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View From Abroad: Looking for new foes

Updated March 19, 2018


MORE than friends, states need enemies. How else to convince taxpayers to fork out vast amounts on weapons, soldiers and spies? This is money that could be better spent on more urgently needed things like infrastructure, education and health. But once a government has convinced its people that they are under threat, they will vote for sharp increases in the defence budget without a murmur.

During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States needed another foe, and although Iraq was a poor substitute, Saddam Hussein gave Washington the perfect excuse for war by invading Kuwait. The country’s Republican Guards were hyped into an elite unit of crack troops, but they quickly fled before murderous US bombardment. In the Second Gulf War in 2003, the Western media drummed up the threat posed by Iraq’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, and whipped up public support for a needless war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

In this bloody conflict, American weapons and soldiers were extolled as Iraqi resistance crumbled before a ferocious attack by America and its allies. This is the other lesson we have learned: demonise the foe, but cast him as a fearsome threat, while hyping up your own military capabilities. Thus, no public representative or major media outlet will dare question your defence budget or priorities.

Pakistan needs India as a foe, just as India needs both China and Pakistan. China, in turn, needs both India and the United States. And so on around the globe. We use territorial claims or ideological differences to justify this ruinous arms race, while putting the needs of our people last. Weapons manufacturers prosper, and generals get to wear yet more medals, but at the end of the day, nobody really wins as wars have all sorts of unintended consequences.

Look at Iraq: 15 years ago, Bush and Blair thought they could destroy the country’s armed forces, decapitate the ruling Ba’ath Party, get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then just walk away. It didn’t quite work out that way. Then we have Libya, a country that has seen years of chaos after the removal of Qadhafi. Apart from the unending civil war that has virtually split Libya into two, its Qadhafi-era arsenals have armed all kinds of terrorists from Niger to Egypt.

And having defeated the militant Islamic State group, the United States seems to be casting about for new foes to justify its $639 billion defence budget. By contrast, Russia spends $69bn on its armed forces. And yet it is now being projected as a big threat to the West by a compliant media. True, Vladimir Putin is an autocrat by any measure, but to think he would risk an armed conflict with Nato is to assume he is also delusional. Most of his actions have been those of a nationalist seeking to restore Russia as a global power.

And yet the rhetoric from London following the attempted murder of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia resembles a call to arms. Boris Johnson, the clownish foreign secretary, has gone so far as to accuse Putin personally of having ordered the hit, and the use of the nerve agent Novichok. Understandably, the Russians are furious at this breach of diplomatic protocol, and have threatened a response to the expulsion of 23 of their diplomats from London.

While this tit-for-tat squabble rages in Europe, another potential foe has been identified on the other side of the world. China’s assertion of its power in the region has caused alarm bells to ring from Washington to New Delhi. But these hawks do not recognise Beijing’s right to protect the sea-lanes that are essential to its continued economic progress. We know that China is no democracy where defence costs are debated and approved by a freely elected parliament. Nevertheless, to cast it as a major military threat is to deliberately misread its medium-term goal of rapid economic development.

During its steep rise over the last three decades, it has avoided confrontation with its neighbours beyond building bases in the South China Sea. The US, on the other hand, has ringed the mainland with a multitude of military facilities that host hundreds of aircraft and missiles. There is a school of military thought that believes it would be better to eliminate the Chinese threat now than wait until the country has become more powerful after modernising its armed forces.

Chinese military thinkers, having watched the accuracy and effectiveness of American hardware in recent wars — and the US always seems to be at war — have accelerated development of their own weapons systems. Simultaneously, they are restructuring the People’s Liberation Army, reducing its size and training personnel to fight a modern war.

This is not to suggest that China has even begun to approach the United States in terms of hard military power. The American Seventh Fleet, stationed in Okinawa, can deploy formidable firepower, while missiles stationed on nearby islands are trained on targets in China and North Korea.

These comparisons just go to show the influence of hawks and the defence industry in the United States. But they can only influence the public and the media by drumming home the message that the nation is under threat. American lobbyists are adept at exploiting the fear thus generated to garner support for the latest weapons system, knowing that Congressmen and Senators are not going to question even multi-billion requests.

And so it goes, from one war to another. But how long before a miscalculation between major powers ends up in a devastating nuclear exchange?

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2018