President Bush implied that Iraq would be “free and self-governing” in his speech before the Army War College on May 24, 2004. But the speech is a thin fabric of insubstantial promises. None of the points are new, and all of the implied efforts have failed to date.
The five points President Bush presented, as cited in his speech, are:
• Hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government.
• Help establish security.
• Continue rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.
• Encourage more international support.
• Move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people.
A careful examination of these points demonstrates how hollow they are.
In the president’s first point, it is unclear what the term “sovereign govern ment” means. A sovereign government would have the independent power, for example, to order foreign troops off its soil. Clearly, after June 30, the United States armed forces —138,000 of them—will still be in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has i nsisted that the transition government will have full power to eliminate these foreign troops from Iraqi soil—but does anyone really believe that they would do so, with the United States controlling the ongoing political process?
Blair’s statements, furt hermore, are not binding on the United States; his announcement can only be seen as a public relations fiction. One must assume that the transitional government will be sovereign in name only.
The second point, seeking to help establish security, is a go al that has already failed. It is difficult to imagine how the United States could improve on its execrable current record. For 14 months, Americans have been killed by snipers and suicide bombers at the rate of more than one every day. Mistaken attacks on civilian populations have been common. Part of the reason is the nearly complete lack of preparation of American forces. Almost all U.S. troops in Iraq are fighting forces. Military intelligence, military police and civil affairs officers—all essential for security—are in short supply, according to commander Gen. John Abizaid. Knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and language is virtually non-existent, and very few troops have been trained in the basic skills needed to carry out security operations.
Rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure is the one area where some success has been achieved by the American occupation administration. However, the development has largely been carried out by highly compensated American contractors. When unemployment in Iraq runs at 50 percent, it is hard for Iraqis to watch imported Korean workers—whose foreign origin is difficult to disguise—taking jobs that many Iraqis could do themselves. After World War II, successful rebuilding of Germany and Japan was tied to the use of German and Japanese workers and industrial firms—a strategy almost entirely avoided in Iraq.
As for encouraging international support for the transition to a “free and self-governing” Iraqi state, President Bush has failed so far. On the CNBC cable network immediately following the speech, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out that the president had yet to really “pick up the phone” and insist that European leaders help in the transition. It is unclear how this support will now be garnered.
Finally, the “move toward a national election” is in reality a slow and painful crawl that is likely never to reach its goal. Many suspect the White House, despite Bush’s disclaimers, will establish a puppet regime governed from the U.S. Embassy. Why else would one appoint strongman ambassador John D. Negroponte and a 1,000-person staff, the largest embassy staff in the world? The “move” toward elections will likely involve a set of figureheads on June 30 who will provide the semblance of independence until after the U.S. elections in November. Then a sham election in January 2005 will bring a known American ally to power. The U.S. Army will stay on to guarantee this person’s rule. The United States wi ll perfectly recreate the political structure of British colonial rule from the early 20th century.
If Iraq is to be “free and self-governing,” then America must be willing to relinquish control of the nation to the Iraqi people. This means that Preside nt Bush must be prepared to accept scenarios that may be detrimental to his political future: Shiite leadership, a federated state, a parliament and a military hostile to the United States—all of these are possibilities. They are the bitter pills the pres ident must be willing to swallow if the words of his speech are truly sincere.
William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming book, Iraq: State in Search of a Nation (Pr aeger, 2004).›E