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Jewish World Review April 15, 2003 / 13 Nissan, 5763

Barbara Amiel

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It's time for Russia to choose our side in the Great Game | The players take their positions for the "Great Game", Kipling's name for the geopolitical contest between Russia and other powers for influence in southern Asia and the approaches to the Middle East.

In leaderless Baghdad, daily life is nasty. Saddam Hussein's regime had the monopoly on looting and lawlessness, but now it is in the hands of disorganized private interests. This is lost on BBC commentators, who blame everything - SARS, if only they could - on the coalition. About the only thing in Saddam's favor was that you could get the death penalty for listening to the BBC.

UN humanitarian agencies wrongly predicted over a million Iraqi refugees, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and the severe disabling of electricity and water in the country. Unperturbed by their logistical errors, the same UN agencies now insist that they must be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. The unsinkable UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, explains that "above all, UN involvement does bring legitimacy" to the task of reconstruction.

Given that the UN is little more than an assembly of clapped-out tyrannies, just how it can possibly confer legitimacy on anything is a delusion the now vanished Iraqi minister of information might envy. Having first tried to prevent regime change, the UN and Jacques Chirac now wish to preside over the choice of Saddam's successor. This is one better than the cuckoo that only steals other birds' nests for its offspring: the UN, as super-cuckoo, tries to block attempts by other birds to build a nest, and then takes it over.

In America, people are desperate to blame regimes, rather than the Arab people, for the strong anti-American sentiments they hear. The fact that a number of Arabs are unhappy with the United States is shunted aside. It would be comforting to think the Arab world was like eastern Europe waiting for liberation, but it both is - and isn't.

The Arab world has a split personality over our help: it wants clean water and prosperity, but not us. Having another nation clean your befouled nest is humiliating. But they can't do it themselves and so, like the goat in one of Orwell's essays, try alternately to take a bite of a piece of bread, then to butt the man offering it, hoping that, if the man is driven away, the bread will somehow remain suspended in the air.

The news from Moscow comes via Baghdad. The Sunday Telegraph claims that documents found there reveal that Russian intelligence had been briefing Iraq on British and American secrets before the war. Whatever role in the Great Game President Vladimir Putin is playing, one question must be echoing in St Petersburg and Moscow. Why has the Russian army fought for years, flattened Grozny, taken heavy casualties, and yet not achieved in Chechnya what the Americans achieved in three weeks?

We don't know yet whether the West has achieved all it needed to in Iraq, never mind the Arab world. But in Chechnya, the Russians have only managed to be brutal. They operated on the notion that if you grabbed a people by their vital parts, the hearts and minds would follow. That crude assumption left Russia at the wrong end of asymmetrical warfare - the current term for the guerrilla warfare between a low-tech power and a high-tech one. The Russians are just sufficiently high-tech to have the disadvantages of that status without its advantages, which explains the disaster of the Chechnyen hostage episode in a Moscow theatre. Mr Putin's team had enough technology to rescue hostages by introducing gas into the theatre's ventilation systems, but not enough to do so without asphyxiating a good number of them.

Asymmetrical warfare may become the legacy of Iraq. Fighting the Americans in that country through low-tech terrorist tactics is the next logical step for Islamists, Wahabis, Ba'athists and other anti-American elements in the Middle East and Third World. Already, the strange disappearance of so many of the Ba'athist leadership, what John Keegan referred to as the "chief mystery", has led to a mixed bag of rumors. Did Saddam send his sons and his entourage away to Syria before the war or in its early stages?

Some intelligence networks postulate a route for them through Syria or Iran to Moscow. Conspiratorial as this sounds, it could make some, small sense.

Given the various Ba'athist factions in Syria, Tariq Aziz et al would find Moscow a better base from which to direct operations than Damascus. The relationship between Moscow and Baghdad has many strands, including the $8 billion of debt Iraq owes Russia. Yevgeny Primakov's lengthy visit to Baghdad last February also brought unconfirmed reports of a bizarre Russian proposal to prevent war by allowing Saddam to keep his wealth and live in an internationally protected palace compound in Iraq, if he would agree to resign after one year of a transitional government.

Giving succor or asylum to some Ba'athist enemies of America could only be in Russia's interests as a joker in Mr Putin's hand that he could quickly discard. In 2002, the deputy head of Russia's international affairs committee wrote of the possibility of Germany "threatening US domination of world affairs". Mr Putin must decide whether the best opportunity for Russia to counter American uni-power is by joining France and Germany in opposing it or forming an alliance with the US.

In Washington, the Great Game is better understood as football than as realpolitik. President Bush certainly wants to make a deal with Mr Putin, but has failed so far. The White House believes there is a shared interest in deposing Middle East radicals, given Russian problems with Islamists and Chechens. Perhaps Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, has focused too much on the moral and strategic value of the Iraqi operation, rather than its tangible benefits to Mr Putin. Russia, after all, might be more interested in oil contracts and a pay-off. Its president comes from a KGB culture and Mr Bush and Miss Rice, when all is said and done, are not KGB sort-of-thinkers. Possibly, in spite of Mr Bush's background as an oilman, the deal Mr Putin wanted was too far out of the moral ballpark.

In London, Mr Blair, having won his hand, seems to think it is time now to give it away. His support of the UN and his apparent desire to plant Britain squarely back in the Franco-German camp seem perverse. For all Mr Blair's stellar qualities, his attraction to the miasmic notion of nation states joining together in an international jamboree is junior common room circa the 1960s. Indeed, those holding sway in Europe now, from Gerhard Schröder to Mr Blair, remind me of what Dostoevsky observed about Russian novelists when he said "we all came out of Gogol's Cloak". This lot all emerged from Tom Wolfe's "quasi-Marxist fog".

But Mr Blair stands above most European leaders in having the true courage of his convictions. If the 21st century is going to be less ideological than the 20th, there must still be a place beyond the cynicism of Palmerston's "no eternal friends, only eternal interests". Perhaps what the Great Game needs - and may have in Mr Blair - is a George Canning in Downing Street to help coach Baghdad, Moscow and Washington and win for all.

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JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

04/01/02: Turkey should be wary of its Franco-German friends
03/18/02: Blair's dilemma: This time he cannot be all things to all men
02/18/02: Letter from London: What you don't see is what you get
02/05/02: The UN is fast becoming a threat to world peace
10/29/02: When dealing with the devil, words like "dialogue" and "agreement" are comic
09/10/02: Never mind the dossier, just leaf through 'Iraq for Dummies'
08/27/02: How Kissinger the hawk was twisted into a fake dove: Lessons in liberal journalistic integrity
05/15/02: Why protecting the peace will make a mockery of justice
05/01/02: Why has it taken Le Pen to ask the awkward questions?
04/17/02: Truth about Israeli casualties is being ignored in this war
02/18/02: America's war on terrorism is a fight for all democracies: What the European elite are clueless about
01/29/02: Pity the al-Qa'eda detainees? Why is liberal 'torture' kosher?
12/18/01: What those in the London salons don't -- or won't -- see
12/04/01: We are not risking world war so women can show their ankles
11/20/01:"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame"
11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel