April 20, 2004


The return of people's war: Iraq shows the west and its new liberal imperialists have forgotten the lessons of history (Martin Jacques, April 19, 2004, The Guardian)

What lies at the core of people's war is the desire of people to rule themselves rather than be governed by foreign countries, often from thousands of miles away, that are possessed of utterly alien values and their own self-serving priorities. This is a principle that the west has found extremely difficult to learn. And even when it appears to have finally learned the lesson - always the hard way, by defeat - it seems to suffer another bout of amnesia: how could this country not be served better by adopting our values and our institutions, even if the ministering of the medicine does require application with more than a little force?

The Vietnamese proved, with extraordinary courage and intelligence, that people's war could triumph against the most formidable and frightening odds. The Americans may have possessed awesome weapons, but the Vietnamese commanded the hearts and minds - and eventually even managed to convince the American public that the war could not be won. Their victory was to transform the conduct of American foreign policy for a quarter-century - until the arrival of the Bush regime, which declined to accept the verities of the Vietnamese conflict and preferred to believe that defeat was a consequence of a lack of US military resolve.

Epochal change inevitably brings into question old assumptions. The end of the cold war clearly belongs to this category. The Americans regarded the war against North Vietnam as a crucial plank in the fight against communism: if South Vietnam should fall, the domino effect would surely follow. Self-determination, though, was no creature of communism. True, the great anti-colonial struggles historically coincided with the high tide of communism and some of the most effective protagonists of people's war were communist parties. Moreover, the Soviet bloc gave sustenance and support to these struggles, while the west was almost invariably arraigned as their enemy. But self-determination and people's war were, and remain, utterly distinct phenomena, quite independent of communism.

This lesson seems to have been forgotten by the Americans and by many others in the west as well. Come Iraq, it was as if the power and virtue of self-determination and people's war belonged to another, bygone era, without application to the times in which we live. They had gone the same way as so much else during that absurd decade of the 1990s, when everything of worth was "new", and history was only relevant to the past. Perhaps also the western mind was diverted by the fact that, following the heroic achievements of the Vietnamese, many self-determination struggles took the form of extremely bloody and unpleasant ethnic wars, with minority national groups seeking independence from what they saw as their new oppressors.

A year ago, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, few anticipated, least of all the Bush administration, that there would be any sustained resistance. On the contrary, Bush and Blair expected the "coalition" troops to be embraced as liberating forces: after all, with good old western imperial hubris, were they not the bearers of our own infinitely superior values? The new breed of liberal imperialists, refugees from the left, swallowed that whole and forgot the lessons of half a century of history. Even when the resistance began to get under way, it was almost invariably described - by governments and media alike - as the remnants of the Saddam regime, together with foreign terrorists, and thereby summarily dismissed.

It is now clear to everyone - apart from Donald Rumsfeld and his cronies - that, far from being a rump of Saddamist malcontents, the resistance enjoys broad based support among the Sunnis and increasingly the Shias too. The old truths are alive and well. People do not want to be ruled by an alien power from thousands of miles away whose interests are self-serving. The resistance in Iraq bears all the hallmarks of a people's war for self-determination.

His version of Vietnam is positively deranged and there appears to be almost no popular support for the various thuggish resistances in Iraq, but he's right that folks want to govern themselves. Of course, that's precisely what we've promised to let them do starting July 1. In fact, most of the violence in Iraq would seem to be a function of the coming era of self-determination, when the Sunni and twerps like Al-Sadr stand to lose whatever power they have.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2004 7:24 AM

The Dems and Kerry must be truly insane.

Last week while on vacation, I read only newpaper headlines. The one that caught me was, "Kerry lambastes Bush, insists we must change our policy in Iraq." I said to my wife, "Doesn't he read the papers? Bush has been saying over and over again that we are turning control of Iraq over to the Iraqi government on July 1." The Dems have already lost their arguments of "bad economy" and "no job growth"---what are they gonna say when July 1 comes and we are no longer running Iraq?

Posted by: fred at April 20, 2004 9:47 AM

If the shia and the Sunni can't handle self governance then I'd hope we move our troops up to the new Kurdistan, including Kirkuk, and watch the Iraqi Arabs destroy each other until they beg us to return to restore order; or they could appeal to the UN.

I hope they can make something out of the nation; they've been given a gift from heaven but some don't seem to realize it.

Posted by: genecis at April 20, 2004 11:59 AM

Probably because this "gift from heaven" wasn't spelled out word-for-word in the Koran and came at the hands of infidels...

Posted by: Ken at April 20, 2004 4:26 PM

If there was no popular support for these groups, Al Sadr would have never taken the cities he did and still remain protected in Najaf and in effective control of E. Baghdad, and the Fallujah fighters would have never gotten themselves established. Further, our pet Iraqi soldiers wouldn't have pulled an ARVN with the first whiff of gunpowder. The guerrillas can operate there because they do have the support of a significant portion of the population.

Posted by: Derek Copold at April 20, 2004 5:52 PM

The guy's basic idea is wrong. People do not yearn beyond anything else to rule themselves.

Most of them don't give a hoot. Up until 1918, a great fraction of the people in the world lived in either multinational empires or colonies. And with rare exceptions, they didn't object.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 20, 2004 6:58 PM


That's precisely wrong. None of us would choose to govern ourselves but we'd all like to govern everyone else.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 7:16 PM


He doesn't control anything except one slum in Baghdad and when we leave the Sunni aren't likely to leave him in control of that much within the Triangle.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 7:21 PM