The U.S. and Iraq after the war

by Jack Smith
(in Activist Newsletter)

Part 1: Obama’s interpretation of the war

President Obama bid farewell to the Iraq war after nearly 9 years of conflict in a November 14 speech to troops of the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, NC. He virtually damned the war with the faintest of praise.

The problem was that he couldn’t claim victory and had to conceal an historic defeat — but at least it wasn’t his war, as Afghanistan has become.

Meanwhile in Iraq, a perhaps inevitable major political crisis is brewing between the Shi’ite-led government and Sunni ministers in the regime.

The war was a fiasco for the Pentagon and a roadside bomb for America’s international reputation. Obama thus resorted to conveying a deceptively selective history of former President George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure. Deploying the language of omission, ultra-patriotism, and gushing praise for the troops, Obama managed to smother the truth about the war’s origins, conduct, and ending.

Most Americans have long tired of the Iraq occupation, not least because the war hadn’t touched most people. It was a credit-card war that will burden future generations with debt, not them, and the troops were volunteers, not conscripts. People often waved the flag with gusto and participated in pro-forma displays of support for the troops and concern for their families, but not much more. Reporting about the official war-ending, flag-lowering ceremony in Washington December 15, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service noted that

hardly anyone here seemed to notice, let alone mark the occasion in a special manner.

A majority of Americans opposed the bipartisan war — almost 70% today — and they have done so for years, although a much smaller number took to the streets where it counts. Many millions protested the war even before it began. Some 500,000 went to Washington in the cold of January 2003 to demonstrate against going to war 2 months before Washington’s “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad. The mass antiwar movement remained large and viable for several years, but dissipated, except for the dedicated left and pacifists, when Democrat Obama won the 2008 election. The movement had a much larger impact on public opinion and government policy than has been recognized.

In his speech Obama made no mention of such highlights as the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the shame of Abu Ghraib, or the astonishing cost of the war. He couldn’t even point to any concrete military accomplishments. The vaunted 2007-2008 “surge” concocted by Gen. David Petraeus was not evoked, perhaps because its main element consisted of paying the insurgents $30 million a month to stop fighting, which doesn’t say much about the Pentagon’s prowess. At that time some 170,000 U.S. troops maintained over 500 bases in Iraq against up to 20,000 decentralized irregular guerrillas without any of the accoutrements of modern warfare.

Instead of facts the president resorted to embellishing trifles and vacuous tributes to the troops:

The most important lesson that we can take from you is not about military strategy — it’s a lesson about our national character…. As your commander-in-chief I can tell you that [the war] will indeed be a part of history…. Now, we knew this day would come. We’ve known it for some time. But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long.

Obama characterized the withdrawal as a “moment of success.” To the uninformed this may imply some kind of victory, but it simply means the troops were withdrawn without incident.

At the beginning, the Bush Administrated estimated the war would end in victory in 3 months. Bush claimed victory on May 1, 2003, with his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech from an aircraft carrier. It groaned to an ambiguous finale in 105 months. The combined length of America’s participation in World Wars I and II was 64 months.

The best Obama could say about one of Washington’s longest wars was that

American troops… will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high.

He couldn’t call it a victory, but “heads held high” is supposed to rule out the perception of defeat.

But defeat is the only suitable word. Any war between a rich, overwhelmingly powerful state deploying a military juggernaut and a small poor state with a broken army that ends in a stalemate after nearly nine years is a humiliating defeat. It is being covered up, but in time we assume historians will unite around this verdict.

The White House and Pentagon fear that public awareness of a defeat in either Iraq or Afghanistan may generate another “Vietnam Syndrome.” After that ultimately unpopular and vigorously protested war ended in triumph for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and D.R. Vietnam in 1975 — the American people were obviously disinclined to countenance another major war of choice in a foreign venue, especially against a developing country in Asia that doesn’t directly threaten the U.S.

This didn’t prevent the right-wing Reagan Administration from invading and walking over two tiny, weak countries (Grenada and Panama) and from supporting counter-insurgency campaigns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Yemen, and elsewhere, but it took 16 post-Vietnam years (1976-1991) before the Pentagon was politically able to openly engage in a major war involving hundreds of thousands of troops (Iraq War I, otherwise known as the Gulf War).

Washington has been engaged in hot, cold, or surreptitious wars for 70 years, presently spending $1.4 trillion a year on its military and national security budgets, and has provided no evidence it will stop. As such it is essential to maintain the public belief that the U.S. military is the best in the world (a frequent Obama mantra) , and that Vietnam was an inexplicable fluke or largely the fault of civilian leadership.

Obama sought to compensate for being unable to claim victory by referring to the “extraordinary achievement” of the American troops, saying,

today we remember everything that you did to make it possible.

The “it” was not defined. Indeed,

Because of you, because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny.

He went on to call the U.S. military

the most respected institution in our land.

Presidential praise of the Ft. Bragg troops for “serving with honor [and] patriotism” deserves some comment.

There are those who maintain that it is as impossible to serve “with honor” in a dishonorable preemptive war — an unjust, illegal, and immoral war of choice for geopolitical advantage and access to oil — as in any grossly dishonorable enterprise, civilian or military.

They ask, can one participate with honor — even with bravery or at least showing up and following the leader — in a civilian gang attack on innocent people, or for burning down a block of urban housing, or for acts of vandalism in a rural village? Is doing so any different in a criminal war while waving the national colors to advance the interests of what is today termed “the 1%”?

How do conventional criminal deeds differ from the massive criminality of U.S. imperialism in invading a country half-way around the world that was no danger to America or any other country, destroying its civil infrastructure, killing between 600,000 and a million Iraqis and causing 3 to 4 million people to become refugees? (Some estimates of Iraqi dead are 100,000 “or more.” The higher figures, maintained over the years not just from newspaper accounts, derive from the British medical journal The Lancet and other independent sources.)

And what is “patriotic” about taking part in crushing a much smaller and virtually defenseless country already suffering from an earlier war and a dozen years of killer sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of yet another million Iraqis, half of them children, according to the UN?

Government hyper-patriotic propaganda probably did convince many of the military volunteers that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened America and that the Iraqi government played a role in 9/11, but these lies were exposed at least seven years ago. The soldiers, including the large number of men and women who joined primarily to obtain employment, or earn money for college, or escape poverty, or to avoid a dead-end future are daily subject to the Pentagon’s rah-rah version of its rationale for the war.

The U.S. military did have its members who served with honor and patriotism. Alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower PFC Bradley Manning is an outstanding example. He is essentially on trial for exposing war crimes. Others include those who joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) or March Forward, another veteran group, who turned against and condemned the conflict and devoted themselves to working for peace. Also, we assume there were many soldiers who consciously avoided harming civilians and performed acts of kindness as well.

But an undetermined number of U.S. soldiers were involved in reprehensible treatment of civilians in Iraq, or openly displayed contempt for Iraqi customs and beliefs — often with the approval of their officers. The public testimony of IVAW members a couple of years ago was chilling, as well as the many revelations of murder and abuse that have managed to become known to the media, such as the Haditha massacre of dozens of Iraqis in 2005. As U.S. troops were leaving Iraq this month, secret military testimony about the Haditha tragedy was discovered among papers in a junkyard where they were supposed to have been burned.

President Obama’s most bizarre statement at Ft. Bragg occurred when he declared that

what makes us special as Americans [is that] unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices [during the Iraq war] for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.

Being an empire of a new type, the U.S. did not plan to transform Iraq into an old-type colony. Bush’s intention in invading was to convert Iraq into a subservient satellite. Washington already had handpicked a puppet regime of exiles to take over. The next step was to use a swift Pentagon victory as a jumping off point for bringing about regime change in Iran and other countries. This was supposed to be the culmination of America’s geopolitical ambition to rule over the entire petroleum-rich Persian Gulf region and entire Middle East. One byproduct was to enhance the position of U.S. corporations. Another was to denationalize the oil reserves mainly to benefit American oil companies if possible.

The invasion quickly succeeded. Given the imbalance of power how could it not? But much else of Bush’s imperialist adventure turned out to be a huge exploding cigar in Uncle Sam’s unsuspecting face, at a cost at least $5 trillion (when future decades of veterans’ benefits and interest payments are included). Obama knows this, of course, just as he knows it’s ridiculous to depict U.S. foreign policy as selfless. But he has a major defeat to cover up, and the fact that the troops withdrew with heads held high doesn’t entirely do the trick.

It’s true Obama opposed the war as a member of the Illinois state legislature, though he was fairly quiet as a U.S. Senator and voted in favor of funding the incredibly expensive calamity year after year. During the 2008 campaign his critique of the Iraq conflict was a major factor in the defeat of warhawk Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and or his election victory.

Both Democratic superstars now are leading hawks on behalf of keeping Iraq under Washington’s thumb, and for the Afghan war, the drone attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, NATO’s regime-change war in Libya, threats against Iran, the suppression of the Palestinians, support for pro-U.S. dictatorships, and most recently the dangerous new policy of “containing” China.

(To be continued in Part 2–after the following scare story, “What Bush told us about Iraq”)

What Bush told us about Iraq

[NOTE: The U.S. is getting out of Iraq after nearly nine years, but how did it get in? It was obvious by September 2002 that President George W. Bush was going to attack, and the peace movement, led by ANSWER, started organizing big time. There were demands for peace throughout the U.S. when the House and Senate passed legislation in mid-October giving Bush authority to unilaterally declare war if he thought it necessary. He invaded several months later in March. Part of what induced Congress and millions of Americans to approve a preemptive war was a peculiar speech Bush delivered October 8, 2002, so full of lies and transparent efforts to frighten people that we wrote a brief story in the October 15 *Activist Newsletter that included an introduction and quotes from Bush. It was titled “A Presidential Ghost Story” since the Halloween decorations were already up. Here’s the text*.]

President Bush’s speech October 8 defending his intention to launch a “preemptive” war with Iraq sounded like a Halloween ghost story calculated to scare the daylights out of guileless children.

The term “terror” or “terrorist” was employed 35 times; “weapons” — for use against the United States — 33 times; “threat,” to America, 17 times. Weak and wounded Iraq was virtually portrayed as a military superpower about to conquer the world.

Among the missing words was any mention of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, who have evaded capture [in Afghanistan] along with most leading operatives of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, much to the embarrassment of the White House war room. As a consequence, the two leaders — identified by Bush as enemies number one and two just a few months ago — have evidently been metamorphosed by the White House propaganda apparatus into Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who Bush assured the world was also “a student of Stalin.” Al Qaeda itself was mentioned seven times, but only in reference to the Iraqi leader, not to the former “Evil One,” bin Laden.

Reduced to its simplistic scare-story essentials, the following excerpts from Bush’s speech tell his version of the age-old story of good against evil — the Crusading Avenger Vs. the Bogeyman of Baghdad. It’s a great tale to tell the kids on Halloween in a couple of weeks. Douse the lights, ignite a single candle, sit in the shadows, and begin:

I want to take a few minutes to discuss a grave threat to peace and America’s determination to lead the world in confronting that threat…. [Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism and practices terror against its own people….

We are resolved today to confront every threat from any source that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America…. [The] Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons…. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant…. The same tyrant has tried to dominate the Middle East…and holds an unrelenting hostility toward the United States….

Saddam Hussein is a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction…. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today, and we do, does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons? …. We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using [aerial vehicles] for missions targeting the United States.

Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliances with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints…. Confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror.

If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year. And if we allow that to happen, a terrible line would be crossed. Saddam Hussein would be in a position to blackmail anyone who opposes his aggression. He would be in a position to dominate the Middle East. He would be in a position to threaten America and Saddam Hussein would be in a position to pass nuclear technology to terrorists.

Our enemies would be no less willing, in fact they would be eager, to use biological or chemical or a nuclear weapons. Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud…. We have every reason to assume the worst and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring.

Some have argued we should wait, and that’s an option. In my view it’s the riskiest of all options because the longer we wait, the stronger and bolder Saddam Hussein will become…. There can be no peace if our security depends on the will and whims of a ruthless and aggressive dictator…. Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events. The situation could hardly get worse….

At this point the kids at your Halloween gathering should be scared stiff. Then put on your Saddam Hussein mask, walk into the light, and shout “Boooooo.” After the children run home in panic, put on your George Bush mask and start shooting.

Part 2: Iraq’s future and U.S. intentions

President Obama emphasizes that he ended the Iraq campaign but he actually fulfilled the withdrawal agreement to pull out by the end of 2011 that was signed in December 2008 by outgoing President Bush and the Baghdad government. The Bush Administration labored long to compel President Nouri al-Maliki to agree that many thousands of U.S. troops could remain in the country after the bulk of forces withdrew, but the Iraqi leader ultimately refused. As a compromise the concord contained a stipulation allowing U.S. troops to remain if requested by Iraq’s government.

The Obama Administration then applied pressure on Maliki to “request” that 20,000 or so American troops remain indefinitely, but its plans fell through in October. Reflecting the views of the Iraqi people, Baghdad politicians insisted that only a small number of troops may remain to train the Iraqi army. They added, however, that the troops would now be subject to the Iraqi legal system if they broke laws. The U.S. does not permit this in the many countries where its military is stationed. Washington thus was obliged to give up on retaining the troops.

The decision was an important setback for the Obama administration but a victory for Iraqi independence and a most agreeable outcome for neighboring Iran, which has considerable influence in Iraq. Washington’s principal concern is that Shi’ite Iran and majority Shi’ite Iraq will in time enter in a close and relatively powerful alliance that would oppose U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf, perhaps backed by China and Russia.

According to IPS news analyst Gareth Porter December 16:

The real story behind the U.S. withdrawal is how a clever strategy of deception and diplomacy adopted by Prime Minister Maliki in cooperation with Iran outmaneuvered Bush and the U.S. military leadership and got the United States to sign the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement.

Iran, which supported Bush’s overthrow of Ba’athists, is a country against which Washington has held a grudge since 1979 when a popular revolution ousted the Shah of Iran, occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 62 American personnel for 14 months. The Shah was reinstalled on the Peacock Throne in 1953 by the U.S. and UK after they arranged for a monarchist coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, crushing Iranian democracy but denationalizing the country’s petroleum fields to benefit British and American oil companies.

The U.S. and Israel (which had very close relations with the Shah’s regime) have long been seeking the opportunity to replace the anti-imperialist Islamic regime with a pro-American government, lately with threats of war, subversion, support for opposition elements, and ever tightening extreme sanctions in response to unproven allegations that Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon.

Obama told the troops that

Iraq is not a perfect place… but we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people…. This is an extraordinary achievement… and today we remember everything that you [the troops] did to make it possible.

After the first false justifications for the invasion were exposed, and the Pentagon was settling in for a long occupation since notions of quick victory had had gone up in smoke like a bombed out Iraqi home, Bush Administration neoconservatives discovered that the “real” reason for the war was to “democratize” Iraq.

Iraq had been a one-party state run by the secular Ba’ath Party with Saddam Hussein as the president. Hussein crushed the Communists, then the left and other vocal opponents and organizations. The Ba’athists brooked no political opposition. They favored the minority Sunni over the majority Shi’ite Muslims. Hussein led Iraq into an unjust, unnecessary war against Shi’ite Iran throughout the 1980s, with U.S. backing.

Domestically, the Ba’athists embraced a program of social services for the people. Oil reserves and certain enterprises had been nationalized and profits provided a broad array of support for the masses, such as subsidized food. Iraq boasted the best public educational system in the Middle East. It maintained a far-reaching national healthcare system for all citizens. Iraqi women were considered to be the most equal and liberated in the Arab world. Internationally, the Ba’ath Party practiced an anti-imperialist foreign policy. For many years it upheld Pan-Arabism until its decline throughout the region, and was critical of Israel and supported the Palestinian people until the end.

Historically the U.S. supported and continues to back several dictatorships in the Middle East. It’s 30-year tacit alliance the Mubarak regime in Egypt (and current backing for the quasi-military junta now in power) was hardy the worst. What set Iraq apart for Washington was its strategic geopolitical position, opposition to certain U.S. goals in the vicinity, possession of great petroleum resources, anti-Israel focus, and by 2003 its helpless military vulnerability.

Today after 20 years of U.S. wars, Iraq is a ruin. The country was virtually crippled after the destruction caused by Washington’s first Iraq war in 1991 followed by debilitating sanctions and occasional bombings until the second war which started in March 2003.

The education system has been shattered. Healthcare is now poor to nonexistent for much of the population. Many rights for women have been wrenched away. Infrastructure is a wreck. Energy from the battered electrical grid remains sporadic or not available. Businesses and a number of government tasks have now been privatized to the detriment of the people. Oil has been denationalized. Poverty and inequality are widespread. Corruption is endemic. The new “democratic” political system is frequently undemocratic, and great injustices exist throughout society. Torture is a frequent tool of the police.

In addition, Washington’s divide-and-conquer tactics have greatly exacerbated religious tensions, leading to near civil war at one point, and engendered the continual terrorist violence that exists to this day. The war opened the door for al-Qaeda terrorists to enter Iraq for the first time, and they are still there. The Ba’athists in power would not tolerate their presence, but the chaos of the occupation was a virtual invitation. Divide-and conquer also increased national and gender antagonisms.

America’s formal war is now over but it hardly is the last of the U.S. in Iraq. Obama told the troops that

We’re building a new partnership between our nations.

The Bush Administration’s initial “partnership” was based on becoming a virtual behind-the-scenes government in Baghdad — one of its many failures.

But Washington retains considerable power in Iraq — from economic support and credits, to arms sales, military training, trade opportunities, a connection to America’s many allies and dependencies in the Middle East and worldwide, and more.

Part of that partnership is the newly built largest embassy in the world and a staff of nearly 17,000. This includes a security force of over 5,000 personnel, and 150-200 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq as part of a “normal embassy presence.” (By comparison, the capital city of Albany, N.Y., with a population of nearly l00,000, is served by 340 police officers.) It has been reported that much of the diplomatic staff works with Iraqi government departments or is engaged in activities for the U.S. intelligence network.

Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, long a critic of the U.S. occupation and a friend of Iran, argues the embassy contingent and security detachments are far too large, indicative of Washington’s intention to play a major role in Baghdad. He told Al-Arabiya TV Nov. 3 that the

American occupation will stay in Iraq under different names.

The embassy’s main responsibilities seem to be to keep the new Iraqi government in check, to protect American commercial interests, to monitor and diminish Iranian influence, to distance Iraq from present-day Syria, to keep China and Russia at bay, to contact dissidents, to gather intelligence and to discourage Iraqi criticism of Israel.

The Obama Administration is strengthening the U.S. military machine in the wake of events in Iraq. Secretary of State Clinton announced recently:

We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region, which is proof of our ongoing commitment to Iraq and to the future of that region.

The Associated Press reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

expects about 40,000 U.S. troops to be stationed across the Middle East after they are pulled out of Iraq.

The Pentagon wants to station some in Kuwait, next to Iraq, and intends to keep a substantial force in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal, close to Iran and China. In addition the U.S. Navy is expected to increase the number of warships in the region.

The New York Times reports that

the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. While the United States has close bilateral military relationships with each, the administration and the military are trying to foster a new “security architecture” for the Persian Gulf that would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defense.

Ironically, these six oil-rich U.S. allies, led by ultra-reactionary Saudi Arabia, offer their people less freedom and rights for women than Iraq under the Ba’athist government, but neither Washington nor the mass media single them out for criticism or demonize their leaders.

Iraq’s future is a great unknown. The Sunni-Shi’ite split is far worse today than before Washington interfered. The immediate crisis is that the political system seems ready to explode. As the New York Times reported December 20:

The Shiite-dominated government ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice president [Tariq al-Hashimi] accusing him of running a death squad that assassinated police officers and government officials…. A major Sunni-backed political coalition said its ministers would walk off their jobs.

Speaking later in the day from the safety of the Kurdish north (where he intends to stay for the time being), Hashimi

angrily rebutted charges that he had ordered his security guards to assassinate government officials, saying that Shi’ite-backed security forces had induced the guards into false confessions

Three of the guards confessed to the charges and the video was played on nationwide TV.

Even before this latest predicament, Washington’s imposed “democracy” obviously was very fragile. Some quarters have predicted a possible future civil war or an eventual three-way separation of the country into Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite territories, a situation that would not necessarily displease the Obama Administration if the Iraqi government cannot be brought to heel, particularly in relation to Iran.

The Iraqi military is loyal to the Maliki government, but its deportment in relation to successor regimes or in a serious political crisis hasn’t been tested. It cannot be ignored that it has been trained, equipped and influenced by the Pentagon, which would be derelict had it not developed close ties to elements in the command apparatus. The semi-independent Kurds in the north are protected by the U.S. now. Their goal is complete independence in what they call Kurdistan. America will use them as a wedge, but it has sold out Kurd aspirations before and may do so again if conditions warrant.

The U.S. can still stir up lots of trouble in Baghdad by siding with and financing this or that political faction, religious community or ethnic group — a practice at which it has become adept. It has the entire country under intense air, sea, and land surveillance, with spies and informants in every branch of government, political party, and the military. Key telephones are tapped and computers are hacked. The entire region is encircled with U.S. military might.

The U.S. government does not intend to let Iraq get away, unless it becomes a subordinate ally. Now one knows what comes next.

In many ways — despite one-party rule and a ruthless leader capable of tragically counterproductive decisions (the invasions of Iran and Kuwait, for instance) — the masses of Iraqi people were better off before America’s two decades of pain, destruction and chaos. The Bush and Obama Administrations, echoed by the mass media, have always sought to depict the majority of Iraqis as favorable to the occupation, but this was merely propaganda aimed at domestic public opinion. Most Iraqis are very happy the U.S. is finally gone, but of course they are worried about what the future holds.

They have been living in a hell, and are now closer to emerging, but still have many problems to overcome before they break out.