by Doug Bandow
President George W. Bush, the neoconservative war lobby, and Sen. John McCain all have one overriding goal for U.S. policy towards Iraq: a permanent occupation. Of course, they all prefer that the American regency be peaceful, but Sen. McCain captured the mood when he called for U.S. troops to garrison Iraq for 100 or 1000 or even 10,000 years. The timing of their homecoming just is "not too important."
Such a policy would be in America's interest only if the U.S. would benefit from years of war and potential war in the Middle East. For those who believe in perpetual social engineering abroad – coercively remaking the globe in America's image – the answer is obviously yes. The only failure of Washington's Iraq policy so far has been to invade too few countries, bomb too few targets, and kill too few people.
For the rest of us the answer is obviously no. Surprising as it might seem to would-be empire-builders, people the world over prefer to run their own affairs. You'd think Americans would understand. After all, a couple centuries ago a few disgruntled colonists kicked the British, representing the world's greatest and most enlightened colonial power, out of the 13 middle-North American colonies.
A century later the U.S. became a formal imperial power, ousting Spain from the Philippines and stepping into Madrid's shoes as colonial overlords. Strangely, many locals didn't take kindly to this attempted swap in foreign control. The Filipinos fought bravely, and it took the U.S. three years – killing an estimated 200,000 Filipinos along the way – for Washington to gain control of most of the archipelago.
Manuel Quezon, the first elected president of the Philippines, observed: "I prefer a country run like hell by Filipinos to a country run like heaven by Americans. Because, however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it." He's been proved right on both scores: the country has been run like hell by Filipinos and they have changed their government again and again.
The experience in Asia, Africa, and South America is the same. People don't like being ruled from outside, even if ostensibly for their own good. When denied the opportunity to rule themselves, they usually start shooting at their occupiers.
That happened in Iraq. A lot of people started shooting, for various reasons. But even the forces of genuine peace and order, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, opposed Washington's attempt to establish a typical colonial satrapy under Paul Bremer. The Iraqis feel incredible ambivalence at the U.S. invasion: happy to be rid of the monster Saddam Hussein and his vampire Sunni elite, horrified by the tsunami of violence that overwhelmed their nation, angered by hard-line U.S. occupation tactics, worried that increased violence could follow America's departure, and nevertheless desiring that the U.S. leave. While virtually every segment of Iraq society turned against al-Qaeda – a key factor in the terrorist group's reduced effectiveness – there is no similar unity in favor of America.
Thus, it only makes sense for both sides to draw the occupation to a close. The invasion was a mistake, since Iraq posed no threat to the U.S. Saddam Hussein was an ugly actor, but he was contained and was not going to last forever. The belief that all would be sweetness and light after his ouster demonstrated equal parts arrogance and incompetence on the part of the administration. Thousands of Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result. Iraqi civil society essentially ceased to exist, and is only slowly recovering.
Washington would gain little but headaches – in addition to the $400 million being spent daily – from sticking around, even with force levels below the 142,000 post-surge total. Although casualties are down, the U.S. will continue to be a lightening rod for disaffected Iraqis. The Iraqi state remains largely non-functioning, and the liberal political order imagined by neocon fantasists is unlikely to quickly arise, with or without America's help. And if the country dissolves into violence again – Washington has in effect been arming both sides, training the Shia-dominated security forces and arming the Sunni militias – it would be best if American troops were far, far away.
Nor is it obvious that America is currently a force for stability. It is easier to posture and put forth maximal demands so long as the U.S. can be counted on to attempt to keep a lid on violence. Real compromise and cooperation are unlikely to occur until forced by necessity. That necessity will occur when America is gone.
Alas, the ongoing negotiations over a continuing U.S. presence have turned into both a torturous and tortuous affair. The Bush administration's original position was clear: permanent, er, "enduring" bases. As of last year the U.S. maintained 136 bases and supply/ammunition/fuel depots. Washington requested to keep 58 military facilities, including five mega-bases, along with a large, safe "zone of influence" around the new $1 billion embassy, the largest American diplomatic outpost in the world.
Nor was that all. The administration's hope to reduce Baghdad to puppet status – demanding autonomy for U.S. military operations, authority to detain and imprison Iraqi citizens, continued extraterritorial status for military contractors, supervisory rights over Iraqi security ministries and arms purchases, control over Iraqi air space, and assistance in war against Iran or any other enemy du jour of America – ran into a little thing called nationalism. Ali al-Adeeb of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party observed simply: "It would impair Iraqi sovereignty." Sami al-Askari, a Shiite parliamentarian close to al-Maliki, said "The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq."
More heated was lawmaker Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq: "The points that were put forth by the Americans were more abominable than the occupation." The original occupation was ordained by the UN Security Council, "But now we are being asked to sign for our own occupation." Indeed, "If it is left to them, they would ask for immunity even for the American dogs."
It was bad enough when populist outsider Muqtada al-Sadr campaigned against the agreement. One of his clerical allies said the accord would lead to "eternal slavery." Then last month Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared: "we did not realize that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty and this is something we can never accept." He even threatened to ask Washington to leave after the negotiations "reached an impasse." A few days ago he said there must be a timetable for America's withdrawal: "The goal is to end the presence" of foreign troops. His national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, said the same thing after briefing Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani: "We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq."
Some advocates of a continued U.S. regency say not to worry. For instance, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that al-Maliki's position was "designed for domestic Iraqi political consumption." Perhaps so, but the fact that he believes he must demand a withdrawal timetable to satisfy the Iraqi public is telling.
Urged on by al-Sadr, tens of thousands rallied against the negotiations back in May. Members of parliament are demanding a vote on any agreement, and there is even talk about holding a referendum. Protests are increasing against the casualties generated by U.S. military raids.
But al-Maliki must worry about more than his domestic constituencies. Iran might be Washington's enemy number one in the region, and perhaps on the planet, but earlier this year al-Maliki welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a state visit far more open to the Iraqi people than any of President Bush's trips. In June al-Maliki scurried off to Tehran to assure Iranian officials that they had nothing to fear from a continuing U.S. presence: "We will not allow Iraq to become a platform for harming the security of Iran and its neighbors." Translation: Iraq ain't going to help the U.S. unleash another crazed neocon militaristic adventure.
This is hardly a case of "cut-and-run," or whatever the latest neocon expletive is for damning their opponents. Reports suggest that the Iraqis are thinking of a complete U.S. withdrawal within three to five years. That seems like a long time to anyone other than a member of the Bush administration.
Officials in Washington have been left sputtering. President Bush naturally opposes a timetable, and said he doesn't believe the prime minister was proposing a "rigid" schedule. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos was more direct: "We want to withdraw. We will withdraw. However, that decision will be conditions-based. We're looking at conditions, not calendars here."
Apparently the Iraqi people have a different vision. And they are looking at a calendar. It is their country, isn't it?
In fact, the withdrawal should be far faster. If the Iraqis ask America to leave, then America must leave. Unless the U.S. intends to treat Nouri al-Maliki like Saddam Hussein, it has no choice but to accept whatever Iraq's democratically-elected leadership decides.
But even if Baghdad asked America to stay, Washington should say no. For it isn't in America's interest to stay. And that should be the test for U.S. military invasion, occupation, or other action.
The American people understand. A record 68 percent believe the war was a mistake. In June 42 percent proclaimed themselves in favor of bringing the troops home within a year. Another 21 percent said one to two years. Nine percent said two to five years, one percent favored five to ten years, and 20 percent opined "as long as it takes" – presumably backing Sen. McCain's 10,000 year occupation, if necessary.
Sen. McCain demonstrated his lack of understanding when he compared Iraq to South Korea. The U.S. actually intervened on behalf of the South to save it from invasion. The Republic of Korea always wanted American forces to stay, even after it was well able to defend itself. It's nice to have a superpower offer a little defense welfare, allowing one to concentrate on economic development and becoming a global trading state. But the defense guarantee makes no sense from America's standpoint. Many South Koreans don't even view North Korea as a serious threat.
Unfortunately, perpetual occupations, even if relatively friendly, are costly. There's the expense not only of the deployment, but of creating the units necessary to patrol the rest of the world. Cut the military commitments and you can cut force levels.
Moreover, extended occupations discourage client states from defending themselves. Most of the Europeans have militaries in name only. Even when they send forces into combat, as in Afghanistan, it usually is with the proviso that the soldiers not actually end up under fire. Armed social work is a better description of their activities. The Japanese are essentially the same. They sent "soldiers" to Iraq who could not even defend themselves – the Dutch and then Australians successively had to protect the Japanese "military" forces from attack.
Occupations inevitably create local antagonism and stoke nationalism. South Korea is a case in point. A status of forces agreement that made sense a half century 60 years ago when the ROK was an underdeveloped national wreck looks unseemly and overbearing today. The recent demonstrations in Seoul are directed more against perceived American domination than U.S. beef imports.
A permanent occupation in the Mideast will raise additional red flags, given the political sensitivities of backing numerous authoritarian regimes and supporting Israel and its rule over millions of antagonistic Palestinians. Even former Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia spurred terrorism. America's Iraq invasion and occupation created al-Qaeda in Iraq. Attempting to maintain a permanent occupation of Iraq, and even more so using that garrison to intervene in neighboring states, would lead to more blowback.
Finally, security guarantees encourage governments to behave irresponsibly. If you possess a superpower guarantee, you can afford to be more confrontational, churlish, and foolish when dealing with neighbors and potential antagonists. Examples include Austria-Hungary in advance of World War I and Taiwan in its recent dealings with China.
It's time to bring home the U.S. forces. The withdrawal should be speedy and complete – no "residual" force, as now suggested by Colin Kahl, a Barack Obama aide. And the pull-out should place an emphatic explanation point on lessons learned. No more unnecessary wars of choice. No more attempts at coercive social engineering, in the belief that the denizens of Washington can transcend geography, history, religion, tradition, ethnicity, and culture in recreating America abroad. Washington's job is to protect the American people – their territory, liberty, and constitutional system. Not to try to remake the world, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere around the globe.