Learning from the British in Iraq

Under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), President Barack Obama is currently bound to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. Three factors, however, make it probable that the president will attempt to renegotiate the terms of the agreement as it approaches its conclusion: Iraqi security forces will continue to be logistically dependent on the U.S. military. The United States will be increasingly dependent on oil from Iraq and the wider region. And the American left will be unable to exert significant electoral pressure on the legislative or executive branch, given the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s calculation of the strategic consequences of a complete withdrawal.

Given their continued dependency on the U.S. government and despite their resentment of the occupation, Iraqi leaders might be inclined to agree to a SOFA extension. This would likely entail, at a minimum, continued close air support and logistical assistance to Iraqi Security Forces, as well as a continued advisory mission within the Iraqi defense and interior ministries. It would probably also include continued access to airfields in Iraq to serve as a deterrent against Iran. The Senate would not likely require ratification of a SOFA extension, given its prior decision to accept the Bush administration’s claim that the SOFA isn’t a treaty and therefore doesn’t require Senate approval. A less conspicuous U.S. military mission of perhaps fewer than 50,000 troops would also generate less public opposition, thereby reducing pressure on the Senate to exercise such oversight.

The history of the British Empire’s relationship with Iraq serves as a detailed guide to what the current U.S.-Iraq relationship might evolve into and why. The British drew down their military involvement in Iraq in the early 20th century only to increase their involvement in other ways. Even as the United States negotiates a SOFA extension, it will likely follow the British lead in this transformation of the relationship with its newest Middle Eastern client state.

The British Model

The British occupied what came to be known as Iraq in the early 20th century. They ruled the country directly from 1914-1920, after which numerous political and financial constraints compelled them to devise a way to preserve their empire through more subtle and cost-effective means. The British experience closely paralleled the situation of the United States in the 21st century. Both occupations grappled with the continual threat and actual occurrence of widespread revolt in Iraq and an exceedingly high level of debt at home.

Growing domestic and international opposition to imperialism — one of the primary causes of World War I — led British political and military officials to transition from overt governance to an increasingly advisory role. “What we want [in Iraq] is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves,” said British India Office Official Sir Arthur Hirtzel at the time, “something that won’t cost very much, which Labour can swallow consistent with its principles, but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.” This method of control, although in practice more vulnerable to Iraqi political maneuvering, alleviated popular resentment in the country and allowed the British to reduce their force presence and consequent military expenditures. Reduced casualties and expenditures in turn alleviated media controversy and domestic opposition, allowing future administrations to pursue long-term strategic objectives such as control of oil fields in both Iraq and Iran. “The discoveries of immense quantities of oil,” as British High Commissioner for Iraq Sir Henry Dobbs put it, “make it now impossible to abandon control of Iraq without damaging important British and foreign interests.”

The British advisory apparatus operated effectively as a parallel government in Iraq. British intelligence advisers worked at the Iraqi interior ministry, British military advisers at the Iraqi defense ministry. These officials were strategically placed throughout the Iraqi government and military in order to gather intelligence and influence their Iraqi counterparts according to the dictates of British imperial interests. To ensure the continued primacy of these interests, the British High Commissioner in Iraq — the rough equivalent of a U.S. ambassador — retained the authority to veto decisions made by a decidedly unsovereign Iraqi government. Iraqi resentment of British oversight significantly contributed to long-term political instability and socioeconomic retardation in the country.

Why did the Iraqis acquiesce to what they generally viewed as a humiliating system of foreign rule? Even after the British had withdrawn their ground forces from the country in 1930, they still retained air bases until (and even after) 1941, when they overthrew a militantly nationalist government.

Less apparent factors also caused Iraqi officials to take a more pragmatic view of their subordinate position in the international order. According to the terms of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930, the Iraqis were effectively forced to rely on the British for their military equipment, which consequently made the former dependent on the latter for spare parts and military advisors as well. Iraqi officials were also dependent on the British for credit and the development of their oil sector, which over the coming decades contributed an increasingly significant percentage of the federal budget. This had major implications in terms of the central government’s power and influence over a frequently restive population.

U.S. Parallels

Under the British Empire, the Iraqis deeply resented to the point of violent rebellion the control that foreign oil companies had over production, supply, and royalty payments and therefore the Iraqi national budget and economy. In the 21st century, a similar exertion of foreign influence through military-backed private interests and multilateral institutions such as the IMF will undoubtedly contribute to future political instability.

Its frequent denials of interest in oil notwithstanding, the Bush administration exerted diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi government in order to secure production sharing agreements, the 21st-century equivalent of imperial oil concessions, on behalf of U.S. oil companies. The Obama administration’s current position on foreign investment in Iraq’s oil industry remains unclear. But it will likely face similar temptations to ensure U.S. access and control. The U.S. government’s apparent approval of American private investment in Iraq’s oil industry in the absence of critical parliamentary oversight and an Iraqi law regulating such activity is almost certain to lead to greater sectarian and tribal tension. The ruling party in power will take advantage of the legal ambiguity to manipulate contracts for its own financial and political benefit.

Under the British Empire, the minority Sunni took advantage of their dominant political and financial position over a Shi’a majority, and the result was persistent violence. Today the power relationship is reversed, but the result, predictably, is the same. This imbalance of interests also reinforces the Kurds’ preference for autonomy to the detriment of Iraq’s future viability as a unified country.

The United States can potentially play a productive, stabilizing role in the country so long as it does not seek to perpetuate a state of dependency there. True Iraqi sovereignty, a prerequisite for long-term stability, involves much more than the full withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq. It also means economic sovereignty: the right to develop and utilize national resources primarily to benefit the nation rather than the occupying power. If U.S. political leaders acknowledge and act on this essential consideration — which shaped America’s own rebellion against the British Empire — U.S. investors may be welcome in Iraq over the longer term, to the benefit of both nations. If not, Iraq is likely to be plagued by another era of coups until another dictatorial leader like Saddam Hussein consolidates power.

By no means does the United States control everything happening in Iraq. But proper executive and legislative oversight of American public and private conduct may go a long way toward solving some of the problems currently plaguing the country. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees should ensure that State Department officials are balancing advocacy on behalf of American investors with sensitivity to Iraqi sovereignty. U.S. diplomatic officials should be instructed not to pressure the Iraqi government into signing legislation or contracts such as production sharing agreements that would effectively limit the country’s future ability to develop and allocate resources for the benefit of the Iraqi people. U.S. officials should also encourage the Iraqi government and international oil companies to wait for passage of legislation governing foreign investment before signing contracts. Lastly, diplomatic officials should emphasize that parliamentary oversight can help to increase public transparency and correspondingly reduce the potential for corruption within the Iraqi executive branch.

Global leadership requires global responsibility. The United States should model constructive behavior concerning negotiations over foreign investment in Iraq and urge its competitors to do the same out of recognition of their mutual self-interest. Replacement of fossil fuel demand with renewable energy sources will not happen overnight. Sacrificing short-term gain in exchange for increased long-term prospects for a stable, democratic Iraq is surely in the U.S. national interest.

T.J. Buonomo is a former military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.