As Americans cast
their hopes and fears into the wishing-well of the U.S. presidential election,
the United States is squandering the best chance it may ever get to withdraw
its military and civilian occupation forces from Iraq on relatively favorable
In 1991, President
George Bush Senior avoided the trap of a land invasion of Iraq. One of his
senior advisers told him that sooner or later the Iraqis would insist on
holding elections, which "our guys will lose." Twelve years later,
Bush II and Cheney launched their desperate effort to reverse the
nationalization of the global oil industry and to establish the aggressive and
illegal use of U.S. military power as a dominant force in the 21st century.
Whether you view this as a risky decision or a serious war crime depends on the
relative value you attach to American wealth and human life.
But the Iraqis did
insist on holding elections and our guys did lose, as predicted, in 2005. Our
guys were Anglo-Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Iraqi-American
Interior Minister Falah Naqib, and a whole slate of Iraqi exiles who had been
part of the CIA's program for regime change in Iraq throughout the 1990s. Allawi
is back in London, certainly richer, possibly wiser, and with a few good
stories to tell over a glass of Scotch. "Did I tell you I was the prime
minister of Iraq?" It seems that the real meaning of "security"
for "Saddam without the mustache" was his day-job as an eye-doctor in
Britain's National Health Service.
Naqib was the son of
the chief of staff of the Iraqi Army who defected to the United States in the
1970s. The younger Naqib was appointed interim interior minister of Iraq in
2004. Steven Casteel, the former chief of intelligence of the US Drug
Enforcement Administration, who had run the interior ministry for the Coalition
Provisional Authority, stayed on as Naqib's senior US adviser. Naqib and
Casteel recruited, trained and deployed the Special Police death squads who
detained, tortured and executed thousands of Iraqis in a reign of terror and
ethnic cleansing in Baghdad and other cities.
The Special Police
recruited by Naqib and Casteel (later re-branded as the National Police) have
continued their grisly work throughout the occupation, while Western
journalists have unquestioningly accepted the Pentagon's successive narratives
of "stolen police uniforms," "sectarian violence" and
"infiltration by Shiite militias" to explain away the carnage. And
yet Naqib himself admitted to the New York Times, after the public disclosure of the al-Jadiriyah interrogation
center in November 2005, that "the majority of commando officers working
in the ministry now were appointed by him," although his Badr Brigade successor,
Bayan al-Jabr, with Casteel still at his elbow, did add more of his own
militiamen to their ranks.
The Special Police
were trained by retired Colonel James Steele, an Iran-Contra figure who trained
counter-insurgency forces that committed similar atrocities in Cambodia and El
Salvador. He later became a vice president at Enron. After he left Iraq in
April 2005, his trainees continued to work closely with American Special Police
Transition Teams and with Americans stationed at the high-tech Special Police
command center that they established and equipped in January 2005. The Special
Police command center was part of the U.S. command and control network in Iraq,
directly connected to CENTCOM in Baghdad and every U.S. forward operating base
in the country. The notion that its massive campaign of arbitrary detention,
torture and extra-judicial execution was somehow carried out without both
active and passive support from US officials is an absurdity. The Americans
involved must ultimately be held accountable for their crimes, just as surely
as those who authorized torture and attacks on civilians by US forces and the
"supreme international crime," the war itself.
But the two
elections held in 2005 marginalized Allawi, Naqib and even our Islamist guy, Ibrahim
al-Jaafari, the head of the London branch of the Dawa Party. Jaafari succeeded
Allawi as transitional prime minister, but soon followed him home to London.
Neither he nor Allawi were ever foolish enough to move their families or
principal residences to the country they were pretending to rule. Jaafari told
Tim Russert that Noam Chomsky was one of his favorite authors.
administering an Iraq run by our guys, the United States is now occupying a
country in which the major players are all playing a more complex game than
American occupation officials can control. For the umpteenth time in its
history, the United States is finding that puppet-strings can be pulled from
either end, and that this makes for an unpredictable puppet show with little
relation to its own script. As Gabriel Kolko pointed out in Confronting the
Third World in 1988, "The notion of an honest puppet is a
contradiction that the United States has failed to resolve anywhere in the
world since 1945."
Even as resistance forces
continue to strike American targets in Iraq every day, the Iraqi government and
national assembly are establishing credibility with their own people by
standing up to their American puppet-masters over oil privatization and the
status of forces negotiations. The United States is being forced to accept
conditions for its presence in Iraq that serve the interests of the Iraqi
government rather than its own commercial and strategic interests. Maliki and
his colleagues know only too well what the Americans want, and they understand
that they can use American desires for permanent bases and oil contracts as
carrots to keep the Americans on their side, to help them consolidate their
power in the country and to kill or intimidate their opponents.
A common understanding
of torture survivors, in Iraq and elsewhere, is that they can stay alive by
refusing to give their interrogators what they want. Tareq Sammaree, the former
director of the School of Education at Baghdad University credits his survival
at al-Jadiriyah to this understanding. He was sure that he would be killed as
soon as his interrogators had got what they wanted from him, primarily the
locations of other Iraqi academics who were hiding from the Special Police.
This knowledge enabled him to endure horrific torture by US-trained
interrogators. By the same token, Iraqi leaders understand that it is precisely
their ability to withhold what the Americans want that gives them power over
The United States
has been down this road so many times that it must be like a recurrent
nightmare for State Department officials. In the 1940s, successive American
envoys to the Chinese Nationalist government in Chungking reported that Chiang
Kai-shek was running the most corrupt regime in history, but American aid
continued to fill his coffers for want of a better option. The nightmare
recurred with Syngman Rhee in South Korea, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos
in the Philippines, Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia, successive
governments in South Vietnam, a long succession of dictators in Latin America
and of course Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Once an American
puppet has grasped the power that he wields over his handlers, the United
States is faced with a choice between following him down this well-worn garden
path or engineering another regime change. The garden path usually wins out, as
long as the carrots are kept dangling in front of the lumbering donkey's nose.
The more that the US helps to eliminate its puppet's opponents and consolidate
his power, the more problematic the prospects for a further regime change
In Iraq, the
horrific violence of five years of military occupation in a country that
quickly transitioned from conventional to guerilla war provided American
officials with an albeit circular justification to maintain the occupation.
Although the occupation itself was unquestionably the primary cause of
violence, they argued that worse violence would be unleashed if it ended. The
violence of the occupation provided its own justification. Now that the
violence has diminished a little, because the work of the death squads and the
destruction of cities in Anbar has been more or less completed, US officials
argue that things are going better -- so now there is no reason for American forces
to leave. This is a huge mistake.
Instead of seizing
what is likely a fleeting opportunity to declare victory and get out, American
policy-makers are greedily renewing their commitment to the original goals of
the invasion. Western oil companies are finally taking tentative steps to begin
operations, even without a legal basis, and negotiations continue for a status
of forces agreement with the Maliki government. Despite congressional
prohibitions on "permanent bases," they still want 58 of them, a compromise
from the 200 they asked for when the negotiations began. A Pentagon lawyer
admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that the Department of
Defense has no legal definition for the term "permanent base."
"It doesn't really mean anything," he said.
For the Iraqis, all
of this can only serve to justify renewed resistance, possibly by the united
front of Sadrists and Sunnis that the CIA warned against in November 2003, but
which the US-backed death squads succeeded in undermining in the years that
followed. Or a reconciliation between Maliki and other factions may lead to an
official request for a US withdrawal, perhaps after the American election. And
al-Sadr has withdrawn his party from provincial elections in order to maintain
its status as an armed resistance group. Resistance to the occupation is still
more important to him and his millions of followers than claiming the larger
role in provincial government that they were bound to win at the polls.
Whatever happens on
the Iraqi side, American leaders must understand that their original goals in
Iraq are not and will never be achievable. As long as U.S. forces, officials
and contractors remain in Iraq, they will always meet political opposition and
armed resistance. They will never be welcome. How could they be after what they
have done to these people and their country? The best chance for any sort of
mutually beneficial or profitable relationship in the future lies in seizing
this moment to begin a complete withdrawal of occupation forces from the
country, including all U.S. troops, contractors and civilian officials. Once
its sovereignty has been restored, Iraq will undoubtedly form close
relationships with other countries in the region, China and Russia -- anybody
but the United States. But mutual interests will eventually lead to at least a
normalization of relations. Sincere apologies and substantial reparations will
help this process more than anything the US can do from its present
campaign website declares, "He will keep some troops in Iraq to protect
our embassy and diplomats." Under other circumstances, this might sound
reasonable. But the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is not a legitimate embassy,
and its thousand-plus staff are not diplomatic envoys to a sovereign country.
The so-called embassy is a 104-acre fortified compound enclosing a corner of
the four-square-mile Green Zone. It is 10 times the size of any legitimate
embassy in the world. This is in fact the jewel in the crown of the network of
American bases in Iraq, the headquarters of the US occupation, from which
American advisers plan to maintain their influence over this and subsequent
occupation headquarters cost $736 million to build. Thousands of construction
workers were lured, mostly from South Asia, by false promises of jobs in Dubai.
Their plane tickets were taken away in Kuwait as they were loaded onto
unmarked, aging chartered planes headed for Baghdad. Supervisors described
workers being "treated like animals," beaten regularly and given
dangerously inadequate healthcare that resulted in at least two deaths. Workers
who escaped were rounded up and incarcerated, but 375 Pakistanis were finally
sent home after they went on strike in June 2006.
The United States
has also spent $5.6 billion on military construction at its other bases in Iraq
and Afghanistan, plus an additional $1.8 billion now allocated for 2009. The
embassy is the first of these bases that should be evacuated and handed back to
Iraq, eliminating any pretext for Obama to leave behind a "residual
force" that would continue the occupation on a smaller scale. The United
States didn't pay a penny for the land in the first place -- it was a gift from
Allawi's interim government. And State Department employees are only now moving
into the new offices and apartment buildings, so it would be both practical and
diplomatic to quietly abandon this folly now rather than later, along with the
roughly 265 other US bases in Iraq.
A persistent feature
of the "tragedy of American diplomacy," as William Appleman Williams
called it, has been the hubris that has blinded American officials to
opportunities like the one they are squandering in Iraq today. In Century of
War in 1994, Kolko described the "institutional myopia" by which
"options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational
become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and
diplomacy that is possible in official circles."
In Washington, this
institutional myopia has been compounded since the end of the Cold War by
missed opportunities, delusional thinking and vested interests. The opportunity
for nuclear disarmament and a more peaceful world has been squandered in favor
of an unprecedented and unprovoked military build-up and the opportunistic use
of U.S. military superiority to threaten and attack other countries. The tragic
consequences of this historic failure have become much clearer during the eight
years of the Bush-Cheney regime. And yet neither major candidate in this year's
presidential election has presented a plan to finally retire the Cold War
military-industrial complex before it wreaks even more havoc. Nor has either of
them presented a new vision, however overdue, of a legitimate role that the
United States could play in a peaceful post-Cold War world.
J S Davies is the author of "The U.S.
invasion and destruction of Iraq: setting the record straight,"
to be published in 2009. He lives in Miami, Florida.