Page 1 of 2 The US takes to the shadows in Iraq
By Michael Schwartz
Here's how reporters Steven Lee Myers and Marc Santora of the New York Times
described the highly touted American withdrawal from Iraq's cities last week:
of the complicated work of dismantling and removing millions of dollars of
equipment from the combat outposts in the city has been done during the dark of
night. General Ray Odierno, the overall American commander in Iraq, has ordered
that an increasing number of basic operations - transport and re-supply
convoys, for example - take place at night, when fewer Iraqis are likely to see
that the American withdrawal is not total.
Acting in the dark
of night, in fact, seems to catch the nature of
American plans for Iraq in a particularly striking way. Last week, despite the
death of Michael Jackson, Iraq made it back into the TV news as Iraqis
celebrated a highly publicized American military withdrawal from their cities.
Fireworks went off; some Iraqis gathered to dance and cheer; the first military
parade since Saddam Hussein's day took place (in the fortified Green Zone, the
country's ordinary streets still being too dangerous for such things); the US
handed back many small bases and outposts; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
proclaimed a national holiday - "sovereignty day", he called it.
All of this fit with a script promisingly laid out by President Barack Obama in
his 2008 presidential campaign. More recently, in his much-praised speech to
the students of Egypt's Cairo University, he promised that the US would keep no
bases in Iraq, and would indeed withdraw its military forces from the country
by the end of 2011.
Unfortunately, not just for the Iraqis, but for the American public, it's
what's happening in "the dark" - beyond the glare of lights and TV cameras -
that counts. While many critics of the Iraq War have been willing to cut the
Obama administration some slack as its foreign policy team and the US military
gear up for that definitive withdrawal, something else - something more
unsettling - appears to be going on.
And it wasn't just the president's hedging over withdrawing American "combat"
troops from Iraq which, in any case, make up as few as one-third of the 130,000
US forces still in the country - now extended from 16 to 19 months. Nor was it
the re-labeling of some of them as "advisors" so they could, in fact, stay in
the vacated cities, or the redrawing of the boundary lines of the Iraqi
capital, Baghdad, to exclude a couple of key bases the Americans weren't about
to give up.
After all, there can be no question that the Obama administration's policy is
indeed to reduce what the Pentagon might call the US military "footprint" in
Iraq. To put it another way, Obama's key officials seem to be opting not for
blunt-edged, former president George W Bush-style militarism, but for what
might be thought of as an administrative push in Iraq, what Vice President Joe
Biden has called "a much more aggressive program vis-a-vis the Iraqi government
to push it to political reconciliation".
An anonymous senior State Department official described this new "dark of
night" policy to Christian Science Monitor reporter Jane Arraf in this way:
"One of the challenges of that new relationship is how the US can continue to
wield influence on key decisions without being seen to do so."
Without being seen to do so. On this General Odierno and the unnamed official
are in agreement. And so, it seems, is Washington. As a result, the crucial
thing you can say about the Obama administration's military and civilian
planning so far is this: ignore the headlines, the fireworks, and the briefly
cheering crowds of Iraqis on your TV screen. Put all that talk of withdrawal
aside for a moment and - if you take a closer look, letting your eyes adjust to
the darkness - what is vaguely visible is the silhouette of a new American
posture in Iraq. Think of it as the Obama Doctrine. And what it doesn't look
like is the posture of an occupying power preparing to close up shop and head
As your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, you begin to identify a deepening
effort to ensure that Iraq remains a US client state, or, as General Odierno
described it to the press on June 30th, "a long-term partner with the United
States in the Middle East". Whether Obama's national security team can succeed
in this is certainly an open question, but, on a first hard look, what seems to
be coming into focus shouldn't be too unfamiliar to students of history. Once
upon a time, it used to have a name: colonialism.
Colonialism in Iraq
Traditional colonialism was characterized by three features: ultimate
decision-making rested with the occupying power instead of the indigenous
client government; the personnel of the colonial administration were governed
by different laws and institutions than the colonial population; and the local
political economy was shaped to serve the interests of the occupying power. All
the features of classic colonialism took shape in the Bush years in Iraq and
are now, as far as we can tell, being continued, in some cases even
strengthened, in the early months of the Obama era.
The US Embassy in Iraq, built by the Bush administration to the tune of $740
million, is by far the largest in the world. It is now populated by more than
1,000 administrators, technicians, and professionals - diplomatic, military,
intelligence, and otherwise - though all are regularly, if euphemistically,
referred to as "diplomats" in official statements and in the media. This level
of staffing - 1,000 administrators for a country of perhaps 30 million - is
well above the classic norm for imperial control. Back in the early 20th
century, for instance, Great Britain utilized fewer officials to rule a
population of 300 million in its Indian Raj.
Such a concentration of foreign officialdom in such a gigantic regional command
center with no downsizing or withdrawals yet apparent certainly signals
Washington's larger imperial design: to have sufficient administrative labor
power on hand to ensure that American advisors remain significantly embedded in
Iraqi political decision-making, in its military, and in the key ministries of
its (oil-dominated) economy.
From the first moments of the occupation of Iraq, US officials have been
sitting in the offices of Iraqi politicians and bureaucrats, providing
guidelines, training decision-makers, and brokering domestic disputes. As a
consequence, Americans have been involved, directly or indirectly, in virtually
all significant government decision-making.
In a recent article, for example, the New York Times reported that US officials
are "quietly lobbying" to cancel a mandated nationwide referendum on the Status
of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated between the United States and Iraq - a
referendum that, if defeated, would at least theoretically force the immediate
withdrawal of all US troops from the country. In another article, the Times
reported that embassy officials have "sometimes stepped in to broker peace
between warring blocs" in the Iraqi Parliament. In yet another, the military
newspaper Stars and Stripes mentioned in passing that an embassy official
"advises Iraqis running the $100 million airport" just completed in Najaf. And
so it goes.
Most colonial regimes erect systems in which foreigners involved in occupation
duties are served (and disciplined) by an institutional structure separate from
the one that governs the indigenous population. In Iraq, the US has been
building such a structure since 2003, and the Obama administration shows every
sign of extending it.
As in all embassies around the world, US Embassy officials are not subject to
the laws of the host country. The difference is that, in Iraq, they are not
simply stamping visas and the like, but engaged in crucial projects involving
them in myriad aspects of daily life and governance, although as an essentially
separate caste within Iraqi society. Military personnel are part of this
segregated structure: the recently signed SOFA insures that American soldiers
will remain virtually untouchable by Iraqi law, even if they kill innocent
Versions of this immunity extend to everyone associated with the occupation.
Private security, construction, and commercial contractors employed by
occupation forces are not protected by the SOFA agreement, but are nonetheless
shielded from the laws and regulations that apply to normal Iraqi residents. As
an Iraq-based FBI official told the New York Times, the obligations of
contractors are defined by "new arrangements between Iraq and the United States
governing contractors' legal status". In a recent case in which five employees
of one US contractor were charged with killing another contractor, the case was
jointly investigated by Iraqi police and "local representatives of the FBI
[Federal Bureau of Investigation]", with ultimate jurisdiction negotiated by
Iraqi and US embassy officials. The FBI has established a substantial presence
in Iraq to carry out these "new arrangements".
This special handling extends to enterprises servicing the billions of dollars
spent every month in Iraq on US contracts. A contractor's prime responsibility
is to follow "guidelines the US military handed down in 2006". In all this,
Iraqi law has a distinctly secondary role. In one apparently typical case, a
Kuwaiti contractor hired to feed US soldiers was accused of imprisoning its
foreign workers and then, when they protested, sending them home without pay.
This case was handled by US officials, not the Iraqi government.
Beyond this legal segregation, the US has also been erecting a segregated
infrastructure within Iraq. Most embassies and military bases around the world
rely on the host country for food, electricity, water, communications, and
daily supplies. Not the US embassy or the five major bases that are at the
heart of the American military presence in that country. They all have their
own electrical generating and water purification systems, their own dedicated
communications, and imported food from outside the country. None, naturally,
offer indigenous Iraqi cuisine; the embassy imports ingredients suitable for
reasonably upscale American restaurants, and the military bases feature
American fast food and chain restaurant fare.
The United States has even created the rudiments of its own transportation
system. Iraqis often are delayed when traveling within or between cities,
thanks to an occupation-created (and now often Iraqi-manned) maze of
checkpoints, cement barriers, and bombed-out streets and roads; on the other
hand, US soldiers and officials in certain areas can move around more quickly,
thanks to special privileges and segregated facilities.
In the early years of the occupation, large military convoys transporting
supplies or soldiers simply took temporary possession of Iraqi highways and
streets. Iraqis who didn't quickly get out of the way were threatened with
lethal firepower. To negotiate sometimes hours-long lines at checkpoints,
Americans were given special ID cards that "guaranteed swift passage ... in a
separate lane past waiting Iraqis". Though the guaranteed "swift passage" was
supposed to end with the signing of the SOFA, the system is still operating at
many checkpoints, and convoys continue to roar through Iraqi communities with
"Iraqi drivers still pulling over en masse".
Recently, the occupation has also been appropriating various streets and roads
for its exclusive use (an idea that may have been borrowed from Israel's
40-year-old occupation of the West Bank.) This innovation has made unconvoyed
transportation safer for embassy officials, contractors, and military