Barack Obama’s announcement on October 21 that US troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year might have been regarded as a masterpiece of political spin, except that very few people were fooled.
Barack Obama’s announcement on October 21 that US troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year might have been regarded as a masterpiece of political spin, except that very few people were fooled. Thanks to the fact that US leaders have consistently fudged and misrepresented the real objectives of their policy in Iraq, Obama was able to present this result as the successful fulfilment of a promise he made before his election, despite the fact that virtually all listeners, even those who had demanded a disengagement from Iraq, knew that the Obama administration and the US military establishment have been desperately trying to persuade the Iraqi government to agree to an extension of US military presence in the country.
Over the years, American politicians have given a variety of different justifications and objectives for their involvement in Iraq, ranging from fighting al-Qaeda and preventing terrorism in the US, to ensuring stability in the Middle East for geo-political reasons, to liberating the Iraqi people from despotism and establishing democracy as a model for all Muslim countries. Many commentators, and some frank, brazen or naive American politicians, have given two other reasons, which are undoubtedly nearer to reality: the projection of American power in the heart of the Middle East, often with particular reference to protecting Israel or confronting Iran, and of course and inevitably, the fact that Iraq possesses the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, behind only Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Both these latter factors have been central to US policy in the region for several decades, at least since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which highlighted the fact that Islamic resistance posed a genuine challenge to the West’s global hegemony. For the last 40 years, the US has been gradually moving to consolidate its control over the region in a number of ways, starting from the military occupation of the region, which began with the movement of troops into the Persian Gulf during the Iraq-Iran War and was massively ramped up with the US response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. There is also ample evidence to confirm that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was the implementation of plans to move into Iraq that the neocons around Bush had been laying for years ahead of his election in 2000. The object, as revealed in numerous neocon documents, was the permanent occupation and exploitation of the country.
It is in this context that last month’s announcement must be understood. It is not enough to view it in terms of the last few months’ negotiations over how many troops may be permitted to remain in Iraq after December 2011, and whether they would have the sort of judicial immunity that the US always demands from its subservient allies. It is similarly inadequate to focus on the fact that a few hundred Marines will remain in Baghdad to provide security for the US embassy, and that a few thousand American mercenaries will remain in the country under contracts that the Iraqi and US governments have signed with military services companies. Such points, although not false, pale into insignificance compared to the greater failure of the US’s long-term strategy for the region. Where once the US was building massive bases in the country, each capable of housing tens of thousands of troops, from which it planned to militarily dominate the region for decades, with the cooperation of what is expected to be a pliant puppet government beholden to the US for overthrowing Saddam Hussain, it now cannot even persuade that same government to allow it to maintain a few thousand troops in the country.
This humiliation follows from the US’s earlier failure to secure from the Iraqi government the sort of oil and gas concessions that it had expected. In December 2009, when long negotiations over the country’s oil and gas resources reached a conclusion with the issuing of exploration and exploitation contracts by the Iraqi oil ministry, it was clear that the US had failed to secure the sort of beneficial contracts for US companies that the neocons had promised their financial backers. Most of the contracts, mainly in the particularly important southern oil-fields around Basra, went to major non-American firms such as the China National Petroleum Company, Lukoil and Gazprom from Russia, and the Malaysian firm Petronas. The terms of the contracts were also notably less favourable than the US and its allies had demanded, with the winning firms agreeing to accept flat fees of between US$1.30 and US$1.50 per barrel (at a time when the price of oil was about $75 per barrel), instead of the 50-50 sharing of profits that the US and its allies had demanded.
How do we explain this failure? There is one factor above all others: the resistance of the Iraqi people in all its many forms, from the military to the political to the work of community and civil society groups representing all sectors of society. Thanks largely to the world media, coverage of resistance in Iraq has focused mainly on sectarian violence and terrorism, which have certainly been problems; it is an unfortunate, tragic and criminal reality that more Iraqis have been killed by other Iraqis than by the US directly. The instability and disorder caused by such sectarianism created both problems and opportunities for the US in trying to secure its interests in the country. But this is only a part of the story.
The other part of the story is that, despite the US’s best efforts to manipulate Iraqi groups, politics and developments, when it came to the crunch, over the US’s key interests in the region, the government was forced and able to pay greater attention to the demands of public opinion in Iraq, as represented both by other groups within parliament, and by voices in the wider society, than the demands of the US. The influence and support of a powerful regional neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran, was an important factor in this but by no means decisive; the main credit must go to local elements in Iraq, despite the many problems — many of them the fault of the same elements, and entirely avoidable — over the last decade.
What is more, the US failure in Iraq also has massive implications for the rest of the Muslim world. Even as Obama was conceding defeat in Iraq, the “rebels” in Libya were planning to announce the country’s “liberation”. Ironically, of course, one result of Muammar Qaddafi’s defeat will be the opening of a previously wealthy and largely self-sufficient Arabian state to the exploitation of Western multinationals. The new government in Tripoli, and the Libyan people, now face the challenge of protecting the country’s interests from these predatory supposed allies. Elsewhere too, in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”, the US is still trying to project its influence and assert its interests; one object of the NATO military involvement in Libya was no doubt to demonstrate that it still has a military capability and threat, despite its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the reality is that people across the world now know the limits of American power, and that it is possible for a determined and committed people to resist and defeat its plans.
Even more directly than this, the US defeat in Iraq has major implications for the West’s real enemy in the region, Islamic Iran. Obama needs foreign enemies to target, and supposed successes against them, to try to secure re-election despite the many problems that the US faces domestically. The recent escalation of the US’s vilification of Iran indicates which way his attention is likely to turn. The need to encircle Iran was the larger object of the invasion of Iraq. Instead, the successful resistance of the Iraqi people means that it is now impossible for any US military action against Iran to be more than symbolic. In the long run, this may prove to be the greatest achievement of the sacrifices and resistance of the long-suffering Iraqi people.