An American City on the Euphrates: US as Iraq’s Friend or Overlord?

by , January 10, 2009

On Monday US Marines raised the Stars and Stripes over America’s $700 million embassy in Baghdad. Opined Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, America’s first ambassador to the new Iraq: “It is from the embassy that you see before you that we will continue the tradition of friendship, cooperation and support begun by the many dedicated Americans who have worked in Iraq since 2003.”

Actually, the US has built a fortress. At 104 acres, the complex is just five acres shy of Vatican City’s size. The embassy compound, made up of 26 hardened buildings designed to host a thousand employees, sends a very different message than suggested by Negroponte. Washington expects to be Iraq’s boss, not its friend.

The best that can be said for the new embassy is that the US has abandoned Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, first occupied in April 2003. Now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will move into the latter.

Embassy construction began in a different era. At the time President George W. Bush and his neoconservative acolytes imagined a permanent occupation, with scores of bases ready for use when (not if) Washington decided to attack Iraq’s neighbors. Syria and Iran were the most obvious targets, but US policymakers were nothing if not ambitious after Hussein’s ouster. For some avid war advocates, the prospect of creating a de facto protectorate in the Middle East alone justified the invasion.

No surprise, Iraqis recognized that Washington’s self-proclaimed altruism was dwarfed by its geopolitical ambition. Most Iraqis were pleased to see Hussein go, but were far less happy when Bush & Co. stayed. Roy Gutman of McClatchy Newspapers writes of an Iraqi journalist who asked: “Why are you here? You overthrew a tyrannical government but then you demolished the security structure, so you had to stay. Was it oil? Did you hope to take charge of the region? What did you have in mind? And what are your plans?”

From the start Washington underestimated the desire of Iraqis to control their own destiny. The US government originally planned to impose a government of exiles. Then the occupation authority intended to create an Iraqi government through caucuses rather than elections. Finally, the Bush administration sought to negotiate a security accord and a status of forces agreement authorizing an “enduring” occupation encompassing more than 50 bases. In every case Washington was surprised when the Iraqis said nyet! The Bush administration discovered that what was supposed to be a pliant puppet regime had a will of its own.

Indeed, the spectacle of administration officials enthusiastically patting themselves on their backs for a job well done in Iraq is appalling. Iraq is not safe, but safer – a vast improvement, but only over the horror into which the country was plunged by the US invasion and occupation. Moreover, observes Gutman, “the country is still hopelessly broken.” Economically and politically it remains highly dysfunctional, with uncertain prospects for improvement.

Iraq’s endpoint is unlikely to be the liberal, democratic, US ally that the president and his aides originally intended. Newsweek’s Larry Kaplow observes that “America’s expectations have plunged,” with the more realistic analysts talking about “Iraqi good enough.” He explains: “Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East. The government will no doubt be repressive – not as bad as when Saddam Hussein was in charge, but even now Iraq’s jails hold thousands of prisoners who have been held for months without hearing the charges against them. Corruption is rampant, in part because the state isn’t strong enough to haul the biggest wrongdoers into court without touching off a rebellion.”

Suddenly the sacrifice of more than 4000 American lives, wounding of tens of thousands more, and expenditure so far of more than $620 billion look a lot less worthwhile.

And a rebellion is possible even if the government does not crack down on corruption. The surge was a success less because of the increased manpower and more because of unrelated changes within Iraq. Most important, Muqtada al-Sadr stood down from confrontation with the Iraqi government and the Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaeda. But neither faction is certain to remain quiescent, especially if al-Maliki attempts to further tighten his grip on power. Moreover, by simultaneously subsidizing and arming the Shia central government and the tribes, the US has backed both sides of an incipient civil war. Having rushed in and wrecked Iraq, Washington will have to wait years, well beyond the scheduled departure of US troops by the end of 2011, to see what eventually results.

In fact, it’s hard to see America’s continuing troop presence as anything other than an embarrassing attempt to clean up the mess that America made in the first place. Grant war advocates the purest of intentions and presume an ultimately positive outcome in Iraq. Washington’s campaign still has been anything but humanitarian.

Americans usually – and understandably – focus on the human cost in terms of their countrymen and women. But the highest price in Iraq has been paid by the Iraqi people. We really don’t know how many have died, but the numbers are horrific. The low estimates start with about 100,000 from the website Iraqi Body Count, which, because of its documentation standards and definition of civilian deaths, “doesn’t begin to get at the full scope of Iraqi deaths,” writes Tom Engelhardt. Two years ago the Iraqi Health Ministry estimated 150,000 dead, while the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health pegged the most likely number at about 600,000. Today some estimates exceed one million.

Even the lower numbers are appalling. And the upper projections in another country in another war would be termed genocide. Of course, even more Iraqis have been wounded, and some four million have been driven from their homes, with half of them fleeing abroad. The historic Christian community has been decimated while crime has exploded and community life has been destroyed. Iraq will take years to recover from the war and its aftermath. Americans shouldn’t wait around expecting Iraqis to show gratitude for US efforts.

This doesn’t mean that American forces did not act with courage and believe they were doing good. Or that nothing positive in fact came out of the invasion and occupation. But the costs far exceed the benefits. As is so often the case, Washington acted and another society paid the (very high) price. For that the incoming administration should demonstrate humility rather than hubris.

The new administration also should begin planning America’s expeditious withdrawal.

The fact that the SOFA allows US forces to remain in Iraq through 2011 doesn’t mean that they should do so. The Obama administration should initiate a much swifter withdrawal, at least the 18 month timetable offered by candidate Obama, which would mean an exit in mid-2010. Equally important, the American military should turn over responsibility for all ongoing security operations to Iraqi forces. The fight over Iraq’s future must be fought by Iraqis.

With al-Qaeda weakened, the Baghdad government’s most important security objectives are conciliating al-Sadr’s followers and achieving rapprochement with the Sunni tribes. These are primarily political, not military tasks, and while the US might be able to help get the parties to the table, it can’t force them to agree.

Washington also should downsize its embassy staff as well as the embassy compound. Yes, the facility just opened. But it is ten times the size of any other US embassy and was designed with an eye to maintaining the American imperium. That grand strategy is dead, killed and buried by the Iraqis. Better for Washington to begin moving into the background now than to be roughly shoved aside then. Acting now will mean embarrassment and expense, but nothing like the result of attempting to maintain an “American City” within the heart of Baghdad.

President George W. Bush is convinced that history will judge him kindly for starting an unnecessary war, further destabilizing the Middle East, sullying America’s global reputation, wasting $2 or $3 trillion, and killing, wounding, and displacing millions of people. Not likely.

The best strategy for the Obama administration to improve history’s assessment of the US would be to initiate a hopefully smooth and certainly speedy exit from Iraq. In that way Americans would demonstrate genuine friendship with the Iraqi people.

Read more by Doug Bandow