17 October 2003
It could be argued that the US emperium has bitten off more than it can chew but it’s even worse than that. They are rank amateurs at empire-building who are now faced with the insurmountable problem of effectively administering a country they claim to have liberated but which in reality has been occupied but without any of the ‘tools of the trade’ of a coloniser.
The entire enterprise started with the massive disinformation campaign (waged largely by the Iraqi National Congress) to convince the US (which was in any case preaching to the converted) that the Iraqi population would rise up the minute the first GI crossed the border into Iraq. Convinced that a combination of hi-tech weaponry, bribes and their own self-delusion, the builders of the New World Order swept into Iraq with ‘God on their side’ and a thousand or so ’embedded’ journalists, just in case god spoke Arabic – Inshallah.
There then followed a somewhat uneven propaganda campaign consisting of footage and commentary on alternately cheering or booing Iraqis, depending on the circumstances. But as the occupation was consolidated and it became clear even to those Iraqis with a genuine hatred of Saddam Hussein, that the USUK did not come bearing gifts but that they were more likely to get shot on sight, the mood of the country started to get extremely ugly. And the realisation that the occupation forces were pursuing a policy of ‘malign neglect’ just compounded the problem.
In the first few weeks, guerrilla attacks on the US were scattered and uncoordinated and put down to ‘remnants’ (a favourite expression of the USUK) of the Saddam regime. But as time passed, it became clear even to the uninformed observer, that resistance was growing apace and becoming more coordinated and deadly.
Debacle in Baghdad
The policy of destroying the country’s entire infrastructure, throwing the entire civil service out of work, disbanding the police and the armed forces, created a vast army of unemployed, numbering in the millions and was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A straw that has united many of the most vociferous opponents of Saddam with his former supporters against the occupation. No longer can the USUK continue to claim that it’s only the ‘remnants’ causing all the trouble. Nor can they claim that that it’s ‘outsiders’.
Moreover, even those segments of society that the USUK thought would be natural allies, for example the minority Sunni Muslims and suppressed under Hussein, are having second thoughts.
Events have come to a head with a leading Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada-al-Sadr’s statement that, “Whoever cooperates with the occupation forces is not a Shia – indeed they are not Muslims”.
The problem for the US is that Mr al-Sadr has his base in the poorest section of Baghdad with over 2 million inhabitants, a section that the occupation forces dare not enter, at least not if they want to leave alive. And 16 million of Iraq’s population of 25 million are Shias.
Iraq could easily become a rerun of the resistance to the French colonisation of Algeria, one of the most vicious liberation struggles ever conducted, fought from house to house in an environment very much like that of Baghdad. Such a scenario is politically impossible for the US as it would expose the lies and the body bags would reach unacceptable levels.
When is an occupier not an occupier? When he’s a ‘liberator’
The problem that the US confronts is entirely of their own making, for unlike a ‘traditional’ occupation such as that of Japan or Germany, they have publicly proclaimed that they are not an occupation force but a force of liberation.
Were they able to operate as a real occupation force, their first order of business would be to construct an administrative structure complete with a civil service using the US Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group, Civil Affairs (CA) Organization, a unit whose sole function is to create a replacement administration for the occupying army (see “The Plot Thickens” for details).
But to do this would be to admit that it really is an occupation. Caught between the reality and its propaganda, the US is in a real bind. With every passing day, more and more Iraqis are becoming alienated, even those who only weeks ago, were the ones caught on camera, cheering.
The British Empire, built over decades and centuries, where the first order of business was identifying local elites such as they did in India, who could be relied upon to administer and where necessary, suppress opposition on behalf of the colonisers. Carrot and stick was the order of the day. In Iraq, all the US can offer is the stick.
Aside from a few locals, virtually all those on the Iraqi Goverrning Council are exiles, some for decades. With no local power base and without armed forces, they have no means of enforcing control. In any case, attempting to suppress the populace on behalf of the occupiers would be impossible without unleashing a civil war. Even installing a local police chief has, in many cases, proved impossible. And unlike the British, the US don’t have centuries or even decades to ‘perfect the craft’ of empire-building. At best they probably have a little over a year, until the next US presidential election comes around.
For the more astute of imperialists in Washington DC, this situation must be a nightmare. No wonder they want to dump Rumsfeld, and how long before they get rid of Gaulieter Bremer? The amateur empire builders who surround Bush the smaller have led the would-be imperium into the colonial equivalent of a dead-end. With every passing day, the march on Baghdad, resembles Napoleon’s ill-fated march on Moscow but unlike Moscow, if and when the US leave, they’ll leave a shattered land behind them, for which Iraq and the rest of the Middle East will never forgive them.