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Because We Could | The Nation

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Because We Could

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Actually, the record indicates that the neocons were hardly more interested in a fair deal for the Iraqis than their chums in Jerusalem are for their conquered subjects. This becomes very clear from Noah Feldman's valuable little treatise What We Owe Iraq, which lays out clearly just how we avoided delivering whatever we owed Iraq in the way of democracy.

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Andrew Cockburn
Andrew Cockburn is the author, with Patrick Cockburn, of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. His most...

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In 1988 US officials helped disguise Saddam's chemical attack on Halabja. But when it came time to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they acted outraged.

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A law professor and scholar of Islamic thought hired as a constitutional adviser to the occupation government, Feldman noted with alarm on his first flight into Baghdad that his fellow passengers, like him recruited to advise and guide the occupation, all had their noses buried in books about the US occupations of Japan and Germany. "Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf Region," he writes.

An honorable exception to the general run of occupodians, Feldman thinks it is actually in our own interests to foster a legitimate democratic government in Iraq in order to combat terrorism effectively, as well as being the right thing to do. Thus, interspersed with some deeper notes on the theory and practice of nation-building are his pithy reminiscences about his tour of duty in what had once been Saddam's Republican Palace, now transformed into the seat of colonial rule.

When Feldman first arrived, the largest conference room in use still had a Koranic verse inscribed across one wall: "Consult the people regarding the matter," it advised, "and when you have reached a decision, then put your trust in God." Generally considered as a Koranic endorsement of democratic institutions, the verse rapidly disappeared after occupation viceroy Paul Bremer arrived and began using the room for his fantasy-laden press conferences. "Elections," explains Feldman, "were off the table." Instead, the United States instituted a "Governing Council" that was granted neither power nor respect by the colonial power (I remember council members complaining of being punched by US military guards when arriving for meetings with Bremer). Whereas Feldman doesn't have much good to say about his employers, he has a hero in the form of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who repeatedly challenged the Americans to live up to their rhetoric--"if this is to be a democracy, where are the elections?"--and refused to endorse the various excuses and shabby substitutes offered by Bremer.

On paper at least, Sistani has got his way. Elections are due to take place in January 2005, offering a faint hope that Iraq, if endowed with a legitimate government, will arrest its decline into a Hobbesian state of nature. Presumably that is what Washington wants too; at least that is what we are led to believe. Yet I have my doubts, especially as the so-called "government" of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is doing its best behind the scenes to put off the elections yet again, while the US occupation army seems to be working hard to escalate the level of violence and chaos in the country.

An Iraq splintered into fragments and powerless for the foreseeable future might be considered good for, well, quite a lot of people. Israel has always been nervous about Iraq's potential as a rich, educated, nationalistic regional power. The oil companies, which have never cared for Iraq's forty-year tradition of prickly independence in oil matters, cannot be too displeased that present conditions are helping to maintain prices at profitable heights. Shocking though it may be to suggest that reducing Iraq to its present state was the ultimate object of the exercise, one has to accept that US policy-makers have done everything in their power to bring it about. Feldman reminds us that the looting during the first month of the occupation "led to the disappearance of the apparatus of the government" as well as the collapse of the basic services on which Iraq as a modern society depended, followed by the imposition of Ambassador Bremer's authoritarian rule. Interestingly, in describing the immediate aftermath of Saddam's fall, Jon Lee Anderson notes matter-of-factly that initially the looting was entirely confined to east Baghdad, because the Americans stationed tanks on the Tigris bridges and thus prevented the mayhem from crossing to west Baghdad. Then, two days later, as he records, those tanks were withdrawn and west Baghdad was plundered too.

Mission accomplished?

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