Critical Collaboration: Empire versus Sovereignty in Iraq

The U.S. has shown the Iraqi Governing Council the door, not just because of the need to speed up the transition to self-government, but because the council has become a little too independent for its own good. With the council to be replaced by another set of U.S.-installed Iraqis, the search is on for a new batch of collaborators.

This week, in the aftermath of the bloodiest period of the occupation since the invasion, talk was rife that members of the U.S.-handpicked Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) will soon be shown the door.

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer suddenly flew back to Washington after a CIA report finally acknowledged what had become too obvious for the past weeks: the resistance is mounting. As he himself admitted a few weeks ago, “[I]t can’t be fun to be occupied.” Bremer then came back to Baghdad hinting that the IGC would soon give way to an interim government that would assume office by next year. The sudden change had been projected as an indication of Washington’s renewed commitment to restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

This official spin, however, is contradicted by the earlier line blaming the IGC’s dissolution on its members’ incompetence. “We’re unhappy with all of them. They’re not acting as a legislative or governing body, and we need to get moving,” the Washington Post quoted a ranking U.S. official as saying. “They just don’t make decisions when they need to.” According to the same official, the council members are not attending meetings, have done “nothing of substance,” and are “inept” in securing greater legitimacy from the Iraqis. Bremer had earlier convened the council and told them they “can’t go on like this.”

If the IGC members are incompetent in one thing, however, it’s in their failure to understand why the IGC as a body was set up and why they were selected in the first place. This is the real incompetence that will cost them their jobs. They can’t go on biting the hand that feeds them.

Iraqis Out Front

Having proclaimed that they had liberated the Iraqis from Saddam in order to grant them democracy, the United States needed to parade a group of Iraqi leaders that will be seen as representing Iraqi interests. The U.S. reserved for itself the prerogative for choosing these leaders, however, and the Iraqi people themselves had no say whatsoever.

Moreover, while the chosen ones were to take care of mundane and administrative tasks, absolute power still rested with the U.S. proconsul. Not only that, all the Iraqis that effectively form part of the temporary bureaucracy and who head the 23 Iraqi ministries are officially considered salaried employees of a private U.S. company, Science Applications International Corporation.

Despite this arrangement, the U.S. projected members of the IGC as the faces of liberation and succeeded in getting recognition for them as the Iraqis’ representatives to the world. The U.S. even managed to pass United Nations Resolution 1511, which says that the IGC “embodies the sovereignty of the State of Iraq.” No less than UN secretary general Kofi Annan urged the “international community” to confer legitimacy on the body.

Representing Iraq, members of the IGC attended meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and even the Arab League. In Madrid a few weeks ago, they accompanied Bremer in pleading with international donors for money and in selling Iraq’s reconstruction opportunities to multinational corporations.

The U.S. needed the IGC to rubber-stamp policies decided in Washington because they needed to make it appear as though those decisions were made in Baghdad by Iraqis and not in the White House by Americans. This falls neatly under the influential columnist Thomas Friedman’s suggested strategy of having “more Americans out back and more Iraqis out front.”

Classical Collaborators

The council members are, in plainer terms, classic colonial collaborators and the Iraqis themselves viewed them as such. According to a recently released Gallup poll, three out of four Iraqis understood that the IGC’s decisions were “mostly determined by the coalition’s own authorities.” Only 16% perceived them as “fairly independent.” This, in an occupied land where only 1% buy the line that they were invaded in order to be granted “democracy.”

Over the past few months, however, it has appeared as though the U.S.-appointed IGC members didn’t clearly understand the terms of their appointment. Since the council’s launch, the frequency by which some IGC members have openly and unexpectedly attacked U.S. decisions must have become very discomfiting.

There have been at least four surprising public splits between individual IGC members and the coalition authority so far. There could be more but these are the only ones reported. The first was on the neoliberal economic plans to be imposed on Iraq. The second had to do with the spending on reconstruction. The third was on the sending of Turkish troops to patrol Iraq. And the last has been on the drafting of the Iraqi constitution.

Not Neoliberal Enough

Last September 21, the U.S. unveiled its economic blueprint for Iraq during the annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank in Dubai. Described by one wire agency as a plan that “reads like a free-market manifesto devised by Washington” and hailed by the Economist as a “capitalist dream” that fulfills the “wish list of international investors,” the blueprint calls for the wholesale privatization of Iraq’s dozens of state-owned corporations and the opening up of its domestic market to multinational corporations. “Iraq was in effect put up for sale,” The Independent reported.

Less than a month later, the IGC’s interim trade minister Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi publicly criticized what is perhaps the most important post-war policy of the occupation forces, perhaps even one of the main motivations for launching the war in the first place. Long before the invasion, the State Department had already prepared a confidential document entitled “Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Sustainable Growth,” which contains detailed instructions for the liberalization of virtually all sectors of the economy.

“We suffered through the economic theories of socialism, Marxism, and then cronyism,” IGC member Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi said at the exclusive World Economic Forum meeting in Singapore. “Now we face the prospect of free-market fundamentalism.”

Perhaps unaware of just how close the plan is to the hearts of the administration officials, Allawi dismissed it as being guided by a “flawed logic that ignores history.” “These things are not yet being thrust down our throat but I strongly disagree with the call for fast and radical change,” he said without hesitating to add the modifier “strongly.”

Allawi probably did not read Donald Rumsfeld’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal last May 27 in which he promised to install a regime composed of people who “favor market systems” and who will “encourage moves to privatize state-owned enterprises.” With Allawi’s pronouncements, it was clear that he had no room in Rumsfeld’s regime.

No Turks Allowed

The next major clash had to do with the Turkish troops. Getting desperate for more soldiers, the U.S. had been asking its allies to send more troops to help pacify Iraq-­often without much success. After weeks of difficult negotiations, the Turkish parliament defied strong domestic opposition to the deployment and finally allowed as many as 10,000 troops to be deployed to Iraq–only to be refused by the IGC. The Turkish contingent would have been the third biggest after the U.S. and UK and would have been a significant relief to the occupation forces.

But the IGC was unyielding and even unanimous. “Sending these troops would delay our regaining sovereignty,” council member Nasseer Chadirji said, using the dreaded s-word. “It is the wrong thing to do. It does not add to security,” another council member Mahmud Othman, a Kurd, added.

“The Governing Council has made it very clear to the administration and to Turkey that it does not favor the involvement of any neighboring countries in this situation because of the sensitivities involved,” Hoshyar Zebari, interim foreign minister stressed.

All these ran in stark contrast to the U.S.’ enthusiasm toward the Turkish offer. “We welcome that decision and we will be working with Turkish officials on the details of their decision,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. The offer has since been withdrawn.

Pointing Fingers

Next, it did not help that the IGC members have joined the worldwide chorus accusing the U.S. administration of war profiteering. In October, as Bush officials were being hounded on all sides by allegations of backroom deals and spending excesses, IGC members unexpectedly buttressed corruption allegations against the occupation authorities.

They questioned the CPA’s inexplicable decision to issue a $20 million contract for buying guns even as U.S. troops were confiscating tens of thousands of weapons from the former regimes’ arsenal. In what was described as a “testy exchange” with Bremer, the council attacked the decision to spend $1.2 billion for training Iraqi police officers when such could be provided in Iraq at a significantly cheaper price or even for free-­if Germany and France’s offer were accepted.

“There is no transparency and something has to be done about it,” Othman said without mincing words. “There is mismanagement right and left, and I think we have to sit with Congress face to face to discuss this. A lot of American money is being wasted, I think. We are victims and the American taxpayers are victims,” he added. “I hope Congress knows what is going on, but if they don’t know and we don’t know then God help everybody.”

Another council member Chadirji chimed in: “As the Governing Council, we are in a very weak legal position. We don’t have the right to investigate these contracts. I don’t have the evidence, but I think there is corruption. This is a common grievance that people tell me.”

Chadirji was scathing in his criticism of Bremer regarding the plan to train the police force in Jordan. “If we had voted, a majority would have rejected it,” he said, aware of course that they’ll never be allowed to vote. “[Bremer] told us what he did; he did not ask us,” Chadirji added, apparently still believing that the U.S. installed him because they need someone to listen to.

These explicitly critical statements could not have escaped Bremer’s and the other patrons’ notice. It’s likely that they did not particularly like their wards’ choice of words.

Geriatric Ambassadors

And yet, the IGC members’ response to the threat of termination indicates that they have not been cowed. Instead of apologizing and promising to do better, Zebari lashed out at “geriatric ambassadors” from the coalition and blamed “American infighting,” not the IGC’s incompetence, for Iraq’s problems. Pretty strong and grating words from people expected to say nothing but hallelujahs to the people who put them in power.

“I think this debate about the ruling council–that it is not doing its work, that it is not taking decisions–this is unfair,” Zebari said, defiant. “American infighting among themselves between different departments over policy … has created many, many of the difficulties that we are going through.”

“The problem with the coalition is that they have some experts, so-called, who still live in the 1950s, in the 1940s–some geriatric ambassadors who have a certain interpretation of how Iraq works. It has gone, it has changed,” Zebari added, lecturing on the real power-holders.

The new plans for an interim government have also now brought out into the open a feud between the IGC and the CPA. The occupation authority supposedly initially wanted to fast-track drafting the constitution in time for December 15 so that something can be presented to the American people in time for the November 2004 elections.

But the IGC is not relenting. Council members say that the U.S. has an “unrealistic idea” and that its plans are “not possible.” “Figuring out how to write the constitution is the most important thing we will do. We have to make sure we take the time to do this right,” Adel Abdel-Mehdi, another council member, said.

The council members are instead urging the coalition authority to give them real and meaningful power-­something that was out of the question at the outset. A more legitimate government, they said, is what’s needed for Iraqis to fight the anti-occupation guerrillas. “Iraqis are willing to die for an Iraqi government, not for foreigners,” a senior Iraqi cabinet official was quoted as saying. With Iraqis detonating themselves to kill and drive away occupation forces, his words must have been particularly stinging.

The Rules of Collaboration

All these harsh rebukes and condemnation indicate either that the IGC members had become increasingly reluctant to play the part or they simply did not understand what they had signed up for. They were either consciously defying the rules of collaboration or they just don’t know what they were. Foremost among these principles was that they can’t go against the positions of their patrons. Puppets are supposed to follow the script.

Either the council members were too incompetent to understand these simple guidelines or the contradictions inherent in their positions–of having to reconcile irreconcilable Iraqi interests with coalition interests-­became too much to handle. On the one hand, they were expected to secure legitimacy for themselves and more consent for the occupation. But on the other hand, their position afforded them no choice but to promote U.S. interests over those of the people whose support they were courting.

If it were just a matter of the IGC members not being able to attend meetings, as the official line goes, they would have been forgiven as long as they remained pliant–especially on issues that really matter. In fact, for as long as they just nod their heads on cue, the U.S. would prefer figurehead Iraqi leaders who do nothing but sit at their desks all day rather than make harsh pronouncements as busy critics.

For an occupation authority that simply needs the little legitimacy the IGC can offer, the U.S. would have been more appreciative of passive consent rather than active opposition; incompetent support rather than competent criticism.

“Do We Seriously Desire Democracy?”

After coming back from Washington, Bremer convened the IGC and made it appear once again that the plans that were resolved in the White House were hatched by the council members themselves. The U.S. is now bent on forming an interim government whose officials will be chosen in town meetings across the country.

The local representatives to that meeting, however, will be selected by the occupation authorities themselves. And even if this new authority assumes office by late 2004 or early 2005, the U.S. presence will remain indefinitely. Just to underscore just how much control the U.S. will still maintain, one senior White House official ominously intimated, “We’ll have more levers than you think, and maybe more than the Iraqis think.”

The U.S. did not fight and is not fighting this difficult and expensive war so that an independent Iraqi government that will truly represent the interest of the Iraqis can take over. Now, with the IGC, and in the future, with the interim government in the offing, the U.S. will not allow Iraq to be given to the Iraqis. As Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to the elder Bush candidly said, “What’s going to happen the first time we hold an election in Iraq and it turns out the radicals win? What do you do? We’re surely not going to let them take over.”

This attitude is consistent with U.S. foreign policy toward “democracy” in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. The rule is simple enough to follow: undermine those governments that threaten U.S. interests, prop up those that advance them.

In Saudi Arabia, where Saddam’s despotism could pass for benevolence, for example, Scowcroft’s words on Iraq seemed to have been lifted from former CIA chief James Schlesinger: “Do we seriously desire democracy? Do we seriously want to change institutions in Saudi Arabia? Over the years, we have sought to preserve those institutions sometimes in preference to more democratic forces coursing throughout the region.”

In nearby Algeria, where the U.S. supported the military take-over of the government in order to prevent a popularly elected Islamist party from assuming power, then Secretary of State James Baker admitted, “We didn’t live [with the results of the elections] because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to the national interests of the Unites States.” A bloody civil war ensued.

Elsewhere in the world, the record of the U.S.–ousting the Iranian prime minister who nationalized the oil industry, supporting the contras against the Nicaraguan’s legitimate government, installing the dictatorial Pinochet to oust Salvador Allende in Chile, overthrowing the democratically elected Guatemalan government in the 1950s, etc.-­does not lead one to expect that Iraq will be an exception.

Back in Iraq, if ending Saddam Hussein’s regime was really the reason for the war, then the U.S. could have achieved this objective as early as in 1991. Instead of supporting the rebellions that it encouraged against the regime at that time, the U.S. suddenly turned its back on them because, as the New York Times correspondent explained back then, “whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than did those who have suffered his repression.”

New Heroes of the Resistance?

Having supported the war and legitimized the occupation in exchange for power and perks, the IGC members’ recent persistent defiance of the U.S. does not make them instant heroes of the resistance. But their less than docile stance on many issues is more than what the CPA can handle at the moment.

Faced with an intensifying resistance outside the headquarters, the U.S. does not intend to tolerate criticism from within. Fending off criticism from all sides, the U.S. will not take kindly to internal dissent. And a few weeks before the December 15 deadline for coming up with a constitution, the U.S. needs scapegoats for failing to meet its self-imposed timetable. So they’re kicking the IGC members out sooner than later. With the new plans for a U.S.-installed interim government in place, the search is on for another batch of collaborators.

Notes

  1. Transcript of Interview with L. Paul Bremer III, FOX News, October 26, 2004.
  2. Robin Wright and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Alternatives to Iraqi Council Eyed Inaction of Hand-Picked Baghdad Officials Frustrates Washington,” Washington Post, November 9, 2003.
  3. Center for Public Integrity, “Winning Contractors: U.S. Contractors Reap the Windfalls of Post-war Reconstruction,” www.publicintegrity.org/wow October 30, 2003.
  4. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1511, October 16, 2003.
  5. Thomas L. Friedman, “No Time to Lose in Iraq,” New York Times, August 20, 2003.
  6. Walter Pincus, “Skepticism about U.S. Deep, Iraq Poll Shows,” Washington Post, November 12, 2003.
  7. Reuters, September 21, 2003.
  8. Philip Thornton and Andre Gumbel, “America Puts Up Iraq for Sale,” The Independent, September 22, 2003.
  9. Line Thomsen, “Privatizing,” Baghdad Bulletin, August 8, 2003.
  10. Thomas Crampton, “Iraqi official urges caution on imposing free market,” New York Times, October 1, 2003.
  11. Senator Edward Kennedy has accused the U.S. of bribing foreign governments to send troops to Iraq. He says that up to half of the $4 billion that the U.S. spends monthly on Iraq could not be accounted for by the Congressional Budget Office. (Severin Carrell, “Democrats warn of ‘profiteering’ in reconstruction contracts,” The Independent, October 5, 2003.)
  12. Agence France Press, “Turkey to Deploy Troops in Defiance of New Iraqi Leaders, Turmoil Deepens,” October 8, 2003.
  13. Susan Sachs, “Turkey Begins to Think Twice About Sending Troops to Iraq,” New York Times, October 24, 2003.
  14. Patrick E. Tyler and Raymond Bonner, “Questions are Raised on Awarding of Contracts in Iraq,” New York Times, October 4, 2003.
  15. James Drummond, James Harding and Guy Dinmore, “Urgent Iraq talks held in Washington,” Financial Times, November 11, 2003.
  16. Robin Wright and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Alternatives to Iraqi Council Eyed Inaction of Hand-Picked Baghdad Officials Frustrates Washington,” Washington Post, November 9, 2003.
  17. Daniel Williams, “Iraqi Warns Of Delay On Constitution, Vote: Security Issues Cited as Appointed Council Presses for Provisional Government Status,” Washington Post, November 10, 2003.
  18. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Iraqis Say U.S. to Cede Power by Summer: Town Meetings to Set Process in Motion,” Washington Post, November 15, 2003.
  19. David E. Sanger, “America’s Gamble: A Quick Exit Plan for Iraq,” New York Times, November 16, 2003.
  20. Cited in Bob Herbert, “Spoils of War,” New York Times, April 11, 2003.
  21. Quoted in Fawaz Gerges, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  22. “Interview with James A. Baker III,” Middle East Quarterly 1, no. 3 (September 1994), p.83.