Occupiers Liability

I was heartened to read the article by Harry’s Place reader Clive. It demonstrated to me that not all those who come from or identify themselves as part of the Trotskyist tradition have abandoned their ability to think critically. Examples of Clive’s departures from the modish left-liberal consensus on Iraq are studded throughout his article. One example, in contradiction to the official Stop the War line, is this

There is nothing “revolutionary” about demanding “troops out now” if the result sets back the development of a democratic working class movement in Iraq.


withdrawal would lead either to the return of the Ba’th, the coming to power of some Islamist faction, or more probably simply descent into civil war and far worse chaos and violence than currently exists. Those who call for the United Nations to replace the Americans, British, etc, have a profoundly misplaced faith in the UN;

or, commenting on the those who would argue that the failure to get the Iraqi infrastructure sorted out means that Iraqi’s were better off under Saddam

But to talk, as much of the liberal left does, as if the removal of one of the world’s most savage dictatorships is a matter of no consequence because the electricity doesn’t work, articulates a moral emptiness of astonishing, and disturbing, proportions.

Well said Clive. I couldn’t agree more.

I have to part company with the author later on in his article though. He says

The Anglo-American victory in Iraq is not something socialists or democrats can support, or take responsibility for, or (worse) prettify. The forces of a future independent, secular and democratic Iraq will for sure find themselves, sooner rather than later (or, indeed, now), confronting the occupiers as an enemy, whose fundamental job is to protect the interests of American or British capitalism.

Unlike Clive I am able to support the occupation. Here’s why. For me it’s a question of considering the long-term interests of the Iraqi people. Who will disagree that a peaceful, secular, democratic Iraq will release the latent talents of the Iraqi people far more effectively than a Baathist-style dictatorship or some sort of fundamentalist regime ? These two options, which we should remember a significant number of (highly armed) people operating in Iraq would seem to prefer to the occupation plan, offer the people only misrule and economic backwardness.

From where I’m standing the stated aims of the occupation authorities would seem to offer the Iraqi people a real hope of a peaceful and prosperous future. The occupation forces military hardware comes in handy too, defending ordinary Iraqi’s against the Baathists and Jihadis who have shown us they consider even the Red Cross a legitimate military target. A realistic prospect of a better future and plenty of American money to pave the way for it allied with immediate protection from armed nutcases seem worth being in favour of to me.

What of the conflict between the Iraqi people and US/UK capitalism ? Clive is correct to point out that there will be conflicts of interest. There may also be examples of corruption, graft and exploitation. We should, however, note that such things will not neccessarily be confined to people who speak English as a first language. Having said that we can, and should criticise such events where they occur. But economic skullduggery should be set within a more important wider context which I will discuss later.

Still on the subject of economics Clive will be aware from his reading of Marx that economics is not a zero sum game. The introduction of American and/or British capitalism does not automatically mean the Iraqi people will be losers. I strongly suspect, based on the Iraqis I have known that they are savvy enough to avoid being made into cartoon slaves toiling ceaselessly for the Yankee Dollar. They are sitting on a stupendous amount of oil after all. I really can’t see them letting anyone steal it.

From here on the occupation can go one of two ways – successfully or unsuccessfully. In the former scenario the occupation troops are gone within a short timescale leaving behind democratic institutions strong enough to withstand the threat from terrorists and a reasonably peaceful society operating under the rule of law. In this scenario the Iraqi people use their undoubted talents and their oil resources to construct a society that their neighbours look on with envy. It’s up to the Iraqis what they do after that but we can feel proud we helped get them there.

On the other hand we’ve got to try to imagine how things might turn out if the occupation is unsuccessful. If the occupying powers act arrogantly, steal Iraqi resources or mismanage the situation in any number of ways so that the population turns against them everyone is in big trouble. Support for the so called resistance or newer anti-occupation forces will mean bloodshed on a much greater scale than there is at present. We can then legitimately start talking about quagmires. We’re not there yet though, despite what some people in the media seem to think.

Nobody here needs reminding that much of the left in the UK and in the US presumes the latter scenario is all but inevitable sooner or later or even that it exists now. They point to the example of Vietnam and remind us that successive US presidents propped up murderous thugs in Latin America and elsewhere because these thugs were amenable to US interests. They draw the conclusion that an ill-wind is blowing in Iraq. They note that Britain has form here too. In a typically British understatement they might point out that our intervention in other people’s countries wasn’t always without self-interest.

Do these historical precedents mean the US or UK can’t play a progressive role in Iraq ? Does it mean we, as democrats or socialists shouldn’t support the occupation ?

The answer to these questions requires a historical analysis which ranges beyond Vietnam and Latin America. It requires a brief examination of the policies of the US (and the UK in the first example) during the occupation of Germany and Japan from 1945 onwards.

In both examples of earlier occupations the USA pumped huge amounts of money into the host country, worked with local democrats to set up legitimate instruments of government and left the running of the country up to the Germans and Japanese as soon as they could. In Germany elections were held in May 1949 and in Japan in April 1952. The occupations were hugely successful. Japan and Germany are now economically powerful, democratically ruled and peacefully inclined (in great contrast to their behaviour before 1945).

Of course there were mistakes committed by the occupiers in both countries and the occupations went on for a long time, especially in Japan. Having said that I consider that the two post-war occupations would have been for much shorter periods had it not been for the politically-important events which flowed from the Berlin blockade and the Korean War respectively. I can’t see an occupation of Iraq being acceptable to anyone in the US/UK or Iraq for even half the time of the German occupation, and there aren’t the same geopolitical complications now as there were in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s which would work to extend the occupation.

So where does that leave us ? With two sets of historical examples: USA as bad guy, propping up unpopular dictators and USA as good guy nurturing democracies and footing the bill.

My support for the Iraq occupation is premised on the basis that the USA will act as a good guy. Naive ? Well, let’s look at my rationale for arriving at that conclusion.

The USA has got an awful lot to lose if things don’t work out in Iraq (though happily there is a lot to win if things go well). The enormous sums being pumped into Iraq are premised on the hope that a democratic Iraq will act as a beacon to the less-happily ruled lands in the neighbouring region and beyond and this will encourage democracy there and further afield. Such a result it is hoped will undermine support for Islamist terrorism and other anti-democratic currents and strengthen the hand of local democrats. No-one should need reminding that the battle against Islamist terrorism and the factors which assist it’s rise is the big issue of the present era.

Considering the massive importance of Iraq geopolitically any failure to get Iraq back on it’s feet or to give up on the project is simply not on the agenda. And acting the bad guy will not only make the USA even more unpopular than it is at present but it will lead to an even greater upsurge in Islamism and civil unrest in the region. Those who think things are bad now might appreciate that things can get much worse. Remember the ever-descending circles of hell the Afghan people suffered throughout the 1990’s.

In a nutshell – Iraq is much too important to the USA to mess up either by omission or commission.

The US has the money and the will to help Iraq establish the first real Arab democracy. It’s my understanding that the Iraqi people realise, despite their frustrations, that they are better off putting up with a short term reconstruction-led occupation with democracy as it’s eventual aim than any of the other realistic alternatives on offer.

The fundamental job of the occupiers, as described by Clive, protecting the interests of British and American capitalism used as an excuse to withold support for the occupation is, in my opinion, no more than an example of cut and paste Marxist sloganeering which is intended to obscure the wider and much more important geopolitical issues which if examined without prejudice would lead to a defence of the aims of the occupation.

No-one needs to suspend their critical faculties by supporting the occupation and our job is certainly not to prettify it but it’s the only realistic chance the Iraqi people have of a peaceful and democratic future. As such, like Clive, I’m happy to go against the grain of current left-liberal thinking. The future of Iraq is worth much more to me than the desire to fit in with a vougish intellectual trend which owes more to groupthink than a realistic progressive internationalism.

Update An American friend has just alerted me to the Richard Cohen column in the Washington Post. which notes some similarities and differences between Vietnam and Iraq.