Global Policy Forum

New Nationalism that Unites Iraq


By William Pfaff

April 11, 2004

Tony Blair and George W. Bush must come to grips with the fact that they are not fighting 'terrorism' in Iraq, they are fighting nationalism - a struggle they will lose sooner or later.

Whatever the mixture of religious and national passion that has gone into creating the crisis in Iraq - and whatever its component of jihadist exaltées from Afghanistan and apprentice mujahideen from Birmingham and the Paris suburbs - it is essentially a nationalist phenomenon. It is of limited effect as yet, but with explosive potential for the region. The military effort to suppress the multiple uprising may succeed in driving it underground for a time.

This kind of war all but inevitably produces exemplary punishments of civilians, destruction of homes and reprisals against the families of men fighting the occupation. This can suppress resistance in a given place for a given time, but it promotes hatred and has a brutalising effect on the troops involved, who can be demoralised by serving in a moral climate of reprisals, 'wasting' civilians and an inability to distinguish between enemy combatants and non-combatants.

Such measures have a long and depressing history in guerrilla warfare and popular resistance against occupiers. They serve chiefly to reinforce the political claims of the resistance and discredit those of the occupier. This is the classic paradox of war against nationalism. Its short-term successes tend to produce long-term costs not only in the war zone but also at home, by undermining the political acceptability of occupation policy.

Bush calls himself a 'war President'. The war in Iraq is conceived as part of his 'war on terror', essential to his political identity. Blair is an intelligent man. He knows that an awakening in Asian and Arab nationalism ended the British Empire. He appears to have convinced himself that the coalition forces' achievement in overturning Saddam Hussein has nullified Iraqi nationalism.

The United States ought to know about nationalism, having been thrown into the worst crisis in modern American history (at least until the one that now impends) by its war against Vietnamese nationalism. However, Americans are forgetful and the President tells them that 'we know how good we are', implying that anyone of goodwill elsewhere must have the same opinion. (Only the French would think otherwise, as a neo-conservative writer has said.)

Bush and Blair are confident of their own good intentions. Are they not proposing to hand over 'sovereignty' to the Iraqis within 12 weeks? This is the second crucial illusion of the coalition partners. They went into Iraq to overturn a despot and his government. They succeeded. Most in Iraq seem deeply grateful. But the coalition assumed no responsibility for what immediately followed. Despite its promises of stabilisation and reconstruction, it delivered Iraqi society to chaotic pillage and has failed to establish order during the year that has followed the fall of Baghdad.

Coalition officials plan to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi provisional government at the end of June (although the disorders would seem to make this improbable). A political process would then begin, which would eventually produce an elected federal government. However, what is, or was, to be handed over is not sovereignty but a limited authority over Iraq's domestic affairs, to be exercised under the supervision of the US (and Britain, should it wish to continue as the American deputy in this enterprise).

The US does not intend to leave Iraq. The coalition headquarters is to become an American embassy with a staff of 3,000 officials, the largest American diplomatic station in the world. Washington expects to maintain permanent military bases in the country (one of the motives for the invasion), garrisoned by as many as 100,000 troops, and to supervise Iraq's provisional government and the new one to be elected. The latter is expected to be a close ally of the US and provide its strategic base in the region.

To say this is not to make a polemical or conspiratorial interpretation of what is happening. All of this is on the public record. American plans are widely discussed and American intentions generally acknowledged by the officials involved. A sovereign government by definition possesses a monopoly of armed forces within its frontiers and is in complete control of its economy, resources, and foreign relations. None of this would be true for the Iraqi government now projected.

That Iraq should become a client state is the logical assumption of a foreign policy, which, since the Soviet Union's collapse, has taken for granted that as the sole superpower the US has both opportunity and obligation to exercise decisive influence, and when necessary, decisive power, in all the world's important regions. It does so, it believes, in the general interest.

This is not an assumption that either history or common sense recommends. As the distinguished American diplomat and historian George Kennan wrote a few years ago, such an American assumption is 'unthought- through, vainglorious, and undesirable'. It is a policy that eventually would be resisted by every government with a commitment to national autonomy. It would reinforce the international isolation of the US. It undermines and would eventually break the Atlantic alliance - the democratic community of nations. In Iraq, it leads towards prolonged conflict. What can be done? The alternative is to do what the coalition is nominally committed to do: to cede real sovereignty to an Iraqi government formed under international auspices.

Coalition troops should be removed with such deliberate speed as may be possible. During this crisis the most important (and most difficult) effort would be to convince the Iraqis that such had become the coalition's intention. They would have to be convinced that the coalition did indeed intend to devolve real political power to a truly sovereign Iraqi government and would not maintain military forces in that country other than at the invitation of a sovereign government.

William R Polk, a former US government official and the founder of the University of Chicago's Middle Eastern Studies Centre, has recently emphasised the importance of the US making clear not only that it will leave Iraq, but that during the period that it remains 'it will not ... build its companies into the Iraqi economy [or] seize or denationalise Iraqi oil; [and that] it will immediately move to dilute its unilateral power by allowing serious political and commercial activities by other powers, and political and security activities under UN auspices'.

There are two grave objections. The first is whether it may not be too late to halt the tragic drift towards enlarged conflict between occupation forces and the Iraqi population. The other is whether the US is capable of such a policy change. This administration is not. A new administration might be able to redirect policy, although that remains unsure.

The most useful thing that could be done now would be for America's allies - Tony Blair the most important among them - to stop telling Washington that the Iraq occupation 'must not fail' and instead tell it that the occupation has already failed; that only policy reversal can save the US, its allies, Iraq and the region from generalised conflict.

More Information on Iraq
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