A “Better Occupation” of Iraq?

It would be a mistake to say that it was inevitable that the US would fail in its putative mission of “liberating” Iraq or transforming it into a viable democracy, for that would be deterministic.  It would not be incorrect to state that it was practically inevitable, however.  And why that is so tells us much about the faulty logic of the position that the invasion was “done wrong” and could be “done better.” The position is one embraced by people as seemingly ideologically apart as Joseph Lieberman and Nation contributor Marc Cooper; therefore, it needs to be dealt with if we are to get at why the occupation cannot be done “better,” given the US goals in Iraq — goals shared by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Paul Bremer’s role in the Iraq quagmire is really what let the cat out of the bag early on, but its full significance remains unrecognized. At one time, it may have appeared that Bremer was brought in because General Jay Garner was too heavy-handed, unwilling to back away from the role of the brash Viceroy.  However, in fact, Bremer had a much different strategy than Garner on the question of privatization in Iraq. Garner not only wanted “free elections” much sooner than Bremer, but he also was not nearly as enthusiastic about immediate privatization of the Iraqi economy as his successor.1 As Naomi Klein, among others, has argued, Bremer’s imposition of privatization on Iraq has been not only thorough, but done in a fashion that amounted to the selling off of Iraq’s state assets at fire sale prices (with the exception of oil, which the US can control eventually at without direct ownership), allowing foreign firms to invest and repatriate as much capital as they see fit2:

The honey theory of Iraqi reconstruction stems from the most cherished belief of the war’s ideological architects: that greed is good. . . . [Bremer] flung open the country’s borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Before the invasion, Iraq’s non-oil-related economy had been dominated by 200 state-owned companies, which produced everything from cement to paper to washing machines. In June, Bremer . . . announced that these firms would be privatized immediately. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands . . . is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” It would be the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.3

What can the replacement of Garner by Bremer tell us? That there was really no other way of doing the occupation and accomplishing the objective of liquidating Iraq’s state assets, contrary to the liberal position that Bush and the neo-cons “did it wrong.” After all, this is part and parcel of the overall objectives of American strategy in an age of “globalization” — deregulation combined with absolute minimal levels of expenditures on the part of governments. That includes, by the way, military expenditures, which helps to explain the seemingly “bizarre” war-on-the-cheap strategy — and heavy reliance on private mercenaries — embraced by Rumsfeld.

Moreover, Bill Clinton’s goals in Iraq did not diverge from George W. Bush’s.4 Regime change for the purposes of creating a new leadership of Iraq, friendly to American foreign policy interests and willing to reorder the iraqi economy in the interest of private
investors, guided Clinton no less than his successor.   Clinton’s policy was to starve the Iraqi economy and use every form of military warfare short of direct US ground invasion to accomplish practically the same ends as Bush’s.5 They merely differed on the wisdom of the most costly means: direct US ground invasion of Iraq.

What is consistent about both is that neither had a policy to create the conditions for Iraqi sovereignty, i.e. the Iraqi government’s direct and real control over major economic decisions within the national borders of Iraq.  Both approaches are part of the prevailing US foreign policy worldview today, prioritizing free global flows of corporate capital as the panacea for the wealth gap between poor and rich nations. Washington’s goals, by their very nature, cannot be met if poor nations are allowed to retain government control over substantial capital flows in and out of their borders or if foreign powers are supplying those nations with huge amounts of “aid.” It is no accident, then, that the “Japan” option — i.e. large infusions of dollars, combined with state domination of key industries, high tariffs, and liberal access to US consumer markets — has never been seriously entertained for Iraq.

Although John Kerry called for something resembling such an option during his presidential campaign (i.e. increasing troop presence, infrastructure investment, UN involvement, backing off from compulsory privatization), his rhetoric in fact contradicted the substance of Democratic Party foreign policy and his own commitment to it.  There is no way that he could have his cake and eat it too in this instance and carry out US objectives in Iraq and worldwide — for it would have meant major compromises with Iraqi leaders, both US proxies and those in the myriad armed resistance. Corporate globalization does not brook compromises — it depends on imposition of deregulation on economies worldwide.

What is necessary for us to understand is that it was and remains impossible for the US to carry out an occupation in a fashion that allows Iraqis to seize real sovereignty, much less bring about liberation. Pushing for a “better occupation,” or demanding that the left come up with a “better way” to do the occupation, misses the point entirely.  The US occupation of Iraq is part and parcel of a foreign policy that, whether it wears a Democratic or Republican suit, cannot but make Iraqi political-economic sovereignty as real as a pink elephant.  The occupation cannot be delinked from the policy and the broader set of coercive (i.e. capitalist) social relations that it serves.


1 Garner’s very short tenure reveals just how out of touch he was with US goals in Iraq.  See David Leigh, “General Sacked by Bush Says He Wanted Early Elections” (The Guardian, 18 March 2004).

2 See Naomi Klein, “Privatization in Disguise” (The Nation, 28 April 2003).

3 See Naomi Klein, “Baghdad Year Zero” (Harper’s Magazine, September 2004).

4 See Dilip Hiro, Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (Nation Books, 2002).

5 There’s no way of knowing for sure of course, but it’s not at all unlikely that Gore, had he not “lost” the 2000 election, would have invaded Iraq after 911. The pressure to do so — from the Republicans and the Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party — would have been unquestionably overwhelming.

Stephen Philion is an instructor of “Race and Cultural Minorities” at
Hamline University and researches the impact of privatization on Chinese
workers. Philion received his doctorate in April 2004. The first chapter of his dissertation “The Discourse of Workers Democracy as a Terrain of Ideological Struggle in the Moment of Transition from State Socialism in China” is available at <stephenphilion.efoliomn2.com/index.asp>.