Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Jess Kaplan calls my attention to some new writing about our presence in Iraq by Christopher Hitchens – with whom I usually find myself agreeing – over at Foreign Affairs.

Hitchens argues for our continuing responsibility to Iraq:

The United States appears to have played a part in Saddam’s original accession to power: it certainly sided with him in his catastrophic war on Iran and provided him with the sinews of war that he was later to employ against his “own” people. After his eviction from Kuwait, it was successive administrations which decided to leave (i.e. confirm) him in power, subject his people to demoralizing and impoverishing sanctions and protect the Shiites and Kurds (who together constitute a majority) from a renewal of genocide. This is a weight of responsibility that makes it quite premature to talk about any “exit strategy.” We did help break Iraq, and we do partly own it.

He also addresses the frequent comparisons of the current situation – which he believes is unprecedented in history – to previous misadventures:

There is nothing remotely comparable here with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, or with the experience of the United States in Indochina, let alone that of the Israelis in Lebanon. The United States has not claimed territory in Iraq, as the French did in Algeria: it is not the inheritor of a bankrupt French colonialism, as Eisenhower and Kennedy were in Vietnam; and it is not pursuing a vendetta, as was Sharon in Lebanon.

It is, instead, in a situation where no superpower has ever been before.

In closing, Hitchens points out the danger of our policy blowing in the winds of domestic opinion, but suggests that an Iraqi referendum on what the U.S. role should be would be a profitable exercise:

If our calculations become unduly inflected by considerations of American domestic opinion, then both Iraqis and foreign intruders (and their state backers in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia) have only to set their watches and begin making their respectively pessimistic and gloating dispositions. We thus condition the outcome without much influencing it.

A possible solution — ask the Iraqis what should be done — is insufficiently canvassed. As a means of concentrating all minds, one could either propose a vote in the Iraqi parliament, or a national referendum, on the single question of a date for withdrawal to begin. Much might be learned from the analysis of the results, and we could remind people again that Iraq is the only country in the region, apart from Lebanon, where citizens are regularly called to the polling-booth. This was part of the point to begin with.

Read the essay, in two parts, here and here.


  1. Patrick says

    I think Hitchens may have his tounge in cheek-
    The US has built up a military occupation and has several long-term military installations, this is a claim of territory and a base for projecting power. The goal being a safe place for the oil interests that GWB represents, having a safe pumping station for years to come…
    The U.S. is the inheiritor of both colonial and post colonial adventures in Iraq. The French & Brits created the arbitrary national divisions after WWI and the continued pull and push of the cold war and creation of the Bathists is mostly a construct of outside interests…
    And GW Bush does have a vendetta – a very personal vendetta against the guy who tried to kill his daddy…And made his daddy look the fool and coward for inviting insurrection and then not supporting it… It seems to me Hitchens – who I also admire – was being ironic there…

    Posted September 2, 2006 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    Quotes from Chuck Downs in reference to the Korean situation, but perhaps applicable to Patrick’s remarks above, as they offer the more or less official view of what the US is doing in other countries:

    Q: There have been some rumors among Korea bloggers that in October, after the next talks on the future of the alliance, that an accelerated downsizing or even a full U.S. withdrawal from Korea could be announced. Have you heard those rumors? Do you think there’s anything to them?

    A: I wouldn’t call them rumors. For a long time, there have been discussions between both countries on troop deployments. South Korea has resisted a fast timetable of reductions, but Secretary Rumsfeld wants these things to happen on a faster timetable. That’s what he has always said. I think Rumsfeld and his people still want to proceed on that accelerated path. So this is not a new push by Rumsfeld. Perhaps the reductions have recently become even more desirable from the point of view of the Pentagon.

    It’s clear that the SK government wants to give lip service to the alliance, but its point of view is at odds with the basic rationale for the alliance. You can’t have an alliance when one side tries to portray the other as an oppressive presence. When this develops, as it did in the Philippines, there is no alternative but to accelerate the reduction in the American presence. The government in South Korea is now limiting us in ways that reduce our capabilities and change our obligations in a legal sense. In such situations, the U.S. tends to respond extremely quickly. When the host government isn’t stridently calling for us to stay and address a common threat, it’s hard for us to justify continuing the troop presence. No one ever thought we’d leave the Philippines, either, but our presence is always based on how the host country views our forces. If the host country starts doing things like changing the basic command structure, it’s a fundamental shift in the way the alliance works. You will hear the U.S. side say that it will move quickly to do what the host government wants. You can’t do something good for the host government that the host doesn’t recognize as a good thing. We are not the Soviets and this isn’t the Warsaw Pact. We are not a colonial power. If the host country doesn’t want us there, we won’t stay.

    Now, I don’t think this means a pull-out from Korea completely, but if we hear the South Korean government say that we are there to work for our own interests, but not theirs, then we can be out in a number of months.

    When you are in a foreign country, that country is in charge. We never stay in a foreign country against that country’s will — ever. The Korean pro-U.S. right thinks we should be pushing against the Roh government, for arrangements that favor the U.S. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t work that way. We do what the government in place wants done. It’s the task of the Pro-Americans in South Korea to get their government to promote a strong alliance and arrangements that favor one. We won’t do something against their government’s objectives.

    I’d recommend reading the entire interview, which has been making the rounds in the Korean expat blogosphere as we gaze with despair at the slow collapse of the US-SK alliance.


    Posted September 3, 2006 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Quick clarification: there are obvious disanalogies between the Korean and Iraqi situations. My point in quoting Downs was to show that Hitchens may in fact be on to something: it’s important for the US to gauge the prevailing sentiment in Iraq. There are probably some voices in the current administration who have already suggested the type of referendum Hitchens is talking about.

    Downs is suggesting that US foreign policy routinely makes a point of finding out what the people (and their governments) feel. This conscientiousness may not be obvious to Joe American Citizen, whose news is, to put it politely, somewhat filtered.


    Posted September 3, 2006 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Right you are, Kevin – it is in fact twice filtered: once by the news organizations themselves, which seem determined to get as much blood and gore and failure and strife and disharmony on the air and into print as possible, and then again by the reader or listener, who seem – at least in here in the blue Northeast – to spin it always in the same direction themselves.

    Thanks for the link.

    Pat, I don’t deny that oil figures prominently in our strategic (and even tactical) calculations in the Middle East, but I think it is important to keep in mind that a secure oil supply is, at least until we can at last wean ourselves from the stuff, absolutely vital to the entire Western economy. The idea that the only beneficiaries of attempting to assure a reliable oil supply are a cadre of Bush cronies (a notion that we hear in a constant throbbing chorus from the Left) is simply wrong, even if oil companies do indeed benefit. It is like suggesting that the only parties who benefit from a reliable food supply are General Mills and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

    Likewise, the notion that the overthrow of Saddam was a mere exercise in colonial empire-building is rooted more deeply, I think, in Bush-hating than reality. The last thing this country wants or needs is to own Iraq, and everyone knows it. On the other hand, of course we would rather have allies than enemies in the region, and often, as in the case of South Korea and other countries around the world, the advantages of having a powerful friend are appreciated, with the result that we are able to maintain military resources in these places. But as Kevin’s link illustrates, when we aren’t wanted, we leave (as witness the former Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines, though Gitmo might be a unique and defensible counterexample). This is NOT a “claim of territory”; how “long-term” those military bases turn out in fact to be will depend, ultimately, on the wishes of the people (people, not despots) whose land they occupy.

    Posted September 3, 2006 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    Uh, I think the reason that news organizations “seem determined to get as much blood and gore and failure and strife and disharmony on the air and into print as possible” is because the level of blood, gore, failure, strife, and disharmony we have caused by this misadventure are unprecedented.

    To put things in perspective: more innocents die in Iraq every month than died in the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.

    I won’t go on a rant about how the George Bush distorted intelligence to invade and destabilize a country which never attacked us, resulting in tens (hundreds?) of thousands of deaths and injuries, civil war, the creation of a magnet for terrorists, the loss of our moral standing, the abandonment of allies, and an inability to confront the far graver threats of Iran and North Korea now that we have cried wolf. Nor will I go on about how Pee Wee Herman would bring more gravitas to the Oval Office than our feckless and incompetent leader. OK, maybe I will.

    The fact remains that invading Iraq is the worst foreign policy fiasco of my lifetime, or perhaps ever. The bloodshed is endless and only increases as time goes by. Why shouldn’t this be front page news every day of the week?

    Posted September 4, 2006 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  6. the one eyed man says

    Or, to put things in a different perspective: because we destabilized Iraq, more innocent Iraqis die every month than died in 9/11, in a country one tenth of our size.

    In my opinion, the scale of the catastrophe which is Iraq is far more newsworthy than anything else which is going on. The media would not be doing their job if this was not reported in full, day in and day out.

    Posted September 4, 2006 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    “one-eyed man”:

    First of all, who are you, and what have you done with my friend Peter (the one who leaves the light-hearted and jocund comments)??

    I thank you for not going on any rants. Plenty enough of that all around as is, especially in these parts.

    I make no brief for how the war was handled. The ongoing and brutal attacks by the various belligerent parties in Iraq (Shiite and Sunni militias, al-Qaeda jihadists, and irredentist Baathists) that are reponsible for the civilian deaths you mention might indeed have not gained the momentum they did had we been more foresighted about what these groups would do once Saddam’s boot was lifted from their necks and their ancient hatreds were given free rein.

    Nor am I here to laud George Bush. As I have declared often in these pages, I do not admire him in any way (quite the contrary: I shudder with visceral antipathy to watch him, or to hear him speak) other than that I agree with his view that it is time for the US to abandon the cold-war paleoconservative “realpolitik” that was our nation’s loathsome foreign-policy polestar for so long, in favor of a genuine determination to promote freedom in the world.

    I hesitate even to begin the immense and, in my experience always pointless, argument I think we would have if I were to try to convince you that it is better that we removed Saddam from power. (Innocents died in his dungeons and rape rooms at a pretty rapid clip also, and of course we could ask the Kurds of Halabja whether they would prefer to have Saddam back – oh wait, no we can’t, because he gassed them all to death with all those WMDs that only a liar would suggest he ever had.) If you would prefer that he had remained, so be it, we disagree.

    The fact is, though, we did it. Whether it will turn out to have been the “worst foreign-policy fiasco” of our lifetimes, or perhaps ever (keep in mind, just as a possible counterexample, that we fought in Vietnam for 15 years, and lost 58,000 soldiers) is rather a moot point. History will judge. I don’t disagree: the whole thing is a ghastly mess. But the matter before us now is what to do next.

    My only point about news coverage was that while, yes, there is indeed lots of blood and strife in Iraq (and yes, it is unspeakably horrible), that isn’t all that is happening over there, even though it is all we ever hear about. Swept under the rug are the free elections, the overthrow of one of the world’s most vicious tyrants, the newfound freedom of the press and of speech, the many throughout the Arab world who began to see that democracy was possible in their own countries and have begun to agitate for it, the sudden cooperativeness of Libya, etc.

    Posted September 4, 2006 at 11:51 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    Well, I agree with everything until the last paragraph (although the gassing of the Kurds fifteen years ago does not show the existence of WMD when we invaded in 2003 — and nobody questions that Iraq had chemical weapons in the early 1990’s).

    However, I don’t think that the capture of Saddam or the elections were “swept under the rug” — they were given front page treatment and applauded by, among others, the editorial board of the NY Times.

    I also do not think that the existence of elections is tantamount to having a democracy. In a democracy, the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and violence. In Iraq, there is a weak central government which is unable to control the several militias which are fighting each other and the government. (As an example, the Shia militia attacked government troops last week and the government was unable to respond effectively and essentially ignored the provocation). I would not expect Jeffersonian democracy to flourish overnight there, but I also think it is premature to declare the Iraqi experiment in democracy, and there is no certainty that it will retain its democratic characteristics.

    The more important question is: by what right do we invade a country to impose our preferred form of government on them?

    I also think it is unrealistic to assert that “many throughout the Arab world who began to see that democracy was possible in their own countries and have begun to agitate for it.” Because of the disgust with America throughout the Middle East, those countries which were edging towards democracy (e.g., Egypt and Saudi Arabia) moved backwards instead of forwards to appease angry Muslim sentiment. The only functioning democracy in the region (Lebanon) is now a mess. A clear-eyed look at the region would indicate that it is probably less democratic now — and certainly much more hostile to America and Western ideals — than it was when we invaded.

    However, I think that your argument is not that the media coverage is slanted, but rather that given all of what has gone on, the overthrow of Saddam ultimately justified the invasion. I think not. From a purely American perspective, I believe that we are much less safe than we would be had we not invaded. I do not think that he was a threat to us, and by invading Iraq we have made ourselves much more vulnerable to countries like Iran and North Korea which are much graver threats.

    Nor do I think that you can make the argument that things are better in Iraq so from an Iraqi perspective the invasion was justified. While we can’t quantify how many people died from Saddam, it is certainly probable that many more are dying today. In any event, those who died before we invaded aren’t our fault or moral responsibility — but those who are dead because we destabilized their country are.

    If “the matter before us now is what to do next,” then my suggestion would be to hold a referendum in Iraq and ask them if we should stay or go. We have done grievous damage to their country, and it would be wrong for us to simply say “my bad” and leave. However, that would be a judgment for Iraqis to make, and not us. If they want us out: we should leave. If they want us to stay: we should announce a timetable for withdrawal which accounts for their sentiment and stay for a defined period of time.

    Chiang Kai Shek was asked his opinion of the French Revolution, and he famously responded that “it’s too early to tell.” He meant, of course, that human events are so complex that even 150 years after an event it is difficult to form a final judgment. I may be wrong and everything in Iraq may turn out to be hunky dory. However, based on what we know now, I just don’t see it…

    Posted September 5, 2006 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Well, Peter, as I said I am not going to embark on yet another lengthy wrangle over whether the invasion was justified – I’ve had this argument so many times that I just haven’t the inclination to do it all again. I think it was, you think it wasn’t, and we disagree.

    I do agree, with both you and Hitchens and many others, that an Iraqi referendum is a good idea, and would go a long way toward dispelling any notions of colonialism or imperialism on our part.

    Posted September 5, 2006 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  10. the one eyed man says

    Well, if I’m in agreement with Hitchens, then I must be doing something wrong.

    Posted September 5, 2006 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Now there’s an open-minded attitude…

    Posted September 5, 2006 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Patrick says

    Thanks for the reply Mac!
    I’m glad to hear, ( or is it sorry to hear)- yr back at a Job…
    Anyway its the amount of profit and how they are gained that is worrisome.
    In the Chemical industry a typical sale of 15 barrells means that the first 14 get paid for and the 15th is the profit,
    The oil biz makes money hand over fist and much more when there is war in the region. So many states promote the wars by proxy. Hezbollah is a client state of Iran. Hamas of Syria and Israel of the USA , now run by oil interests – as in the Carlyle group and Saudi interests . The Bush family and the Carlyle group where so many of their pals have been imployed have received some 4 billion dollars from Saudi fat cats and it surely makes me wonder where their loyalties lie!
    If you do not think that Ike was right about the Military Industrial Complex and how it distorts just what our “interests ” are- then at least check out “Why We Fight” a short film that you will hate – but it makes many good points about global power struggles and who profits from them..
    Love to all-Pat

    Posted September 11, 2006 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

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