Where Do We Go From Here?

Those who were united a year ago in opposition to the war on Iraq find themselves divided on where we should go from here. Some suggest that despite our opposition to the launching of the war, today we need to support the occupation. Others urge us to support the resistance. In the questions and answers below I will try to address the concerns coming from both directions.



Even if the United States shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, now that they’re there don’t you think the troops need to stay to prevent harm to the Iraqi population?


There are three reasons one can’t expect the United States to protect Iraqis.


First, the historical record of the United States in Iraq has made it the leading killer of innocent Iraqis: its backing for Saddam Hussein during his most ruthless actions, its denial of support to the 1991 anti-Saddam uprisings, its more than ten years of murderous sanctions, it use of weapons like cluster bombs and depleted uranium that have been condemned by human rights organizations.


Second, it is precisely the U.S. determination to control Iraq — militarily, economically, and politically — that incites many Iraqis to resort to an armed response, creating the very conditions that put large numbers of Iraqi civilians at risk. What sort of credibility can the United States have as a protector of the Iraqi people when, at the very same time that it proclaims its concern for Iraqis, it is presiding over the corporate looting of Iraq. How can the country that is building long-term military bases in Iraq for the indefinite future be taken seriously as a disinterested defender of Iraqi interests? And, of course, the Bush administration’s increasing endorsement of Israeli terror makes U.S. troops a provocation wherever they are in the Arab world.)  


Third, during the occupation U.S. armed forces have shown themselves to be the main danger to Iraqi civilians. U.S. troops slaughtered hundreds in Fallujah, a majority of whom, according to hospital officials, were women and children.{1} U.S. forces have been firing at ambulances,{2} and blocked access to hospitals.{3} Needless to say, Cobra helicopters are not the weapon of choice for protecting civilians. Even Washington‘s closest allies acknowledge the horror of the U.S. approach: as a British officer in Iraq commented:


“My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans’ use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don’t see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are.“{4}



Would you support the U.S. occupation if the military stopped its current brutal treatment of Iraqis?


There is no evidence to suggest that, even without the current brutality, the U.S. government has the interests of the Iraqi people in mind. We need to keep in mind that we’re not talking about some abstract U.S. government — some superpower that has all the capabilities of the United States, but none of the imperial policies. We’re talking about the actual U.S. government, one with a certain history and certain dynamics.


In an otherwise compelling critique of the Iraq war as an instance of “humanitarian intervention,” Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth writes that the “dirty hands” and hypocrisy of the intervener are irrelevant considerations in judging whether a particular intervention is justified on humanitarian grounds.{5} Roth is certainly right that such considerations cannot be absolutely determinative, but to call them irrelevant ignores the fact that past behavior is often an excellent guide to future behavior. If the U.S. says it wants to intervene somewhere to help people achieve democracy and social justice, surely its record of promoting or opposing democracy and social justice in other places or at other times is a good indication of what we can expect. Some leftists supported the Iraq war on the grounds that it would be of humanitarian benefit to Iraqis — but the U.S. government that they were expecting to carry out the war existed only in their imaginations. In the real world, the U.S. government has blocked democracy and social justice, and has in fact sacrificed untold numbers of foreign lives, whenever doing so could be expected to further the wealth and power of U.S. elites.


There is nothing in either the history or the dynamics of U.S. foreign policy that would have led us to expect humanitarian benefit from U.S. intervention in Iraq, and nothing that should lead us to expect future humanitarian benefit.


What would be the effect of U.S. withdrawal on the security of the Iraqi people?


The first and most obvious benefit would be that they would no longer be subjected to U.S. military violence. But they would face other difficulties.


When the United States defeated the Iraqi armed forces in April 2003, law and order broke down leading to widespread looting (that the U.S. chose not to prevent). In subsequent months there were reports of widespread rapes and abuse of women and girls.{6} This suggests that if U.S. troops withdrew, there would be serious security problems, even if there were no civil war. Of course, Iraqis are capable of providing their own security, but the institutions to allow them to do so in a non-partisan and professional manner do not yet exist. (The existing sectarian armed militias cannot be depended upon to disinterestedly protect the population.) In addition, although civil war is by no means inevitable, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. When the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, the “international community” provided no security (or other) assistance, and the result was years of horrendous civil war, the human costs of which were so severe that many Afghans welcomed the stability ultimately enforced by the Taliban. Accordingly, some sort of international security presence is needed in Iraq during the transition before elections and the training of Iraqi police.



Does this mean that you think we should be calling for increased UN involvement?


The UN is an extremely undependable organization. It has an undemocratic structure that gives disproportionate power to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China, and the Russian Federation). The United States, as the world’s sole superpower, can often use its military and economic clout to get its way in the UN. But the U.S. could use its clout in the absence of the UN too, so in fact there will be occasional instances where — when the permanent five are not in agreement — that the UN will put up some small obstacle in the way of the United States. In the case of Haiti, where Paris‘s agenda has been as sordid as Washington‘s, the Security Council to its shame simply endorsed U.S.-French policy. But in the case of the Iraq war, despite the tremendous pressure exerted by the United States, the Security Council members held firm and refused to give Washington the rubber stamp it has so often received. To be sure, this didn’t prevent the Bush administration from going to war, and a real UN would not just have refused to back the war but would have condemned the U.S.-UK aggression. But this doesn’t mean that UN opposition was totally irrelevant. The lack of Security Council authorization discouraged many nations from participating in the U.S. occupation and it adds to the political difficulties that both Bush and Blair are facing.


The Bush administration now realizes that the situation in Iraq may become an electoral disaster. A year after the president declared “mission accomplished,” U.S. soldiers are suffering their highest level of casualties, and Bush would like nothing more than to be able to continue the occupation under the guise of a UN operation, with other nations, not the U.S., suffering the casualties. Those of us who oppose the U.S. occupation ought to oppose it whether or not there is a UN fig leaf.



But you said we should be seeking an international security presence?


What is crucial is for us to look beneath the rhetoric and assess what is actually going on. A UN force and other UN assistance that was not controlled by Washington and London, that helped Iraqis during a transition period, would be welcome. On the other hand, a UN force that fronted for Washington and London, that essentially carried out the wishes of the Bush administration with just cosmetic changes, should be absolutely rejected.


At the moment, a UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has proposed a way forward: Instead of using the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council as the basis for any transitional Iraqi authority, Brahimi has suggested instead that he appoint a caretaker government of technocrats to run things until elections are held. Desperate for some way out of the quagmire, Brahimi’s plan (yet without details) has been endorsed by Bush and Blair (and given grudging support from Rumsfeld). While the U.S. no doubt still has its preferred lackeys on the IGC, it has become obvious even to the White House that these individuals are so without popular backing that to continue insisting on them will lead to disaster. (Survey data from Iraq are extremely dubious, but a recent poll asked which political figure do you “not trust at all.” Pentagon favorite and IGC member Ahmed Chalabi led all contenders with 10.3%, compared to 3.1% for Saddam Hussein.{7})


It remains to be seen what the details of Brahimi’s plan will be — there are key Iraqis, including Shia leader Ali al-Sistani, to whom he’s not yet spoken — and it is unclear what sort of resolution the Security Council will be willing to approve. Moreover,


“…at this point, diplomats expect the resolution to be largely a formality. For it to pull in additional international help, the U.S. must make a serious effort to give the U.N. a clear and autonomous role, and to ensure that a multinational force is seen as a stabilizer, not an occupying presence.


“Gunter Pleuger, German ambassador to the U.N., said his country had no plans to increase its participation in Iraq soon, with or without a new resolution. Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali said many countries would wait to see how the transition fared before committing to help.




“Even a U.S. proposal aimed at attracting contributions of troops to protect U.N. aid workers is not gaining traction.


“‘I don’t think this is the time to get involved,’ Pakistan‘s ambassador, Munir Akram, said of that proposal.”{8}


So far, there are good reasons to be suspicious of Brahimi’s plan: the U.S. urged the UN Secretary General to send Brahimi to Iraq{9} and Brahimi has been consulting with U.S. officials.{10} On the other hand, the UN secretariat reflects the views not just of Washington, but of other influential states (many of which opposed the war), and the UN has already paid a heavy price — a bombing that killed 21 of its staff — for too quickly following the U.S. into Baghdad. (Said Kofi Annan on April 14, “For the foreseeable future, insecurity is going to be a major constraint for us. So I cannot say I’m going to be sending in a large U.N. team.”{11}) And Brahimi has publicly criticized the United States, saying of its attack on Fallujah:


“The collective punishments are not acceptable, cannot be acceptable, and to cordon off and besiege a city is not acceptable…. There is no military solution to the problems and … the use of force, especially of excessive use of force, makes matters worse.”{12}


So how can we assess any UN plan that finally emerges? We need to ask of any plan:


1.                  Are there to be some hundred thousand U.S. troops stationed in Iraq?

2.                  Will these troops be under the control of the White House?

3.                  Will the status of these troops be worked out with representatives of the Iraqi people or — as is currently the case — unilaterally by the United States, using the claim that Security Council resolutions authorize their presence?

4.                  Will Iraqi security forces remain under the control of a U.S. commander?

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