The Next Few Months and the Next Four Years
"Options" in IraqEarly in November 2004, Middle East expert William R. Polk wrote an editorial for Juan Cole’s website on “American options in Iraq.” He points to various historical and present efforts to repress wars of "self determination" (Woodrow Wilson's phrase) by "staying the course" -- the French and Americans in Vietnam, the English in Ireland, the Russians in Chechnya, the Israelis in Palestine -- and points out none of them have worked. In each of these cases the colonial or occupying power has failed, whether after forty years (Israel/Palestine) or nine hundred (England/Ireland). Polk lists some of the likely future costs of the Iraq invasion: already a hundred thousand Iraqi lives have been lost. Perhaps thousands of US soldiers eventually will be killed, tens of thousands of Americans will be wounded. Hundreds of billions of US dollars will be spent. We will witness the brutalization of a people. Each side will inflict increasingly violent assaults on the other. The insurgents/terrorists/freedom fighters will cause terrible damage. The liberators/colonizers/occupiers will continue to retaliate with massive armed assaults. In both cases, civilians will be the big losers. Such prolonged direct confrontation is the first American option in Iraq, Polk says.
The second is "Vietnamization" -- creating a puppet government with a local army to support it as intermediaries. This the US is attempting to do in Iraq, but not with much success. The unelected government is hated and weak and the idea that a local militia can do what a highly equipped army has failed at is, as always, "a fantasy," says Polk, an option that at best can be described as a "fig leaf to hide defeat." At worst there will be a rapid collapse and "humiliating evacuation, as in Vietnam." Anyway, at the moment, as the Marines begin a massive assault on Fallujah that they themselves are comparing to the assault on Hue in the Vietnam War, it's clear that prolongued direct confrontation is in full swing.
Motives for WithdrawalPolk’s third option of course is to withdraw by choice as expeditiously as possible rather than to wait until forced out because everyone sees that the situation is hopeless for the occupiers. "If President Bush could be as courageous as General Charles de Gaulle was when he admitted the Algerian insurgency had 'won' and called for a 'peace of the braves,'" Polk suggests, "fighting would quickly die down in Iraq as it did in Algeria and in all other guerrilla wars." During the interim period a UN peacekeeping force is a more effective alternative than a local militia, Polk asserts. The Iraqis are capable of carrying out reconstruction on their own. Polk proposes that international contracts for oil reconstruction be distributed by bidding conducted under supervision of the World Bank.
These are pleasing prospects. It's good that Saddam is gone, and if the US forces would turn the country over to an international peacekeeping force, maybe Iraq could quickly be rebuilt. But it doesn't look like that's possible. Even if it happened one would have to look closely at Vietnam and Ireland and Algeria to see how well things have gone after occupiers' withdrawals, with the seven-and-a-half year Vietnam War perhaps the best analogy, since the damage and the method of its infliction in Iraq are becoming comparable. Polk is overoptimistic in predicting that a million Iraqi exiles abroad might return to rebuild the country under this third option. He also does not go into the neocons' plans for Iran or consider how Israel and the other Arab nations would affect this process. In fact he doesn't seem to be paying attention to who's still in charge in the US.
Ideological BlindnessLet's be realistic. Bush would not base a withdrawal from Iraq on analyses like Polk's. He needs a face-saving strategy, a justification for getting out based on the reasons he gave for the invasion. But all his face-saving strategies have been strategies to remain. When Saddam was deposed and then caught, when there were no weapons of mass destruction, Bush said the US was there to bring democracy to Iraq -- and the Middle East. And that goal will never be achieved so there will never be that motivation for withdrawal.
If Naomi Klein is correct in her analysis of what the real neocon plan has always been for Iraq as she lays it out in "Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia" (Harper's, November 2004), then it doesn't matter to the Bush administration that Iraq is falling apart so long as the US "Coalition" can keep investment open to big US corporations. They want a land stripped bare, ready for capitalist exploitation. As Klein says, "International law prohibits occupiers from selling state assets but doesn't say anything about puppet governments."
Keeping the puppet government is fine for the pursuit of the devastating neocon utopia. The neocons aren't interested in reconstruction -- not if it's done by the locals without outsiders profiting. Bush's success in grabbing a second term will encourage him and his team to maintain what Klein calls their "ideological blindness," hiding behind the Green Zone and fake statistics. This blindness is greater than usual because the ideological stance is more extreme than other US administrations'. But the impulse of an occupier to ignore reality and pursue a fantasy never visible on the ground is an old habit among nations. The US desire to "stay the course" and save face during the Vietnam War led to similar behavior, even with less mercantile motives.
Polk is wildly optimistic to suggest elective withdrawal as a possibility under a continuing Bush administration. Bush has never spoken of withdrawal, and since he claims both a "mandate" and "political capital" that he is determined to "spend" (based on the last four years a better word is "squander"), the logical prediction is that in dealing with Iraq, the administration will continue to follow a combination of options one and two. Even tentative steps toward option three will not be possible for another five years--which is most unfortunate because, as Polk says, the longer you wait, the harder it is to withdraw.
Dark Prospects: a New "Domino Effect"What will this situation lead to in foreign policy? Opponents to the neocons’ pursuit of global hegemony can take rueful pleasure in the current quagmire, because the US military overextension in Iraq and other countries means that expanded military campaigns for "regime change" in Iran or elsewhere are –- for the moment – unlikely. But they're not impossible: bombing is the easiest and most tempting form of foreign policy for a trigger-happy administration. Wild defense spending moves ahead and the possibility of reinstituting a draft looms.
As the Marines carry out the most massive assault ever on Fallujah the immediate future looks very ugly. The irony is that the Vietnam War was conducted on the pretext of the "domino theory," which held that if one country in Southeast Asia went communist, others would follow in succession. The theory was fallacious. But this time there is already proof that the US occupation and war in Iraq is increasing the ranks of Muslim insurgency. American belligerency is really having a "domino" effect.
Redefining the "War on Terrorism"This is time to redefine the "war on terrorism." As "Anonymous" CIA whistleblower Michael Scheuer has been prominent in pointing out in his book, Imperial Hubris, Al Qaeda--not the only such organization--is not really a "terrorist" organization but an insurgency movement. As the name Al Qaeda implies, it is a multinational base for national insurgency movements now developing in Iraq and up to sixty other countries and not unlike those previously seen in Ireland, Chechnya, Vietnam, Palestine, and elsewhere. It will subside only when its motivations disappear. Insurgency is self-regenerating and cannot be stopped by armed repression or by assassinating or incarcerating its leaders.
From 1961 to 1964, William R. Polk served on the US State Department's Policy Planning Council, where he was in charge of planning American policy for most of the Islamic world. In1965, he became professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he founded and directed the Middle Eastern Studies Center. His latest book, Understanding Iraq, will be published in March 2005. Currently he is senior director of the W.P. Carey Foundation.
Chris Knipp, originally from Maryland, works as an artist and writer in the San Francisco area. Visit his website at chrisknipp.com for more of his work.
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This story was published on November 12, 2004.