Iraq is back in the news, at least for a moment. The occasion is “A truly historic end to seven years of war”, in the words of Lt. Col Mark Beiger, quoted in the Washington Post, referring to the final withdrawal of “combat” troops from the country. It’s a cause for celebration: “‘Operation Iraqi Freedom ends on your watch!” exclaimed Col. John Norris, the head of the brigade. ‘Hooah!’ the soldiers roared, using an Army battle cry.”
One may recall President George W. Bush announcing the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003, speaking on board an aircraft carrier under a sign declaring “Mission Accomplished”. More than seven years later, the announced “end” of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” may be similarly illusory.
The Post also notes that “About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, mainly as a training force”, and concedes that “There might never be an acknowledged end to the Iraq war – a moment where it ceases being America’s conflict.” Or a moment where the U.S. military presence in Iraq truly comes to an end, for that matter.
As I wrote back in February:
With the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of next year creeping nearer, the U.S. has to find some way to convince the Iraqi government to allow a continued military presence, which is the likely outcome despite the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement containing the deadline.
One means by which this will be accomplished, relabeling “combat forces” something else, perhaps remaining as “military advisers” or something to that effect, has already been discussed. Thomas E. Ricks outlines another rationale for maintaining a military occupation of Iraq in the New York Times, offering up a variation on a theme that has been familiar throughout the war that is likely to become a mainstay in the political discourse.
With a national election approaching for Iraq on March 7, Ricks opines that “the results are unlikely to resolve key political struggles that could return the country to sectarianism and violence.” Therefore, what “probably is the best course” for President Obama is to “once again break his campaign promises about ending the war, and to offer to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for several more years.”
…As evidence of what “a mess” Iraq is and just how real the threat of “civil war” might be if U.S. forces don’t remain to stabilize the country, Ricks writes that “the latest” sign is “the decision over the weekend of the leading Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, to withdraw from the elections.”
This incident was cited by Ricks as evidence to support his argument that without a U.S. military presence to keep order, Iraq would descend back into uncontrollable violence.
The other theme in the media at the time was that Iran is interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs in order to destabilize the country. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Raymond T. Odierno, publically accused the commission of being “clearly influenced by Iran” in making its decision to ban Sunni candidates.
The reason for this decision to boycott the election was because its two most prominent leaders were barred from running because of “supposed” ties to the Baath Party. But what Ricks and others neglected to point out to their readers (to my knowledge, with the exception of one New York Times article), was that the decision to bar Sunni candidates from the election was made by the Accountability and Justice Commission, which was created under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority after the invasion. It was established under “Order No. 1”, L. Paul Bremer III’s first official act, which established a veil of legality for the “de-Baathification” policy that helped to create the Iraqi insurgency in the first place. As I wrote at the time:
In other words, the U.S. is now criticizing both Iraq and Iran for upholding a law the U.S. itself was responsible for decreeing, through a commission the U.S. itself was responsible for establishing, by means of a mandate the U.S. itself was responsible for implementing.
Ricks wrote that the American public could be persuaded to accept a continued military occupation because they “understand just what a mess it is”, but that it would be “more politically controversial in Iraq” itself. The reason was too obvious to mention, but Ricks did slip it in further down the page: “No one there particularly likes having the Americans around”.
I summarized the situation thusly:
As a result of the supposedly Iranian-influenced decision of the Iraqi commission to carry out its U.S.-dictated mandate, the country is expected to erupt once more into sectarian violence unless the decision to withdraw U.S. forces is reversed so that the U.S. military can save Iraqis, most of whom don’t want U.S. forces in their country, from themselves.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative has indeed become a mainstay in political commentary. Returning to the Washington Post, the article adds: “U.S. commanders acknowledge that the months-long political impasse over the disputed March 7 elections and a flurry of other unresolved disputes in Iraq have the potential to erode hard-won security gains.”
Needless to say, the Post doesn’t bother to enlighten readers as to the root cause of the “political impasse” over the elections –U.S. interference in Iraqi affairs. The observation that the U.S. created this situation of political instability by invading Iraq and changing its government in the first place is hinted at, but glossed over in the overall narrative that seeks to justify a continued presence there into the future on the premise that it is necessary for political stability.
With the completion of the withdrawal, no combat forces remain in Iraq, we are told. The six brigades that will remain in Iraq “are conventional combat brigades reconfigured slightly and rebranded ‘advise and assist brigades.’ The primary mission of those units and the roughly 4,500 U.S. special operations forces that will stay behind will be to train Iraqi troops.”
All U.S. forces are supposed to be gone from Iraq by December 31, 2011, according to the terms of the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement. But the stage is already being set for a continued military presence beyond that date, with the official narrative being pretty much in tune with the one outlined by Ricks.
The Post bangs on the theme throughout. “I think as soon as we leave, things are going to fall apart”, another soldier is quoted as saying, with the Post adding: “For some troops, the protracted political crisis in Baghdad was a source of angst. Many Iraqis fear that militants are exploiting a period of uncertainty to make a comeback.”
This view of “Many Iraqis” is offered a voice. The view of the majority, as indicated by public opinion surveys, however, is excluded. Back in December 2007, for instance (and there’s little reason to think Iraqis’ views have since reversed), the Post reported that “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.” The focus group’s report stated that most Iraqis “would describe the negative elements of life in Iraq beginning with the ‘U.S. occupation’ in March 2003”.
Any other indication that the threat to Iraqi stability is not in fact the ostensible U.S. withdrawal, but a continued U.S. military presence, is similarly omitted, although a separate article in the Post from the day before noted that the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that has joined the political process and whose spiritual head is the influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has threatened to take up arms again if the U.S. violates the bilateral agreement by keeping military forces in the country past the deadline.
The New York Times offers the same narrative, reporting that “Iraq’s political elite, empowered by the American invasion and entrusted with the country’s future, has begun to deliver a damning critique of itself, a grim harbinger for a country rife with fears of more crises, conflicts and even coups as the American military withdraws.”
The article is somewhat self-critical and acknowledges a certain amount of U.S. responsibility for the current situation. It notes that “the failure of the elite that the United States helped to choose may serve as a lasting American legacy here”, and that, “To a remarkable degree, Iraq remains haunted by the decisions of the earliest days of the occupation in 2003, when expediency trumped foresight. Debates still rage in Iraq over the choices the United States made: disbanding the Iraqi military, the purge of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and the decision to occupy Iraq rather than create a transitional Iraqi government.”
But the U.S. role in creating political instability is quickly downplayed: “[P]erhaps the most far-reaching bequest was the power the exiled opposition and Kurdish parties have held in Iraq since 2003, filling a vacuum left by Mr. [Saddam] Hussein’s withering assault on any dissent…. Asked if the Americans bore blame for their prominence, [former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Mr. [Ryan C.] Crocker said, ‘I don’t think so. You can ask the question, was the whole bloody thing a mistake? I don’t spend a lot of time on that.'”
The Times reports that an anonymous “leading politician called his colleagues ineffective”, and points a finger at “Iraq’s neighbors, in particular Turkey and Iran,” who are “often unhelpful” and “have taken to playing politics here like a parlor game.
To help the situation, the U.S. was “pushing for a power-sharing agreement that would keep Mr. Maliki as prime minister, and Mr. Allwai in charge of security. But, Iraqi officials say, the Iranians are opposed to Mr. Allawi, while the Turks have lingering reservations about Mr. Maliki.” The Times quotes a former lawmaker, Mithal al-Alusi, saying, “We should blame ourselves as politicians because we allowed such countries to have so much influence in Iraq”. The U.S. excepted, naturally.
The assumption that the U.S. efforts to exert its influence in a country on the other side of the Earth is legitimate and helpful, while any effort from Iran to do the same in a country it shares a border with (and which waged a devastating war on Iran during the 1980s) is just the opposite, is an unquestionable axiom. U.S. officials, at worst, lacked “foresight” and made rushed decisions. But that U.S. actions are nevertheless benevolent is an article of faith.
The existing narrative in the mainstream political commentary serves the purposes of reinforcing that assumption and of manufacturing consent among the American public for a continued military presence in Iraq.
But as Thomas Ricks has observed, convincing Americans with the use of this narrative is easy. Convincing Iraqis themselves is an entirely different problem to be overcome. The key to that, of course, is to keep in place pliable government officials who are warm to the idea and are willing to make decisions contrary to the overwhelming will of the public. Any Iranian effort, real or imaginary, to prevent that from happening, of course, will only be further proof that a continued U.S. presence is necessary.