Adam Hochschild on hubris and the pseudostate

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Finally, the week of “transition” has come. The rolling of drums (or is that the boom of mortars?), the handing over of what our President insists is “complete, full sovereignty” to an “Iraqi government,” the moment for which this whole war was supposedly fought (once, at least, that every other conceivable reason fell away). Quite literally a year late and a dollar — give or take a few billion — short, Iraq reenters the world with its sovereignty weighed down and constrained by 97 L. Paul Bremer-inspired occupation administration “legal orders” that, for years to come, are meant to control practically all Iraqi acts from who can take part in elections to how you drive your car (two handed, no horns except in “emergency situations”). Below, Adam Hochschild considers the ragged “pseudostate” we’ve just constructed in Iraq in the context of the history of pseudostates and the hubris that invariably lies behind their creation.

I just want to suggest that while the Bush administration, faced with unexpected resistance — ever wider, ever deeper, ever more violent and horrific — has spent the last year or more planning, bungling, and fumbling to bring its Iraqi pseudostate into existence, it has also given birth to another pseudocreation: a pseudo-opposition.

Here, for instance, is a passage, you’ll rarely see in the American press. In a piece for the Independent, the British journalist Patrick Cockburn writes, “The rebels are nationalist and religious. The US always appears to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism.” As a term, nationalism has long been oddly wielded in the United States. Americans are almost never described (here) as nationalistic. We are “patriotic,” and patriotism, it turns out, is an almost purely American trait. On the other hand, over recent decades, other peoples, particularly in the non-western world were seldom patriotic, they were nationalistic; and those among them who fought for sovereignty and power never patriots, but at best nationalists. Nationalism in our American world has long had a distinctly pejorative quality. It brings to mind not the flag, mom, and apple pie (nor the flag, mom, and shish kebob), but a force over the edge, slightly unhinged, fanatical, dangerous; something, at best, to be managed. That’s the way it’s been here for a long time.

But here’s the curious thing in the Iraq situation, we have become, if anything, more patriotic than ever in our own self-description, but they have become nothing at all — or rather they have been only “former Baathists,” “bitter-enders,” “foreign fighters.” (Note that no mainstream American reporter would ever call Americans in Iraq “foreign fighters.”) They are religious fanatics, al-Qaeda supporters, terrorists. With a few honorable exceptions — Los Angeles Times reports,, for instance, have recently begun to deal with Iraqi nationalism — nationalism as a term has largely disappeared from our media, even though without it you can’t begin to understand what has happened, even though the urge for one’s own unoccupied, unfettered country still rules the earth and drives masses of people to lengths that even fierce religious fundamentalism can seldom take them. Nationalism, independence, sovereignty — these are near religious phenomena (as is “patriotism,” after all) and not to acknowledge them frontally assures that your analysis will make next to no sense.

And yet in the Bush administration and in much of our mainstream media, where “full sovereignty” has been established and an “Iraqi government” already anointed, the Iraqi opposition outside Shiite areas is said to consist just about solely of dedicated former Saddamists and the al-Tawhid followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a modest-sized terrorist group we link to al-Qaeda. Are both of these groups factors of significance? Certainly. In fact, it’s increasingly clear that Saddam and his generals did far more planning for the post-war period than did the Pentagon and the White House. In a piece filled with chilling bravado, Alix de la Grange in the Asia Times on-line reports on an interview with three former high Baathist military figures who brag about their future victory and claim, “The Americans have prepared the war, we have prepared the post-war.” Paul Wolfowitz, in his own perverse way, said as much the other day. According to Julian Borger of the Guardian:

“Paul Wolfowitz denied US forces were facing an insurgency in Iraq. ‘An insurgency implies something that rose up afterwards… It is a continuation of the war by people who never quit,’ he told NBC television.”

Zarqawi also is all too real, though both he and the Bush administration seem eager to take (or give) credit for almost anything that happens in Iraq. In this way, the Bush administration has proved to be a vast publicity and advertising machine for his previously modest organization.

But none of this would matter if former Baathist officers and small numbers of foreign terrorists were all that the administration was up against. Blaming the resistance only on them (“‘Can a thousand or so dedicated terrorists bring down a society?’ one of President Bush’s senior advisers on the issue asked on Friday afternoon. ‘It is a laboratory experiment.'”) means skipping the most crucial factor in play: The opposition of people everywhere on Earth to having their lands occupied. And so, out of perfectly real but very partial elements, the administration has created a pseudo-opposition all-too-appropriate for our pseudostate. It means nothing for the new American military commander Gen. George W. Casey Jr. to say, for instance, in response to a question from Sen. John McCain, “It is certainly not how I envisioned it to be, senator. I think the insurgency is much stronger than I certainly would have anticipated.” Not, at least, if “the insurgency” is imagined as simply a Baathist-al-Qaeda amalgam (with perhaps some Shiite fanatics thrown in) — that is, the administration’s nightmare version of its prewar lies.

It’s almost as if, as resistance to an occupation by nearly 150,000 Coalition troops and thousands of for-hire warriors rises, the image of who is involved has been shrinking. This last week for the first time the resistance graduated to what our media started calling an “offensive” (“the insurgents demonstrated a new level of strength and tactical skill that alarmed the [American] soldiers facing them.”) And modest, ragged, and mindlessly destructive as it often was, shades of the Vietnam-era Tet Offensive were already dancing in American pundits’ heads; in a Congressional hearing, the Vietnam-era phrase, “a security quagmire” could again be heard; and elsewhere inside the Beltway an adaptation of a famous post-war phrase came into sight, “the Iraq Syndrome” — the “fear” of confronting “the next threats to American security because the first exercise of President Bush’s pre-emption policy cost so much blood and billions in treasure,” as David E. Sanger put it in the New York Times today.

But while fears grow ever larger in Washington, the “insurgency” has morphed into an al-Zaqawi-all-the-time affair in administration pronouncements and in our media. To read a few sensible things about Iraqi nationalism, you generally have to look beyond our media borders. Here, for instance, is a passage from a very balanced Peter Beaumont piece in the BritishObserver on Iraqi prospects at the moment (Fearful Iraq sets out on journey to the unknown):


“While it is commonplace to blame all the violence on the al-Zarqawi network of jihadist fighters, it is a claim that does [not] stand up. The majority of anti-coalition acts are still being committed by Iraqis, largely from the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad, whose agenda is shaped by a hatred of an occupation they believe is not really ending this week. Unlike the forces ranged against them, it is a resistance — as its members made clear when it was still possible to talk to them — that has no policies or political agenda or vision for a future of Iraq beyond the expulsion of foreign forces.”

Similarly the Australian journalist Paul McGeough, who has followed the Iraqi resistance as closely as it’s possible for a western reporter to do, writes the following for the Sydney Morning Herald (Deadly messages from a tide of insurgency):

“In Baqaba, north of Baghdad, fighters wearing yellow headbands claimed to be followers of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But a one-dimensional analysis of the insurgency through the prism of foreign terrorism is a mistake. The Iraq insurgency has more than enough bombs and guns – and a seemingly limitless reserve of willing fighters – but its greatest asset is the sympathy and co-operation of enough ordinary Iraqis, without which the American military might stamp it out in a matter of days in a gun-for-gun, man-for-man contest.”

As Adam Hochschild makes so clear below, the hubris of the Bush administration led us deep into what perhaps we’ll soon begin to call the Pseudostate Syndrome from which a pseudo-opposition has unsurprisingly arisen, leaving us in a fantasy-land from which perfectly real results will flow, including possibly the turning of Iraq into a charnel house. Tom 

A Pseudostate Is Born
By Adam Hochschild

Some fifteen years ago, while writing about apartheid-era South Africa, I visited one of its nominally independent black “homelands.” This crazy quilt of territories was a control mechanism the white regime had come up with in a country where whites were vastly outnumbered by South Africans of other colors. For the most part rural slums, the homelands, also known as Bantustans, made up about 13% of the nation’s land. I was driving across miles of veldt where blacks were trying to scratch a living from eroded or unyielding patches of earth that white farmers didn’t want, interspersed with shantytowns of shacks constructed out of corrugated metal, discarded plasterboard, and old automobile doors. Suddenly, looming out of this desolate landscape like an ocean liner in a swamp, was a huge office building, perhaps 4 or 5 stories high and 150 yards long, with a large sign saying, in English and Afrikaans, “South African Embassy.”

I remembered that building the other day when reading about the new U.S. Embassy that will open in Baghdad this week. With a staff of more than 1,700 — and that may be only the beginning — it will be the largest diplomatic mission in the world. Just as our embassy will be considerably more than an embassy, so the Iraqi state that will officially come into being in its shadow next Wednesday, after the speechmaking and flag-raising are over, will be considerably less than a state.

With nearly 140,000 American troops on Iraq’s soil, plus tens of thousands of additional foreign soldiers and civilian security guards armed with everything from submachine guns to helicopters, most military power will not be in Iraqi hands, nor will the power of the budget, largely set and paid for in Washington.

If the new Iraq-to-be is not a state, what is it? A half century ago one could talk about colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence, but in our supposedly post-colonial world, the vocabulary is poorer. We lack a word for a country where most real power is in the hands of someone else, whether that be shadowy local militias, other nations’ armies, or both. Pseudostate, perhaps. From Afghanistan to the Palestinian Authority, Bosnia to Congo, pseudostates have now spread around the globe. Some of them will even be exchanging ambassadors with Iraq.

Pseudostates, in fact, are nothing new. They have a long and fascinating history, and two notable groups of them had surprising fates near the twentieth century’s end.

One collection was those “homelands” of South Africa, four of which were formally granted independence. The so-called South African Embassies evolved seamlessly out of the white-controlled administrations that had run these territories when they were still called “Native Reserves,” just as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will begin life in the very same Republican Palace from which occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III has run Iraq for the last year. The South African government invested large sums in equipping the homelands with everything from foreign ministries to luxurious, gated residential compounds for cabinet members and their families. Collaborating chiefs were made heads of state, and their territories were given flags, national anthems and coats of arms. But when a coup temporarily deposed the hand-picked president of Bophuthatswana — seven separate islands of desperately poor land and poor people spread out across hundreds of miles — it was the South African army that promptly restored him to power.

As South Africa made its miraculous transition to majority rule in the early 1990s, the homelands as separate political entities swiftly vanished. The former foreign ministries and embassies were put to other uses and the only people to whom the past trappings of homeland independence still matter today are collectors who do a lively trade in the former territories’ stamps.

Another group of pseudostates, however, had a very different fate. The Soviet Union was composed of 15 “Soviet Socialist Republics” — entities, like those in South Africa, set up on ethnic lines as mechanisms of control. These, too, were decked out with the external symbols of sovereignty, and in the case of two Soviet pseudostates, you didn’t even have to go there to see their flags. For Byelorussia and the Ukraine had something South Africa’s homelands never got: seats at the United Nations, a concession Stalin wrung from the Allies at the end of World War II.

I traveled through a number of these pseudostates in the course of reporting from the old Soviet Union, and we hardheaded journalists always knew, despite Soviet propaganda, that these so-called republics were nothing of the sort and never would be. After all, they had no armies and no independence; Russians migrated to them in large numbers, knowing that ultimate power resided in Moscow. (They could even be dissolved at Moscow’s will: A short-lived 16th Soviet Socialist Republic along the Finnish border disappeared with little ado in 1956.) And yet, in that other great transformation of the early ’90s, unexpected by hardheaded realists and dogmatic Communists alike, it was the Soviet Union itself that evaporated. Almost overnight its 15 pseudostates turned into real ones. Their coming to life left millions of surprised and unhappy ethnic Russians stranded outside Russia.

The Iraq that will come into being this Wednesday does not closely resemble either the South African homelands or the old Soviet republics. But their histories, however different, might suggest the same lesson to American planners: pseudostates often turn out quite differently than their inventors intend, for their very creation is an act of hubris. And the larger and more unstable the pseudostate, the greater the hubris and the more likely that imperial plans will go awry. Washington’s hopes for what Iraq will be in five or ten years, or even in five or ten months, may prove as unreliable as its predictions that U.S. invasion troops would be greeted with cheers and flowers and would be home in a year.

Clearly White House strategists have a set of hopes, already somewhat battered, for what the Iraqi pseudostate will evolve into: a willing home for the permanent military bases the Pentagon is building in the country; an oil reservoir safely under U.S. influence; and a strategic ally against militant Islam, all with the façade, at least, of democracy. On the other hand, with its vast oil wealth and restive population, at some point Iraq could take a very different path, and embody the religious fervor of its Shiite majority, demand that U.S. forces leave, try to cancel reconstruction contracts with U.S. firms, and reverse the privatization of state assets now under way. Of course, it’s not necessarily a matter of going entirely down one path or the other. Iraq may well take on some characteristics from each–or might fracture into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish entities, or follow a path no “expert” can now guess.

Whatever happens — whether Iraq dissolves in pieces, is seen largely as a compliant U.S. satellite, or becomes a cheeky avatar of Arab defiance of the West — its territory seems likely to continue to be what it has rapidly become in recent months, a literal and figurative minefield for U. S. troops and a hotbed of Al Qaeda recruitment. The volatile, unpredictable nature of pseudostates, and their role as incubators of troubles that can come back to haunt their creators, has certainly been no great historical secret. Perhaps that was why one of the candidates in the 2000 Presidential election said, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” The candidate was George W. Bush.

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, as well as books about South Africa and the former Soviet Union. His newest book, Bury the Chains, about the British antislavery movement, will appear in January. He teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Copyright C2004 Adam Hochschild