HomeOpinionUse of force - even by a superpower - has its limits

Use of force – even by a superpower – has its limits

By Chido Makunike

THE United States militarily walked over Iraq with surprisingly little difficulty earlier this year given the bravado of Saddam Hussein and his propagandists. The months since the dictator

was deposed have been far from triumphant for the US though, with Iraqi opposition to the occupation growing along with the casualty toll of American soldiers. Iraqis who are glad to be rid of a cruel despot who had caused them misery for decades are in no mood to be colonised by the US.


It is an example of the relative ease of imposing military might when the conventional odds are as lopsided as they were in the invasion of Iraq. Ruling effectively after that is another thing altogether, and the swashbuckling Americans will either have to resort to more force with all its counter-productive consequences or they will have to let go much sooner and with less dignity than that of a mighty conquering superpower that has more killing power than anybody else in the world.


The US dilemma in Iraq has given comfort to a lot of ideologues opposed to its status as the sole superpower or for other reasons, including some of our own local Mugabe propagandists. So excited are the latter at the bloodying of the American nose in Iraq that they overlook the fact that the Mugabe regime is increasingly in a similar dilemma here.


George Bush was determined to get rid of Saddam no matter what it took. He would have been very happy to do it with the support of the UN, which would have given his mission more of a stamp of legitimacy and made it less of an American colonial mission but in the absence of that support, he was not going to be deterred. The attitude was that Saddam’s butt had to be kicked at all costs, and those opposed to the idea or its execution would be made to come around later. That’s not quite how it has turned out, and the US that was so dismissive of the UN before now seems to want the world body to play a greater role in Iraq to reduce the risk of a possible long- term catastrophe looming there for the superpower. Not surprisingly there is not exactly a long line of international volunteers eager to go and help legitimise the US role in Iraq!


As the American body count increases, along with increasing calls to withdraw from Iraq will be those Americans calling for more force to contain the situation. America is well aware of how disastrously this slippery slope can end up after the experience of Vietnam, although given human stubbornness and failure to learn from mistakes, that is no guarantee against repeating that experience in Iraq.


Force and military power are only effective up to a certain point to achieve particular goals. When that force is backed by popular support, as in the freedom fighters against Ian Smith’s government, the combination can go a very long way, guaranteeing eventual victory and just as importantly, a semblance of order and conditions conducive to widespread change beyond the military victory.


Continuing with the liberation era analogy, because the freedom fighters were popularly supported, people understood the deprivations and hardships they had to undergo were the sacrifices that had to be made for a better day. We now know that not all of the liberation war veterans behaved heroically but for better or for worse, their dirty deeds have generally been treated as some of the costs of a war widely considered to have been legitimate and just.


As a result of the popular support of the military capability that forced a political settlement and elections in 1980, the victors ruled easily and with the consent of the population for several years. Compare that to the mode of ruling today. Mugabe is still in power two decades later, but look at how strained the effort is compared to early in his reign. As the political support for him has declined, he has increasingly resorted to force. He travels everywhere with an increasing military entourage, more of his appointees to key institutions are military men. Paramilitary operations like the Green Bombers that have none of the discipline that they were ostensibly formed to instill in young people are now an important arm of control of a restless public.


On the level of Mugabe and his regime still being in office the increasing repression still works for now, but look at some of the costs of ruling without popular support that we are witnessing in Zimbabwe today, just as the Americans are experiencing in Iraq.


We now weekly witness a fascinating little diplomatic game at Mugabe’s expense. The representatives of the world’s poorest and most Western-dependent countries line up to tell Mugabe how much they support his methods and how they don’t understand how the evil white countries of the West can demonise the gallant Mugabe the way they do.

As soon as they have had their picture taken with Mugabe for featuring in the state media the next day under the heading “X poor dependent country supports Zimbabwe”, the representatives of those countries then rush off to Europe and the US to tell their benefactors that they have to be seen to be playing to the African gallery by supporting Mugabe. “But we swear we will not follow his ruinous example at home, please Western baas could we have some more aid to stave off hunger and economic collapse at home !”


The whole sick farce of an excuse for decline and repression goes under names like African solidarity, south-south cooperation and so forth.

One difference between the occupying force in Iraq and that ruling over Zimbabwe is that the former has the technical and financial ability and power to improve things in its colony, while in the latter case the only two assets that it has are rhetoric and the power and enthusiasm for repression. In the case of Zimbabwe the ruling power is so incompetent that even if you throw billions of dollars at it over a 23-year period the final result is not a strong, productive and sustainably independent economy, but a few “prestigious” non-productive white elephants here and there and a lot of luxury cars as the economy sinks!


Resources, potential and actual, in an environment in which there is neither the common sense nor the will among the rulership to do anything really useful with them for the common good results in the mess we have in Zimbabwe today under Mugabe.


What is Mugabe’s pet preoccupation now? Is it to grapple with inflation that is fast shooting towards 1 000%? Is it to restore agricultural productivity as a matter of the highest priority? Is it to find a lasting solution to the four-year old fuel problem? No on all counts, it is to attend the Commonwealth talkshop in Nigeria next month, despite the absence of an invitation, where he will be a laughing stock anyway for having brought such an enviable economy to its knees!


A lot of this pettiness and mis-allocation of time, energy and resources is to simply assert one’s physical power, to show that one is there even if he is no longer able to do anything useful or productive with it. We often mistakenly think that military might is the ultimate form of power. As with the Americans in Iraq, what we are seeing in Zimbabwe is a classic case of the limits of the usefulness of coercive power bereft of political support. You can’t do very much with it!


*  Chido Makunike is a regular columnist based in Harare.

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