oops, sorry, didn't mean to! That was collateral damage."

The blasting of Iraq is a fuse the Americans -- and the British -- are lighting against themselves. By not giving the U.N. inspectors the time needed to find all of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, they have left Saddam with the weapons he has already hidden. Assuming, that is, that the U.S. and British governments are right in claiming that he has indeed stocked them. And in case he has not stocked them, then what possible excuse can there be for this unprovoked aggression on a sovereign nation?

And what of the Iraqi people in particular and the Arab people in general? The fond hope is that the Iraqis will revel in American tutelage and the Arabs will look to Washington to lead them to the sunlit uplands of democracy and prosperity. Perhaps. History does show that for long periods the human spirit does lie dormant. Moreover, the American war aim is to make Iraq a happier and the Arab world a more peaceful place to live in.

If Iraq believes in the sincerity of U.S. intentions, and the Arab world accepts invasion as the price to be paid for liberty, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair will be hailed for waging war to make peace.

If, on the other hand, the Iraqis and the Arabs do not accept this Pax Americana, this 21st-century version of the mission civilisatrice, then the people of the United States and Britain will follow up regime change in Baghdad with regime change in London and Washington, to wild applause from the people of Iraq and the Arab world.

A survey undertaken in Muslim northern Nigeria showed that 80 percent of the male children born after 9/11 were named Osama. My guess is that 80 percent of Arab children born after Saddam is martyred will be called Saddam. If that does not happen, Bush and Blair would have won the peace. If it does, those who have sowed the wind will reap the whirlwind. For the will to independence and dignity is the weapons of asymmetry.


(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Indian Parliament representing the Congress Party. His column is published weekly.)

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