Who’s Sovereign Now?

After weeks of contentious negotiation, the UN Security Council unanimously passed the fifth version of a U.S.-Great Britain resolution designed to confer legitimacy on the newly formed Iraqi interim administration, and declaring that its June 30th launch would involve a transfer of “full sovereignty” (Hoge, New York Times, 6/9/04). However, the notion of “Iraqi sovereignty” can’t be anything but a fiction, not only during the interim administration, but well past the projected December, 2005 date when an elected government is scheduled to take over.


In his new book Mission Improbable, sociologist Lee Clarke discusses what he calls “symbolic plans” — programs of action that, as he said recently in an interview in the Harvard Business Review, “look good on paper but can be worse than useless when push comes to shove.” Such plans, however carefully written and however sincere their authors, can best be described as “fantasy documents.” The current commitment to give the Iraqis “full sovereignty” is, by Clarke’s definition, a “symbolic plan,” and the UN enabling resolution is a “fantasy document” of the first order.


For a government to have sovereignty, it needs three things: a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion; the material capacity to sustain a country’s social and economic infrastructure; and an administrative apparatus capable of overseeing and administering policy. By these measures, the U.S. will retain sovereignty as long as the U.S. maintains its military, monetary, and administrative domination of the country.


The means of coercion was a central aspect of the UN debate. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, argued that the Iraqis should have a veto over the disposition of U.S. military power: “If there’s a political decision as to whether you go into a place like Falluja in a particular way, that has got to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government…That’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the other hand, argued for a “partnership” approach: “Obviously we would take into account whatever they might say at a political or military level…. And to make sure that that happens, we will be creating coordinating bodies, political coordinating bodies and military-to-military coordinating bodies, so that there is transparency with respect to what we are doing.”


Though Powell’s position was ultimately upheld, it made little difference, since this was a purely symbolic argument. Neither side was arguing that U.S. (or British) troops should be commanded by Iraqis. Historically, American troops have never been subject to the command of a foreign power and probably never will be. Therefore, an Iraqi “paper” veto over U.S. military strategy would be unenforceable, were American officials to decide that compliance was against our national interest.


Who has the means of coercion?


Does this mean that sovereignty is compromised any time foreign troops are stationed in a country? Well, yes, because the existence of massive means of coercion not under the control of a local government always vitiates the authority and legitimacy of that government. But the degree of compromise is larger or smaller depending on the circumstances. In the case of Iraq, sovereignty is fatally compromised since there are a large number of foreign troops deployed (in 14 soon-to-be-permanent bases), positioned so that they can rapidly intervene in all major regions of the country. For as long as this circumstance exists, no Iraqi government (appointed or elected) will dominate the “legitimate” means of coercion.


This point was forcefully made by conservative columnist Jed Babbin in the National Review. He labeled the troops the most important “hole” in the Bush administration’s plan “to turn Iraq over to free Iraqis”:


“The president insisted that the’ turnover’ of Iraqi sovereignty would be complete. But how can that be when, as he said, 138,000 American troops will remain there as long as necessary, under American command? If they are not subjected to the law and authority of the new Iraq provisional government, how can they be anything other than an occupation force? Though the ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ will cease to exist on June 30, changing the sign over the door but leaving American troops there under American command (the only way they could possibly stay) continues the occupation.”


But what about the Iraqi police and army? After long and tortuous debate, the UN Security Council in its resolution conferred command of these forces on the Iraqi interim administration, not the U.S. military, as Coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer had originally insisted must be the case.


But even under these circumstances, the command of Iraqi armed forces by Iraqi officers appointed by the new government remains purely symbolic. Left unmentioned in the UN debate was the modest size of the military (35,000 soldiers when fully trained) and its light armament (no tanks or air power) compared to the American forces. Left unmentioned as well was the fact that the United States will be in charge of recruiting, training and supplying all Iraqi forces, both military and police. Left unmentioned as well was the fact that the entirety of the budget for those armed forces and police will come from the Pentagon’s military budget. The significance of these sinews of control was not lost on American administrators, who told New York Times reporters John F. Burns and Thom Shanker (3/26/04) that if there was ever disagreement over military policy, ”The American commander would only have to say, ‘O.K., we’re out of here,’ and the Iraqis would back down.”


A sense of how such a system is likely to work can be gleaned from the remarkable raid conducted against erstwhile American darling Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi’s house was invaded by Iraqi police, overseen and operating under the command of unidentified American officers, based on a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge appointed by the occupation authority. The Iraqi police knew — before, during, and after the raid — that the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council would oppose and denounce this attack on one of its members. But they also knew that their American commanders wanted the raid completed, and they therefore “followed orders.”


Until the Iraqi police and army have a separate recruitment and command structure from the occupying army, and until they are paid and supplied by Iraqis instead of Americans, they will continue to be an enforcement arm of the U.S. occupation.


Who controls the purse?


As for economic and social policy, the central issue for the functioning of Iraq‘s infrastructure in the years to come will be “reconstruction.” There are two primary potential sources of reconstruction revenues: American aid and oil money.


Though Coalition leader Bremer declared as late as March that the U.S. would appropriate all oil revenues, the ultimate UN resolution gave control over these revenues to the interim authority. But this was another of the fantasy elements in the document. These oil moneys are encumbered in a surprising number of ways. In the near term, they are not nearly enough to cover government costs, as Juan Cole recently pointed out:


“It would take about $30 billion a year in income for the Iraqi state to run the country properly and repair everything that needs to be repaired, as well as servicing its debts and paying reparations. In the past year, Iraq has only been able to generate about $10 billion from petroleum, and I doubt the government is able to collect much in taxes. It is not enough to keep things going. If sabotage goes on being this effective, Iraq looks likely to get only half that in oil income in the coming year…”


But when (or if) the flow of oil reaches the levels necessary to generate a discretionary surplus, Iraqi administrators will exercise precious little of the discretion. As Andrew Cockburn documented in an article for Salon.com, the institutional limits on Iraqi decision making are extensive:


*After the fall of Saddam Hussein, management of oil revenues was placed in the hands of the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), a group 10 foreigners and one Iraqi appointed by Bremer. The UN resolution called for this group to continue its work for five more years.


*Even if the interim administration were to wrest control of the DFI from its current incumbents, it is legally prohibited from making changes in oil policy “until such time as an internationally recognized, representative government of Iraq is properly constituted.” This will occur, at the earliest, at the end of 2005 (since the January 2005 elections will create a constitutional-writing body only). As UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi put the matter, the interim government “should refrain from tying the hands of the elected government that will follow it.”


International banking organizations, notably the IMF and the World Bank, will continue to exercise “accounting authority over the spending” of all Iraqi oil revenues. This oversight, which originated because of the Oil for Food Program during the pre-war sanctions era, will continue until a $110 billion Iraqi foreign debt is resolved, a process that promises to take many years.


In light of these encumbrances on future oil funds, the resources for Iraqi reconstruction lie primarily in the $18.4 billion in congressionally mandated U.S. aid, of which slightly over $16 billion remained unspent as the June 30 transfer deadline approached. Dispersal of this money is, however, wholly at American discretion. The United States will therefore almost fully control the resources necessary to rebuild and maintain the country’s infrastructure and the economy, potentially for years to come. At some point, oil revenues may be sufficiently disencumbered to provide the economic basis for an independent Iraqi government, but before that occurs, the financial leverage of the U.S. will be overwhelming.


The situation was summed up well by one of Bremer’s top aides, who told the New York Times (3/26/04):


“American troops will act as the most important guarantor of American influence. In addition… the $18.4 billion voted for Iraqi reconstruction last fall by the United States Congress — including more than $2 billion for the new Iraqi forces — will give the Americans a decisive voice.”


Who administers what?


But history is strewn with the wreckage of occupying powers that did not have the administrative capacity to enact their rule. Various American military commanders in Iraq have made this point in complaining about “political” failures that undermined the good work of their soldiers. Viewed from the ground in Iraq, this political failure amounted to the inability (or unwillingness) of the Coalition Authority to deliver sufficient supplies, equipment, expertise, and labor power to the various projects that were the centerpieces of reconstruction policy. And this, in turn, led to the discontent that nurtured and protected the insurgents who were also often targeting these projects.


The implicit expectation is that the June 30th transition will be the occasion for transferring administrative responsibility to the Iraqis, even if ultimate policymaking remained in the hands of the Occupation. To do this, however, would mean to substantially vitiate U.S. domination, since elementary organizational theory teaches us that those in charge of administering a policy can alter, subvert, or even reverse it.


This possibility too was anticipated by L. Paul Bremer’s men. Already CPA officials have set in place an elaborate system that will allow the new Ambassador, John Negroponte, to oversee and control the developing Iraqi administrative apparatus. The most dramatic evidence of this is the well publicized fact that in his “embassy” Ambassador Negroponte will have the largest staff in American diplomatic history, variously estimated at between 2000 and 3000 people.


Colin Powell’s vision of “cooperation”, quoted above, offers a clear sense of how this “oversight” is expected to work: Whatever Iraqi administrative apparatus is developed will be in constant contact with representatives of the American embassy. A more detailed portrait was given by the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreaven and Christopher Cooper (5/13/04):


“As Washington prepares to hand over power, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials are quietly building institutions that will give the U.S. powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the interim government will make. In a series of edicts issued earlier this spring, Mr. Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority created new commissions that effectively take away virtually all of the powers once held by several ministries. The CPA also … put in place a pair of watchdog institutions that will serve as checks on individual ministries and allow for continued U.S. oversight. Meanwhile, the CPA reiterated that coalition advisers will remain in virtually all remaining ministries after the handover.”


The Coalition is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to key political structures like the media:


“The authority to license Iraq‘s television stations, sanction newspapers and regulate cell phone companies was recently transferred to a commission whose members were selected by Washington. The commissioners’ five-year terms stretch far beyond the planned 18-month tenure of the interim Iraqi government that will assume sovereignty on June 30.”


And Bremer’s planning extends well beyond the central government. President Bush assured the Army War College on May 24, that the U.S. would maintain “regional offices in key cities [that] will work closely with Iraqis at all levels of government.”


In other words, the Bush administration is unwilling to risk that any policies it enunciates might be altered or reversed by Iraqi administrators.


Whose fantasy is this anyway?


The broad sweep of American policy regarding the June 30th transition bears an uncanny resemblance to the governing strategy implemented in Afghanistan after the Taliban were swept from power. As in Iraq, the U.S. “transferred power” to a temporary government pending elections that would create a new democracy. But as New York Times reporter Amy Waldman has documented, this transfer of power was symbolic in exactly the sense used by Lee Clarke. Discussing the relationship between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Waldman commented (“In Afghanistan, U.S. Envoy Sits in Seat of Power,” 4/17/04):


“The genial Mr. Karzai may be Afghanistan‘s president, but the affable, ambitious Mr. Khalilzad often seems more like its chief executive. With his command of both details and American largesse, the Afghan-born envoy has created an alternate seat of power since his arrival on Thanksgiving [2003]… As he shuttles between the American Embassy and the presidential palace, where Americans guard Mr. Karzai, one place seems an extension of the other.”


The situation sounds more and more like a case of American sovereignty in Afghan dress when Waldman describes the daily activities of the Ambassador, who meets with President Karzai as often as two or three times a day:


“Working closely with the Karzai government and the American military, Mr. Khalilzad ponders whether to push for the removal of uncooperative governors, where roads should be built to undercut insurgency, and how to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendancy in a democratic Afghanistan.”


The details of Khalilzad’s activities make his governing role crystal clear. He personally intervened to “secure land” for various projects, including a new Hyatt Hotel, an international school, and a top-tier hospital — overcoming substantial opposition from Afghans who felt the resources would be better spent on services aimed at groups who “lack the most basic health care and education.” He ignored the demands of the governor of Helmand Province to discontinue American house-to-house searches for Taliban militants until claims of brutality were resolved. He hired the Rendon Group, an American public relations firm, to bolster Karzai’s image; though Karzai himself did not approve of the campaign.


It is not surprising that the U.S. is seeking to create in Iraq what it has already created in Afghanistan: a client regime that accepts the broad guidelines of American foreign policy and which implements American responses to a changing local reality. The current acts of our occupation officials are, unfortunately, part of a long term project aimed at constraining the future acts not only of the new interim administration, but also of any successor government, elected or otherwise. The symbolic plan passed by the UN will remain a fantasy document until the U.S. withdraws its troops and dismantles its administrative apparatus.


And yet reality itself calls into question the elaborate structure of domination currently being erected in Iraq. The military occupation, the monetary investment, and the administrative edifice may assure American control of the “government” of Iraq, but it does not insure control of the country as a whole. The recent history of increasing disruption and chaos reflects this fundamental verity, and portends a larger and more unruly rebellion as the symbolic nature of the June 30th transition becomes ever more apparent. Ultimately, the resistance — both violent and nonviolent — may reveal yet another layer of symbolism: Bush Administration plans to remake Iraq as an agent of American policy in the Middle East may themselves be a fantasy.


Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz


Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on Iraq, on the dynamics of popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government structures. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure and The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz). He is currently completing The Rise and Fall of Detroit, a book analyzing the dynamics of the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers from 1900 to 1990.


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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