by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 14 2003-11, Ramadan, 1424)
Thanks to his rightwing advisors (better known as ‘neo-conservatives’ or ‘neo-cons’), US president George Bush has been trapped between Iraq and a hard place; in fact several hard places – Afghanistan, the US economy and a public that are at last beginning to realize that they have been lied to in a big way. The news from Iraq continues to be grim; the daily death toll is not only sapping the morale of US troops but, more critically, draining support for the war among Americans at home. The neocons misled Bush and the American public into believing that Iraq would be a "cakewalk"; yet, while overpowering Iraq (a country ravaged by 12 years of sanctions) was easy, keeping it under control is becoming a nightmare. It has turned into the kind of quagmire that doomed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, another Texan.
Johnson blundered into Vietnam ostensibly to fight communism; he had in fact inherited the problem. The US was involved in Vietnam from as early as 1958; Johnson escalated the conflict in hope of "saving" South Vietnam from a communist takeover. This doomed his presidency; his successor, Richard Nixon, ended the war, but only after America’s military pride had been thoroughly humbled. Bush invaded Iraq in order to prove America’s military might as the "sole superpower" (US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, had asked what the point of American military might was if it was not used) and to warn other states to fall in line with US demands or face its wrath. In September 2002 Bush even told the UN to endorse his attack on Iraq or "become irrelevant"; a year later Bush cut a sorry figure before the same body in New York as the harsh reality of Iraqi resistance loomed large. His pleas for help fell largely on deaf ears; UN members have demanded that Washington cede political control before they will consider bailing him out.
Bush thus faces several dilemmas: current US troop levels are insufficient to subdue Iraq but the US has no reserve troops to spare and there is little prospect of outside help at present. Far from proving American military might, Iraq’s occupation has in fact exposed its weakness: using its massive firepower, the US can overwhelm an adversary fairly quickly, but it cannot hold its ground thereafter. The lesson for future victims of American aggression is clear: avoid a head-on military confrontation with the US and draw it into urban guerrilla warfare, where its technological prowess can be neutralized. This is a lesson first drawn by the ragtag bands of guerrillas operating in Somalia, who chased the mighty Americans right out of Mogadishu in 1994.
The 150,000 American troops currently in Iraq are exhausted and demoralized, yet their commanders cannot give them relief in the near-future. Before the Iraqi invasion, a number of senior generals had warned that the US would need at least 200,000 troops to control the country; they were overruled by their civilian bosses in the Pentagon, such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, none of whom has any military experience. The Iraqi fiasco was the brainchild of Wolfowitz and Perle, who wanted to "teach" the Muslims a lesson and make them pay for it as well (the allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was a convenient cover which Wolfowitz later admitted to be false). On November 8, 2002, Perle told a congressional hearing that Iraq’s invasion and subsequent reconstruction would be paid for by the sale of Iraqi oil. Far from realizing this dream, the US now has to find $87 billion to pay for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan for the next 12 months. This money will come from deficit financing, but does not address the problem of subsequent years’ funding, as the Americans are already talking about the occupation lasting several years.
To these unknown factors must be added a self-imposed deadline: Bush has told his advisors that he does not want any American casualties after March 2004. Why? Iraqi deaths now average 60 to 70 per day, according to most reliable sources, but these are considered irrelevant. Bush is concerned mainly about his re-election in 2004, but with the dreaded bodybags coming home that will be difficult to achieve. The emergence of retired general Wesley Clark, as a Democratic Party presidential candidate who opposed the Iraq war, has undercut Bush’s patriotic stance, especially since he himself "dodged the draft" (avoided compulsory conscription for military service) during the Vietnam War, thanks to his father’s connections. His "approval ratings" have plummeted to pre-September 2001 levels, when most people considered him to have stolen the presidency. He is now seen increasingly as a failed president, on many counts.
Despite being the world’s economic power-house, America’s economy is in difficulties. During Bush’s presidency, the manufacturing sector has lost 3 million jobs, that is about 15 percent of the jobs in this vital sector. Both unemployment and underemployment are increasing, and the loss of jobs in one sector causes a ripple effect in other sectors of the economy as well. Despite this economic decline (one sign of which is the decline in the American dollar with respect to other currencies), Bush has to find $87 billion from somewhere for the war. Coupled with massive tax cuts for his wealthy backers, it is a recipe for disaster. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, the budget deficit will rise to a staggering $6 trillion in 10 years, something Paul Krugman, an economist in Princeton, has been pointing out in the New York Times for three years.
How does Bush plan to deal with the twin problems of war and the economy? Simply by denying that there is a problem at all. On October 9, for instance, while addressing a sympathetic crowd in New Hampshire, he claimed that the US was "winning" the war in Iraq and accused the mainstream media of fuelling discontent by focusing more on the bad news. "We are making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you listen to the filter," Bush told a cheering crowd of military personnel. Yet it is all right for his spin-doctors to use the same media "filters" to hoodwink Americans, 60 percent of whom believe that Saddam Husain was linked to al-Qa’ida and the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon; another 30 percent believe that Saddam used chemical weapons against US forces during the recent war.
Although Bush finds himself in a tight spot, he is not about to abandon an ill-conceived policy. The causes of the war are still there: the Iraqi invasion and occupation were conceived long before September 2001; in fact, they were part of a grand strategy to dominate the world by first taking direct control of oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. Another related factor was, and remains, the benefits that companies linked directly with several key Bush aides will gain from contracts for reconstruction work. Halliburton, a defence servicing contractor, whose chief executive was none other than vice president Dick Cheney, is the main beneficiary, as are Bechtel, and Kellogg Brown and Roots. All of them are linked to people with close connections to Bush. This explains why Bush has refused to cede political or security control in Iraq to the UN, as demanded by other predatory powers, such as France, Germany and Russia, that are looking for their own interests. Several congressmen complained on October 15 that Halliburton had over billed the US military for fuel supplies in Iraq.
What the US hopes to do is to persuade countries like Pakistan, Jordan and Bangladesh to commit troops for frontline duty in Iraq, while the Americans continue to exercise control from behind the scenes. Turkey has already pledged 10,000 troops, despite protests by the Turkish people as well as the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council. Turkey will get $8.5 billion from this venture and also secure its position vis-a-vis the troublesome Kurds; Jordan has agreed to train 3,000 Iraqi policemen for $1.3 billion. Pakistan is the real prize for the US; that explains why Pakistani prime minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali was received in Washington early last month, only 10 days after general Pervez Musharraf had met Bush in New York. Pakistan is so keen to oblige the US that it has now abandoned its earlier stance of adhering to the wishes of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Although the OIC is largely irrelevant, the OIC meeting in Kuala Lumpur first demanded on October 13 the removal of all US and British forces from Iraq, only to reverse this decision two days later. Pakistani foreign minister Mahmud Ali Qasuri dismissed the withdrawal idea as "impractical." Regardless of the OIC’s decision, nobody is going to take the slightest notice of it, because it long ago demonstrated its impotence.
As these manoeuvres were under way in Kuala Lumpur, another political development of far-reaching consequences occurred in Kufa, near Najaf. Muqtada al-Sadr, a young alim and firebrand, announced the formation of his own government for Iraq on October 10. He called upon his followers to take to the streets in support of his call; thousands did, coinciding with the funeral of two of his followers who had been killed by American troops a day earlier in Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad. A similar, smaller rally was held in Najaf. Several members of the US-appointed Governing Council denounced al-Sadr’s announcement; it has certainly made things more difficult for the American occupation forces.
So far the Americans have blamed remnants of Saddam’s regime operating in the "Sunni triangle" for attacks against their forces. The other bogey has been al-Qa’ida. Whatever the truth about these allegations, it is true that the Shi’ah majority in Iraq have largely acquiesced in the American occupation. This shortsighted policy has cost the life of Ayatullah Baqer al-Hakim, a respected alim, who was one leader who might have united all Iraqis. His loss is a major blow to the future of Iraq, but with Muqtada al-Sadr’s open challenge to American authority the situation may change. Besides, American soldiers are notoriously trigger-happy: they have killed Iraqi civilians without regard to age or gender and whether or not they were guilty of any crime; they have shot and killed women and even murdered US-recruited Iraqi policemen who were busy chasing thieves. In the seven-month period since the collapse of the Ba’athist regime, the Americans have missed no opportunity to make enemies by their heavy-handed approach. Not surprisingly, the Iraqis are mounting increasingly bold attacks against them all over the country.
Will foreign troops be able to provide the shield behind which the Americans can continue their occupation of Iraq? Given their numbers – 30,000 at most – that seems unlikely. Will Bush survive the folly of Iraq? Krugman suggests (New York Times, September 11) that the neocons will play even more rough and dirty, and try to launch other mad ventures before the presidential elections, in order to divert the voters’ attention from the mess in Iraq. Recent threats against Syria and Iran give a clue to their thinking. It is quite possible that the over-ambitious, greedy people in control of the American government may cause more harm to the world as well as to their own people before they are consigned to history.
One thing, however, has become clear: the US has been exposed as an international bully, one that has feet of clay. Despite its immense technological superiority, the US is not capable of fighting a prolonged war. This should give comfort to millions of people worldwide who have been terrorized by the rogue superpower for many years. Iraq may yet prove to be the graveyard of the neocons’ grandiose delusions.