Some years ago there was a prop forward in the French national rugby team called Pierre Dospital. This was considered a very appropriate name for him, as it was only one letter away from “hospital”, and given his size, and the demands of his position on the field, this is where many of his opponents were likely to end up. Indeed, according to some, his later career as a folk singer has the same effect on his listeners.
The US Ambassador to Iraq who has just completed his term was another man with an appropriate name – Douglas Silliman. If he doesn’t want people making remarks about his name, he should leave the US diplomatic service as soon as possible, so he isn’t obliged to say silly things no one can give any credence to. But his farewell speech as Ambassador demonstrates he is hell-bent on living up to his name.
According to local media, he said this – “I want all Iraqis to know that I see great potential for a truly democratic, sovereign, independent, and prosperous Iraq.” He also had the cheek to say that “I will always wish for peace and prosperity for all Iraqis”.
Silliman might actually mean this. But he knows very well that these things will never happen, because the US has got exactly what it wanted, and he has helped bring this about. The full text of his address, available on the US Embassy website, gives the traditional rundown of the achievements of US policy and activity during his term. But the real US achievement in Iraq is to leave the country in such a state that it is incapable of doing anything else but serve US purposes.
The US Embassy in Baghdad is the largest and most expensive in the world. It would be rational to conclude that the more the US invests in a country, the more that country becomes like the US. In fact this is a recurring theme in US-Iraq relations: Iraq wants the support, but is always insisting that it must be allowed to act independently, not become another branch of the US government.
But Iraq is further away from the US democratic ideal than it has ever been. The brutal rule of Saddam Hussein is almost a Golden Age compared to what Iraqis have to suffer today. The “temporary fixes” of the war years have become permanent, because the US wants it that way, and there is no sign at present that anything will ever change.
Whose war is it anyway?
When people think of Iraq today, they think of a very controversial war. When Tony Blair published his autobiography, “A Journey”, many bookshops reported that people were taking it out of the “Biography” section and putting it in the “Crime” section. The UK’s role in that war was subject to a lengthy public enquiryand damaged Blair’s Labour Party across all sections of the community.
There are many other instances of countries invading others to remove a hated tyrant. However, many of these actions are generally seen as justified. Tanzania was applauded by the rest of the world when it invaded Uganda, with BOTH its tanks, to destroy the notorious Idi Amin. West Germany spent its whole existence operating under rules imposed on it by the Allies in 1945, its electoral system being one such rule, but very few doubted that this was an improvement on the decisions Germans themselves had made before.
But those who once supported removing Saddam Hussein, who greatly outnumbered those who agreed with the invasion per se, only have a certain tolerance level. Eventually they want to see that getting rid of the tyrant has actually improved things. They would like to visit Iraq’s historic places, experience the bustle of Baghdad, absorb the local culture and see the people progressing. What are they seeing in Iraq today?
The local news is still dominated by war. Now it is the Iraqi army and security forces fighting the Islamic State. The US presence in Iraq, which was supposed to have been scaled back long ago, has not been because the US maintains it is necessary to have an ongoing defence partnership with Iraq, so it can train and equip its forces to repel the Islamic State.
Is it even necessary to point out the hypocrisy of this? Who was it who put the Islamic State there, to create a Greater Kurdistan which the regional governments would never agree to? Who arms and recruits for it, and works hand-in-hand with it to control the oil and drug smuggling routes?.
The Iraqi army suffered a series of catastrophic defeats by ISIS, which were generally blamed on corruption rather than the US giving more support to its opponents. These left Iraq at the mercy of ISIS, but did not create Greater Kurdistan because the propaganda against Turkey and Iran, the other constituent parts, had not succeeded in freeing up the Kurdish regions of these countries.
With the Syrian component not working either, the only way to achieve the US objective was to re-establish control of Iraq so the project remained under its control. Hence the sudden interest in genuinely supporting the Iraqi state.
But US assistance, although turning the tide of the war against ISIS, has not ended it. Nothing much goes on in Iraq except conflict, and the local population, which once saw the US forces as their liberators, has learned to be careful what it wishes for.
When a dictator is removed, and this action is generally supported, the first task occupying countries take is to try and rebuild civil society. Any success in this direction, however chimeric, is broadcast widely.
After Tudjman’s Croatia was “freed” from “Serb domination” more of its citizens arrived in London fleeing its new government than the citizens of anywhere else, for a period of several months. But no one wanted to hear about this, because everything must have been good as long as the Serbs were gone, and we were told about investment, holiday opportunities and the success of Croatian sports teams.
It would be in the US’ own interests to broadcast its successes in rebuilding civil society in Iraq. There has been some investment, and the state can usually conduct its business without fear of bombs and assassinations, corrupt or not. So why Iraq is still all about war; NOT the benefits similar interventions are supposed to bring everywhere else?
The reason was revealed by Donald Trump in another of his increasingly bizarre public statements. On Feb 3rd he announced that he wanted to keep a US base in Iraq to “watch Iran”. So funny but there are other forces at play here.
This move would enable him to say that the US is no longer involved in an expensive foreign war because the purpose of the troops being there has changed. But it won’t remove any troops, or bring stability to the region, or help counter terrorism when Iraq is still spending most of its income doing the same, and won’t have US “support” in that process any more.
Iraq’s President Salih exposed the overriding flaw in this idea when he pointed out that the US had not asked Iraq’s permission to keep a base there to watch a neighbouring country. As former Ambassador Silliman was always at pains to point out, the US can only have bases in any other country as long as it has that country’s ongoing agreement and cooperation. Iraq has agreements with its neighbours as well as the US, and would be violating those agreements if it housed a base which had aggressive intentions towards one of them.
Deciding who can establish military bases in your country is part of what being a sovereign state is about. If the US wanted Iraq to be a sovereign state, it would do its best to end war, and build civil society so that sovereignty could be exercised by the people, not whoever had the BIGGEST gun. But it doesn’t even realise that sovereignty exists in Iraq – it as well be renamed Airstrip One, for all the value the US wants it to have.
State of eternal emergency
If Iraq isn’t known for war, it is known for oil. As in most oil producing states, little of the profits of this commodity flow down to the local population. They do what they usually do – fuel corruption, and make government irrelevant, as the only thing which makes any difference is who controls the oil resources.
This is where the supposed “corruption” in the Iraqi Army actually comes from. When a homeless person sleeps in the street, they use the same spot, never deviating from it, because that is the only “possession” they have and the only identity they have. In a poor country, if you give a local access to one bit of wealth or authority, exploiting it is their only way of being anyone.
There has been a long list of reports of Iraqi troops, trained by the US, abusing and killing the civilian population. In most cases, they don’t do this because they have anything against civilians, but simply because they can. The politicians and their sponsors steal the oil, so if the soldiers are going to play the game by the rules of the country they serve; they have to abuse their positions accordingly.
The US understands this problem, and claims to be addressing it, despite its own legacy. But if it were doing so, it would not be insisting that Iraq remains a war zone for evermore by supplying both sides of the conflict and ensuring it remains in place. If the place is all about war, what else is there for people to do if they want to survive, and what other rules should they follow when they are doing so?
If the US wants people who serve their country to behave in a way which is not corrupt and abusive, civil society and its rules should come first. It was the US which gave us the Peace Corps, and is not slow to talk about the civil society improvements it claims to have made in other countries it has taken a controlling interest in. Now the Peace Corp has become the platform for spy school and regime change, former volunteers ends up as arms logistics agents, as was the case in Libya, and the killed US Ambassador.
So are we to believe that the US cannot rebuild civil society in Iraq if its wants to, given the oil and military resources it controls, which can be used to achieve this end? Of course it can, if it really wants. Instead it seeks an Iraq in which nothing ever changes, so that the US can do whatever it likes, regardless of the consequences. It has no more intention of helping Iraq than handing it over to the Russians, and the longer it can keep things as they are, the less anyone will expect that they will ever improve and accept that the US is part of the permanent landscape.
No news is bad news
The US justifies everything it does by its strategic interest, even when the actions it takes are a direct violation of its supposed principles of democracy, equality, rule of law and international standards of human rights. By doing that it merely alienates millions of people, but as long as the US has the funds, it doesn’t care.
It is also an established diplomatic practice that in times of conflict, you support the “status quo ante bellum”. Whoever the government was before the conflict began continues to be recognised as such during it. It is this principle which, in part, created the hideous spectacle of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge continuing to be recognised as the legitimate government of Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion, despite what they had done, and the Vietnamese hadn’t.
The US has made a strategic decision that Iraq must NOT be allowed to be a sovereign country, because it cannot be trusted to further US interests if it is. It will achieve that by making sure everyone else abandons hope in it. If all that ever happens there is war, and nothing changes, no one will look for any change in the country or the rules it operates by, and will, be default, leave the US to sort it out.
No news in Iraq is big news for everyone else. There are many reasons for toppling all kinds of rulers everywhere, even in the supposed-so-called “democratic” world. If what the US has done in Iraq is accepted as a standard, simply because it never changes, everyone else can expect the same sooner or later.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.