Journal article

Burgess, J. Peter (2003) Commentary, Security Dialogue 34 (2): 131–134.

AS THIS ISSUE OF SECURITY DIALOGUE goes to press in the second week of April, the British–American invasion of Iraq dominates the news picture in all parts of the world. Three weeks after bombs first began to fall on Baghdad in the alliance’s ‘decapitation attack’, the port of Umm Qasr and the southern cities of Basra and Nassiriya are all but secured; the northern stronghold of Mosul is under assault by air and commando forces; and alliance troops are seemingly free to move about Baghdad. Dramatic images of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad being toppled by US marines and jubilant Iraqis are the highlight of international newspapers and television news. The fall of Baghdad is the symbolic end of Saddam’s stranglehold on power in Iraq, though it may be some time before his ghost is exorcised. Saddam’s whereabouts are unknown, and small groups of resistance forces remain both in and around Baghdad, as well as throughout Iraq. However, the symbolic weight of the ‘fall’ of the capital has shifted emphasis from the strategic project of conquering Iraq to the ideological one of installing a post-Saddam regime.

At the time of writing, an advance team of military officials and favoured exiles – led by retired US army general Jay Garner – stands ready to move into Baghdad and set up a transitional administration. The goal of this ‘interim authority’ is to prepare the way for a ‘legitimate Iraqi government’, based on democratic principles. Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder remain allied with Kofi Annan and his insistence on the need for an essential role for the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, anxious to mend damaged relations with European allies, has also argued for a UN administration in the reconstruction. The response from Washington is dismissive: the UN will play the role of coordinating international aid agencies, but will have no say with regard to the construction of a legitimate government.

The search continues for the weapons of mass destruction that were to have legitimated the invasion as a rightful and legally justifiable act of self-defence. It was the immediate threat posed by the existence of such weapons that alone supported the claim for the international legality of the campaign, permitting US officials to invoke the right to national self-defence as a motive for the attack. Yet, in the era of global terrorism, the ‘immediacy’ of threat stipulated by international law clearly requires a radical new interpretation. The immediacy of a terrorist threat – and the correlated need for pre-emptive national self-defence – is not a punctuated singular moment in the movement of threatening individuals armed with illicit weapons of mass destruction and pernicious intentions. It is a constant and omnipresent state of affairs. The USA is constantly and everywhere under threat. Thus, according to a strict reading of the right to national self-defence, the USA is everywhere and at any time entitled to attack. But whom?

Immediately following the traumatic attacks of 11 September 2001, US President George Bush made a decisive rhetorical choice, framing the assaults as acts of war and the US response as a protracted campaign in a global ‘war on terror’. Nearly two years later, ‘war on terror’ has become lingua franca, setting norms and carrying a force of legitimization unequalled by the military campaigns of the previous ‘world’ wars. The war on terror is not the start of World War III, as some critics have said, but rather the start of the first ‘world’ war. The unconventionality of this expression has long been forgotten in the public sphere and among analysts. In the absence of a sovereign national enemy, military targets, and a distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the notion of war has been utterly transformed. Not only has the ‘war on terror’ indulged in a ubiquitous threat of terror, but this new concept of war has also brought deep changes in notions of sovereign intervention and civil and international rights. It has shaken an Atlantic alliance still tooled for Cold War geopolitics and militarized previously innocuous spheres of political life.

It was never a question of victory in the war against Iraq. Like the ‘war’ against Afghanistan, there is no scenario for loss, only a calculus of victory. Loss of life on the side of the alliance is remarkably low, under 100 – half of which originating in episodes of friendly fire – out of nearly a quarter of a million on the ground. Iraqi losses, both military and civilian, are considerably higher, even before we take into account the humanitarian issues of disease and collateral death. The Iraq campaign is thus the most advanced version of what James Der Derian has called ‘virtuous war’, in which technology ‘cleans up’ the battlefield, promoting, by means of advanced technology, ‘a vision of bloodless, humanitarian, hygienic war’ (Der Derian, 2001: xv). Live television transmissions showed not only the advance of the armoured divisions towards Baghdad, but also actual real-time commando incursions recorded through helmet-mounted cameras. Reporters were ‘embedded’ with troops, gradually erasing the distinction between spectators and participants in the war. The notions of threat, and thus security, are evolving in unprecedented ways. Our relationship to war is becoming abstracted from the relationship to immediate combatants on both sides. This is the only imaginable war in a media age in which visibility is an essential part of the war scenario. In his penetrating 1984 book War and Cinema, Paul Virilio finds the traces of today’s ubiquitous war gaze in the technological evolutions of World War I. ‘By developing the premises of a veritable logistics of military perception in which the supply of images becomes the equivalent of the supply of munitions, the war of 1914 was to inaugurate a new “system of arms”, formed by the mixture of a combat vehicle and camera, the systemization of the classical “road vehicle”, which becomes, after World War II, the basis of a strategy of global vision, thanks to spy satellites, drones and other video-guided projectiles, but above all through appearance of the most recent type of headquarters, a control centre for electronic war, capable of ensuring “real-time” management of images and information of a conflict that has become planetary’ (Virilio, 1991: I–II; my translation). A caustic wartime joke has it that the leader of the ‘free world’ could not find Iraq on a map if asked to do so. However, the strange reality is that – to the public, to international lawyers and to political leaders – it actually matters less and less where Iraq is. In the global war effort, place is no longer an issue. The dominant global power can, will and should go anywhere to confront any ‘security threat’ to its national security or interests. The call to arms in the ubiquitous ‘war on terror’ is only the most developed version of this logic: The enemy could be anywhere; the war is everywhere.

Analysis and world attention has already shifted to ‘post-Saddam’ scenarios. Much mending needs to be done in terms of international relations. If the US administration intends to carry out its foreign policy along the strictly unilateral lines adopted in its Iraq policy, against the will of a vast global consensus, it has its diplomatic work cut out. The global consensus that lined up in support of a global war against terror in the wake of 11 September has now been essentially alienated.

Depending upon what form the political ‘restructuring’ of Iraq takes, and how lightly the US interim administration treads with Iraq’s neighbours, it is quite conceivable that, if anything, a new regional or even global security complex will have been created by the Iraq campaign. No one will deny that Saddam was a brutal dictator who suppressed and violated the Iraqi people. However, for better or worse, it must also be admitted that he was both a secular dictator and a national one. As far as religion is concerned, Islam was hardly a motif in his regime. On the contrary, US support for Iraq in the Iran–Iraq war was based on fear of a spread of fundamentalist religious views from Iran. Islamic fundamentalism, particularly of the kind thought to give rise to extremist groups like al-Qaeda, was foreign to his political interests. In that sense, Iraq stood apart among the countries of the Middle East, arguably the least imposing threat to global security in terms of fundamentalist-supported global terrorism. Granted, Saddam’s solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian refugees is well known, as is his contempt for Israel and the support it receives from the USA, sentiments essentially shared by all Arab states in the region. However, he had no need for new lebensraum. His aspirations for Arab unity under the sign of secular Arab politics had little hold in the region. His brutality towards the Kurds had consequences only for relations with Turkey. The invasion of Kuwait had essentially only one central motive: repairing Iraq’s war-torn national finances. Fundamentalism as a motif for terror beyond Iraq’s borders is therefore hardly relevant ... at least not yet.

Ripples in the fabric of regional and global security can already be felt. Already during the March–April campaign, Syria was repeatedly reproached for aiding and abetting the enemy, raising suspicions that Syria stands high on the list of US plans for democratic restructuring in the region. Iran – a prominent figure on the ‘axis of evil’ – remains a potential target. Despite the fact that on the eve of the fighting in Iraq, Yasser Arafat obediently appointed Mahmoud Abbas to the post of Palestinian prime minister, all bets are off as to whether the necessary US pressure will be forthcoming and whether its ‘roadmap to peace’ will prove capable of bringing about constructive change in that lingering crisis. North Korea, which shares its status of member of the ‘axis of evil’ with Iraq, has used the Iraq campaign as proof of its need to arm itself in the face of a now real US threat of invasion.


Der Derian, James, 2001. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military–Industrial–Media–Entertainment Network. Boulder, CO: Westview

Virilio, Paul, [1984] 1991. Guerre et cinéma I: Logistique de la perception [War and Cinema I: The Logistics of Perception]. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma.

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