The year of the pre-emptive strike

Many things can be said of 2003 when turmoil struck the world. But most of all, it was the year when the Bush doctrine of unilateral military action against other countries deemed worthy of 'regime change' was put into terrible effect in Iraq, as the United Nation stood and tottered helplessly at the sidelines. The world will not be the same again. MARTIN KHOR reviews the year that is about to pass us by. 

THE year 2003 will go down as a great turning point in history. Whether it will turn out to be just an aberration or the start of a new and calamity-filled long-term trend remains to be seen. 

It was a year when the Bush doctrine justifying the “pre-emptive strike” came to such terrifying effect in Iraq. 

The new US national-security doctrine had first been unleashed in the war on Afghanistan, but at least in that case there was a semblance of a collective decision through the United Nations. 

In the war on Iraq, the United States chose to go it alone. Well, almost alone, as Britain and a few others joined its “coalition of the willing” when the UN refused to sanction the war. 

With the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the world’s biggest issue switched from how to cope with international terrorism to how to cope with the United States. 

The world’s only superpower had decided it could do without a global forum to justify acts of war, and that it could unilaterally move to invade another country or oust another regime in the name of pre-emptive strike to defend its own interests. It gave itself the right to be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. 

Then the US implied its actions against Iraq could set the pace for similar actions, when it gave warning to Syria and Iran they may be next. 

The post-World War Two order of recognition of the sovereignty of states and the need for UN approval before military action can be taken against a country crumbled before the US-UK invasion of Iraq. 

In its mind, the Bush administration probably reserved the right of unilateral pre-emptive strike to the US alone. But it has of course opened the road for other countries to use the same justification to act similarly against their perceived or imagined enemies. 

It would be difficult or impossible for the US to then preach restraint on others, when it had itself pioneered the new doctrine, that if you are strong you can do anything and justify anything. 

Indeed, during the year, Israel stepped up its own military campaign on the Palestinians, with the pre-emptive strike for self-defence as rationale, and the US did not seem to or could not object. 

The war on Iraq was supposed to pave the way for peace moves in the Middle East. At least this is what the US, or British Prime Minister Tony Blair, had us believe. 

But the opposite happened. Violence grew, not diminished, in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Israel is now busy building a security wall to hem in the Palestinians, who call it the apartheid wall. Erecting many parts of the barrier conveniently (for Israel) removes significant portions of land and fruit orchards from the Palestinians and further redraws the borders effectively against them. 

Neither has peace or security come to Iraq itself. After the easy capture of Baghdad, the Coalition forces have faced unceasing resistance from insurgents determined to end the occupation in Iraq. By the end of December, 210 American soldiers have died since the war was declared over on May 1. 

The year 2003 also saw an upsurge of terrorist attacks in several countries, including bombings in Indonesia, Turkey, Russia and of course Iraq, including one that devastated the United Nations office in Baghdad and killed its director. 

As 2003 ended, Pakistan's President Musharraf was lucky to survive two serious attempts on his life. And the US was all keyed up to anticipate another terrorist attack during the Christmas-New Year season, speculated to be on a similar scale as Sept 11. 

The continuation of terrorist acts and violence has kept the debate burning on whether the heavy-handed US actions would curb terrorism or instead spawn more terrorism. 

The alternative approach, of getting rid of injustices, inequities, poverty and under-development, and thus removing the root causes of terrorism and violence, was not given a chance by the global powers to be. 

The invasion of Iraq, the US show of contempt for the UN and the bombing of its Baghdad office plunged the international organisation into its worst crisis of legitimacy since its birth. It's ability to uphold international law collapsed in the wake of unilateral US exercise of power. 

However, the insurgency in Iraq, which the capture of Saddam Hussein did not seem to dampen, showed there are limits to the US having its own way. 

Not only has the US now come half way back to the UN, admitting it needs the help of others. It has decided to accelerate the transfer of power, or at least the semblance of that, to Iraqis, so that its own soldiers do not have to stay on much longer. 

The failure of multi-lateralism is said to have also occurred in 2003 on the economic front, as the World Trade Organisation's Ministerial Conference collapsed dramatically without a Declaration in Cancun in September. 

However, most developing countries did not view Cancun as a “failure” or as signalling an impending demise of multilateral trade system. These countries had asserted themselves in a more unified way than before, and were able to fend off pressures and proposals from the rich nations that would have further marginalised their position in the global economy. 

From their perspective, the multilateral system is actually strengthened when the majority of its members are able to take part in decisions and to benefit from it. 

So, 2003 was a good year from this view, notwithstanding that at its General Council meeting on Dec 15, the WTO again failed to pick up the negotiations of Cancun. 

The world economy did fairly well, in that it did not slip into recession, and there were signs late in the year that there was high growth in the US economy. 

But this is no longer seen as a blessing as the major concern has become the ballooning of the US budget and trade deficits, causing the dollar to decline significantly. 

In most Asian countries, especially China, India and Malaysia, economic growth was impressive or reasonably creditable, especially given the setbacks to the region caused by SARS early in the year. 

That epidemic reminded us that even as the most dramatic events in 2003 were in the military, political and economic arenas, what matters perhaps even more to ordinary people are the factors that shape their health and environment. 

SARS indicated to Asians and the world that there are present and potential epidemics that can threaten life and even the human race itself. Throughout 2003, there were reports and grim reminders of the worsening HIV-AIDS crisis in Africa that was also spreading in Asia. 

And Mad Cow disease struck in the US just as the year ended – another stark sign that we will have to cope with new, strange and emerging diseases in future. 

As the year came to a close, two devastating incidents during the Christmas season – the gas explosion killing 200 people in Chongqinbg, China, and the earthquake that killed up to 20,000 in Bam, Iran, and practically destroyed the city – also reminded us that nature and the environment are not to be trifled with. 

At home, 2003 will be marked in Malaysian history for the changeover at the political helm as Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over the premiership from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a smooth transition. 

With Dr Mahathir’s retirement as PM, it was the passing of an era for Malaysians have been so used to having him as their leader. But as Pak Lah took over, a great deal of continuity was assured as many of the policies of the past seemed set to carry over, albeit with the different style of the new PM. 

In 2003, Malaysia successfully hosted two major international events, the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in March and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Summit in October. 

That took us to the forefront of two of the major organisations of the developing world. The country is thus poised to continue to be an important leader of the developing world in the years ahead, and that important position should even grow if we succeed in making good use of the opportunity of being coordinators of NAM and OIC. 

And so we bid farewell to the tumultuous year that was 2003, and hope that the world will do better in the year to come.  

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