‘Reluctant occupier’: the latest US myth for Iraq

Scott Burchill, a regular Webdiary commentator on Iraq, is the lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.


First there was the “grave danger” (President Bush) posed by Saddam’s WMD, which failed to materialise. Then there were the Baghdad-Al Qaeda links that couldn’t be established. Along came the democratisation rationale, which only 1% of the Iraqi population believes. To replace the threat of non-existent WMD, a humanitarian argument was suddenly invoked. However, with over 11,000 innocent civilians killed by invading and occupying forces, Saddam’s removal from power has actually sparked a humanitarian disaster. And far from confronting terrorists in situ as promised, Iraq has became a recruiting ground for a proliferating collection of anti-Western militants.

Now a new orthodoxy is shaping comment and analysis about events in Iraq. Let’s call it the ‘reluctant occupier myth’.

Having removed Saddam Hussein and his cohorts from power and set Iraq on a path towards democracy, the US is now preparing to leave – the ‘Vietnamisation’ of Iraq. It will find a smooth way out by returning sovereignty to a new Iraqi administration, initially on 1 July through the auspices of the UN and early next year via democratic elections. Coalition forces, which don’t want to be in Iraq a day longer than what is necessary to “finish the job,” will stay on to “maintain’ security,” but only at the pleasure of a new interim Government in Baghdad.

Like the earlier myths, this one is also a fabrication.

It is difficult to see what could be more obvious than that the US is desperately trying to stay in Iraq – and specifically, in charge – as the great majority of Baghdadis at least seem to understand, judging by US-run polls. Despite disingenuous claims that coalition troops would leave if asked to by a new Iraqi authority after 1 July, Colin Powell got closer to the truth when he stated on 26 April that “I hope they [the Iraqi people] will understand that in order for this government to get up and running – to be effective – some of its sovereignty will have to be given back [to Washington].” Coalition troops will stay on regardless.

They may not be able to carry it off, but the Western states currently occupying Iraq hardly need advice about carrying out what they are desperately trying to avoid. What was the point of invading in the first place if they were going to get out?

Washington wants others to share the burden of political reconstruction (the UN) and rebuilding infrastructure, but it has no intention of relinquishing real control of the country to anyone, including the UN or the Iraqi people. As a strategic prize in the heart of the Arab world with the world’s second largest known reserves of oil, a client regime in Baghdad would be of inestimable value to the United States.

However, it is having difficulty finding a Vichy government willing to follow Washington’s orders because of the domestic risks that collaborators always face. It is keen to hand over the ‘nasties’ like local policing and law and order to indigenous control because this will reduce coalition losses. On the other hand, the lucrative gains of economic sovereignty – including control of the oil industry, the privitisation of state owned enterprises, and opening up the economy to foreign investment and ownership – will not be matters for the discretion of a post-Saddam administration.

The world’s largest embassy, which Washington intends to build in Baghdad, would not be necessary if Iraqis were going to genuinely regain control of their country. It will be a constant reminder that full sovereignty, including economic and political independence, will not be returned to them.

The US has lost the war politically. Its occupation of Iraq is the cause of regional instability and unremitting violence. Its preference for unilateralism and contempt for the UN, its reluctance to consult with long standing friends, and its failure to reconcile its global ambitions with the limits of its power has undermined the alliance system upon which its foreign policy since 1947 has rested.

According to war historian Gabriel Kolko, the strength and influence of the US in the post-WW2 period has “largely rested on its ability to convince other nations that it was to their vital interests to see America prevail in its global role”. The false pretexts used to justify the war in Iraq and the revelations of prison brutality have cost Washington considerable moral authority amongst its allies in Europe and friends in the Middle East.

It has never been more military powerful but never felt less secure. It now confronts this paradox in a much less friendly and respectful world.

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