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The Disaster In Iraq And Constructive Criticism

The Disaster In Iraq And Constructive Criticism

By Gabriel Ash Column

( – "So what do you propose?" That is the question hurled at us critics of the war. Presumably, being right about the war so far is "irrelevant" now. We must be judged by giving sound, practical advice that can make the best of a bad fix.

First, that we were right about the war should not be so easily dismissed. We were right because we analyzed the U.S. government objectively, while Thomas Friedman and the "give war a chance" crowd was looking at things through a dark glass of misplaced piousness. Has a lesson been learned? No it hasn't. The mainstream media, the 9/11 Commission, the Democrats and the liberal and conservative pundits are critical of the failures of the Administration. But with few exceptions, they still assume that the goals of the White House were and are noble. Since that very assumption is the cause of error, those who gave wrong advice will continue to be wrong.

There is a new "wisdom" that begins to unite some faux lefties and some old defense hands. According to this new wisdom, the failure in Iraq is the result of too much optimism, but optimism of a specific kind. Supposedly, had we only understood that Iraq was just "not ready for democracy," had we only sent twice as many soldiers, and given them a simple mission, such as to put in charge a friendly dictator and get out, everything might be different.

The warmonger's haven "National Review" now faults the Administration for the "overestimation in particular of the sophistication of what is fundamentally still a tribal society." Thomas Friedman's new tune is quite similar: we made mistakes, but the Iraqis failed to show up.

John Kerry follows the same line. He is critical of "the way" the war was fought. To prove his point, he has backed from calling the war crimes he, himself, committed thirty years ago "atrocities." Perhaps the new p.c. term for burning villages and their inhabitants should be "robust landscaping." Moral clarity is, of course, no longer a priority, now that Marine snipers are taking potshots at women, children and ambulance drivers in Falluja. But Kerry has an eye for the future, too. A candidate who prepares to spend his term in office burning cities should be careful how he describes burning villages.

It was just a question of time before the exhilaration of empire would turn into the melancholy of murder. In less than a year, giddiness morphed into somber anxiety. But the one thing that remained constant is the self-righteousness of the American public discourse. We're back to faulting the natives for their stubborn refusal to understand the purity of our hearts. And hell hasn't seen the wrath of a heart-broken colonialist. Iraqis must learn now, as did Native Americans, African slaves, Vietnamese and Palestinian peasants, and many others, that ingratitude is a capital offense.

Miracles apparently now happen in pairs. Just as the new anti-American wisdom in Iraq unites Shia and Sunni Muslims, so in the U.S. the neo "anti-Wilsonianism" unites populist racism with the cynicism of the old style imperialists. The dismal results of the neo-con coup are about to stir a wave of nostalgia for the good old days of Kissinger, Suharto and Pinochet. Bush's messianic lunacy is losing its luster, but only so that we can go back to what the U.S. knows best -- what William Blum calls "killing hope," i.e. destroying indigenous liberation movements and installing and supporting U.S.-friendly, mass murderers.

Although Bush understandably isn't very loud about it, the change of tune is even noticeable in the Administration's future plans for Iraq. Exit neo-con Paul Bremer; enter death squads aficionado John Negroponte.

What went wrong?

The trouble with the new, old wisdom is that it is as wrong as the old, new wisdom. The mess in Iraq is not the fault of Iraqis. On the contrary, most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam gone. Despite suspicions, the majority of Iraqis were ready to give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, most Iraqis wanted, and probably still want, a stable, independent, pluralistic Iraq. Even more important is that the public leadership with the greatest level of legitimacy in Iraq, the Shi'a clergy, was and is supportive of a pluralistic and democratic Iraq. The leading clergy of Iraq, especially Al-Sistani, reject the theocratic Iranian model, put a premium on public order and consider political violence legitimate only as a last resort. To be sure, they were difficulties in Iraq that any foreign intervention would have faced but, over all, the U.S. could have stumbled on worse "nation building" projects.

Nor is it true that one country cannot liberate another by military intervention. The U.S. did liberate France from Nazi occupation; Vietnam did liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge; India did liberate Bangladesh from a Pakistani genocide. These were all liberations achieved by armed, foreign intervention.

The most important causes of the current unfolding disaster are rather the occupation's goals and attitudes -- racism and bad faith.

The biggest problem the U.S. occupation faced was mistrust. Iraqis were aware of the history of U.S. support for Saddam, including Bush Sr.'s betrayal of the Shi'a rebels in 1991. They were also aware of U.S. support for Israel and anti-Arab policies in general. To succeed, Bremer and his team had to address Iraqi mistrust head on by being super cautious in showing deference and respect for Iraqis, their wishes, their understanding of the situation and their culture. Instead, the U.S. occupation followed the assumption that Americans knew best. U.S. officials determined the vision of what Iraq should become and how it should get there. Even momentous decisions, such as disbanding the army and attacking Falluja, were taken without input from Iraqis. Iraqis were invited to participate based on their willingness to accept U.S. impositions rather than based on their popular legitimacy. Instead of increased caution and sensitivity, Bremer's occupation demonstrated a heightened level of patronizing and obtuseness.

U.S. sense of cultural superiority is a feature of Washington and of the nation as a whole. But the Bush administration is unique in that its policies are fashioned mostly by a group of neo-con ideologues. Paul Bremer, the appointed pro-consul of Iraq, is one of them, and so are his bosses, Wolfowitz and Feith. The neo-cons are fervent supporters of Israel's Likud party and its racism toward Palestinians. Israeli racism is part of their world view.

Indeed, one needs only go back to key neo-con texts to discover the depth of contempt for Arabs that animates the neo-con mind. Take for example this passage from "A Clean Break," the now infamous position paper written by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and other neo-cons on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

"King Hussein may have ideas for Israel in bringing its Lebanon problem under control. The predominantly Shi'a population of southern Lebanon has been tied for centuries to the Shi'a leadership in Najaf, Iraq rather than Iran. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najaf to help Israel wean the South Lebanese Shi'a away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Shi'a retain strong ties to the Hashemites: the Shi'a venerate foremost the Prophet's family, the direct descendants of which -- and in whose veins the blood of the Prophet flows -- is King Hussein."

Translation: Shi'a Arabs are opposed to Israel because they are a dimwitted herd who follow the leader with the best blood lineage. But that can work both ways. To make them love Israel, all one needs is a pro-Israeli king with blood ties to the prophet Mohammad.

After a full year of being ruled by people with such deep "understanding" of the Middle East, is there any surprise that Iraqis are revolting?

Neo-con racism precluded acknowledging Arab grievances against U.S. and Israeli policy. There was, therefore, no other way to make sense of Iraqi mistrust except as misguided "anti-Americanism." No surprise then that Bremer and his crew thought they could overcome Iraqi suspicions by such patronizing means as a new TV station. There is a short distance from that to the deluded doctrine, which the neo-cons learned from their Israeli friends and teachers, that "Arabs understand only force."

Another result of neo-con racism was that people with knowledge of the Middle East and even minimal sympathy toward Arab concerns were excluded from consultations. Even the mild officers of the State Departments were shunned. We know now from insider accounts how the neo-cons excluded State expertise and work in the preparation for the war (including the prescient warning of large scale looting following the collapse of the regime), and how they replaced regional intelligence experts with pro-Israel ideologues. The predictable result was a know-nothing administration in Iraq, and it shows.

After racism, the second reason the U.S. occupation failed to win the required support was bad faith. The problem with Iraqi mistrust was that it was justified. The overarching goal of the U.S. in Iraq was not to establish a pluralistic, independent and stable state. These were perhaps considered good things in Washington, and especially useful for domestic consumption but they were secondary to the more important goal of keeping Iraq subservient to the U.S. The White House's vision of Iraq was of a weak state, one that would follow U.S. orders on foreign policy, help the U.S. militarily, and leave oil under control of U.S. companies.

The Pentagon wanted permanent bases in Iraq to replace the bases evacuated in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. occupation position is that no Iraqi government would have the right to request the withdrawal of the army. Nevertheless, the occupation didn't want the issue of U.S. control to be debated at all. To achieve that, the neo-cons had to bolster the power of legitimacy-challenged Pentagon favorites such as Ahmad Chalabi. That necessitated marginalizing and weakening groups that might refuse to accept his leadership, especially legitimate Shi'a leaders such as Sistani. Hence, the unbelievable display of hypocrisy of the U.S. occupation resisting calls for elections and reacting with hostility to democratic processes.

In helping to consolidate Chalabi's position, the U.S. occupation was also busy promoting corrupt privatization schemes. According to Bremer's edicts, the privatization of Iraq is not subject to revision by a future legitimate Iraqi government. This permanent change to the ownership of national assets is a serious breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The result of this corruption is that very little of the reconstruction money approved by Congress ended up in Iraqi pockets. Most of it went back to enrich foreign corporations. The failure of economic improvement and the stubborn above 50% unemployment rate is a leading cause of the general disenchantment with the occupation.

Part of the problem is that Iraq is ruled today by fanatic market fundamentalists who believe in counterfactual, "trickle down," economic theories. A little Keynesian-paying people to drill holes and others to fill them would have improved things a lot more than billions in reconstruction extravaganza. But public work is anathema to the neo-con religion. Privatization, of course, was supposed to be a boon to many U.S. corporations, including good friends of the President and Vice-President such as Halliburton. But that, too, was only a fringe benefit. There is strategic logic behind U.S. desire to put the new Iraqi economy beyond democratic control. The goal is a weak state, which can be remote controlled by U.S.-led institutions such as the IMF and through the strings attached to U.S. aid. Privatization also creates a system of corrupt patronage centered on U.S. stooges. This is the policy that Clinton used with such brutal success in Russia, a policy that is only now beginning to unravel with Putin's assault on the "oligarchs."

The primary reason for the current level of resistance is that the U.S. project of "exporting democracy" was conceived and administered in bad faith. The mess in Iraq may be a matter of excess optimism. But it wasn't optimism about Iraqi readiness for democracy. The neo-cons were perhaps too optimistic in believing they could pull the wool over the eyes of Iraqis the way they did it at home. Unfortunately for them, the docility and media-induced stupor of the American electorate is rather unique. Exporting that stupor to the Middle East was perhaps the biggest neo-con pipe dream.

Now what?

The questions that need to be asked must address the core principles of U.S. foreign policy rather than address particular "mistakes" made. Why is the U.S. so bent on such an intrusive level of control? Is it necessary for the U.S. to secure bases in Iraq against the wish of the Iraqi people? Is long-term control of the economy of Iraq a justified policy goal?

Could a less domineering U.S. policy have led to an independent, Shi'a dominated Iraq that would perhaps refuse permanent bases but would still be friendly to the U.S.? In theory, yes, if the U.S. made good on its promises of democracy; but in practice no.

The reason no independent Iraq would be an ally of the U.S. in the Middle East is that U.S. Middle East policy is based on support for Israel. Furthermore, Israel became an ally of the U.S. after 1967 precisely because of U.S. hostility to democratic Arab movements (which tended to be against U.S. control of their economies). There is an inextricable link, therefore, between support for Israel, opposition to Arab self-determination and the need to control Middle East resources. Each of these three elements depends on and reinforces the two others.

The domineering attitudes and goals of the U.S. occupation in Iraq are, therefore, not "mistakes." They are an extreme version, but still a version, of longstanding U.S. strategy in the Middle East: control of regional resources through the twin pillars of support for Israel and repression of Arab self-determination. To be sure, this vision is falling apart. The supporters of Israel in America are becoming more fanatic and more extreme the less it makes sense for the U.S. to maintain its support for Israel. The neo-con coup and the Iraq war are perhaps a last ditch attempt to reverse the secular trend that makes Israel less and less useful to the U.S. (defense contractors excluded).

The neo-con goals are grandiose. For the sake of humanity's survival, we must hope they will fail. But despite the disaster brewing in Iraq, this hasn't happened yet. Nor is there is a way back to control Kissinger- style, "realist" fantasies notwithstanding. The Middle East has moved. Failing to understand that guarantees decades of burnt bodies.

The only change in policy that will make a dramatic, long-term positive effect on U.S. Middle East relations would be for the U.S. to dump Israel. Unless that happens, the U.S. is doomed to fight in the Middle East all the way down to financial ruin. And until that happens, offering advice is neither useful nor right.


[Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. He lives in the United States.]

Gabriel Ash encourages your comments: is an international news and opinion publication. encourages its material to be reproduced, reprinted, or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, Internet web links to are appreciated.

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