By Walden Bello*
(Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow speech, University of California at Irvine, June 8, 2004.)
Over the last year, I have been preoccupied, as so many of us have, with one thing, Iraq. Iraq, as Bob Woodward puts it in his book Plan of Attack, has “sucked all the oxygen out of the system.” It is the central event of our time, our Spanish Civil War, our Vietnam, and everything else seems to be put on hold both here and in other parts of the world until there is a just and decisive resolution to the terrible situation created by the US invasion and occupation of that country.
When George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1st last year to mark the end of the war in Iraq, Washington seemed to be at the zenith of its power, with many commentators calling it, with a mixture of awe and disgust, the “New Rome.” The carrier landing, as Canadian scholar Anthony Hall points out, was a celebration of power—a spectacle that was masterfully choreographed along the lines of the American sci-fi thriller Independence Day and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
In the opening scene of Triumph, Adolf Hitler is pictured approaching from the air the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1934. President Bush began his big spectacle on board the Abraham Lincoln by touching down on the vessel’s deck in a S-3B Viking jet. Emblazoned on the windshield of the aircraft were the words “Commander in Chief.” The US president then emerged in full fighter garb, invoking the imagery of the dramatic concluding scenes in Independence Day. In those scenes, an American president leads a global coalition from the cockpit of a small jet fighter. The aim of this US-led operation is to defend the planet from the attack of outer-space aliens.
But fortune is fickle, particularly in wartime. Today, Bush and his advisers must be wishing they had not staged the May 1st photo spectacle. Two events coming close together have spelled disaster for the American enterprise: the resistance in the city of Falluja and the scandal that has erupted over the sexual abuse of prisoners at the main military prison of Abu Ghraib in Baghdad.
Abu Ghraib and the US Army
Abu Ghraib illustrates in such a compelling fashion the moral bankruptcy of Bush’s war, and on this I have nothing to add. All I would like to say is that Abu Ghraib and the way it is handled will be a turning point for the US Army in Iraq. The apparent game plan of the Bush people is to limit those charged, disciplined, and punished in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuses to a few enlisted men and women and maybe a handful of officers. The abuse will be attributed to a few bad eggs and will not be regarded as “systemic.” Most likely, guilt will be prevented from reaching up the chain of command and to the civilian leadership that planned the whole criminal invasion that spawned the conditions that led to the abuses in the first place. When some high level officers have to be sacrificed, as is the case with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the highest ranking soldier in Iraq, the strategy seems to be to cashier them, then quickly remove them from public view instead of prosecuting them.
The only problem with this strategy is that it may save the high military and civilian command but would be devastating to morale at the lower levels.
My sense is that we will very soon see the return of the conditions of demoralization that nearly destroyed the US Army in Vietnam. In Vietnam, some enlisted men took to “fragging” or killing their officers with grenades when they no longer saw any sense in being told to risk their lives in a war that had lost its legitimacy and its meaning or when they were simply angry at their superiors. There were over 200 recorded fragging incidents in Vietnam. So far, in the Iraq war, there has been only one reported as of the middle of 2004, by a soldier who rolled three grenades toward his officers in Camp, Pennsylvania, Kuwait, on March 23, 2003. There may be more that have not been reported. Now a strategy of having enlisted men and women take the blame for Abu Ghraib would be an invitation for fragging and other acts of rebellion by demoralized soldiers who are encountering more and more deadly resistance to what many of them now see as a senseless war.
Falluja: the Turning Point
What I would like to spend more time on is the significance of Falluja. In early April 2004, Falluja became the turning point of the war in Iraq. Located one hour west of Baghdad on Highway 1, Falluja is a resort town of 300,000 on the banks of the Euphrates river. Contrary to US military propaganda, Falluja was never considered a Ba’ath party stronghold during the days of Saddam Hussein. What turned Falluja into a center of resistance to the Americans was the indiscriminate firing by US troops on a largely peaceful demonstration against their presence on April 29, 2003 during the American advance to Baghdad. That massacre turned the town decisively against the US, and over the next year “under a steady drumbeat of attacks, US troops withdrew from the town” under the guise of handing over security functions to Iraqi police and civil defense forces, according to an account in the Financial Times.
In late March 2004, four US “civilian” mercenaries connected with the Blackwater security company, who had been recruited from the US military, were attacked by Iraqi resistance fighters and their bodies were mutilated. In one what will certainly go down as one of the worst decisions of the US occupation authorities, a posse of 2,000 troops from the US lst Marine Expeditionary Force encircled Falluja on April 4 to search out and punish the Iraqis involved in the incident. Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, deputy director of operations for the US military in Iraq, promised “an overwhelming response,” saying, “We will pacify that city.”
A defiant slogan repeated by the residents of the city during the months of occupation was that “Falluja is the graveyard of the Americans.” The month of April saw that chant become a reality, with a significant number of the 102 US combat deaths accounted for by the fighting in and around the city. But there was a bigger sense in which the slogan was true: Falluja had become the graveyard of US policy in Iraq.
The battle for the city was not yet over on April 9, when the US forces declared a “unilateral suspension of offensive operations.” But the Iraqi resistance had already won it psychologically. Irregular fighters fueled mainly by spirit and courage were able to fight the elite of America’s colonial legions—the marines–to a standstill on the outer neighborhoods of Falluja. Moreover, so frustrated was the US command that, in its trademark fashion of technology-intensive warfare, it unleashed firepower indiscriminately, leading to the deaths of some 600 people, mainly women and children, according to eyewitness accounts. Captured graphically by Arab television, these developments created both inspiration and deep anger that were likely to be translated into support for the resistance. Repelled by the carnage were not just the Iraqis but US allies as well: seeing the effects of massive firepower on civilians, General Sir Michael Jackson, the chief of the British general staff, distanced himself from the bloodbath: “We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean we must be able to fight as the Americans,” he asserted. “That the British approach to post-conflict is doctrinally different to the US is a fact of life.”
The US forces were confronted with an unenviable dilemma: they could stick to the ceasefire, which Iraqis would interpret as meaning they couldn’t handle Falluja, or they could go in and take the city at a terrible cost both to the civilian population and to themselves. There was no doubt the heavily armed marines could pacify Falluja, but the costs were likely to make that victory a Pyrrhic one.
The marines took the less disastrous option, entering into what some saw as an unusual agreement creating a new force, known as the Fallujah Protective Army, to enter the city and provide security. It would consist of up to 1,100 former Iraqi soldiers led by a former division commander under Saddam. How the new unit would function was unclear, but members of the Falluja resistance were soon seen patrolling the city’s streets. No doubt some of them were people who had participated in the ambush of the Blackwell mercenaries.
Whatever are the concrete arrangements on the ground, the important thing is to note that Falluja has been seen as a defeat for the United States and its likely impact is to swell the ranks of an already burgeoning resistance with thousands of new recruits.
The Roots of Resistance
The truth is, the neoconservative scenario of quick invasion, pacification of the population with chocolates and cash, installation of a puppet “democracy” dominated by Washington’s proteges, then withdrawal to distant military bastions out of reach of the insurgents while an American-trained army and police force took over security in the cities was dead on arrival.
For all the country’s many fractures, the cross-ethnic appeal of nationalism and Islam is strong in Iraq. This was brought home to me by two incidents when I visited Iraq along with a parliamentary delegation shortly before the American bombing. When we asked a class at Baghdad University what they thought of the coming invasion, a young woman answered firmly that had George Bush studied his history, he would have known that the Americans would face the same fate as the countless armies that had invaded and pillaged Mesopotamia for the last 4,000 years. Leaving Baghdad, we were convinced that the young men and women we talked to were not the kind that would submit easily to foreign occupation.
Two days later, at the Syrian border, hours before the American bombing, we encountered a group of Mujaheddin heading in the opposite direction, full of energy and enthusiasm to take on the Americans. They were from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, and Syria, and they were the cutting edge of droves of Islamic volunteers that would stream into Iraq over the next few months to participate in what they welcomed as the decisive battle with the Americans.
As the invasion began, many of us predicted that the American invasion would face an urban resistance that would be difficult to pacify in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. Famously, Scott Ritter, the former UN arms inspector, said that the Americans would be forced to exit Iraq “with its tail between its legs, defeated. It is a war we cannot win.”
We were wrong, of course, since there was little popular resistance when the Americans entered Baghdad. But we were eventually proved right. Our mistake lay in underestimating the time it would take to transform the population from an unorganized, submissive mass under Saddam to a force empowered by nationalism and Islam. Bush and the US proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, have constantly talked about their dream of a “new Iraq.” Ironically, the new post-Saddam Iraq was being forged in a common struggle against a hated occupation.
The Bush people thought they could coerce and buy the Iraqis into submission. They failed to reckon with one thing: spirit. Of course, spirit was not enough, and what developed in the year after the invasion was a movement traveling on a steep learning curve from uncoordinated acts of resistance to a sophisticated repertoire combining the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), hit-and-run tactics, stand-your-ground firefights, and ground missile attacks.
Unfortunately, these tactics have also included strategically planned car bombings and kidnappings that have harmed civilians along with US and Coalition combatants and mercenaries. Unfortunately, too, in the Islamic resistance’s effort to sap the will of the enemy by carrying the battle to the latter’s territory, it has included missions that deliberately target civilians, like the Madrid subway bombing that killed hundreds of innocents. Such acts are unjustifiable and deeply deplorable, but to those quick to condemn, one must point out that the indiscriminate killing of some10,000 Iraqi civilians by US troops in the first year of the occupation and the targeting of civilians in the siege of Falluja were on the same moral plane as these methods of the Iraqi and Islamic resistance. Indeed, the “American way of war” has always involved the killing and punishing of the civilian population. The bombing of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Operation Phoenix in Vietnam—all had the strategic objective of winning wars via the deliberate targeting of civilians. So please, spare us the moralizing about the so-called civilized conduct of war by the west of and the so-called barbarism of the Iraqi resistance.
Strategy of Desperation
Despite the fact that the situation has spun out of its control, the Bush administration hangs on, pushing through a so-called “transfer of sovereignty” to people associated with the US-controlled “Interim Governing Council” that enjoyed little popular legitimacy.
To whom will “sovereignty” will be handed over? What exactly will sovereignty consist of? Where will the legitimacy of the government come from? What exactly is the relationship of the coming government to the United Nations? The United States reserves the right to control its military forces in Iraq and to maintain them there indefinitely. A qualification from Secretary of State Powell that the US would leave if the incoming government asked it to is disingenuous since that regime would never ask for the elimination of the military might on which its own existence depended. These are unresolved issues that lend substance to the New York Times’ charge that “the only unifying these for Washington’s policies seems to be desperation.” The United Nations Security Council recent endorsement of the post-June 30 arrangements will not make this US-imposed solution any more acceptable to the Iraqi people or to the world.
The Loyal Opposition
But neither does the Times and the liberal opposition to Bush have any answers. .
The Times itself, while attacking Bush for inept management of the occupation, endorsed giving the United Nations “real… authority over transition political arrangements,” bringing in more foreign contingents to participate in providing security, and increasing the number of US troops in Iraq in the short run.” But all the elements were already in the Bush plan, including drawing additional troops from the US forces in South Korea.
In so far as the Democrats can be said to have an approach, it approximates the Times’ quibbling, with John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, making the key issue not substantive differences with the Bush plan but management of the process: he would manage the Iraq intervention better than Bush. In what was touted as the defining speech of his policy on national security on May 27, 2004, Kerry said NATO should be asked to provide troops, the training of Iraq’s security forces should be “internationalized,” and an “International High Commissioner” be appointed to organize elections, draft a constitution, and coordinate reconstruction.
All this is well within the Bush agenda, as was Kerry’s call to increase the US military by 40,000 troops. Noting that Bush had already issued orders to increase the military by 30,000 by January 2005, a spokesman for the Bush campaign noted, “John Kerry is playing following the leader.”
None of the Democratic candidates during the primary except perhaps Dennis Kucinich dared to say the utter the five words that constituted the only viable strategy: “Immediate withdrawal of US troops.” A key consideration before Falluja and Abu Ghraib was that this stance could harm them in the November elections–despite the fact that even before the uprising in Fallujah and the Abu Ghraib scandal, according to the Pew Research Center, 44 per cent of Americans now say that troops should be brought home as soon as possible, up from 32 per cent last September. But by late May, there was no longer any excuse for timidity: 52 per cent of those surveyed in a May 2004 Gallup Poll said the war in Iraq was not worth it and only 45 said it was, compared to 29 per cent and 68 per cent a year earlier.
Yet this is not just a tactical issue. According to the liberal Financial Times columnist Gerard Baker, “Whether or not you believe Iraq was a real threat under Saddam Hussein, you cannot deny that a US defeat there will make it one now.” This is a non-sequitur, but it illustrates the fact that both liberals and conservatives are still operating within the American imperial paradigm. While liberals and the Democrats may have come to the conclusion that the invasion had not been justified, they dare not call for a unilateral withdrawal since this will be an incalculable blow to American prestige and leadership. In other words, the “demonstration effect” of an America leaving Iraq with its tail between its legs would be disastrous for the credibility of US power in the future.
No easy exit seems possible from Iraq as moral failure of the highest degree engulfs the ruling regime in Washington and the loyal opposition. What seems to be in the making is the continuation of an occupation with no viable political rationale and military rationale and bereft of any moral legitimacy.
Paralysis of the Peace Movement
The paralysis that has gripped the Democrats on Iraq can only be broken by one thing: a strong anti-war movement such as that which took to the streets daily and in the thousands before and after the Tet Offensive in 1968. So far that had not materialized, though disillusionment with US policy in Iraq had spread to a majority of the US public, especially after Abu Ghraib.
Indeed, at the very time that it is most needed by the people of Iraq, the international peace movement has had trouble getting into gear. The demonstrations on March 20, 2004, were significantly smaller than the Feb.15, 2003, when tens of millions marched throughout the world against the projected invasion of Iraq. The kind of international mass pressure that makes an impact on policymakers—the daily staging of demonstration after demonstration in the hundreds of thousands in city after city—is simply not in evidence, at least not yet.
Perhaps a major part of the reason is that a significant part of the international peace movement, particularly in the United States, hesitates to legitimize the Iraqi resistance. Who are they? Can we really support them? These questions have increasingly been flung at me and other advocates of an unconditional military and political withdrawal from Iraq. The use of suicide as a political weapon continues to bother many US activists who were repelled by statements such as that of the Palestinian leaders who proudly assert that suicide bombers were the oppressed people’s equivalent of the F-16. The role of Islamic fundamentalists and the possibility that, on account of the presence of a majority Shiite population, a post-US Iraq could turn into an Islamic state a la Iran is also a matter of great concern.
Yet there has never been any pretty movement for national liberation or independence. Many Western progressives were also repelled by some of the methods of the “Mau Mau” movement in Kenya, the FLN in Algeria, the NLF in Vietnam. What western progressives forget is that national liberation movements are not asking them mainly for ideological or political support. What they really want from the outside is international pressure for the withdrawal of an illegitimate occupying power so that internal forces can have the space to forge a truly national government based on their unique processes. Until they give up this dream of having an ideal liberation movement tailored to their values and discourse, US peace activists will, like the Democrats they often criticize, continue to be trapped within a paradigm of imposing terms for other people.
Let me conclude by saying that things can only get worse for the US in Iraq. Moreover, the Iraqi resistance has transformed the global equation. The US is weaker today than it was before May 1, 2003. The Atlantic Alliance that won the Cold War no longer functions. The situation in Afghanistan is more unstable now than last year, and US troops are also pinned down there. Islamic revivalism, against which the US has ranged itself, is now more vigorously spreading. In Latin America, we now have governments in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Bolivia that are avowedly against the old neoliberal economic policies imposed by Washington. The World Trade Organization is in serious trouble after the collapse of its ministerial in Cancun last September, and Washington’s vision of the Free Trade of the Americas failed to materialize owing to Latin American opposition during the FTAA Ministerial in Miami last November.
Owing to its hubris, the US is suffering from that fatal disease of all empires—imperial overstretch. And its threat to institute regime change in other countries, such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea is no longer credible.
I think that the crisis of the empire is not only good for the world. It is good for the people of the United States as well, for it opens up the possibility of Americans relating to other peoples as equals and not as masters, really learning from them, and really respecting and appreciating them. Failure of the empire is, moreover, a precondition for the emergence of the truly democratic republic that the United States was intended to be before it was hijacked to be an imperial democracy.
*Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines. He is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) for 2003 and is a Chancellor’s Fellow of the University of California at Irvine for 2004.