14 December 2011

Going Home at Last: Say Farewell to Ramadi, Nasiriya, and Balad

American withdrawal from Iraq is proceeding on schedule and it seems likely that come December 31st US military will have completed its retreat from that tortured country giving us the closest thing to the end of American war in Iraq that, in an age of never ending wars, we were ever likely to get. This being the case it would be a good time to examine if United States is coming home victorious having achieved its war goals, or defeated having failed to meet them.

It is no easy thing to determine what the war aims of the United States in the Iraq War were. In large part this is because United States leadership itself did not have a clear picture of what the purpose of the war they were launching was. What time the Bush administration devoted to envisioning a post-invasion Iraq consisted mainly of daydreaming with little concrete planning to go with. Nonetheless, it is possible to glean the gist of their vision from the rhetoric of the time and their conduct immediately after the invasion, when they still believed they would have everything they had fantasized about.

Post-invasion Iraq, home to permanent US military bases housing thousands of American troops, would serve as an American military outpost in the world's richest oil region. But more than that Iraq would end up a grateful, exemplary, pro-American democracy in the heart of the Arab World able to inspire millions toiling under tyranny to cry out for similar American benevolence.

To make sure this actually happened the United States would put off turning over Iraq to the Iraqis essentially for as long as possible — presumably a very long time. This would work, because somehow the same Iraqis who could not be trusted to be USA-adoring enough to erect a pro-American democracy right away, could nonetheless be counted on to be sufficiently grateful, or awestruck, they would not put forth meaningful pressure for the handover of power for a very long time.

In other words, behind the stated goal of "spreading democracy", USA was actually getting ready to apply in Iraq a variant of the recognizably colonialist model of "democratization" we know from Bosnia. A model under which a country is subject to foreign tutelage and governance by an unelected authority for the expressed purpose of making it ready for democracy, which however never seems to actually arrive.

Iraq would be run by a benevolent American administrator, originally the uber-Bushian Jay Garner, who would surround himself with hand-picked Iraqis for show. His reign would not necessarily be vicious, but he certainly was not going to govern according to the wishes of the Iraqi people. At an appropriate time in the undetermined future a suitably Washington-dependent Iraqi exile — presumably the uber-crony Ahmed Chalabi — would step in and take over as America's governor of Iraq.

From the start, however, Americans found themselves doing what they never anticipated they would have to do — make concessions. Whether it was sacrificing Garner when his outspokenness in support of Israel became an issue, to backing down from replacing Iraq's pan-Arab tricolor the occupiers soon found themselves forced to deviate from their fantasies to try to appease occupied Iraqis.

Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority was folded after just over one year with a hurried June 2004 "handover" to the Iraqi Interim Government of CIA asset Iyad Allawi, whose time in turn ended prematurely by the "purple finger" election of January 2005. The Shia-Kurd Iraqi government installed by the latter was initially weak, but was ceded competencies at a rate sufficient that, where Sunni Arabs and Sadrists had shunned the first parliamentary election as meaningless and illegitimate, no one could afford not to participate in the repeat race later that year.

Though presented at the time as vindication of its decision to invade Iraq and depose the Ba'ath Party these "milestones" actually marked a development whereby the United States was grudgingly backing away from its pre-invasion war aims. In retrospect the occupiers' decision to bow down before demands of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani to hold the "purple finger" election probably marked a turning point after which the US was more interested in salvaging appearances of a successful war and less about accomplishing its actual war aims of 2003.

Already battling a Sunni Arab-based resistance the occupation had no taste for the eventuality of facing a similar Shia Arab effort. Rather than lose a co-belligerent and gain an enemy the US  appeased the Shia with a mix of bribery and concessions. On the one hand US training and firepower served to convince the Shia of Americans' usefulness to their government in their conflict against the Sunnis. On the other the US was relinquishing the reigns just quickly enough not to risk the Sadrists leading the Shia into revolt anyway. This process culminated in a present-day situation where, in stark contrast to the expectations of the architects of the 2003 invasion, the government of Iraq is beholden to its Shia constituency to the extent this notably frustrates US imperial designs.

Probably for no better reason than to be able to point to at least one example of its strategic interests having been advanced by the Iraq War the US wanted for a portion of its troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely. It gave up on this idea when the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki would not defy popular will in order to meet Washington's request to grant its forces exemption from Iraqi laws. In a familiar pattern Unites States government then framed having to back down from its aims in Iraq as a policy success, but no one can believe the goal of USA in invading Iraq was to, just nine years later, be turned down by the government of Iraq on such a matter.

Maliki's conduct has hardly been that of a doctrinaire anti-colonialist, but he is no Ahmed Chalabi either. His government clearly distinguishes between its own interests in Iraq and those of the US. It stands willing to accommodate Washington, but not in a manner that would undermine its own position and expects to collect counter favors in turn.

Official  Baghdad remains highly susceptible to US influence, but this could only be expected, seeing the relative difference in stature between a war-torn and dysfunctional Middle Eastern state and the world's only global power. The point is that with its military on the way out United States has no more clout over "liberated" Iraq than it could have had, without war, by simply rehabilitating Saddam Hussein in the manner of its 2004 rehabilitation of Moammer Gaddafi. If the US instead went to war, it was because it would not be satisfied to have merely the clout it has resigned itself to since.

Nine years after the invasion the US can no longer point to having gotten anything beside a massive State Department mission out of the war. Its forces are evacuating without having imposed its will to the extent necessary to accomplish its war aims, something that is normally called loosing. Add one more to the losses column then, if there is any room left.

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