Bush family consigliere James Baker has been leading an “Iraq Study Group” investigating Washington’s policy options for extricating itself from Iraq’s sinking sands. Until recently. their findings were a very closely guarded secret. For example, this from the Washington Post last month:
““Former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the study group's co-chairmen, called a briefing yesterday to give a "progress report" on their activities. A dozen television cameras and scores of reporters filled the hall -- only to discover that Baker and Hamilton had revived Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" format.
"We're not going to speculate with you today about recommendations," Baker announced at the session, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Can the war in Iraq be won?
"We're not going to make any assessments today about what we think the status of the situation is in Iraq," said Hamilton.
Could they at least explain their definitions of success and failure in Iraq?
"We're not going to get into that today," Baker replied.
After more such probing, Hamilton became categorical. "We've made no judgment of any kind at this point about any aspect of policy with regard to Iraq."
A few minutes later, one of the organizers called out: "We have time for one or two more questions."
"But no time for any answers," one of the reporters muttered.
"This is pitiful," contributed one of the cameramen, as reporters' smiles escalated into audible chuckles”
But that was last month. This month, Baker’s tight ship started springing leaks, with the result that talk of withdrawal is now widespread in the US and in Britain. Baker himself has hardly quelled this speculation, saying, according to Reuters, that “the current Bush administration's insistence on "staying the course" in Iraq was not the only policy alternative”.
So what’s changed between tight-lipped mid-September and slack-jawed mid-October? I don’t think it’d be overly cynical to suggest that at least one significant factor may be that a sex-scandal battered Republican party is staring down the barrel of serious losses in November’s Congressional elections and needing more than ever to show the public some light at the end of the tunnel of its single worst policy failure.
That the discussion and/or application of a solution to a crisis which is claiming scores of lives everyday is being timed on the basis of the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes, and not on the basis of, say, the Iraqi people’s welfare, is hardly surprising, though still worth bearing in mind, particularly now. With the ascendancy of Baker’s Bush I era realism replacing the humiliated neo-conservative vision for Iraq; with the military on both sides of the Atlantic now in open revolt ; with a lame-duck Tony Blair (who apparently hasn’t got the Baker memo yet) still talking about staying the course (and then trying to hold both positions simultaneously), appearing, in the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, “intellectually numb, like a forgotten outpost of a crumbling Roman empire” with the British political class “zombie-like” in the face of the new realities, it might be tempting for the anti war movement to think its moment has come. This would be seriously premature.
Because, as Norman Birmbaum, university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, pointed out in an article for openDemocracy last week, the debate in Washington is not about whether or not to pursue an imperialistic foreign policy but about how best to achieve empire’s goals. Just as the Baker report was cynically excluded from then injected into the public realm - with the fluctuating fortunes of the ever-contemptible Republican Party deemed far more important that the need for democratic debate over the US’s moral obligations towards Iraq - so Western policy in Iraq will recalibrated not according to what is best for Iraqis but according to what is most likely to consolidate or extend US imperial power.
That being the case, it would be sensible for us to pay close attention to coming events and asking searching questions about what is actually happening. When the policy detail comes out, what is ‘withdrawal’ actually going to mean? (What indeed was it ever going to mean, even if Iraq had been peaceful from April 2003 onwards?) Is the US really going to relinquish its handful of massive new permanent military bases in Iraq? Wasn’t establishing a permanent military presence at the heart of the world’s energy region always the point of the exercise? Is the Baker plan, if the leaked information is accurate, going to recommend a phased but ultimately complete withdrawal of US forces, a complete withdrawal being what the newly liberated Iraqi people actually want? Or is it going to be what’s sometimes called a “drawdown” i.e. a pullout of combat troops, but with the imperial garrisons remaining? Because that wouldn’t be a withdrawal but a recalibration of troops levels; and recent polls have not shown 91.7 percent of Iraqis calling for the US to recalibrate their troop levels. They’ve called for us to get our troops out of their country immediately, a fact that politicians and the media persist in ignoring. Is there any reason to think we’re going to start listening to the voices of the new Iraqi democracy now?
Recall that, in addition to the permanent bases, the US is also building itself the biggest embassy on earth right in the centre of Baghdad. According to The Times, Iraqis “are not impressed by the architects’ claims that the diplomatic outpost will be visible from space and cover an area that is larger than the Vatican city and big enough to accommodate four Millennium Domes”. And for all the chaos in Iraq’s capital, somehow “the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget”.
The report goes on to say that “the US mission due to open in June next year will have its own power and water plants to cater for a population the size of a small town. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions.”
Spending an estimated half-a-billion dollars on a construction project of this kind doesn’t really sound like the actions of a US government that’s prepared to leave (in the gloriously racist idiom used by George Bush, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and former Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz) just as soon as the Iraqi “kid” can ride his new democracy “bike” without the “training wheels” and his American daddy “holding on to the back of the seat”. What this, and the construction of permanent military bases, indicate more strongly is that the US plans to stick around indefinitely in some form or another, contrary to wishes of the apparently liberated Iraqis. The Times quotes the International Crisis Group think-tank saying that Iraqis see the super-embassy’s construction “as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country”, which seems a fair observation.
In fact the US could easily, and no doubt always intended to, withdraw its frontline troops and still deny Iraq its independence. With its vast embassy / Proconsul’s residence, its permanent garrisons and with Iraq’s government ministries stuffed with American “advisers”, Washington has already insinuated itself deeply enough into the new Iraq to feel assured that its influence will endure long after it has left the business of theongoing violence to some proxy force or other.
Last week George Bush apparently accepted a parallel between this month’s US defeat in the “Battle of Baghdad” and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Despite some media excitement, Bush may not have been comparing Iraq to Vietnam in the sense that both are a disaster but in the sense that Vietnam could’ve been won if people had been prepared to stay the course, support the troops (!) and not be cowed by enemy offensives like Tet. It should be recalled that whilst Tet is seen as a the tipping point after which the US public and establishment turned decisively against the war, the US didn’t actually leave Vietnam for another 7 years. What happened in the meantime was Vietnamization, which means getting the Vietnamese to fight your war for you; eerily reminiscent of the pressure being put on the Iraqi government now to “step up to the plate” and take over “security duties” from the same imperial army whose unremittingly savage treatment of ordinary Iraqis destroyed security in Iraq in the first place.
For the seven years 1968-75, the US strategy in Vietnam and South East Asia was to minimise its own casualties whilst still pursuing a suitable outcome in the imperial interest. So came Vietnamization and an increased reliance on air-power in the form of massive, brutal bombing campaigns which, in the case of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the conditions that precipitated the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (who themselves received some backing from Washington in their time).
The US has shown over the course of the last century that there are plenty of ways to run an empire, differing from its British and French predecessors in showing a particular willingness to outsource the grubbier responsibilities of colonialism to local elites. The point of imperialism is to secure access to cheap materials, labour and new markets; direct rule over other countries is not an end in itself. Like any good modern corporation, the US would ideally prefer to contract out its more menial tasks and concentrate on setting strategic direction and defining the brand.
It is, after all, far more efficient to leave local elites to get on with the job of governing in Washington’s interests not least since, if the need arises to pacify restless imperial subjects, they are free to get their hands far dirtier than US security forces could get away with. Recall for example the terror campaign waged against the disobedient natives of Central America in the 1980s by way of bloodthirsty local security forces backed via the US embassy in Honduras. The Embassy was the second biggest in Latin America at the time, and not because Honduras was a regional superpower. The US ambassador at the time? John Negroponte. US ambassador to Iraq 2004-05? John Negroponte. The gruesome horrors of that earlier imperial campaign do not yet count as history.
The difference between a complete withdrawal and a recalibration of tactics and troop levels is not a trivial one, at least not for imperialism’s victims. But for those of us closer to the centres of power both crimes and victims can be easily missed if we fail to pay attention. Take the US’s extensive use of air-strikes in Iraq, vastly underreported but happening nonetheless. Take the recent revelation that around 655,000 Iraqis are likely to have been killed as a result of our invasion of their country; a scientifically robust finding nevertheless mostly rubbished or ignored by politicians and our crusading free press. The apparent discomfort our governments are suffering at present offers the anti war movement no cause for even grim satisfaction, only a sign that the rules of engagement may be changing.