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What Does the Administration’s Leaked Mea Culpa on Iraq Portend?


In the dreary march of no-news stories about the war in Iraq, little changes from day to day, or even from month to month or from year to year. The killing continues relentlessly, almost monotonously; the Iraqi people struggle to survive without adequate supplies of water, sewerage, and electricity; the political situation festers and bursts forth episodically in kidnappings, assassinations, and violent reprisals; much-ballyhooed elections serve as little more than pointless rituals; the elected representatives quarrel and haggle, altering nothing in the world outside the meeting hall. Through it all, President George W. Bush never fails to perceive progress, and he always promises that U.S. forces will leave Iraq as soon as the Iraqi government becomes capable of providing security.

So, when a genuine news report comes along, even on the front page of the Sunday Washington Post, we may fail to notice that something significant has actually changed. The article I have in mind, by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer, appeared on August 14 under the headline and subhead “U.S. Lowers Sights On What Can Be Achieved in Iraq: Administration Is Shedding ‘Unreality’ That Dominated Invasion, Official Says.” Although the article quotes several experts outside the government, its punch comes from statements attributed to anonymous high-level “officials in Washington and Baghdad.” Such “leaks” often consist of information the government wants people to have, even as its official statements continue to follow a different story line. The government may want to see how people react to the leaked revelations or to soften them up for a policy change to come.

The Bush administration, the article explains, no longer expects to produce a model democracy, a well-functioning oil industry, or “a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges” in Iraq. In short, the country is in terrible shape, and the U.S. government cannot solve the Iraqis’ most pressing problems. According to a senior U.S. official, “what we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground. We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”

To appreciate just how shocking this statement is, one must recall that not so long ago, a Bush staffer was quoted as saying, “We’re an empire now, we make our own reality.” Indeed, since 9/11 the Bush administration’s foreign policy has been everything that foreign-policy realism is not. The government’s faith-based occupation of Iraq, however, has not held up well against the rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices, small-arms fire, and mortar rounds that continue to batter it with distressing regularity, inflicting casualties of nearly 2,000 dead and some 14,000 wounded among U.S. military forces so far. An administration notable for its arrogance now undertakes to “shed the unreality” that underlay its invasion and occupation.

The president himself, of course, continues to sing the same song. It wouldn’t look good if he deviated abruptly from his mock-Churchillian resolve to “finish the job.” (Forget about that “mission accomplished” celebration on the aircraft carrier a few years ago—a mere spasm of false labor.) Yet, notwithstanding the president’s brave pretense, another official leaker concedes, “We set out to establish a democracy, but we’re slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic.” Because the politically correct democracy the U.S. occupiers had in mind cannot be put in place, the Iraqis will have, for example, not equal rights for women but the sort of rights that women enjoy in Iran. Oh, well, a reality-based world is not always a pleasant place to operate a neo-Jacobin project for global liberation and democratization. Let us move on.

If the administration now admits that its desired transformation of Iraq’s political, social, and economic affairs is infeasible and that it cannot defeat the resistance forces that oppose its continued occupation, will the Americans pack up and leave, putting all their propaganda eggs into a basket labeled “at least we toppled that horrible dictator Saddam Hussein”? Of course not. The program to create a democratic paradise in Iraq may have collided with reality, but that collision does not imply that U.S. forces will proceed to evacuate the venue of the failed experiment. To suppose that it does is to misunderstand why they were sent there in the first place.

Now, a great many commentators have speculated about why those forces were sent. Some people took seriously the administration’s own proffered justifications for the invasion and occupation: to disarm the Iraqis of weapons of mass destruction; to displace a regime that harbored Islamist terrorists who posed a serious threat to Americans and their allies; to build a democracy that would serve as a beacon of hope and a shining example to all the people of the Middle East and prompt them to replicate the Iraqi success story in their own lands; and so forth—the administration has proceeded through a series of such announced purposes. Of course, these announced objectives were never more than pretexts—what the politicians call “talking points,” arrant propaganda aimed at soothing the American people while the government did the deed. There were no WMDs of which to disarm the Iraqis, no genuine connection between Saddam’s regime and the 9/11 terrorists, no realistic chance to build a peaceful, orderly, well-functioning democracy in Iraq. Not being idiots, the Bush people must have known these things all along, even if the vacuous president himself did not. Surely they did not believe their own spin and cock-and-bull stories. (Attributing the administration’s false claims to faulty intelligence is simply ex post blame-shifting, inasmuch as Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of the neocon desk warriors fought tooth and nail against everyone in the intelligence community who insisted that the claims lacked adequate factual foundation.)

Which brings us back to the question, why did the Bush team invade Iraq? The most plausible hypothesis has always appeared to be that it did so as part of a larger plan to reshape the strategic contours of southwest Asia, from the Mediterranean to China, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Sea. By lodging U.S. forces in the heart of this region, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States would be well positioned to launch future attacks on, say, Syria or Iran, should the president and his lieutenants decide to do so. Even without such further attacks, however, the Americans would be able to threaten credibly or to intimidate countries in the region to secure their compliance with U.S. demands.

By effectively controlling the region, the U.S. government would attain several of its cherished ends. First, it would eliminate or greatly diminish the threats posed to Israel by countries such as Syria and Iran. Second, it would control much of the oil and gas extraction and transportation in a region believed to be richly endowed with untapped deposits of those prized fossil fuels. Third, it would butt up against the Russians and the Chinese, excluding them from hegemony or substantial influence in the lands of the Great Game. Fourth (but merely incidental, you should understand), important supporters of the Bush team would make tons of money: Halliburton, Bechtel, Chevron, Unocal, Shell, and the rest of the good old boys, not to mention the arms suppliers and the mercenaries.

In the aftermath of the invasion and two and a half years of occupation, in now-devastated Iraq, it is unfortunate that the Iraqis won’t buckle under to the U.S. forces, but it need not derail the larger plan. The U.S. government will continue, of course, to pretend that it is doing its damnedest to establish a democratic paradise in Iraq, but if the locals kick and scream too much, then the Bush administration will just have to “shed the unreality” of its earlier expectations. And then what? That’s the key question, to which we may conjecture an answer with some confidence.

In all likelihood, the U.S. government will pretend that its properly elected Iraqi puppets have taken over the government, whereupon those Iraqi kingpins will promptly negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement to maintain a U.S. military presence in the country. American officials stoutly deny that the United States intends to maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stated last February, “We have no intention at the present time of putting permanent bases in Iraq.” Of course, when tomorrow comes, conditions on the ground will somehow justify what the Americans never “intended” as of yesterday. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad recently reiterated, “We are not seeking to maintain permanent bases in Iraq,” but he stressed that the United States would negotiate with an elected Iraqi government with regard to its continued military presence. One need not have mastered rocket science to understand who will hold the upper hand in any such “negotiations.” While the U.S. forces remain in Iraq, no elected Iraqis will constitute a genuine government because they will be powerless to resist the will of those alien forces. The Iraqis may squawk and demand bigger bribes, but everyone knows whose desires will have been fulfilled when the dust settles.

Although eventually some U.S. troops may be withdrawn from Iraq, we have good reason to suspect that many—perhaps 50,000 or 60,000—will remain, because their permanent bases are already under construction. A half-billion dollars for this project was included in the Iraq war supplemental appropriation approved last May. The plan widely discussed in various media outlets calls for U.S. forces, now scattered around the country in more than a hundred bases, to be concentrated in fourteen large, fortified bases on the way to eventual consolidation in four giant, heavily fortified mega-bases.

Once this relocation has been completed, the United States can use the bases to serve important purposes in the implementation of its larger plan for the region. The Iraqis can fight each other day and night, so long as they do not threaten the security of the mega-bases. The hope, of course, is that when the U.S. forces have repositioned themselves in these enclaves, the Iraqi resistance will lose interest in attacking the Americans and turn their energies toward joining a coalition focused on ordinary politics—that is, on looting the country’s oil revenues. If they persist in slaughtering one another, well, the Bush administration realizes that it can do nothing to stop them—short of leaving the country, which it certainly will not do in any event—and so it will rest content to protect U.S. forces inside the big bases, where they will be shielded from the mayhem of the surrounding countryside by wide, lethal, perimeter defenses.

Larry Diamond, a former consultant to the U.S. occupation authority and the author of Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, tells the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t know why we just can’t say, ‘It is not our goal to set up for the indefinite duration military bases in Iraq, from which we can operate in the Middle East for our own geopolitical purposes.’” Well, Dr. Diamond, U.S. officials certainly can say so; indeed, everyone from the president to the secretary of defense to the U.S. ambassador already has said so. The problem is that, in view of the ongoing U.S. construction of permanent bases in Iraq, these American bigwigs evidently do not mean what they say. Imagine that.

The United States began its occupation of Germany and Japan sixty years ago, yet large U.S. military bases remain in those countries today. Does anyone really believe the Americans will walk away from their mega-bases in Iraq just because the Iraqis want the Yankees to go home? Why, that would spoil the big plan, wouldn’t it? The pretext, it now appears, is dispensable, but the plan most likely is not.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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