When success is failure in Iraq
By Michael Schwartz
As the George W Bush administration was entering office in 2000, Donald
Rumsfeld exuberantly expressed grandiose ambitions for Middle East domination,
telling a National Security Council meeting: "Imagine what the region would
look like without Saddam and with a regime that's aligned with US interests. It
would change everything in the region and beyond."
A few weeks later, Bush speechwriter David Frum offered an even more exuberant
version of the same vision to the New York Times Magazine: "An American-led
overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the replacement of the radical Baathist
dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States,
would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power
since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans."
From the moment on May 1, 2003, when the president declared "major combat
operations ... ended" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, such exuberant
administration statements have repeatedly been deflated by events on the
ground. Left unsaid through all the twists and turns in Iraq has been this:
Whatever their disappointments, administration officials never actually gave up
on their grandiose ambitions. Through thick and thin, Washington has sought to
install a regime "aligned with US interests" - a government ready to cooperate
in establishing the United States as the predominant power in the Middle East.
Recently, with significantly lower levels of violence in Iraq extending into a
second year, Washington insiders have begun crediting themselves with - finally
- a winning strategy (a claim neatly punctured by Juan Cole, among other Middle
East experts). In this context, actual Bush policy aims have, once again,
emerged more clearly, but so has the administration's striking and continual
failure to implement them - thanks to the Iraqis.
In the past few weeks, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
has made it all too clear that, in the long run, it has little inclination to
remain "aligned with US interests" in the region. In fact, we may be witnessing
a classic "tipping point", a moment when Washington's efforts to dominate the
Middle East are definitively deep-sixed.
The client state that the Bush administration has spent so many years and
hundreds of billions of dollars creating, nurturing, and defending has shown
increasing disloyalty and lack of gratitude, as well as an ever stronger urge
to go its own way. Under the pressure of Iraqi politics, Maliki has moved
strongly in the direction of a nationalist position on two key issues: the
continuing American occupation and the future of Iraqi oil. In the process, he
has sought to distance his government from the Bush administration and to
establish congenial relationships, if not an outright alliance, with
Washington's international adversaries, including the Bush administration's
mortal enemy, Iran.
Withdrawal becomes an official issue
Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of this new independence is the Iraqi
government's resistance to a Washington proposal for a SOFA (Status Of Forces
Agreement), which will allow for a permanent and uninhibited US military
presence in Iraq.
With the impending expiration of the UN resolutions that gave the US military
legal cover to keep a presence in Iraq, the SOFA negotiations are crucial. They
began with a proposal that expressed the full extent of Washington's ambitions
to utilize Iraq as the base for making the US "more wholly in charge of the
region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans". The
proposal, which was first leaked to the press in June 2008, was essentially a
major land grab, and included provisions like the following that would not have
seemed out of place in a 19th century colonial treaty:
An indefinite number of US troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, stationed
on up to 58 bases in locations determined by the United States.
These troops would be allowed to mount attacks on any target inside Iraq
without the permission of, or even notification to, Iraqi authorities.
US military and civilian authorities would be free to use Iraqi territory to
mount attacks against any of Iraq's neighbors without permission from the Iraqi
The US would control Iraqi airspace up to 30,000 feet, freeing the US Air Force
to strike as it wishes inside Iraq and creating the basis for the use of, or
passage through, Iraq's air space for planes bent on attacking other countries.
The US military and its private contractors would be immune from Iraqi law,
even for actions unrelated to their military duties.
Iraq's Defense, Interior and National Security ministries (and all of Iraq's
arms purchases) would be under US supervision for 10 years.
When leaked - clearly by Iraqis involved in the negotiations - this proposal
generated opposition across the political spectrum from parliament to the
streets. It was even denounced by the usually silent Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, the most influential Shi'ite Ayatollah. Soon, Maliki made clear his
own rejection of the proposal, setting in motion a chaotic negotiating process
in which the Iraqis seem to have argued vehemently for a more modest, briefer
US presence, as well as a definite deadline for full withdrawal - a proposal
that was an anathema to the Bush administration.
By early August, when the details of a new proposal endorsed by US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice began to leak out, it was clear that US negotiators had
given way, granting significant concessions to the Iraqi side. According to
Iraqi insiders, the new draft agreement called for US troops to be completely
withdrawn from Iraqi cities, where most of the fighting usually takes place, by
the summer of 2009. All US troops - not just the "combat" troops usually
mentioned when Democrats talk about withdrawal timelines in Iraq - would have
to be gone by the end of 2011.
If the leaked draft were implemented, the US would leave behind those 58 bases,
including the five massive "enduring" bases into which the Bush administration
has poured billions of dollars. Moreover, the unhindered scope of action
Washington had originally demanded for its forces would be dramatically
limited: The US would not have the right to attack other countries from Iraqi
soil, its ability to conduct operations within Iraq would be circumscribed, and
immunity from prosecution would be restricted to US military personnel (and
then only when they were participating in approved military actions).
Symptomatic of the loosening US grip on its Iraqi client government were the
reactions of the two sides to the leaked provisions of the new version of the
agreement. Rice declared it "acceptable" and explained uneasily that the
timeline proposed was not the sort of fixed withdrawal date that the Bush
administration had long, adamantly, rejected, but an "aspirational ... time
horizon" that would depend on "conditions" in Iraq.
Maliki, in all likelihood responding to the fervor of public protests to Rice's
comments, immediately declared the agreement unacceptable unless the deadline
for withdrawal was time-based and unconditional. In a well publicized speech to
a gathering of tribal sheiks, he said that any agreement must be based on the
principle that "no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline,
not an open time frame". In further clarifying his remarks, a key aide told the
Associated Press that "the last American soldiers must leave Iraq by the end of
2011, regardless of conditions at the time".
The latest reports suggest that a further round of secret negotiations had
restored some US demands, including full immunity for American soldiers (but
not mercenary fighters), and application of the withdrawal deadline to combat
troops only. Such concessions by Maliki, however, appeared certain to trigger
another round of protests, and resistance in the streets and in the Iraqi
Whatever their outcome, the still-unfinished negotiations point to something
quite new in the relationship between the two governments. Until recently, the
Iraqi leadership faithfully sought to enact whatever policies the Bush
administration favored (though its capacity to implement them was always in
question). With the proposed SOFA, this posture disappeared, replaced by a
clear antagonism to Washington's desires. With its formidable weapons
(including 146,000 soldiers on the ground), Washington is bound to win at least
some of these confrontations, but what we may be seeing is the end of the dream
of a regime "closely aligned" with US policies.
The re-emergence of oil nationalism
Nothing better highlights this transformation than oil policy. From the
beginning of its occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration sought to
quadruple Iraqi oil production by delivering control of the industry to the
major international oil companies. Once given free rein to act at their own
discretion, Washington policymakers believed that the oil majors would invest
vast sums in modernizing existing fields, activate undeveloped reserves using
the most advanced technology available, and discover major new fields utilizing
state-of-the-art exploration and extraction methods.
Up until 2007, the Iraqi government was an active ally in this enterprise, even
though the vast majority of Iraqis - including the powerful oil workers union,
the religious leadership, and a majority of parliament - vehemently opposed
these plans, demanding instead that control of the industry remain in
government hands. In 2004, the US-appointed Iraqi government enthusiastically
endorsed an International Monetary Fund agreement that mandated the development
of major Iraqi oil reserves by international oil companies.
When those companies found the legal basis for such investment too fragile to
risk vast sums of capital, the Iraqi government - surrounded by American
advisors - immediately began work on an oil law which would presumably provide
a more secure foundation for the investment. In the meantime, informal advice
was accepted from the oil majors, whose technicians were placed in charge of
various engineering operations within the country.
In 2007, when the oil law was finally delivered to the Iraqi parliament, it met
with unremitting opposition, and the always strong oil unions immediately began
a ferocious resistance campaign that stalled the law.
None of these developments altered the Bush administration's determination to
push the law through. They did not, however, anticipate that the Maliki
administration itself would become a further source of opposition. As Charles
Ries told journalists on leaving his position as US economic ambassador to Iraq
in August 2008 after a year of failure: "When I got here ... I was quite
optimistic it was only a month or two [before the petroleum bill would be
passed, but the] more I understood what the real issues were ... it was clear
this was going to be a major political challenge."
While Ries was on the job, even the leadership of the Ministry of Oil, until
then a pro-American bastion, went into opposition. One symptom of this was its
failure to complete five no-bid contracts (which did not even include either
investment or extraction rights) with oil consortia led by the usual suspects -
Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total and Chevron - designed to increase
Iraqi production by 500,000 barrels per day. Oil Minister Hussein
al-Shahrastani told the Wall Street Journal that a key reason for the faltering
negotiations was the desire of the oil companies for "preferential treatment
for future oil-exploration deals". This comment, like the faltering
negotiations, hinted at the abandonment of the Bush administration's
long-desired version of an Iraqi oil policy.
The new attitude was underscored when the Oil Ministry revived a Saddam
Hussein-era agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation, which was
now granted a US$3 billion contract to develop the Ahdab oil field. Given the
growing US-China rivalry over the control of foreign oil sources, the symbolism
of this act could not have been clearer - especially since the earlier contract
had been unceremoniously canceled by the United States at the beginning of the
occupation in 2003. No less important, this was a "service contract" whose
terms did not follow US guidelines calling for the reduction or elimination of
Iraqi government control of the oil industry.
Soon after announcing this new agreement, Oil Minister Shahrastani offered what
might be seen as a declaration of oil policy independence. "[Global] oil
supplies," he declared, "meet and may slightly exceed current world demand".
The world, that is, had plenty of oil, and so there was, he insisted, no global
need to rush pell-mell into oil development agreements that might not, in the
long run, be of use to Iraq.
This represented an attack on the fundamental premise of US oil policy - that,
as Vice President Dick Cheney told an oil industry gathering back in 1999: "By
2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day. So
where is the oil going to come from? While many regions of the world offer
great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world's oil
and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies."
Significantly, in 2001 - and before 9/11 - the Cheney Energy Task Force,
working with the National Security Council, would make this commitment the
centerpiece of administration for Middle Eastern policy, defining the world
situation as one in which the supply of oil must be drastically increased to
meet the demand for an "additional 50 million barrels a day".
Oil-producing countries of the Middle East never embraced Cheney's analysis and
consistently resisted US efforts to encourage, induce or coerce dramatic
increases in oil production. Instead, they viewed the "shortage" of oil as a
natural result of market forces, beneficial to their own economies.
With the success of the US invasion, the Iraqi government threatened to become
a maverick among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC),
endorsing US supported plans that, theoretically, would have quadrupled Iraqi
production within 10 years. So Shahrastani's comments were a signal that Iraq
was rejoining OPEC's ranks and potentially opening a new era in post-invasion
Iraqi politics in which the government he represented would no longer be a
reliable ally of the United States.
Nail in the coffin of American defeat?
Implicit in these actions is a new attitude toward, and assessment of, the US
presence in Iraq. Maliki and his cohorts appear to have adopted the viewpoint
of journalist Nir Rosen that "the Americans are just one more militia," just
the most powerful of the rogue forces that they have to manage and eventually
As the Iraqi government accumulates an expanding lake of petrodollars and finds
ways to shake themselves loose from the clutches of US banks and US government
administrators, its leaders will have the resources to pursue policies that
reflect their own goals. The decline in violence, taken in the US as a sign of
American "success," has actually accelerated this process. It has made the
Maliki regime feel ever less dependent for its survival on the American
presence, while strengthening internal and regional forces resistant or
antagonistic to Washington's Middle East ambitions.
The respected Iraqi newspaper Azzaman pointed to one of these forces in a
recent editorial, "Iran has emerged as the country's top trading partner. Its
firms are present in the Kurdish north and southern Iraq carrying out projects
worth billions of dollars. Iranian goods are the most conspicuous merchandise
in Iraqi shops. Iraq, though occupied and administered by America, has grown to
be so dependent on Iran that some analysts see it as a satellite state of
To support this contention, Azzaman asserted: "The Ministry of Oil and other
key portfolios such the Ministry of Interior and Finance are in the hands of
pro-Iran Shi'ite factions." Citing Oil Ministry sources, it suggested that
recent changes in oil policy actually reflected Iranian pressure to "exclude US
oil majors from contracts to develop the country's massive oil fields".
Azzaman may be overemphasizing Iranian influence, since there are myriad
internal Iraqi influences that continue to press against Washington's desire
for a client regime. Parliament, the Sunni and Shi'ite religious leaderships,
powerful unions, and the Sunni and Shi'ite insurgencies have all registered
broad opposition to continued US presence and influence.
As all this occurs, US leverage over the Iraqi government, though still
formidable, is in decline. The Bush administration - or its soon-to-be elected
successor - may face a difficult dilemma: whether to accept some version of the
withdrawal demands of the Iraqi government, or re-escalate the war in yet one
more attempt to create a government that is "aligned with US interests".
The recent declaration by the Pentagon that only the most modest of troop
reductions is militarily feasible in the foreseeable future may be a symptom of
this dilemma. Without a full complement of US troops, after all, it will be
increasingly difficult to convince the Maliki regime to re-embrace policies
favored by Washington.
The question remains: can anything reverse the centripetal forces pulling Iraq
from Washington's orbit? Will the president's "surge" strategy prove to have
been the nail in the coffin of its hopes for US dominance in the Middle East?
If this turns out to be the case, then watch out domestically. The inevitable
controversy over "who lost Iraq" - an echo of those earlier controversies over
"who lost China" and "who lost Vietnam" - is bound to be on the way.
Michael Schwartz's new book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in
Context (Haymarket, 2008), will be released later this month. It explains just
how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the US to dismantle the Iraqi state
and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside that country. A professor
of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Schwartz has written extensively
on popular protest and insurgency. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.