1. It’s Official: Iraq is the 51st State
Amid all the Bush dissembling that marked the third anniversary of his Iraq invasion, it might be easy to forget that we got into this mess because the Democrats and the media were not prepared to challenge the Big Lie used to justify it. It was plain as daylight even four years ago that Iraq was absolutely no threat to the U.S. or to anyone else in the region, for that matter. (Today, too much of the media still seems to let Bush get away with claiming that the intelligence services of the world shared his assessment of the Iraqi threat: That, quite frankly, is a cow pat — yes, the intelligence services of the world may have had a similar assessment to that of the U.S. about what Iraq had in its arsenal. And on that basis, they deduced that Iraq was no threat, as did U.S. intelligence until the Duckhunter and the neocons began to lean on them to change the conclusions they were drawing from the same facts.)
Still, Bush seems to get very little by way of skeptical questioning when he offers a new palliative to suit the new situation: Even as he makes absolutely clear that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq after his presidency, he offers the seductive promise that “progress” is being made because Iraqi security forces are being deployed to replace their U.S. counterparts, which supposedly will allow them to leave. Now, if in social situations, we judge people not by what they say about themselves but by their behavior, then surely we should apply the same standard in the realm of politics? Although this idea of Iraqi forces deployment allowing U.S. forces to leave has been reported for months, there have been no signs in the behavior of U.S. forces in Iraq that the way is being prepared for a departure of its forces for the foreseeable future.
Handing over policing duties to allied Iraqi forces makes perfect sense for the U.S. military in Iraq. It lowers the profile of U.S. forces, makes them less vulnerable to casualties from guerrilla attacks, and reduces the daily friction that their presence causes among Iraqis. It will surely change both the size and the composition of the U.S. force required in Iraq, producing a significant reduction in troop levels and a greater reliance on air power. But that’s not the same as withdrawing. Michael Schwartz convincingly demonstrates that not only are the Iraqi forces being “stood up” by the U.S. deeply mired in Iraq’s sectarian tensions; they are wholly dependent on the U.S. military, fully integrated with it and under its command rather than answerable to Iraqi civilian politicians. Moreover, there is simply no national army capable of defending Iraq’s borders. No air force, no navy, no artillery or missile fleet, no significant armor. Nor are there any signs that plans are in the works to create such forces.
“You break it, you own it,” Powell allegedly told Bush. And there you have it: The U.S. destroyed Iraq’s national army, and with it the very basis of its ability to function as an independent state. Right now, the U.S. is the only force present in Iraq capable of defending its borders. If state power, sovereignty even, is defined by a monopoly on the means of force in a designated territory, then there isn’t really a state in Iraq today. There’s the U.S. military, and a series of ethnically and sectarian aligned militias.
The U.S. isn’t about to walk away and leave the borders of the country with the world’s second largest known oil reserves prey to the whim of Tehran or Ankara or Damascus or anyone else. That may be why when Kerry challenged Bush on the campaign trail to explain the 14 permanent bases the U.S. has begun building in Iraq and to declare that the U.S. has no desire to maintain a long-term presence in Iraq, Bush ducked the question. And has done so ever since. Nor has the U.S. media paid much attention to the question of why, if a withdrawal from Iraq is on the cards, Balad air force base near Baghdad boasts a Popeyes, a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a 24-hour Burger King and other features, both on this base and others, that make them resemble a slice of American suburbia? (Hertz seems to have spotted a marketing opportunity by opening up an outlet at one that rents out armor-plated sedans for off-base excursions.)
Americans wondering about base-closures in their home states ought not to be surprised: Perhaps those bases have simply been relocated to the 51st state.
2. Democracy and All That
Having failed to validate their case that Iraq had been a threat to the U.S. and its interests, the packaging of the mission was changed to reflect the priority of spreading democracy (all though Republicans are still allowed to get away with selling TV audiences the preposterous notion that “if we weren’t fighting them there, we’d be fighting them in our own cities” — how such a claim has been allowed to survive as a GOP talking point is testimony to the reluctance of TV anchors in the U.S. to slap down even the most palpably fallacious drivel when it’s spoken by senior politicians claiming the mantle of “national security.”)
Of course, spreading democracy in the Arab seems less appealing to the Administration now that the Palestinian and Egyptian elections have made abundantly clear that allowing the will of the people to prevail in the Arab world would almost certainly put the Islamists in power must about everywhere. But nowhere has the fruit of democracy been harder to swallow than in Iraq, where the ingrate electorate showed their contempt for U.S.-backed candidates (Chalabi didn’t win a seat; Allawi got less than 10 percent of the vote) and instead opted overwhelmingly for sectarian parties — in the case of the Arab majority, that meant the largest share of power going to Iran-backed Shiite Islamists, while the remainder went mostly to the Sunni Islamists aligned with the insurgency.
But the rules bequeathed by the U.S. has precluded anybody from forming a strong government, and they’re continuing to negotiate a complicated ethnic power sharing arrangement — the latest proposal is for a kind of power sharing council — that would supercede the democratically elected legislature.
Again, don’t be too harsh on the Bush administration. When the British and French designed their colonies — including Iraq — they deliberately cobbled together polities composed of diverse and often fractious populations. The internal divisions, they reasoned, made these populations easier to rule from abroad — or by a homegrown tyrant. With the tyrant, and the apparatus of tyranny, gone, the Iraqis are certainly not looking in a position to effectively rule themselves. Even though there is a consensus among upward of 80 percent of ordinary Iraqis that they want the U.S. forces to set a timetable for departing, the sectarian tensions and lack of power in the Iraqi central government make it unlikely that any one of Iraq’s political actors will manage to translate that sentiment into a challenge to the longterm U.S. presence. Indeed, what is most striking about the current political moment in Iraq is that far from simply dealing with the elected government (such that exists), the U.S. is negotiating over new political arrangements with hostile power centers that nonetheless have the ability to shape events in Iraq: the Baathist leadership of the insurgency; and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The fact of those talks speaks volumes about the real distribution of power in Iraq.
3. Paper Tigritude
“What’s the use of having this great military if we never use it?” Madeleine Albright once complained when the Joint Chiefs of Staff were warning against getting drawn into the sectarian conflicts of the Balkans. Well, Madeleine, if I may be so presumptuous as to venture an answer to your question, the use of not committing your military to missions impossible is that your adversaries tend to think it more powerful than it really is, and it acts as a deterrent to behavior you don’t like. But if you commit your forces and then fail to impose your will, as the U.S. has done in Iraq, your adversaries are emboldened by the limits to your military capability that have become apparent. (Why do you think Iran no longer fears a U.S. invasion?) In short, Iraq has overstretched the U.S. military and left it with plenty of rebuilding to do, and the rest of the world has observed that while the U.S. is capable of destroying any obstacle in its path, as an army of occupation it doesn’t do so well — to borrow Powell’s terminology, it’s not that good at owning the things it breaks.
But the display of the limits of U.S. power hasn’t been confined to the military sphere. Economically, the war has been a colossal drain on U.S. resources and deepened its debt (increasingly held by China, defined as a strategic competitor by the Bush administration). And the economic drain is likely to continue, not just as long as the open-ended U.S. military presence does, but also in the long-term multiplier effect pointed out by Joseph Stieglitz, in which the cumulative effects — such as absorbing the cost of long-term care to the tens of thousands of Americans left maimed by the war — will eventually pass $1 trillion.
Politically, the invasion — the choatic aftermath, and the consistent stream of images it has produced of U.S. abuses against Iraqis — has been grist to the mill for the jihadist cause worldwide. Essentially, the U.S. showed itself, in Arab eyes, to be behaving exactly as the “Crusader” caricature promoted by al-Qaeda predicted it would. Not only has that ensured Al Qaeda’s generational survival, already putting a new generation of global jihadists into the field in the way that Afghanistan did for its first generation in the 1980s, it has shifted mainstream Muslim opinion through the world decisively against the U.S. Today, the vast majority remain opposed to the terror tactics of al-Qaeda, but few quibble with its characterization of U.S. policies as innately hostile to Muslims. And to the extent that the political rupture the administration hoped to achieve in the established order in the Middle East has occurred, it has worked to the advantage of the Islamists long suppressed by U.S.-allied autocrats.
Former Bush administration State Department official Richard Haass has concluded that diplomatically, the invasion isolated the U.S. and diminished its influence. To talk of U.S. “leadership” today is to wax nostalgic, because most traditional U.S. allies, even are reluctant to follow the U.S. on a wide variety of policies. Iraq made it possible to say no to Washington and suffer no consequences. Today, even an ally as close as Britain sees itself obliged (as is clear in its handling of the Iran issue) to support Washington’s objectives even at the same time as its works to restrain and redirect Washington’s own pursuit of those objectives so as to avoid opening up new fronts.
The “forward leaning strategy of freedom” in the Middle East appears to have gone the way of all things that lean forward — if you lack balance, you fall on your face.
4. The Cost at Home
Stieglitz has done the analysis on the longterm multiplier draining effect on the economy, but the social impact is purely speculative. Martin Van Creveld, writing in the Israeli context and with reference to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, has noted the corrosive effect on the social fabric of an industrialized society of the occupation of a poorer, weaker population. Even more scarily, Sven Lindqvist has shown in his “History of Bombing” how the cruelty practiced by European countries in their colonies in the late 19th and early 20th century set the state for the barbarities of World War II. The idea of simply dropping bombs on civilian population centers, which entered Europe at Guernica and became commonplace in WWII, originated with the use of those tactics by the British in Iraq and the Italians in Libya.
Now, we’re facing the prospect of tens of thousands of psychologically scarred people returning home from a place where their physical survival has been predicated on their quickness to violently eliminate potential threats. Inevitably, some of that violence will come home, be it in a domestic context or a wider social one. Many of those vets will be justifiably outraged at what they have experienced, and there’s no telling where that outrage will be directed. Hopefully into politics questioning the reasons they were sent to Iraq, and challenging the thinking that allowed it to happen. But I fear that in some instances, it may be a lot uglier. If the Gulf War begat Timothy McVeigh, I shudder to think what Operation Iraqi Freedom may yet have in store for America.