The problem of Iraq

Now that the Iraq Study Group report [.pdf] has been delivered with great fanfare, there is a curious sense of anticlimax as various people ponder what is to be the next step in Iraq. As I suspected it would, the White House distanced itself from the report’s recommendations since it essentially repudiates the premises of its current policy.

It seems clear to me that what we are going to witness in the near future is not any substantive changes in policy but we will see changes in rhetoric, in the way that the war is packaged. Hence it is probably a good time to closely examine the rhetoric of the debate.

The president speaks repeatedly of not willing to listen to the defeatists and says that the US will stay until “victory” is achieved and “the job” is completed.

But what does the word ‘victory’ mean in the context of Iraq? What could it possibly mean? In November 30, 2005, the White House defined what it meant by victory in the document titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. It makes for interesting reading, mostly for how far those goals are from what currently exists on the ground. It seems amazing that just a year ago some people in the administration were optimistic enough to have such ambitions.

If we forget about US interests and ask what is best for the Iraqis themselves, then it becomes easier to envisage a desirable outcome. What we would hope is that someday Iraq would become a stable, secular, democracy free of all outside military forces (including those of the US), with a legal and constitutional system that enables the various groups within the country to resolve their differences without violence, has protections for minorities, and allows for a just and equitable distribution of resources. Such a system would enable that country to use its enormous oil revenues to rebuild its ruined infrastructure of schools, hospitals, water, electricity, sanitation, and roads, to at least the levels it had before the sanctions that were imposed on it after the invasion of Kuwait.

While that is close to ideal from the point of view of the Iraqis themselves, I do not think that that completes the list of what the Bush government wants or means by ‘victory.’ Whatever the nature of the political and economic system that might come to exist in Iraq, I believe that the US government also wants an Iraqi government that will allow it to maintain a massive military and diplomatic presence within the country and to follow policies that are consistent with US interests. And it is this divergence between what is good for the Iraqi people and what is desired by the Bush administration that will prevent a peaceful resolution of this conflict.

The ‘problem’ with truly free and democratic societies like the one I sketched out for Iraq above, is that its governments tend to look after the welfare of its own people first and not the interests of its business and social elites, or the interests of other countries. Such governments (like that of former president Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and currently Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) might decide that they are going to use their oil revenues in ways that are not necessarily in the interests of the US and also might pursue a foreign policy that goes against US interests. When we look at the history of such cases, what we see is the US actively engaging in changing governments deemed undesirable. The CIA successfully conspired to overthrow Mossadegh in 1953, replacing him with the client leader Reza Pahlavi and supported an unsuccessful coup in Venezuela in 2002 that failed to oust Chavez.

What the Bush administration probably fears most is a Chavez-like leader emerging in Iraq, who decides to follow a populist economic path of using oil revenues to improve the lives of its people, and pursue an independent path internationally. According to the brutal realpolitik outlined by George Kennan, what the US needs to do in its own strategic interest of controlling global resources is to create a client state in Iraq, by installing a government that will allow US military forces to have a permanent presence in that country and which will be subservient to US interests in making trade and foreign policy decisions, especially when it comes to utilizing its oil resources.

The Kennan vision, it is important to realize, is one that has tacit bipartisan support, which is why I have argued in the past that the US is a one party system with a pro-business/pro-war platform, and the main distinguishing features between the Democratic and Republican parties are on social issues. Many supporters of the Democrats are puzzled and disappointed that their party does not seem to recognize that the country, as shown in the last elections, has largely repudiated the Bush Iraq policy and is increasingly calling for an immediate withdrawal. Some think that the Democrats are playing a tactical game, that they really want the troops to leave but are not calling for it out of fear of not wanting to seem as if they have undercut the President in wartime. I think this view is mistaken. The Democratic Party (at least at the top leadership level) has always subscribed to the Kennan plan as well, and I think that they too want to find a way to keep troops and influence permanently in Iraq. The consensus amongst the business and political elites in the US around the Kennan view has always been strong.

And this is why neither the Bush administration nor the leadership of the new Democratic majority in Congress are anxious for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It is not primarily for fear of an outbreak of sectarian violence, though the more humane people may be also concerned about that. That violence is already occurring on a large scale, so much so that the daily lives of ordinary Iraqi has become hell, leading them to leave the country in droves, creating one of the worst refugee crises. This is about to cause domestic political problems soon as the number of Iraqi refugees wanting to come to the US will overwhelmingly exceed its quota. Things are so bad that it is reported that 90% of Iraqis think they were better off under Saddam Hussein

The real fear about a complete withdrawal from Iraq is the possibility of the emergence of some kind of nationalist leader who will take an independent stance with anti-US rhetoric, similar to Chavez and Ahmadinejad in neighboring Iran.

If that should happen, the American public is likely to be outraged. They will demand to know why the US spent close to a trillion dollars of US money and lost tens of thousands of dead and wounded US soldiers and contractors in order to end up with a government in Iraq that is perceived as hostile to the US. While there might be an immediate sense of relief if the US extricates itself somehow from the quagmire and brings all its troops home, once that initial euphoria is over, there is likely to be a serious settling of accounts in the US as people ask who was responsible for this massive fiasco, for the expenditure of so much resources for an outcome that is even worse for US interests that when Saddam Hussein was in power.

This is why Bush, being the kind of person he is who worries more about being seen as ‘firm’ rather than being right, cannot and will not make the decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq. If he does so, then he will be the one blamed for the ultimate ‘loss’ of Iraq. This is why the leadership of the new Democratic congressional majority also is not anxious to force the issue by cutting funds for the war, the only power over the conduct of the war that it has. They too do not want to be blamed for ‘losing’ Iraq. So we will continue to see a cynical policy of the Democratic congress making noises of disapproval and instituting some increased oversight of the Bush administration’s actions, but still giving Bush whatever he wants to pursue his ill-fated Iraq policy so that when it fails, he and he alone, will bear the blame.

Next: The grand vision for the Middle East.


  1. says

    I have been consistently against the Iraq war from the start but I would like to see it ended as peacefully as possible. Please consider the attached proposal “An Intellectual (and Pragmatic) Approach to Consensus in Iraq, Our Last Best Chance”. Most of what is written on the Iraqi situation simply calls for the phased withdrawal or subtle re-deployment (post-surge or otherwise) of U.S. troops contingent on the Iraqis meeting some nebulous benchmarks. This proposal outlines a dynamic political process that offers a viable, neo-progressive way forward while staying within the framework of the existing political and social structure. Basically they are:

    1). Amend the Iraqi Constitution to create a Senate roughly drawn on Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish lines to function alongside and in some cases above the General assembly. (The current Council of Union can tacitly fulfill this function slightly ahead of the Amendment process.)
    2). Ensure that the vote for the Senate (only) is valid by requiring ID.
    3). Create a Marshall Plan for the Social Infrastructure.
    4). Create several autonomous agencies to oversee various public works projects
    5). Have a high profile coalition of Sunni and Shiite Clerics from the greater region stand with their Iraqi clerical counterparts to specifically condemn certain extreme aspects of the sectarian violence (while staying as far from the political as possible).

    From a humanitarian standpoint, I’m like to see these ideas utilized so please feel free to pass this paper on to any colleagues in a position to affect the process or to continue the conversation. (But please keep my name attached.) Please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or concerns.


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