As the Bush administration was entering office in 2000, Donald Rumsfeld exuberantly expressed its grandiose ambitions for Middle East domination, telling a National Security Council meeting: “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond.”
A few weeks later, Bush speechwriter David Frum offered an even more exuberant version of the same vision to the New York Times Magazine: “An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the replacement of the radical Baathist dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States, would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans.”
From the moment on May 1, 2003, when the President declared “major combat operations… ended” on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, such exuberant administration statements have repeatedly been deflated by events on the ground. Left unsaid through all the twists and turns in Iraq has been this: Whatever their disappointments, administration officials never actually gave up on their grandiose ambitions. Through thick and thin, Washington has sought to install a regime “aligned with U.S. interests” — a government ready to cooperate in establishing the United States as the predominant power in the Middle East.
Recently, with significantly lower levels of violence in Iraq extending into a second year, Washington insiders have begun crediting themselves with — finally — a winning strategy (a claim neatly punctured by Juan Cole, among other Middle East experts). In this context, actual Bush policy aims have, once again, emerged more clearly, but so has the administration’s striking and continual failure to implement them — thanks to the Iraqis.
In the past few weeks, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made it all too clear that, in the long run, it has little inclination to remain “aligned with U.S. interests” in the region.
In the past few weeks, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made it all too clear that, in the long run, it has little inclination to remain “aligned with U.S. interests” in the region. In fact, we may be witnessing a classic “tipping point,” a moment when Washington’s efforts to dominate the Middle East are definitively deep-sixed.
The client state that the Bush administration has spent so many years and hundreds of billions of dollars creating, nurturing, and defending has shown increasing disloyalty and lack of gratitude, as well as an ever stronger urge to go its own way. Under the pressure of Iraqi politics, Maliki has moved strongly in the direction of a nationalist position on two key issues: the continuing American occupation of the country and the future of Iraqi oil. In the process, he has sought to distance his government from the Bush administration and to establish congenial relationships, if not an outright alliance, with Washington’s international adversaries, including the Bush administration’s mortal enemy, Iran.
Withdrawal Becomes an Official Issue
Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of this new independence is the Iraqi government’s resistance to a Washington proposal for a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) that would allow for a permanent and uninhibited U.S. military presence in Iraq.
With the impending expiration of the UN resolutions that gave legal cover to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, the SOFA negotiations are crucial. They began with a proposal that expressed the full extent of Washington’s ambitions to utilize Iraq as the base for making the U.S. “more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans.” The proposal first leaked to the press in June 2008 was essentially a major land grab, including provisions like the following that would not have seemed out of place in a nineteenth century colonial treaty:
*An indefinite number of U.S. troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, stationed on up to 58 bases in locations determined by the United States.
*These troops would be allowed to mount attacks on any target inside Iraq without the permission of, or even notification to, Iraqi authorities.
*U.S. military and civilian authorities would be free to use Iraqi territory to mount attacks against any of Iraq’s neighbors without permission from the Iraqi government.
*The U.S. would control Iraqi airspace up to 30,000 feet, freeing the U.S. Air Force to strike as it wishes inside Iraq and creating the basis for the use of, or passage through, Iraq’s air space for planes bent on attacking other countries.
*The U.S. military and its private contractors would be immune from Iraqi law, even for actions unrelated to their military duties.
*Iraq’s defense, interior, and national security ministries (and all of Iraq’s arms purchases) would be under U.S. supervision for 10 years.
When leaked (clearly by Iraqis involved in the negotiations), this proposal generated opposition across the political spectrum from parliament to the streets…
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Michael Schwartz’s new book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context (Haymarket, 2008), will be released later this month. It explains just how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside that country. A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Schwartz has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. His work on Iraq has appeared in numerous outlets, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and Contexts. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Michael Schwartz 2008