Revolution #72, December 10, 2006
The High Stakes in Iraq—For Them And For Us
Part Two: Quagmire
By Larry Everest
[Part One of this series, "The Crossroads in Iraq: Why the U.S. Went to War" is online.]
The U.S. invasion has turned Iraq into a waking nightmare for the Iraqi people. This past week Patrick Cockburn of London’s Independent reported:
“In Baghdad the police often pick up over 100 tortured and mutilated bodies in a single day. Government ministries make war on each other… As Shia and Sunni flee each other’s neighborhoods Iraq is turning into a country of refugees. The UN High Commission for Refugees says that 1.6 million are displaced within the country and a further 1.8 million have fled abroad.”
Iraq has also turned into a potential nightmare—of a fundamentally different kind—for the Bush regime: a looming debacle that threatens the U.S. grip on the Middle East, its global standing, and the Bush doctrine of global transformation for greater empire.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “quagmire” as “A complex or precarious position where disengagement is difficult.” For the U.S., the situation is complex and precarious because in many ways its difficulties spring from its sweeping and predatory objectives, and because its responses to these difficulties have made matters worse. And for the imperialists, the stakes in Iraq and the Middle East are global and enormous, making “disengagement” excruciatingly difficult. In sum, the U.S. rulers’ necessity is growing, while their freedom is shrinking.
Bush’s Imperial Rupture in the Middle East
How did things get to this point? What drove the U.S. to invade Iraq? And why haven’t things gone according to plan?
The Bush regime felt compelled to conquer Iraq for a number of reasons: to demonstrate superpower resolve after Sept. 11, to remove a troublesome regime, and to begin the radical transformation of the Middle East. The Bush team felt the status quo there was no longer stable or viable, in part because of the growth of anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s. Their planned transformation would topple unfriendly regimes, “shock and awe” the masses broadly, and restructure the region’s brittle tyrannies through imperialist-led “democratization” and deeper economic penetration. Most directly it would serve notice on their Islamic fundamentalist opponents that there would be a high price to pay for any opposition and more strategically would undercut and then essentially defeat them, as a viable and dynamic opposed force.
Iraq presented opportunities as well as necessities. It was weak, Hussein was despised by many Iraqis, and its large middle class, relative secularism, and vast oil reserves made it seem like a prime candidate for the kind of restructuring the U.S. envisioned. Various neocons and Iraqi exiles claimed Iraq’s Shias were moderate and democratic-minded, and would be supportive. The new Iraq under U.S. control would be key in launching an irresistible “tsunami” of modernization and democratization across the region.
The U.S. invaded Iraq with a relatively light, quick force of 140,000 (less than a third of what had been mustered for the 1991 Persian Gulf War which only sought to expel Hussein from Kuwait, not conquer the country) not only because Iraq had been weakened by over a decade of war and sanctions, but also because Iraq was viewed as only one phase in an unbounded war to create an unchallenged and unchallengeable U.S. empire. For this, a flexible, mobile force, able to quickly fight wars on different fronts in rapid succession, was essential—as was breaking with the “Powell doctrine” of overwhelming force in every situation.
The plan was to quickly conquer Iraq, quickly hand power off to hand-picked pro-U.S. exiles, and quickly move on. “Within weeks, if all went well,” the Washington Post reported, “Iraqis would begin taking control of their own affairs and the exit of U.S. troops would be well underway.”
Speeding to Baghdad, Colliding With Reality
The speed of the U.S. conquest was stunning. Twenty-three days later after invading Iraq, the U.S. had captured Baghdad and Hussein—and his statutes—had been toppled. Even more stunning, it would turn out, was the speed with which U.S. plans ran into the profound contradictions roiling Iraq and the Middle East. On April 17, 2003, eight days after the U.S. took Baghdad, daily life was in shambles, chaos and looting raged across Iraq, and journalist Robert Fisk would report, “It’s going wrong, faster than anyone could have imagined.”
Many of the U.S.’s assumptions went up in smoke along with Iraq’s looted infrastructure and shattered state: the notion that Iraqis would joyously greet them as liberators, that all Hussein’s forces would be destroyed or capitulate rather than launch a guerrilla resistance, that the U.S.’s allies would be capable of quickly establishing a governing authority, and that it would be possible to stabilize the situation by rapidly improving life for ordinary Iraqis.
More fundamentally, the Bush regime underestimated how the shock of the invasion and collapse of the Iraqi state would lift the lid on the profound contradictions roiling Iraq, including hatred of the U.S. and its ally Israel, and how it would open the door to a host of anti-U.S. forces, especially different Islamist currents among both Sunnis and Shias.
(Journalist Nir Rosen describes how religious forces quickly stepped into the vacuum in post-Hussein Iraq: “Without the Baath Party or any other political force, without police or an army, all that remained was the mosque. Old authorities were destroyed and angry young clerics replaced them, arrogating to themselves the power to represent, to mobilize, and to govern.”)
In short, they found more necessity (in the form of anti-U.S. hostility, Islamic fundamentalism, and openings for other regional powers) and less freedom than they expected.
Playing Catch-up and Losing the Initiative
The Bush regime quickly realized that things weren’t going according to plan, and made various adjustments within the parameters of their strategic goals. But their adjustments have turned out to be either too little or too late (although it’s not clear whether anything could have “worked” for them given the profound contradictions they faced and the limits of U.S. power), or they created new, more intractable contradictions. A dynamic was unleashed in which the U.S. increasingly lost the military and political initiative, and was caught in a downward spiral of shrinking freedom, more onerous choices, and growing necessity.
For instance, Gen. Jay Garner, the first overseer of the occupation, was fired after less than a month and replaced with J. Paul Bremer (a neocon, State Department official, and Henry Kissinger protégé). Garner had been following the Pentagon game plan of preserving the Baath state, quickly handing power to pro-U.S. exiles, and quickly leaving. As soon as Bremer arrived in mid-May 2003, he immediately tried to exert a firmer hand and change course. He quickly issued decrees banning Iraq’s Baath Party, disbanding Iraq’s army and police force, closing unprofitable state-run industries, and beginning the privatization of Iraq’s economy. Bremer also scuttled the proposed interim government in favor of a “Coalition Provisional Authority” which would gradually unfold the political process and form a new Iraqi government under tight U.S. control.
These decisions were taken for tactical and strategic reasons. Those still loyal to the Hussein regime and the Baath Party were seen as the greatest danger to the occupation, and de-Baathification was undertaken to shatter any institutional foothold they had, win over the Shias, and gain broad legitimacy. Pentagon neocons also saw an opportunity to push forward their agenda of regional transformation by building a new Iraqi state from the ground up.
This “volte face” had profound implications. After declaring they had come as liberators, the U.S. was now openly setting up an indefinite occupation with power tightly in its hands, exacerbating what former occupation official Larry Diamond described as “deep local suspicions of U.S. motives combined with the memory of Western colonialism and resentment of the U.S. stance in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle” and creating what he called “a massive lack of legitimacy for the occupation authority.”
Bremer’s decisions drove Sunnis toward the incipient armed resistance, which is a complex mix of supporters of the Hussein regime, nationalists, and Sunni Islamists. Many were educated professionals and crucial to the functioning of Iraqi society, and they were now being given no way out, treated like “terrorists, “with us or against us,” and basically told they were permanent enemies of the new state and had no place in Iraqi society.
On the military front, the U.S. responded to the insurgency with a combination of brutal search-and-destroy missions, sweeping round-ups, sieges of whole cities, and institution of widespread detention and torture. The U.S. never increased its troop levels, and these measures didn’t crush the resistance, they spread it. Attacks on U.S. forces rose from 75-150 a week in the summer of 2003 to 800 this fall.
Empowering Potential Enemies
The spreading insurgency, the weakness of secular pro-U.S. exiles, and the growing strength of Shia religious parties (along with Washington’s refusal to add more troops) drove the Occupation Authority to speed up plans for creating an Iraqi government, and relying more on reactionary Shi’ite and Kurdish forces. Both have generated new, reinforcing, contradictions.
The U.S. apportioned power and organized elections either directly along sectarian lines or in ways which strengthened those divisions. The Shia parties in particular (and there are a number of different factions among the Shia), and also the Kurds, have their own agenda which is often at variance with U.S. objectives. The strongest Shia organizations want to impose theocratic, Shia-based rule, exercise tight control of Shia regions where most of Iraq’s oil wealth is located, and essentially replace the Sunnis as the dominant force in Iraq—not liberate all Iraqis. Most also have strong links to Iran. And the Kurdish parties have sought to preserve their own autonomy in the north, including by ethnically purging Kirkuk, and this has also been in sharp contradiction with the aim of creating a new unified Iraq.
Shia factions have been using their control of the state and various ministries to build their own sectarian strength (in preparation for a fight to the death with the Sunnis—or perhaps even to expel the U.S.), not to create a multi-national state along the lines the U.S. envisions. The U.S. had been counting on a new Iraqi army to take over security and fight the insurgency, but the new Iraqi army, such as it is, has either proven ineffective or beholden to sectarian militias. “Shia militias had become the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army,” Rosen notes. (And there is widespread evidence that the U.S. not only tolerates, but has directly helped organize, anti-insurgency Shia death squads that operate from within Iraqi government ministries.)
All this—and the fundamentalist religious and reactionary ideology of the dominant Shia parties as well as elements of the Sunni insurgency representing the interests and outlook of traditional feudal and bourgeois strata—has uncorked a wave of murderous ethnic and religious cleansing that now threatens the very existence of Iraq as a unified country.
Through all this, both the resistance and sectarian war have devastated and destabilized Iraqi society and made it impossible for the U.S. to rebuild the country, stabilize daily life, and build political support, much less open Iraq up to the profiteering and integration with global imperialism that was a big element of the agenda. This, in turn, has deepened both the resistance and the civil war.
The Role of Bush Regime Epistemology
Why were the Bush regime’s assumptions so wildly out of sync with reality, and why did they continue to miscalculate and insist on “staying the course” in Iraq?
All manner of bourgeois commentators and politicians have lambasted the Bush team for being “out of touch with reality.” But the problem doesn’t begin there. The Bush team felt that previous strategies had failed to address the growing problems of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East (and the experience in Iraq only underscores the growing challenge by Islamic fundamentalism), and that drastic action was necessary, even if it was risky.
So Bush’s insistence on “staying the course” is based on what he perceives to be the need to press ahead in the face of adversity (and great danger)—which they somewhat expected given the scope of their ambitions—because the stakes are huge and retreat could spell disaster. There is an element of desperation here—a fear that any retreat or major course correction could derail the whole enterprise. And it seems that the Bush team’s judgment has been conditioned, and clouded, by these needs and ambitions, with a kind of ‘faith-based’ (or wishful thinking) epistemology taking hold, as if they could bend reality to their will if they just stayed focused enough. All this has made them less flexible and able to adapt to new developments or difficulties.
Take the case of Bush’s refusal to send more troops—probably the decision most criticized among bourgeois ranks. For one, committing tens or hundreds of thousands more troops to Iraq could have created even greater difficulties for the broader Bush agenda. It would have greatly changed the domestic political calculus—heightening antiwar sentiment and perhaps lifting the lid on the real costs and horrors of the overall Bush agenda—hence their strategy of preserving a sense of “normalcy” domestically—”go shopping,” Bush told people after Sept. 11.—as they are busy undermining and transforming social and political “norms.” And yes, there was wishful thinking, with Bush and company repeatedly deluding themselves that some tactical military and political adjustments (and they greatly overestimated the efficacy of military technology in dealing with an insurgency) would bring things under control.
The Bush regime has scaled back its objectives in Iraq from democratic transformation to “ensuring that the nation can govern and defend itself and that it is stable, not a threat to neighbors, and an ally in the fight against terrorism.” (Washington Post, 12/2).
It may be too late for even that. The U.S. has been unable to quell the Sunni-based insurgency, and the Iraqis they allied with have their own agendas. The volatile Iraqi mix has unleashed sectarian warfare that threatens current U.S. objectives of avoiding the collapse of the new Iraqi state, keeping the country together, not allowing other regional states to become involved, and preventing the contagion to spread throughout the region, including by turning the Iraq war into a regional war. Journalist Robert Fisk (12/1) writes: “There can be no graceful exit from Iraq, only a terrifying, bloody collapse of military power… The fracture of Iraq is virtually complete, its chasms sucking in corpses at the rate of up to a thousand a day.” (And there are already reports that Saudi Arabia would dispatch fighters to come to the aid of their Sunni brethren in Iraq if the Shia campaign of ethnic cleansing continues.)
Yet leaving Iraq could make matters even worse for the U.S. imperialists. Iraq could fly apart, anti-U.S. Islamist forces emboldened, and the rug pulled out from under already brittle U.S. regional allies like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As Lenin described World War 1, crowns could be soon rolling on the ground across the Middle East.
NEXT: NO GRACEFUL EXIT
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