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America in Iraq: power, hubris, change

The zealous attitudes and fevered misjudgments that drove United States policy towards Iraq in 2003 could yet have a second life over Iran.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 September 2010

The announced end of the United States combat-troop presence in Iraq on 31 August 2010 marks an important moment in the story of Washington’s involvement in the country since the armed overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in early April 2003. It also highlights the profound mismatch between the expectations of the George W Bush administration that led the invasion and Iraqi realities, then and now.

The core conviction of the war’s architects was that Iraq’s path to becoming a pro-western free-market state would be both easy and rapid. In this respect the claim still made by some analysts that planning for the post-war period was minimal is wrong; in fact, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its head Paul Bremer had very clear plans for Iraq - the problem was that they were driven by hubris and impossible to implement.

The CPA explicitly intended to impose on Iraq a radical economic model whose pillars were the complete privatisation of state assets, unregulated financial markets, and a flat-rate tax system. The result would be to transform Iraq along pure free-market lines - in a way that was unfeasible in the United States (because of resistance by trade unions and other annoying civil-society institutions) but which the crushing of the Iraqi state and society would make possible.

A pivotal month

The refusal of complex Iraqi realities to conform to hardline United States ideological certainties became apparent almost immediately, with the development in mid-2003 of an insurgency that was to embroil the US and other coalition forces in a bitter and intractable war. In many ways the events of August 2003 - as discussed in a column in this series published exactly seven years ago - marked the turning-point (see “A hard road in July”, 3 September 2003). 

In July 2003, the CPA was still confident that - considerable violence notwithstanding - the old regime was gradually losing any remaining influence. The killing of Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein, on 22 July reinforced this sense of momentum. August proved otherwise.  

A number of serious incidents were especially significant in these weeks. The bombing of Jordan's diplomatic compound on 7 August led some states to begin to distance themselves from US policy and leadership. The truck-bomb attack twelve days later on the provisional United Nations headquarters, which killed the special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one other officials and visitors, persuaded several agencies (the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and numerous NGOs) to withdraw most of their staff. Then, on 29 August, a massive car-bomb in Najaf killed the leading Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim and over 100 others; and Baghdad’s police headquarters was also attacked.

During this period too, the number of American military casualties was steadily rising. The George W Bush administration sought to minimise the media impact, but details of the almost-nightly flights of dead and injured soldiers back to the United States gradually emerged. The steady arrival of C-17 transport-aircraft at Andrews air-force base near Washington DC meant that a sports-hall and a community-centre were taken over to serve as medical-reception centres. By late September 2003, six months after the war began, over 1,300 soldiers and marines had been airlifted home with serious injuries; another 4,500 were returned on account of physical or mental illness.

A triple failure

Indeed, the military response of United States forces to their own casualty-rate proved to be the first of three factors which had a major effect on the evolution of the war in Iraq.  The very technological improvements surrounding the soldiers - better body-armour, battlefield medicine and rapid evacuation - meant that hundreds of troops were surviving who would earlier have died - but often with grievous injuries to face, throat and groin, and loss of limbs. The young soldiers and marines who remained on the ground faced intense urban warfare against determined insurgents, a form of combat for which they were scarcely trained. They responded with their only major combat advantage: vastly superior firepower.

This on occasion included punitive reprisal raids, such as the Fallujah attack of April 2004 (see “Between Fallujah and Palestine”, 21 April 2004); but more commonly it involved calling in artillery-support or airpower to destroy buildings, a tactic that frequently led to civilians being killed. The losses the American military were taking and the soldiers’ deep frustration at their predicament help to explain the response; but the impact was undoubtedly to alienate Iraqis even more and to aid the insurgents.

The second factor which shaped the course of the war from this time was the US’s failure to persuade significant allies to aid the military effort. In July 2003, the signs of an escalating war led the Bush administration urgently to seek major new military partners. Turkey had already proved immovable (see Murat Belge, “The Turkish refusal”, 20 May 2003). India, also with a large professional army, was another obvious candidate; the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was also supportive of the American position. 

It proved to be a lost cause (see Rajeev Bhargava, “The Indian refusal”, 27 July 2003). Washington wanted a reinforced Indian army division of 17,000 troops to assume security for the Kurdish area of northeast Iraq, thus freeing US troops to focus on the war-torn centre of the country. But Indian public opinion was vehemently opposed to the Bush administration in general and the Iraq war in particular, such that Vajpayee and his centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - facing important state elections in December 2003 and a general election in spring 2004 - would have committed political suicide by acceding to the request (see Tani Bhargava, “India’s new anti-Americanism”, 15 April 2003). As a result, the US had to increase its own troop-deployments and the multinational coalition slowly became even more an American-dominated endeavour.

The third factor entered here, as the US military turned to a close ally with the right kind of experience for the conflict it was embroiled in: Israel. In late 2003 and the early months of 2004, American and Israeli military strategists forged even deeper links in which the former absorbed the lessons of Israel’s suppression of successive Palestinian uprisings (see “After Saddam, no respite” [19 December 2003], and “Gaza: the Israel-United States connection” [7 January 2009].

These connections - covering equipment, training and tactics - were little reported in the west (beyond the specialist military media); but they were well known across the middle east. They provided fuel to the potent evolving narrative (embraced by the Iraqi insurgents and the wider al-Qaida movement alike) of a Christian-Zionist military conspiracy to control the heartland of the Arab-Islamic world.

A common element in each of these three areas - US firepower against Iraqi civilians, Turkey and India, and Israel - is that the George W Bush administration failed utterly to recognise the consequences of its actions (see “America and the world’s jungle”, 27 May 2010). It was not acknowledged  that Washington’s links with Israel had a profound impact across the region - a factor which underlines the importance of such a recognition by senior US military personnel (see “Israel’s security: beyond the zero-sum”, 26 August 2010); the importance of the Turkish and Indian refusals was not registered; and the use of massive firepower and the resulting civilian deaths were not understood for what they were - gifts to the insurgent enemy that could more easily portray the Americans as not liberators but occupiers.

A new target

Seven years on, these disastrous misjudgments of what was then still referred to as the “post-war” period (in fact the early stage of a much longer war) remain relevant in the Barack Obama era.

True, the new president has kept to the declared timetable of withdrawal, whereby the departure of the last combat-troops by 31 August 2010 leaves just 50,000 still based in Iraq; they too will leave by the end of 2011, even if many will be replaced by heavily-armed private contractors. And the mindset of Obama’s administration is very far from that of the dogmatic ideologues who believed in Iraq’s magical transformation along free-market lines, in a way that would reverberate across the region.

But if the personnel have changed, neo-conservative ideas are still entrenched in influential parts of the United States’s political spectrum. The absolutist and zealous instincts evident in the Tea Party movement and in Glenn Beck’s Washington rally on 28 August 2010 are reflected and recycled - and thus lent legitimacy - by many of the country’s leading power-structures, not least the media (see Godfrey Hodgson, "America's emotional-political moment", 19 August 2010).

Even to the extent that Barack Obama represents change from his predecessor, two terms (and even more) of clear liberal administration will be needed to set United States politics - in domestic and foreign policy alike - on a new course. That political direction could indeed guarantee a long-term and profound shift in the direction of a better society at home and sustainable security abroad. If it fails, the near-certain result will be a renewed embrace of the ideology that drove Washington to seek to impose its will on Iraq in 2003 - this time with Iran as the target.

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