Freedom to follow orders: the democracy Bush and Blair wanted for Iraq

It is worth asking whether the last ten years would have been such a disaster under the consensual, independent, and Iraqi-led transition that the British and Americans were so keen to avoid.

David Wearing
13 March 2013

Shortly after they failed to uncover the weapons of mass destruction that were the original, ostensible reason for invading Iraq, the US-led Coalition announced a new mission: democratisation. Commentators were as willing to take the new justification at face value as they had been with its predecessor. Supporters applauded their leaders’ idealistic goals, and opponents applauded their leaders’ idealistic goals while doubting whether they could be achieved.  Over the last ten years of debate, this bipartisan assumption has persisted in both countries: that Britain and America, long-time supporters of some of the region’s worst autocrats, including Saddam Hussein, genuinely sought to bring democracy to Iraq.

There is little doubt that the Coalition wanted to establish a new Iraqi government that was elected by its people, not least because policymakers had long-since come to the conclusion that elected governments make more durable allies than dictators. However, the bottom line was that the Baghdad government should be friendly to US strategic interests, irrespective of the Iraqi people’s preferences, and the transitional process was strictly aimed at this outcome.

In many ways, the very existence of the occupation refuted the idea that the Coalition recognised the sovereign will of the Iraqi people. Polls consistently showed that the public wanted foreign forces to leave, either immediately or on a short timetable. One poll carried out for Britain’s Ministry of Defence in 2005 found that 82 per cent of Iraqis “strongly opposed” the presence of coalition troops. That the same poll showed less than 1 per cent of Iraqis crediting Coalition forces with improving security, 72 per cent having no confidence in them, and 67 per cent saying they made them feel less safe, is consistent with what we know about the vicious way the Iraqi people were treated by their foreign conquerors, from Fallujah to Abu Ghraib.  

Far from respecting their hosts’ wish for them to leave, the occupiers bedded in for the long-haul, constructing enormous military bases across the country and a Vatican-sized embassy in Baghdad. The geostrategic prize was a South Korea-style long-term US military presence in the heart of the world’s key energy-producing region, and Washington applied severe pressure on its Iraqi allies to formalise that presence with a Status of Forces Agreement. But despite US threats to end all military and economic aid to their weak clients in Baghdad, the Iraqi government eventually sided with its people and refused to ratify the agreement on the terms demanded; a major strategic defeat for America’s champions of democracy.

The will of the Iraqi people

The danger that the public will could substantively influence Iraqi politics was well understood from the outset. As noted in Greg Muttitt’s Fuel on the Fire, internal Coalition memos warned that if introduced too early, “elections could create a legitimate counter authority, making [the Coalition’s] ability to govern more difficult” and would “largely sacrifice control over the outcome” of the post-Saddam transition. Appointees were instead chosen to form a fig-leaf “Iraqi Governing Council” in 2003, with real power remaining in the hands of the occupiers. However, despite the fear of those such as American law professor Noah Feldman, who worked on the transition process, and warned that “if you moved too fast the wrong people could get elected”, the Coalition was not able to dictate the roadmap entirely. The elections of January 2005 were held at the insistence of the Shia Iraqi leadership, backed by massive public demonstrations, in spite of Washington’s preference to “shelve or dilute” them, in the words of the editors of the Financial Times.

Before Iraqi voters had gone anywhere near a ballot box, the Coalition imposed what former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz described as “an even more radical form of shock therapy than was pursued in the former Soviet world”. The sanctions-battered economy was thrown open to foreign competition, with tariffs, duties and import taxes suspended. Income taxes were slashed from 40 per cent to a flat rate of 15 per cent on businesses and individuals, and state-owned enterprises prepared for privatisation. All these measures were imposed in flagrant violation of the restrictions on occupying powers set out under international law and with predictably disastrous consequences for the economy and the population.

Meanwhile, the British and Americans colluded behind closed doors with their Iraqi clients and the oil majors to push for a degree of foreign involvement in the oil industry that was opposed by the vast majority of Iraqis. That the law eventually stalled in parliament was, again, down to the unwelcome intrusion of the Iraqi people in the political arena, where their government was forced to defer to an energetic civil society campaign, rather than the liberators of the west.

What the Bush and Blair administrations wanted for Iraq was a hollowed-out democracy where the elected government was subservient to a huge US military and diplomatic presence, where the shape of the economy had been decided for them in advance by the occupiers, and where management of the nation’s key natural resource was largely in the hands of foreign multinationals. That they failed was in no small part due to the ability of ordinary Iraqis to resist these designs. Nevertheless, the Iraqi people still paid a heavy price for the Coalition’s attempts to impose its will on the country, whether through bureaucratic imperial diktat or military violence. It is worth asking whether the last ten years would have been such a disaster under the consensual, independent, and Iraqi-led transition that the British and Americans were so keen to avoid.


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