The contours of the American occupation of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq are already formulating. The initial indications are unsettling. A major question is, if the American invasion was aimed at liberating the Iraqis and letting them have a free choice about their next government, then why is Washington imposing Donald Rumsfeld's choice, Ahmad Chalabi, as their next ruler? Another related question is, if the Iraqis should be allowed select their own form of government, why is secularism being thrust on them? These questions might be a bit harsh for those in Washington who are being swept away with a palpable hubris of victory over the fifth-rate armed forces of Iraq. That hubris may also be driving the United States in the direction of a quagmire.
The notion of "quagmire" is generally related to the US involvement in Vietnam. However, a cursory look at the history of America's involvement in foreign wars underscores that no two such events are exactly alike. So, any comparison with the quagmire of Vietnam should be offered with a qualification. The greatest difference between the Vietnamese debacle and the Iraqi adventure is that, in the case of the former, quagmire became the major obstacle in the way of military victory. In the case of the latter campaign, quagmire is likely to develop after the military victory. The end result of the next quagmire is likely to be similar to the one related to Vietnam: the US will not come out any time soon, or without further loss of life of US troops and damage to its prestige. The signs are in the making.
First, the Iraqis have already become resentful of a clear-cut American preference for safeguarding the oil fields while allowing the systematic looting of Iraq, including its hospitals and museum - though it was swept under the rug by the daily Central Command information campaign. The occupying force wanted to ensure that the Iraqi oilfields were safeguarded, so its capability to pay for the reconstruction had to remain intact. Now lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of that country are being awarded to American companies - such as Halliburton and Bechtel - with unambiguous connections to such Republican luminaries as Vice President Dick Cheney and George Schulz. The former was the CEO of Halliburton before joining the Bush-Cheney ticket in the last presidential election, and the later - secretary of state during the Ronald Reagan presidency - was the CEO of Bechtel, and still sits on its board of directors.
Second, the Bush administration continues to disallow a primary role for the United Nations either in Iraq's reconstruction or in putting together a corps of leadership for the interim government that is a representative of the major ethnic and religious factions of that country. Secretary of State Colin Powell's favorite line is that countries that spilled blood of their soldiers to win "freedom" for Iraq must have a dominant voice in shaping its government and deciding what companies should be playing a visible role in its reconstruction.
Excuse us, Mr Powell, but who has asked the United States and Britain to spill the blood of their sons and daughters for the liberation of Iraq? If these countries were to go into Iraq with explicit UN approval, the invasion of Iraq would not have been labeled as such by the international community. Then, the representatives of the international community - under the auspices of the world body - would also be playing a visible role in engaging a broad spectrum of the Iraqis to govern themselves. The Bush administration is missing a very important point that the only way the next government of Iraq will not get embroiled in serious doubts about its legitimacy is if the UN - not just the US-British nexus - starts to have a major say in its formulation.
Third, the palpable US preference for secularism will also emerge as a source of major conflict between the occupiers and the Iraqis who are committed to the proposition of a powerful presence of Islam in their next system of governance. Right now, the tactic from the US side is to have Ahmad Chalabi remain assertive about promoting secularism as a bargain for gaining power. But by becoming the head of such a government, can Chalabi rid himself of being depicted as a puppet of the Americans? Will not a secular form of government for Iraq - where the Shi'ite majority was systematically suppressed and eliminated from the power structure during the Saddam regime of Sunni rule - be perceived by that group as another "conspiracy" related to not empowering them, even though Chalabi, a Shi'ite, is spouting the mantra of secularism? Is anyone in Washington paying any attention to how much resentment such perceptions will create toward the US? From all the evidence I have seen in and around Washington, it is safe to say that, indeed, not much attention is being paid to these issues.
The trouble with Chalabi's emergence as a possible head of the interim Iraqi government is that Rumsfeld's, not Powell's, preference has gotten the nod of President George W Bush. One has to wonder why a prestigious secretary of state is systematically playing second banana to the secretary of defense, whose frequent dabbling in foreign affairs hits the international headlines when he insults America's major allies who happen to disagree with its involvement in Iraq. One also has to wonder why America's foreign policy in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is not being determined on the basis of hard-nosed analyses of what is good for Iraq and the region, and more important, what is in the best interest of the US? Instead, ideologically-driven neo-conservatives have consistently been visible in making heady foreign policy choices.
Fourth, the Bush administration seems to be systematically excluding any consultation with a number of major Arab states, largely because they did not support its invasion of Iraq. That is also a troubling development. Even a US preference for a politically pluralistic Iraq has to have some notion of acceptability from its neighbors.
As an occupying force in Iraq, the US is on shaky grounds. The imminent priority ought to be to remain focused on the wishes of the Iraqi majority, not to impose handpicked rulers over them who have spent almost all of their formative years in the West, and not to impose secularism.
Secularism has been a much-maligned and least-comprehended phenomenon in the Muslim world. To assume that it should be good for Iraq because it works in the US might turn out to be a recipe for a disaster. If secularism were to become a major player in Iraq, it should come from within and through a process of public debates, phenomena that may become familiar to the Iraqis only with the passage of time.
The chief trouble with a quagmire is that it is not perceived as such while it is in the making. Besides, the notion of occupation of a Muslim land is totally alien to the US. It should be treated gingerly and handled with a clear head, certainly not with the hubris of conquest, which is invariably intoxicating. The US, above all, needs a very clear analysis about what it is getting into by remaining an occupying force in Iraq.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.
Source: Asia Times