A Blinkered Vision for Post-War Iraq

Thanks to its inability to differentiate between ideology and reality, the Bush administration is consistently surprised at the most predictable of outcomes of its less-than-advisable actions. If George Bush were connected to reality in any but the most tangential way, he would pull out U.S from Iraq and hand over the task of reconstruction to the United Nations. But he isn't, so he won't.

In Iraq, the administration arrived MacArthur-style, armed with pipe-dreams of being welcomed as liberators. Their "Big Plan": Install a puppet regime that will sign a peace treaty with Israel, hand over large bases to the United States and deliver the oil revenues to Haliburton, Bechtel & Co.

The plan, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be working.

The Pentagon claims to have been taken by surprise by the looting and increasing political chaos. Yet anyone who remembered the end of the Hoxha regime in Albania could have told them what happens when an impoverished people celebrates the end of a hated regime. Anyone who knew the region could have told them that the religious leadership, especially the Shi'a clerics, were best placed to fill the power vacuum that will inevitably ensue Saddam's ouster. Two thirds of the population of Iraq are Shi'as with religious affiliations to Iran. The Bush administration has refused to take the advice of its British allies and engage with the reformist government in Teheran. Its refusal to do so is strengthening the religious conservatives both in Iran and in Iraq. No doubt they will continue to be surprised when local theocratic regimes with more legitimate popular support than the Ahmed Chalabis gain control over parts of Iraq.

The only major achievement that Bush has delivered thus far is to unite the Shi'is and the Sunnis: Both want the Americans out. The White House seems unable to grasp the simple fact that Iraqi hatred of Saddam does not make them any happier about the prospect of an American occupation or charter members of the Ariel Sharon fan club.

In addition to being surprised by the Iraqis, Bush and his advisors in the Pentagon seem just as nonplussed to discover that the rest of the world takes international law very seriously. Despite the pledges made to loyal but clearly disposable ally Blair, the White House has dismissed any significant role for the United Nations. Once again, the administration's position is based on the knee-jerk hostility of the Pentagon hawks rather than a pragmatic assessment of U.S. interests.

To begin with, most nations will discount any discovery of the missing weapons of mass destruction by U.S. forces. The sensible course of action is to call in the U.N. weapons inspectors to ensure credibility. But even with the Brits ranged against the Washington on this one, the administration refuses to budge from its irrational position. More importantly, their bloody-minded obstinacy is likely to hamper the administration's most pressing task: to sell Iraqi oil.

Late as ever, Bush realized last week that no one would buy Iraqi oil while the U.N. sanctions are still in place. Unfortunately, the rest of the nations seem reluctant to get with the Bush plan. True, the French have proposed the "immediate" suspension of sanctions last week. Chirac is playing to the gallery of world opinion again in the typically Gallic manner that infuriates the President and his team, not the least because they are so bad at it themselves. The French cannot be accused either of inconsistency -- since they have opposed the sanctions for years -- or of holding the welfare of the Iraqi people hostage to their political interests.

But the word "suspension" suggests that the sanctions cannot be permanently lifted until the U.N. inspectors have verified Iraq's disarmament. And what the French really mean when they say "immediate" is the time when they can work out a suitable deal for the Oil for Food program, which is crucial since it gives the U.N. control of the oil revenues. The French and Russians can argue, legitimately, that the program is the best way to feed the Iraqis, while ensuring that contracts will be honored, with, for example, French and Russian companies. It is yet another example of the classic mix of expressed altruism with more than a soupcon of self-interest that has characterized French and Russian policy all along.

Diplomatic jousting aside, oil companies operate in a global environment, not the insular and parochial world of Bushistan. They need the mandate and legal status that only the U.N. can award before they commit any serious cash to oil purchases, leave alone investment. Their pressure is sure to add to General Garner's growing difficulties. The U.S. is also asking other countries to help pay for the reconstruction and to forgive pre-Gulf War debts. Such cooperation is unlikely if American companies continue to get all the contracts and huge amounts of oil revenues end up in Kuwait as reparations. Anyone but this administration would anticipate problems ahead.

At one time, I invented the category of "heavily armed victim" to describe states like Israel and Serbia -- regional superpowers who are convinced that they are under threat from every nation around them despite their obvious military prowess. Since Sept. 11, with paranoia and jingoism fanned by the Bush administration and with the willing connivance of most of the media, all too many Americans have now fallen into the syndrome. There can be nothing more dangerous to the world than a superpower with global ambitions but hampered by a parochial and isolationist intellect, and imbued with such a sense of victimization that the mere act of disagreement provokes outrage.

This is an administration driven by fear that acts on faith. The best we can hope for is that Bush and his advisers will get bored with the messy reality of Iraq and ditch the problem on the rest of the world. If not, they will try to hammer the nation and its people into the shape of their illusions, creating a blowback that will hurt generations.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for Alternet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation, and Salon.


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