What’s Iraq About Now?

Four years into the Iraq war — “hard to believe,” eh, Mr Wolfowitz? — don’t expect the U.S. media to dwell on the conceptual foundations of this catastrophe. That may be because the media was rather complicit in laying those foundations. But the more interesting question, today, I think, is where the Iraq adventure is going, because its narratives have clearly unraveled, and its strategic purpose — in the sense of attainable goals rather than fantasies — is now far from clear. To be sure, today, Washington is clear only on what it wants to prevent in Iraq, and even then its chances of doing so are slim. Still, as Bush says, that doesn’t mean it can withdraw.

It’s worth noting, in passing, that the decision making structures in the United States are fundamentally dysfunctional to its imperial project — its system of government is democratic (in a plutocratic sort of way), and distributes its flow of information and decision making across a number of bureaucratic command centers that are seldom on quite the same page, and compete for authority and resources — a competition that occurs partly in the public eye, via “leaks” to the media, whose source is invariably the bureaucratic rivals of those who are made to look bad by the story. The executive decision makers are always vulnerable to the limited appetite of the electorate for costly imperial adventures, and the electorate gets to express its impatience every two years by using the ballot box to limit the authority of those directing the current imperial expedition.

The patience of the enemy out in the field, meanwhile, is invariably far deeper than that allowed by U.S. election cycles. Ho Chi Minh knew that; so do the Iraqi insurgents and the Shiites and the Iranians, and the Palestinians and Syrians and everybody else Washington is fighting. The Iraqis are intimately aware of the debate in Washington over withdrawal, and they know that despite the surge of troops, the U.S. will in the near future be forced by domestic pressure to withdraw most of its infantry from Iraqi streets. (No wonder frustrated hawks like Max Boot and Michael O’Hanlon are suggesting that the U.S. military begin outsourcing expeditionary warfare to the satrapies, offering green cards for four years service — just as the British wherever possible sent Indians or Ghurkas to do their fighting.) But even that won’t overcome the bureaucratic internecine warfare. Ask a question as simple as “How could the U.S. occupy Iraq without having a coherent plan?” and the answer is simple: There was a plan, but it was trashed because it had been developed in the State Department, whose personnel hadn’t drunk the Kool Aid of permanent revolution in the Middle East, and therefore couldn’t be trusted. While the neocons might have believed their fantasies about Iraq tranforming itself immediately into a willing and happy satrap of the U.S., the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld had no inclination to back a long occupation. So, Paul Bremer was sent in without a clue, armed with some old manuals from the occupation of Germany in 1945 (no jokes!) and a civil administration recruited largely from the intern echelon of neocon think-tanks. (Again, no jokes!)

Then there’s the question of the media’s failure to challenge the conceptual frameworks in which the public was prepared for war. I’ll resist the hubristic temptation to reprise the predictive highlights of the 487 pieces of analysis I’ve written for TIME.com over the years on Iraq, but suffice to say that you didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to establish (at the time, not only in retrospect) that the war was based on false premises: Not only the premise that Saddam had some unconventional weapons, but that even if he did, that invading and occupying his country was a wise response. (Think about it, would Iraq be any less of a mess today if the U.S. had actually found a couple of sheds full of mustard gas and even a refrigerator stocked with botulinum toxin?) Nor was it that hard to establish the inevitability that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would stir a nationalist resistance that would be hard to contain — people don’t like being occupied; it makes Arab people feel like the Palestinians, and that inspires them to resist. All this was lost on the coterie of “experts” who have dominated the milquetoast media discussion of Iraq even after they’ve been proved so spectacularly wrong (Kristol, Boot, Krauthammer, Beinart, Hitchens, Packer and so on).

But there’s no value in reprising the morbid jig that sent America lurching into this mess.

The more interesting question, I think, is what is Iraq now? What is the U.S. doing there? What are its objectives, and which of them can be salvaged? And the reason those questions are so interesting is that the original bundle of impulses and objectives that took America into war has now completely unraveled in the brutal reality of Iraq. Not only that, the U.S. long ago lost its ability to shape the outcome, and the agendas of others limit what Washington is able to achieve.

Bush sounded almost comical Monday when he appealed for patience, saying it would take months to secure Baghdad. Perhaps, but pacification of the capital via a massive injection of new troops, four years into the war, is not much of an achievement — and even then, it will happen relatively quickly because the Shiite militias have simply gone to ground to let the U.S. forces sweep their areas unimpeded, and concentrate on the Sunni insurgents.

The Shiite and Sunni political-military formations will be there months from now, and there’s no sign that the current government is able to achieve an accord that would resolve the conflict. Nor is there a credible alternative to the present government — if the best hope is the wannabe-thug Iyad Allawi, suddenly returned from London to try and forge a new coalition, you know Maliki is as good as it gets. And, of course, some of the things Maliki has to do to stay in power are likely to intensify the conflict — not only his alliance with Sadr, but his dependence on the support of the Kurds, who are pressing to complete their takeover of Kirkuk this year, which the Sunni Arabs and Turkey are unlikely to accept. Breaking up the country will cause regional chaos, holding it together offers simply a more contained chaos.

Still, Bush is not wrong in saying that retreating from Iraq will empower forces hostile to the U.S. all over the region. Of course he omits to acknowledge that it already has, but a withdrawal would certainly underscore the image of epic defeat, and would likely plunge the region into chaos as various regional powers moved to secure their stake in the resulting vacuum. So, while there’s not much that can be achieved, cutting bait could result in greater setbacks.

Iraq, then, may no longer simply be a place or a project; instead it has become the morbid condition of contemporary imperial America.

The decision to invade Iraq is not reducible to any single cause or impulse, as both the Administration hacks (including Christopher Hitchens!) and the conspiracy theorists and vulgar-Marxists would have us believe. Just as political power itself rests in a complex web of relations and balances spread over a range of different institutions with different interests and objectives, so must the decision to go to war be explained as the confluence of a range of different impulses into a kind of “perfect storm.”

Even before 9/11 created an easily exploited climate of fear and crude belief among those in power in the necessity of retribution (inspired by the sort of vulgar Orientalism of the Bernard Lewis brigade — funny how those who tell us that “the only language Arabs understand is violence” are those most inclined to converse with the Arab world in that tongue), there were other impulses:

  • Iraq was not invaded simply because of its vast oil reserves, and yet there’s absolutely no question that winning control over those reserves for Western oil companies was considered a major benefit of going to war — given the broad prescriptions of the Energy Task Force headed up by Cheney two years earlier, it’s simply impossible that the Administration had not factored the oil windfall into its thinking. Saddam was a nuisance in the geopolitical sphere, but once the opportunity presented itself, there was no reason to live with his control over such vast oil reservves.
  • Iraq was not invaded simply because of the suspicion that it harbored unconventional weapons. Even if it had the weapons unaccounted for by the UN inspectors, those posed no strategic threat to anyone — indeed, it was the very weakness of the Iraqi regime that made it such an appealing beach-head for the launch of a broad strategy to reorder the politics of the region to the advantage of the U.S. and its allies through the application of U.S. military force.
  • Iraq wasn’t invaded because of a suspicion that it might be in cahoots with al-Qaeda. That was the flimsiest part of the case; indeed, it’s hard to imagine how Colin Powell could keep a straight face making that allegation to the UN Security Council. Al-Qaeda loathed Saddam, and Saddam loathed al-Qaeda. Moreover, neither Saddam nor al-Qaeda represented a significant strategic threat to the U.S. Still, the broad strategy of putting a massive U.S. military presence at the heart of the Arab world was definitely viewed as a means of destroying the emerging challenges to U.S. authority and influence that al-Qaeda was hoping to stir. Partly, this was the crude logic of “retaliation”; partly it was a very specific plan to reorganize the political-military terrain of the region by making Iraq the major staging area of U.S. military operations throughout the region, building 14 permanent bases there from which U.S. power could be projected in all directions (and taking the pressure of hosting the U.S. off the more fragile regime in Saudi Arabia). And the neocons were already talking about bringing down the regimes of Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, all of whom had actually allied with the U.S. to a greater or lesser extent against al-Qaeda.
  • Iraq wasn’t invaded to spread “democracy” in the Middle East; indeed, democratic elections weren’t even on the agenda as Bremer sought a three-year process to remake the political and economic system under his direct control with no direct elections. It was the pressure from Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiites that forced the U.S. to relent and hold the elections, and once that happened, political control slipped forever out of the hands of the U.S. and the exiles it had cultivated and parachuted in — democracy produced a government closer to Tehran than to Washington. Hobbesian hardmen like Cheney and Rumseld would have had little instinctive enthusiasm for the messianic naivete of the likes of Wolfowitz and the neocons, but their priority may have been to limit the exposure of U.S. troops and its duration, (Rummy) and to hasten the transfer of authority to a kleptocratic Quisling class with whom the likes of Halliburton and the oil companies would love to deal. (Too bad democracy involves letting people vote.)
  • Plainly, much of that vision lies in tatters. The question is how much of it can be salvaged, and at what cost — or even more gloomily, how can Iraq be managed in ways that limit the extent to which it weakens and imperils U.S. global interests. (It’s no longer plausible to see it as advancing those interests.)

    The Baghdad security plan is clearly triage, aggressive defense designed to prevent the capital outside the Green Zone from falling entirely into the hands of insurgents and militias. It’s being tied to political conditions set for the Iraqi government, although it’s already clear that the government is unlikely to meet many of those — the idea of national reconciliation they envisage may not be plausible for the foreseeable future. Interestingly enough, one of the most urgent “benchmarks” set for the Maliki government is the passing of a new oil law. The oil law is characterized in most of the U.S. media simply as a mechanism for fairly sharing oil revenues among the various regions and therefore sects and ethnic groups — but the far more significant portion of the legislation is the fact that it offers up ownership of Iraq’s reserves to foreign oil companies, meaning that, in fact, the revenues available for sharing will be considerably reduced — but the imperial objectivce of acquiring control of Iraq’s oil reserves will be ensured. Although Maliki’s cabinet has accepted the law, it remains to be seen whether the parliament will adopt it. Iraqis are not stupid, and won’t that easily sign away their patrimony no matter how good Christopher Hitchens tells them it will be for them. (Who’d have imagined the Trotskyist contrarian of old not only flakking for the Administration, but also as a shill for Big Oil…)

    But whether it’s the troop surge or the oil law, what we’re seeing now are panicky improvisations. And many questions simply remain unanswered — the Administration has studiously dodged ever stating clearly its intentions, or even desires, apropos the permanent bases it has constructed in Iraq. (But Washington is still pouring billions of dollars into constructing them.) But the fact that there’s still no sign of an Iraqi air force or any other military capability to defend the country’s borders tells you that Washington has made no plans to leave Iraq independent, in the sense of capable of defending its sovereignty, any time soon. (Even the Hillary Clinton types talk of pulling U.S. forces out of the cities and deploying them on the borders, as if Iraq is to remain a U.S. protectorate in perpetuity.)

    But there simply is no U.S. plan constructed in a modular way that allows maximal aims to be jettisoned in order to ensure the realization of core objectives. It simply unravels, messily.

    Much of the U.S. coverage of the troop surge is centered on whether or not it will “work,” with Democrats insisting it won’t and neocons saying it already has. But that depends, very much, on what we mean by “work.” Obviously it won’t defeat the insurgency or the Shiite militias: The commander in charge, General David Petraeus, is a smart counterinsurgency thinker, and he has made clear himself that no action by the U.S. military can secure Iraq — the critical dimension, he insists, remains political: the ability of a new political order to integrate the Sunnis, and to negotiate compacts with the Shiite leadership to whom the militias answer. So, when Petraeus is asked, for example, whether the Mehdi army of Moqtada Sadr could have a legitimate role as a community security force protecting Shiites, he is open to the idea even if Washington’s political echelon isn’t.

    It strikes me that Petraeus envisages his mission as a holding operation, to prevent Baghdad from collapsing into anarchy in the hope that freezing the current balance of forces between the sectarian rivals largely in place, the U.S. can create space for a new political compact. While the failed social engineers in Washington may be hoping to remake the political center in Baghdad, their prospects for doing so look increasingly grim. Petraeus is unlikely to be as naive as the political wing of the Administration in imagining that Maliki can be sidelined or Sadr eliminated.

    Instead, he’s more likely to encourage discussion with the insurgents, and also the diplomatic process Iraq’s government has initiated with its neighbors, forcing Washington into engaging with Iran and Syria (or creating cover for it to do so). If Iran and Saudi Arabia are able to achieve a compact that stabilizes Lebanon, then such regional horse-trading may yet have something to offer in Iraq. The problem, of course, is that both the domestic political process in Iraq, and the regional diplomacy, are beyond Washington’s control.

    What Iraq is, in short, after four years, is an exercise in damage-limitation. The only certainty now is that the U.S. will emerge from the conflict considerably weaker as a global power than when it went in. “Hard to believe,” eh Wolfie, “hard to believe…”

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    28 Responses to What’s Iraq About Now?

    1. bobw says:

      Even the idea of damage limitation seems to be a false hope, sounding as it does like “stop the bleeding.” The core truth that you have touched on is that Iraq will not accept occupation. It will not even accept the US keeping it from tearing itself apart in civil war.

      The Democrats’ plan of redeploying to the borders and allowing Iraqis to knock themselves is particularly vicious, since it denies any responsibility for the damage we’ve caused.

      Even Tom Hayden’s well-meaning plan of an offer of massive reconstruction aid probably wouldnt work, just as it hasnt in Afghanistan, and the American people wouldnt fund it anyway.

    2. Jacob Freeze says:

      Bpbw comments that massive reconstruction hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, and the article itself never even considers the possibility of doing anything for the Iraqis. What a sad joke! There’s no “massive reconstruction” in Afghanistan; nothing works outside the high-priced hotels for overpaid aid workers. There’s virtually no electricity or clean water in Iraq, much less any of the other rudiments of civilization. Reconstruction in Iraq means huge payments to Blackwater and KBR, and no visible effect for anyone else except cowboys in SUVs shooting their way through traffic.

    3. Saifedean says:

      I think a very important lesson learned from Lebanon is that in a weak fragmented country surrounded by nosy neighboors no one can maintain their fight in a civil war without significant outside support. Much of this is just down to pure logistic reasons.

      Whatever militias exist in Iraq have some lines of outside support to provide them with the means to fight. It is just unthinkable that they would be able to continue without this support, especially from direct neighboors. You run out of bullets and bombs, and even if you could buy them, you’ll run out of money. If you’re so good you can run an economy to make enough money to buy bullets, then you’ve won the war and have just kicked off what is known as a “state”.

      If a regional deal is struck, where the interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey are reconciled on terms that are not incredibly terrible for the majority of Iraqis, then the civil war can end. The party whose interests seem to matter least is America, they simply have no position of strength from which to bargain. Everyone knows they’re leaving soon, which is not the best card to bring to the table. Also, everyone knows Bush will try anything to polish the turd of this war with some reasonable solution, and they will blackmail him to the end.

      The only plaussible scenario that the any sane heads in the US government should work for is this then: get the Iranians, Saudis, Turks and Iraqis to largely agree on something, anything, and then get out. You are in no position to demand anything from this negotiation because the neighboors have less to lose from the status quo than you do. Give up all your fantasies of oil, democracy and the like, and you may, just may, salvage some face by making it look like this episode ended in something less worse than the worst scenarios.

      That was the American-interest justification for this; I know it doesn’t count for shit, but maybe, just maybe, some American should think that this might be the right thing to do because they kinda owe it to the Iraqis, what with half a million deaths and all.

    4. Patrick Cummins says:

      Tony,
      I agree that oil concerns were only one among several motives for the Iraq invasion. However, a good case can be made that the goal with respect to oil was not just one of winning control for the benefit of western oil companies. Consider these comments:

      “The resulting tight [oil] markets have increased U.S. and global vulnerability to disruption and provided adversaries undue potential influence over the price of oil. Iraq has become a key “swing” producer, posing a difficult situation for the U.S. government.”

      “Like it or not, Iraqi reserves represent a major asset that can quickly add capacity to world oil markets and inject a more competitive tenor to oil trade. However, such a policy will be quite costly as this trade-off will encourage Saddam Hussein to boast of his ‘victory’ against the United States, fuel his ambitions, and potentially strengthen his regime.”

      Both are drawn from an April 2001 document commissioned by the Bush Administration from the Council on Foreign Relation and the Baker Institute of Rice University in preparation for the May 2001 National Energy Policy.

      The whole thrust of this document (Baker Institute Study No. 15 ) is that US energy security is imperiled by tightening world oil supplies. Iraq was seen as key to increasing world oil production. The problem was that its oil reserves were controlled by a hostile regime. Following the removal of Saddam’s regime, it was expected that Iraq’s production could be ramped up quickly (with, of course, the participation of western oil companies). A notable failure of the war has been that Iraq’s oil production has actually fallen since March, 2003, and world oil supplies are tighter than ever.

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    6. bob k says:

      Tony,
      I don’t see the Zionist agenda on the list of “impulses”
      leading to the disaster in Iraq. I know you don’t like the idea of “conspiracy” being a framework of understanding the
      predicament if it is that. It seems to me the agenda is clearly spelled out in the document “Clean Break” written for B. Netanyahu and the Project for a New America Century presented to President Clinton recommending Saddam Husseins removal from power in Iraq. Who authored these papers? I suppose it could be argued it isn’t a “conspiracy” because these are public documents. Didn’t AIPAC and their Chistian Zionist allies shill for war? What is the Zionist agenda anyway?
      The oil argument never made sense. The oil majors do business with tyrants all the time everywhere. Of course the price of oil did triple as a result of the invasion of Iraq.
      What to do? Check the photoes of the fall of Saigon. That is the future for the empire.

    7. Maracatú says:

      This constitutes a nice “update” to another “spot on” bit of analysis I read over one and a half years ago (namely Robert Higgs’ “What Does the Administration’s Leaked Mea Culpa on Iraq Portend?” — http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1553). I do coincide with part of what bob k. notes above concerning the influence of Israel.

    8. Jacob Freeze says:

      Chatter chatter chatter about why we’re there, Israel, Iran, Bernard Lewis… everything except the basic human needs of the Iraqi people. Why don’t you little chatterboxes try living without electricity, clean water, medicine, or a job for 6 months, and then try talking about what Christopher Hitchens said 4 years ago, or the latest posturing by Hamas. It might not sound so clever. Hey, Tony! Before you pat yourself on the back for your 487 clever articles about Iraq, maybe you should count how many of them dealt with the subhuman impoverishment of the Iraqi people. As long as they had nothing nothing and nothing, do you think any of the bullshit you actually wrote about really mattered? Shut up about Christopher Hitchens! He’s a pathetic jerk, but you’re not much smarter.

    9. Drummerman says:

      Tony, I’m only picking on you because I’m here right now. Still:
      Why do I keep running across this idea? That america is (as I do not at all dispute) an imperial state, but is ‘democratic’ is some “plutocratic kind of way” (okay, you’re going in the right direction, but why so tangential?).
      There’s no reason I can see to assert that
      “executive decision makers are always vulnerable to the limited appetite of the electorate for costly imperial adventures”.
      Are they? Since when? Truman? Wilson? Certainly didn’t stop Reagan. Or Clinton. Or Bush 1. Today’s situation is so staggeringly at odds with the notion that the electorate, through the electoral process, has any real power, even should they still exist within the ‘reality based’ community, that such as assertion juxtaposed with the idea of imperialism is surely mere nonsense. Why do even the progressive commentators and administration critics, who are willing to assert the US’s clearly imperialistic attitude, still stuck in this cognitive dissonance?
      ACK!

    10. WoodyGuthrie'sGuitar says:

      The only possibly acceptable way to atone for the mess the Busheviks created in Iraq, to say nothing of the incipient chaos any further actions will inevitably precipitate, is to proffer to the various potentates of the region the head of one George W. Bush, on a burnished, silver platter, garnished with steaming figs, with it’s mouth full of it’s own testicles…

    11. I think you stated the problem nicely and then balked at the jump.

      The goal is enduring bases. The question is, do the generals understand and support the goal?

      Whatever their inclinations may have been initially, it seems safe to say that the willingness of the generals to follow orders from Bush uncritically has declined.

      And if Bush is dissembling, putting clever generals in charge will only make it worse for him, because they will be better at attempting what they have been told publically to do.

      I would be very much surprised if our generals would allow our army in Iraq to be sacrificed to the increasingly mindless rantings from the WH.

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    13. Chris Darrouzet says:

      I agree stronlgy that for Petraeas the surge is a holding pattern. And you’ve raised the hardest question of them all : holding pattern for what? No one sees a plausible outcome somewhere that leaves us with anything but severe damage inflicted upon ourselves. We are hardly the first empire to have this happen. But it hurts and can indeed lead to desparation and panic. I cant help but think that as scary as the scenarios are, the Iran situation gives the WH a breather from having to explain what the hell it now intends to do, or can do effectively. The scariest part of this whole situation is the lack of any realistic alternatives from the Bushies strongest critiques. It’s because none of us can think of any just now. That’s what’s scariest of all.

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