Jeff Jarvis reflects an understandable and widespread reaction to the anti-US protests in Iraq when he asks why in Friday prayers the religious leaders didn’t thank the US for liberating their country.
He is referring specifically to religious leaders, not exactly famed for rationale and logic, but the issue does beg the broader question of how long the Iraqis will tolerate the presence of foreign, specifically US, soldiers on their soil and whether frustration will lead to support for fundamentalism.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis are delighted that Saddam has gone. Probably most of them will give credit where it is due and recognise the role that US and British soldiers played in liberating their country. But that doesn’t mean they want them in their country any longer than absolutely necessary and who can blame them?
Sadly for the neo-con utopians, a brief begrudging recognition of the fact that the Americans have freed Iraq, doesn’t mean that the free Iraqis will become a pro-American (let alone a pro-Israeli) force within the Middle East persuading their neighbours that American style capitalism and democracy offer the great hope for the region.
For a start what the coalition has done in Iraq over the past few weeks needs to be put in its historical context. Most of us might put the blame for the suffering of the Iraqis solely at the feet of Saddam Hussein and his regime but there are many Iraqis who will not so easily brush aside our own governments’ shameful role in sustaining that oppression.
There are few Iraqi families who did not lose a loved one in the war against Iran, a war that was actively encouraged by the United States, including some individuals who are once again in power. After that carnage, thousands were killed directly by allied forces during the first Gulf War. Then thousands more were tortured, imprisoned or executed in the crack-down that followed Bush Senior’s Great Betrayal at the end of the Gulf War One – the Iraqis won’t forget that one quickly. Then, those who survived all of that were forced to live under sanctions imposed at the behest of the US and UK. We left the ordinary Iraqi to the humiliation of relying on rations handed out and administered by the dictatorship they despised.
The Iraqis know Saddam is the guilty one in all of this but can you blame them for not embracing those who aided and abetted him?
Then there is another potent factor. There is not a country in the world where foreign occupation, however necessary, however right, is welcomed for any length of time. Americans and Brits really have no idea of what occupation can feel like. In Eastern Europe, Red Army tanks drove out the Nazi invaders but then took over the show and became the enemy. If the idea that the US-UK might come to be seen in a similar light (however different their intentions are) is too much for you then look over the water to Northern Ireland where British troops took to the street for the apparently noble purpose of defending the minority Catholic community from attack but soon became their enemy in a long and bloody war.
Its not just places of continued conflict that show this reluctance to appreciate good-intentioned military interventions. Attend a liberation day ceremony in Italy and you will likely not hear a single reference to the foreign troops who gave their lives driving out the Nazis and helping bring down Mussolini. The Italians prefer to recall their own partisans. A selective memory? Perhaps, but no-one likes being reminded that they couldn’t free themselves.
Will an attitude of hostility quickly become widespread and hardened in Iraq? It is easy for us in the West to ‘look at the big picture’ but people who have no drinking water or electricity are quite reasonably going to be thinking short-term. Poverty is no great aide to global perspective. Eastern Europe was liberated from dictatorship 14 years ago, yet ask unemployed Ukrainian steel workers or poverty-striken Romanians about the benefits of freedom and democracy and they will bitterly laugh in your face.
Add to all this the fact that among the vast majority of Arabs, the US is seen as the main backer of Israeli oppression of their brothers in Palestine and the chances of a long-lasting love-in look even slimmer.
Is there a way to avoid these understandable emotions turning themselves into a seething discontent that can be exploited by those who feed on such despair and bitterness – the Islamic fundamentalists?
There is a way but it is one which, to say the least, does not fit easily into the outlook of George Bush.
First of all, the US has to recognise the benefits of reducing its visibility in Iraq. They have to swallow a bitter pill and let a multinational United Nations-backed presence take the bulk of the responsibility for the immediate post-war tasks assisting a broad-based Iraqi administration.
If the US is serious about a democratic Iraq and undercutting any support for fundamentalism it should realise that it is a lot harder to rally opposition to as multinational peacekeeping (or more accurately peace-winning) force, made up of states which have never attacked you, than to point the finger at the big power who can be blamed for your son’s death. It is in the US’s interest to make itself less of a target for discontent in post-war Iraq – a multinational force assisting an Iraqi administration is the best way to do that. At the very least it will spread the blame.
Secondly, the politics of reconstruction have to be aimed at winning the widest possible support from Iraqis and delivering real benefits for all layers of Iraqi society including, vitally, the poorest and most powerless. The solutions, however, are likely to be almost as unpalatable for the US as handing over operations to a multinational force.
Large-scale public works programmes, bringing job-creation but requiring public investment are the best way to get Iraq back on its feet. The lessons of much of Eastern Europe are that if you introduce free-market policies into a country with little in the way of a democratic political culture and where wealth and power have been concentrated in the hands of the few for decades you are not going to get a stakeholders market democracy. You will get corruption with local mafia cutting deals while the masses remain trapped in poverty – ask the Russians.
Old-fashioned social-democracy may no longer be the preferred method of advanced capitalist societies but irritatingly for some it remains the best model for post-war reconstruction – ask the Germans.
The alternative source of the needed investment for Iraq is of course private capital, which requires a privatised Iraq where local elites will have to cut deals with US corporations. Those local and foreign economic interests will, of course, require a compliant government willing to oversee the privatisation of Iraq’s public utilities and natural resources – a kind of psuedo-democratic Shah of Iran. If you need reminding where that can lead to – ask the Iranians.
Of course private capital will be needed as well. The Iraqis need to be helped in creating locally-owned small and medium-sized businesses that make up the heart of any functioning economy. But they need a solid framework and stable infrastructure to operate within.
Deliver a multinational commitment to bringing prosperity and democracy to Iraq and you never know – the Iraqis might have something to thank us for after all.