The Myth of Iraq’s ‘Liberation’

by , February 08, 2005

It’s a full-time job keeping track of all the lies the Bush administration has told – and is telling – about the reasons we went to war in Iraq. First it was all about “weapons of mass destruction” – but when that didn’t pan out, they trotted out Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaeda and 9/11. But that case fell apart pretty quickly, and so it was on to our supposedly burning desire to build “democracy” in Iraq. Our fondest wish, or so the story goes, is that the long-oppressed Iraqis could at last determine their own fate. But, guess what? Yup, that’s right: “self-determination” for the Iraqi people apparently means much less than you might expect. Because the Iraqis don’t have sovereignty over their own territory where the conduct of U.S. forces is concerned, and won’t for the foreseeable future, as the New York Sun (February 3, 2005) reports [warning: link for pay]:

“The basis of an agreement between America and Iraq’s newly elected government regarding the status of American troops in Iraq may lie in a year-old memo prepared by a law firm here. The January 14, 2004, memo titled ‘Status of Forces Agreement with the United States,’ prepared by the law firm of Shea & Gardner for the Iraqi Governing Council, recommends Iraq grant the American military ‘broad latitude’ for a brief duration with a clause to reassess the terms in light of the future security situation. It also puts forth America’s postwar agreement with Japan as a model for the one that will be signed between the U.S. and Iraq. Japanese jurisdiction over American forces that have committed crimes in Okinawa has been a source of strain in America’s relationship with Japan in recent years.”

That last is a bit of an understatement: as American soldiers regularly raped, robbed, beat, and murdered Japanese –mostly women – the Status of Forces Agreement became a major thorn in the side of Japanese-American relations. Chalmers Johnson opens his seminal work, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by examining the ugly spectacle of Imperial America in the miniature model of Okinawa. Johnson paints a vivid portrait of the island’s fate as an exploited and thoroughly trashed outpost of empire, where rape, robbery, and traffic accidents involving U.S. military personnel surpass the crime rates of our own inner cities. Apparently the plan is to do a repeat of the same pattern in Iraq. Whether this means the American occupation will continue more than half a century after the war’s end, as in Japan’s case, is an open question. The document unearthed by the Sun shows that they’re certainly making long-range plans.

According to the Sun, the proposed U.S.-Iraqi agreement contains language in which the U.S. government “insists on retaining primary jurisdiction” over crimes committed by the Americans in “carrying out their official duties.” This means that the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib and throughout the complex of prisons maintained by the U.S. – as well as everyday acts of wanton murder, such as the drowning of Zaydun al-Samarrai – will go unpunished. Iraqi citizens brutalized by occupation forces cannot sue.

The Iraqis can hold all the elections they want, but it still won’t give them what any real government, “democratic” or monarchical, must have: jurisdiction over its own territory and a corresponding ability to protect its own people. Iraq, according to the terms of this agreement, will not be a sovereign state, but a vassal of the United States. In Japan, this question of vassalage is put to the side, just as the American troop presence has been pretty much put to the side in Okinawa, but that isn’t going to be possible in Iraq any time soon.

The Iraqis can vote until they’re blue in the face – or blue all the way up to their elbows – but there are certain bounds beyond which they will not be allowed to go, and the proposed status agreement maps out some of those constraints. Iraq today is a province of the American Empire, and its status is not changed by any election.

The more honest neoconservatives, like Max Boot and Niall Ferguson, don’t deny the charge of imperialism: they embrace it and openly tout the glories of Empire. Others get righteously indignant at the very idea of America as an imperial power. When Donald Rumsfeld was asked by a correspondent from the al-Jazeera television network if the U.S. wasn’t “empire-building” in Iraq, the defense secretary went ballistic:

“We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”

He can’t imagine, but many Iraqis can. And so can some Americans, such as Johnson, who addresses at the outset of Blowback those skeptics who look at the pure white raiment of American “democracy” and can’t see the imperial purple:

“Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain a great many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us.”

A better description of the dilemma we currently face in Iraq would be hard to find. Certainly a few have profited from this war, although the rest of us are paying for it in more ways than one, but it’s the insight about being trapped that I find arresting. “A time comes when Empire finds itself a prisoner of history,” wrote the Old Right author Garet Garrett some 50 years ago, and this prophecy seems to be coming true as the occupation of Iraq unfolds.

We can’t leave until the insurgency is quelled, but our presence is the cause of the insurgency in the first place. We proclaim the advent of “democracy” and “self-determination,” yet the American occupation continues. We celebrate the “rule of law,” even as we insist American soldiers and military contractors cannot be prosecuted or sued in Iraqi courts – because Americans are above the law.

The longer the occupation lasts, the more glaring the contradictions between the official reality of Iraq’s “liberation” and the very real vassalage of the Iraqi people. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times touts the new feeling of the Iraqis, postelection, reporting that they no longer feel “humiliated” and seem to have stopped focusing on the all-pervasive presence of the Americans:

“The newfound self-respect that Mr. Rubaie believes the election conferred on ordinary Iraqis seems to have had an immediate impact on their view of the United States. Suddenly empowered with the vote, Iraqis no longer seem to view America as all-powerful, or themselves as unable to affect events. A result has been a suddenly more accepting view of the United States.”

This is remarkably short-sighted. Once Iraqis are disabused of the mistaken notion that their sovereignty means anything, and it dawns on even the most optimistic that the Americans aren’t going away any time soon, the transition from self-respect to active resistance won’t take too long to commence. The United States, in unleashing the genie of “democracy,” will find that 150,000 troops won’t be anywhere near enough to stuff it back into the bottle. These elections that George W. Bush is trying to take credit for were forced on the U.S. government at the insistence of Iraq’s chief Shi’ite ayatollah: rather than face a two-pronged Shi’ite-Sunni insurgency, Washington deferred to the clerics – and merely succeeded in postponing the day of reckoning.

For the day will come when the elected government runs up against the constraints imposed on it by the occupation, and then we’ll see the true face of the Empire as it throws off the “democratic” mask and asserts the central organizing principle of its real ideology: the idea that might makes right.

There is only one way to get out of Iraq – and that is by getting out, speedily and with honor. And the only way we’re going to hang on to our honor – or as much of it as we retain – is by attaching no conditions and allowing no wiggle room for the interventionists to weasel out of it. Otherwise, in time, the bonds of imperial domination will fasten themselves onto the Iraqi nation: not only will they be saddled with an American troop presence into the indefinite future, like Japan, but they’ll be used as a forward base for future military operations in the region. And let there be no doubt: such plans are already in the works. Iraq is just the beginning…

The certainty that Iraq’s conquerors have other targets in their sights is the best argument for withdrawing American troops ASAP – and for giving as much as you can, as soon as you can, to the Antiwar.com fund drive, which is starting today. These guys aren’t finished with us yet – not by a long shot. For the next four years Antiwar.com is going to be very busy – and we’re going to need your support as never before.

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I’ll be hectoring you all week. But don’t wait for me to hit my stride. Give today – because it really is important. You may not always agree with everything you read in this space, or on this Web site, but I think you’ll have to agree that, no matter what, Antiwar.com does provide a much-needed service. As a research tool, this site has no equivalent: it is a treasure trove, no matter what your opinions, and it is free.

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