Saturday, June 21, 2008

Plans for Iraq

Several news stories last week have made clear the Bush Administration's plans for Iraq. They seem to confirm a great many suspicions that some have harbored from the very beginning.

The principal issue between the United States and Iraqi governments right now is the pending Status of Forces agreement, which the Bush Administration wants to replace a UN mandate that will be expiring at the end of the year. Based on news reports, that agreement would turn Iraq into what was called in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a Protectorate. It would create as many as 50 permanent American military installations inside the country, and give the United States the right to conduct military operations and detain Iraqi citizens as we saw fit. Yet meanwhile, Washington does not apparently want to assume the obligation of defending Iraq against foreign enemies, perhaps so as not to be drawn into the intermittent, small-scale war that has already started between Turkey and Kurdish activists based in Kurdish Iraq. One news account perceptively pointed out that the British reached a similar agreement with the Iraqi monarchy in 1932, when Iraq received independence. That agreement--which was never popular--led in 1941 to a pro-Nazi coup, followed by the renewal of British occupation until 1947. Semi-independence was a key feature of British policy in the Middle East in mid-century. Egypt enjoyed a similar status until 1952 when Gamel Abdul Nasser overthrew King Farouk, threw the British out, and became the leader of Arab nationalism. The British also tried without much success to retain influence in Jordan by arranging for the British Glubb Pasha to remain in command of the Arab legion. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, the British arranged an alliance with France--whose government nurtured the fantasy that Nasser was chiefly responsible for its troubles in Algeria--and with Israel to attack and unseat Nasser. That move angered the rest of the world, including the United States, and completely backfired. The era of both informal and formal western rule in the Middle East seemed to be at an end.

In retrospect the Arab nationalism of the 1950s looks relatively easy to deal with, not least because it was largely modernist and secular. What we hope to do in Iraq, however, seems likely to confirm all the contemporary propaganda of Islamic fundamentalists, and it is already provoking considerable Iraqi resistance. Once again we are confronted with a grave dilemma: the Iraqi parliament whose election we arranged is not likely to approve the kind of relationship our government wants with Iraq. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration--in another breathtaking extension of executive power--wants to assume responsibility for the domestic security of a foreign nation without submitting the matter to Congress.

The second story has to do with oil--that four western oil companies have carved out a role for themselves in improving the functioning of Iraqi oil fields, and hope that this will lead to long-term contracts. Now it is rapidly becoming a conservative article of faith that nationalized oil companies like those of Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia are bad things--that they cannot be relied upon develop their oil fields efficiently. The idea that western private companies might once again tap the huge oil reserves of Iraq cannot help but be appealing. But it, too, would reverse a half-century old trend, and it would indicate a return of western economic, as well as political, domination. It is hard to believe that Iraqis will undertake this willingly.

Imperialism, I have become convinced over the years, never results simply from the rapacity of richer nations. A stronger and a weaker nation cannot be brought into a relationship without the stronger tending to corrupt the weaker, and the real question is not whether the stronger nation will acquire influence, but how much it will try to acquire. As long as the Middle East pumps enormous quantities of oil, its politics and ours will remain intertwined. President Bush has apparently decided that he can cut the Gordian knot by turning Iraq into an ally like Germany or Japan, but there is little evidence that any leading Iraqis of any persuasion want what our government wants. No agreement, probably, will be signed, and the new President will inherit a legal limbo. I hope that by the end of his first term Iraq might have a truly sovereign government--or, perhaps, more than one of them. That in any case should be the American goal.

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