New world order: what's new?

March 20, 1991

By Peter Boyle

The fighting hasn't stopped and smoke won't clear for years in the Middle East, but George Bush claims he's won a victory for a new world order. "We know why we're there", said Bush in his State of the Union address. "We are Americans, part of something larger than ourselves. For two centuries, we have done the hard work of freedom. And tonight, we lead the world in facing down a threat to decency and humanity."

Bush's speech expressed the arrogance characteristic of an imperialist state; an increase of this arrogance is one of the hallmarks of the new world order. And it was long on the rhetoric of "democracy", while ignoring the words of nearly every individual and organisation that has campaigned for human rights in Iraq over the last decade, who warned that the war was not being waged for democracy.

"Liberated" Kuwait was reoccupied by the emir's notoriously corrupt family. They promptly dismissed demands for democratic reform. Martial law was imposed and a campaign of assassinations and intimidation begun against the thousands of Palestinians who have lived and worked in Kuwait for many years.

A member of the Kuwaiti National Assembly (disbanded by the emir in 1986) was shot by a gunman, and Abdulaziz Sultan, the president of Kuwait's Gulf Bank, charged in an interview on US television that "members of the Sabah family" were organising assassinations of members of the pro-democracy movement.

In Saudi Arabia, the world's second richest individual, King Fahd (estimated personal wealth US$18 billion) connived with US secretary of state James Baker on the ousting of Yasser Arafat from the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the overthrow of King Hussein of Jordan. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Jordan has recently had free parliamentary elections. The PLO enjoys more than 95% support among Arabs in occupied Palestine, according to a Time magazine survey.

Washington's open support for a military coup in Iraq exposes the empty rhetoric of Bush's "new world order". Bush prefers a military coup to the victory of the Kurdish forces in the north or the Islamic revolutionaries in the south.

The Islamic revolution in Iran was a major blow to US power in the region, and the US is not keen on a repeat in Iraq. A victory for the Iraqi Kurds would inspire Kurds in Turkey to step up their struggle for self-determination, threatening another "friendly" dictatorship.

The war brought a shift in power in favour of some of the most undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia (the biggest purchaser of arms in the Third World in the 1980s) emerges with greater US backing. Israel, a state based on the dispossession of the Palestinians and an apartheid-like constitution, obtained a massive increase in US military aid and a renewed licence to flout international law and UN resolutions. Syria may be allowed to digest northern Lebanon in return for rapprochement with Israel and cooperation with the US in the war.

'Uni-polar' world?

The new world order is often described in terms of a decline of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US as the "only superpower". "Desert Storm establishes with clarity the strength and scope of American muscle in the post-Cold War era", says Jim Hoagland, chief foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. "We're the only ones really able to project power on a large scale", said former US secretary of state George Shultz.

The analysis of world politics primarily in terms of superpower conflict has always underplayed a more fundamental conflict of interests — between the North and South, the rich industrialised countries of the West and the impoverished Third World. That analysis conceded too much to the anticommunist rhetoric of the Cold War. Hunger, exploitation and repression have much more to do with the wars in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Nevertheless, it was true that most conflicts since World War II tended to draw the US and the Soviet Union into opposite camps. Forces resisting the US were often able to obtain diplomatic support and material aid from the Soviet Union and, in some cases, China.

The advantage Washington gained in the Gulf War was not so much the lack of Soviet material support for Iraq as the way in which the USSR allowed the US to use the United Nations to cloak the war in some legitimacy. If the Soviet Union had vetoed the war resolution (678) in the Security Council (Cuba and Yemen voted against and China abstained), the US would have paid a much greater political price for the war.

The prospect of a Soviet Union which would consistently defend international law and work against war, expressed in Gorbachev's "New Political Thinking", was an alternative new world order which many people in the peace movements and in national liberation struggles looked to with hope. A consistent application of that policy could have offset politically the decline in Soviet military and economic power.

The Bush administration sees the Soviet Union's support in the Security Council as a key element of the new world order. US practice in the Gulf War has defined the Security Council's role as providing legitimacy for the US role as self-appointed superpoliceman for the capitalist order.

The UN General Assembly has been considered for some years by US politicians to be hostile to Western interests. Until recently Washington withheld its dues to the UN and ignored its decisions and those of the World Court. The Gulf War has not totally reversed this situation. In the postwar period, conflicts between US interests and UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions (particularly on Israel and the Palestinians) are re-emerging.

US military faces South

The end of the Cold War does allow the US to switch some of its military might from Europe to confront the Third World. Plans for a reorientation of the US military predate both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the collapse of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Michael Klare, associate professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, wrote in the June 18 Nation: "America's war machine of the 1990s will face south, across the Rio Grande, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, rather than east, across the plains of Europe".

While there was some resistance in the Pentagon, the process of restructuring of US forces had already begun. Forces of "power projection" such as the Special Forces, carrier-based assault groups, Marine amphibious groups and the Army's light and air mobile divisions were to be beefed up while heavy tank divisions and air units in Europe would be reduced.

Klare identified another dynamic in the developing US strategy — a gradual adjustment after the US defeat in Vietnam. In the 1970s low intensity conflict (LIC) fell out of favour, after Vietnam. But it gained new significance in the 1980s as the contra wars were begun in Nicaragua, Cambodia and Afghanistan and operations against revolutionary forces were stepped up in the Philippines and El Salvador.

The study also reveals that a strategy of medium intensity conflict (MIC) aimed at growing regional powers, like Iraq, emerged before the collapse of the Eastern European regimes.

In December 1988, CIA director William Webster warned of the emergence of regional powers armed with advanced weapons, particularly ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons, which were "a cheap and readily obtainable means of addressing the military balance against more powerful foes".

The Bush administration first articulated the MIC threat as a problem to be addressed through disarmament negotiations. But the arms flow to the Third World continued, and soon Bush was highlighting military solutions to the so-called "MIC threat". On February 7, 1990, Bush said: "We will continue to work hard to prevent this dangerous proliferation. But one thing is certain: we must be ready for its consequences. And we will be ready."

The Pentagon had already begun preparations for such wars. In January 1989, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Herrly of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sketched out the tactics used in the Gulf War. Emerging Third World powers "cannot be overcome with inadequate weapons and mobility", he said. To defeat these powers would require "superior tactical mobility and devastating lethality", he added, using words that echoed in the military briefings in Riyadh and the Pentagon earlier this year.

The Bush administration's draft military budget for 1992 confirms the reorientation. Spending increases are aimed at improving the speed at which forces can be transported into an area of conflict, on new high-tech warplanes and helicopters ar Wars program (with a view to improving anti-ballistic missile capability: the SCUDs weren't as unsuccessful as was publicly claimed).

Changing US military strategy cannot be explained only in terms of a decline in Soviet power. It is based on the sharpening of contradictions between North and South during the 1980s.

The world's poorest countries got poorer during the 1980s, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. Most Third World countries had to cut back imports, abandon development programs and undergo austerity overseen by officials of the International Monetary Fund. Per capita incomes fell and debt soared. There is a net annual flow of at least US$80 billion from the South to the North, according to the Third World Guide 91/92.

One consequence of the growing North-South gap is increasing military conflict.

There are ongoing insurrections like those in El Salvador and the Philippines, industrial unrest in Brazil and South Korea, food riots in countless countries. The Pentagon's remedy is the LIC strategy. But some Third World governments also try to solve their problems by invading neighbouring states or adopting economic measures that cut across US interests. For these contingencies, the Pentagon has its MIC strategy.

This is why the 1990s could be the decade of Third World Wars.

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