Schwartz on symbolic sovereignty in Iraq

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I think I can firmly state that, as President Bush has firmly and repeatedly stated, full Iraqi sovereignty has finally been established, or at least has a reasonable foothold — in the United States and in our media. The weak administrative entity being set up in Baghdad’s Green Zone, thanks to a series of backroom deals brokered by Bush special envoy Robert Blackwill and occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III, and to which that “full sovereignty” is to be transferred on June 30, is already commonly referred to in American newspapers and on the TV news as “the Iraqi government.” (Before resigning recently, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy to Baghdad, who was fleeced in the “negotiating” process, spoke of Bremer “only half in jest” as “the dictator of Iraq.”)

So there has indeed been a granting of “sovereignty,” even if in the air, so to speak, not on the ground. The Europeans, always ready in the end to give way before Washington, offered a g-string worth of cover at the UN; the Russians had other fish to fry; and the Chinese were undoubtedly clapping their hands, Iraq being the windfall of all times for them. (After all, before the Middle East trumped Asian policy, China stood a reasonable chance of being slotted in as the Enemy of Enemies of the Bush administration’s dreams.)

So the new “Iraqi government” has been granted sovereignty in the U.S. by our media thanks to the very language chosen to describe it. As it happens, the real struggle for sovereignty didn’t even take place in Iraq, but here, as part of what intelligence expert Thomas Powers recently called our third war (after Afghanistan and Iraq), “an all-out war between the White House and the nation’s own intelligence agencies” (to which he might have added part of the military as well). It was the CIA which finally established “sovereignty,” destroying, at least for the time being, former exile Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon’s man in Iraq and head of the Iraqi National Congress, and replacing him with exile Iyad Allawi, their own long-time man and head of the Iraqi National Accord, who is now prime minister of the country. So instead of a neocon administration in Baghdad, we have a CIA one; or put another way, instead of conferring sovereignty on an accused con artist and notorious liar, who reputedly defrauded a Jordanian bank of millions and seems to have stolen reality itself from the Pentagon civilian leadership, the Bush administration conferred it on the head of a former terrorist organization, which committed car bombings in downtown Baghdad back in the days of Saddam Hussein.

The only small problem with the whole discussion of sovereignty, of course, lies in recalcitrant Iraq which is now so darn sovereign that the Pentagon is madly figuring how to: withdraw troops from far-flung garrisons elsewhere on this small planet to reinforce our now-no-longer-occupying army of 138,000 in Iraq; extend the terms of duty of troops assigned to Iraq, despite contracts for the “volunteer” Army that say otherwise; and further bolster and coordinate the mercenary army of private “contractors” already there. This reflects the confidence the U.S. military has in the “sovereign” powers of the new Iraqi regime.

Of course, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, one of the Bush administration’s great fantasies may be that we ever possessed Iraqi sovereignty to give or withhold. In fact, as far as I can tell, there simply is no “sovereignty” in Iraq right now and very little control at all. Oil pipelines are being blown up daily; there are increasingly sophisticated ambushes on the outskirts of and inside Baghdad; near constant car bombings in the central city; assassinations and killings of everyone from second-level officials to former Baathist officers to Shiite truck drivers to university professors to anyone in any way connected to any kind of western organization of any sort.

If you want to get a vivid sense of the state of “sovereignty” (read: armed chaos) in Iraq, check out a recent harrowing account (Reporting Under The Gun in an Ambush Zone) by the gutsy Daniel Williams of the Washington Post and his gutsy driver, whose full name, tellingly, Williams can’t even print (“because mere association with a foreign organization like The Washington Post can mean death. Someone could find him, even in big Baghdad”). They took a trip through Falluja now (speaking of sovereignty), as Laura King of the Los Angeles Times reminds us, fully in the grip of a fundamentalist version of Islam and in the hands of the insurgents whom the Marines were once supposed to destroy. (Note, by the way, the no-name tagline on that piece too: “An Iraqi special correspondent for The Times in Fallouja contributed to this report.”)

Describing a near death ambush and chase in their armored car on the highway, Daniels writes:

“The brazenness and frequency of all kinds of insurgent assaults, from car bombings to mortar attacks and rocket fire to the roadside bombs hidden under trash, in goat carcasses, in date palm logs, inside barrels or under asphalt, have made one more and more likely to actually witness rather than just hear about an act of mayhem.I have covered conflicts in Palestine, Lebanon, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Somalia, Chechnya and Kosovo and, during last year’s invasion of Iraq, the fighting in Kurdistan, as well as coup and civil strife in Panama and Haiti, and riots in Miami. Each one presented its own menu of bullets, bombings, anarchy, anger and vulnerable situations But rarely have I been in a place where danger arrives from so many directions as in Iraq.”

Patrick Cockburn reported the everyday Iraqi version of this for the British Independent (“The Rich Have Been Warned to Leave Baghdad,” June 8), “Fear of kidnap is pervasive in Baghdad Kidnap is now so common new words have been added to Iraqi thieves’ slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep.”

In an internal Coalition Provisional Authority poll of Iraqis just released and well summarized at Juan Cole’s website, the news is even grimmer: 55% of Iraqis would feel safer if our troops left tomorrow; only 18% attributed whatever safety they felt in their neighborhoods to the Iraqi police; 81% claim to have no confidence in Coalition or U.S. military forces; L. Paul Bremer’s CPA gets an 11% approval rating; 67% “support or strongly support” the radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as opposed to 23% for our new prime minister Allawi.

Consider this a little immediate background for what follows. Below, Michael Schwartz, a sociologist who has written for Tomdispatch before, offers a sane and sober assessment of the nature of Iraqi “sovereignty.” This sort of analysis should practically be a media given — before anyone starts writing about “the Iraqi government.” Tom

Who’s Sovereign Now?
By Michael Schwartz

After weeks of contentious negotiation, the UN Security Council unanimously passed the fifth version of a U.S.-Great Britain resolution designed to confer legitimacy on the newly formed Iraqi interim administration, and declaring that its June 30th launch would involve a transfer of “full sovereignty.” However, the notion of “Iraqi sovereignty” can’t be anything but a fiction, not only during the interim administration, but well past the projected December, 2005 date when an elected government is scheduled to take over.

In his new book Mission Improbable, sociologist Lee Clarke discusses what he calls “symbolic plans”– programs of action that, as he said recently in an interview in the Harvard Business Review, “look good on paper but can be worse than useless when push comes to shove.” Such plans, however carefully written and however sincere their authors, can best be described as “fantasy documents”. The current commitment to give the Iraqis “full sovereignty” is, by Clarke’s definition, a “symbolic plan,” and the UN enabling resolution is a “fantasy document” of the first order.

For a government to have sovereignty, it needs three things: a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion; the material capacity to sustain a country’s social and economic infrastructure; and an administrative apparatus capable of overseeing and administering policy. By these measures, the U.S. will retain sovereignty as long as the U.S. maintains its military, monetary, and administrative domination of the country.

The means of coercion was a central aspect of the UN debate. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, argued that the Iraqis should have a veto over the disposition of U.S. military power: “If there’s a political decision as to whether you go into a place like Falluja in a particular way, that has got to be done with the consent of the Iraqi governmentThat’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the other hand, argued for a “partnership” approach: “Obviously we would take into account whatever they might say at a political or military level. And to make sure that that happens, we will be creating coordinating bodies, political coordinating bodies and military-to-military coordinating bodies, so that there is transparency with respect to what we are doing.”

Though Powell’s position was ultimately upheld, it made little difference, since this was a purely symbolic argument. Neither side was arguing that U.S. (or British) troops should be commanded by Iraqis. Historically, American troops have never been subject to the command of a foreign power and probably never will be. Therefore, an Iraqi “paper” veto over U.S. military strategy would be unenforceable, were American officials to decide that compliance was against our national interest.

Who has the means of coercion?

Does this mean that sovereignty is compromised any time foreign troops are stationed in a country? Well, yes, because the existence of massive means of coercion not under the control of a local government always vitiates the authority and legitimacy of that government. But the degree of compromise is larger or smaller depending on the circumstances. In the case of Iraq, sovereignty is fatally compromised since there are a large number of foreign troops deployed (in 14 soon-to-be-permanent bases), positioned so that they can rapidly intervene in all major regions of the country. For as long as this circumstance exists, no Iraqi government (appointed or elected) will dominate the “legitimate” means of coercion.

This point was forcefully made by conservative columnist Jed Babbin in the National Review. He labeled the troops the most important “hole” in the Bush administration’s plan “to turn Iraq over to free Iraqis”:

“The president insisted that the’ turnover’ of Iraqi sovereignty would be complete. But how can that be when, as he said, 138,000 American troops will remain there as long as necessary, under American command? If they are not subjected to the law and authority of the new Iraq provisional government, how can they be anything other than an occupation force? Though the ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ will cease to exist on June 30, changing the sign over the door but leaving American troops there under American command (the only way they could possibly stay) continues the occupation.”

But what about the Iraqi police and army? After long and tortuous debate, the UN Security Council in its resolution conferred command of these forces on the Iraqi interim administration, not the U.S. military, as Coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer had originally insisted must be the case.

But even under these circumstances, the command of Iraqi armed forces by Iraqi officers appointed by the new government remains purely symbolic. Left unmentioned in the UN debate was the modest size of the military (35,000 soldiers when fully trained) and its light armament (no tanks or air power) compared to the American forces. Left unmentioned as well was the fact that the United States will be in charge of recruiting, training and supplying all Iraqi forces, both military and police. Left unmentioned as well was the fact that the entirety of the budget for those armed forces and police will come from the Pentagon’s military budget. The significance of these sinews of control was not lost on American administrators, who told New York Times reporters John F. Burns and Thom Shanker that if there was ever disagreement over military policy, ”The American commander would only have to say, ‘O.K., we’re out of here,’ and the Iraqis would back down.”

A sense of how such a system is likely to work can be gleaned from the remarkable raid conducted against erstwhile American darling Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi’s house was invaded by Iraqi police, overseen and operating under the command of unidentified American officers, based on a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge appointed by the occupation authority. The Iraqi police knew — before, during, and after the raid — that the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council would oppose and denounce this attack on one of its members. But they also knew that their American commanders wanted the raid completed, and they therefore “followed orders.”

Until the Iraqi police and army have a separate recruitment and command structure from the occupying army, and until they are paid and supplied by Iraqis instead of Americans, they will continue to be an enforcement arm of the U.S. occupation.

Who controls the purse?

As for economic and social policy, the central issue for the functioning of Iraq’s infrastructure in the years to come will be “reconstruction.” There are two primary potential sources of reconstruction revenues: American aid and oil money.

Though Coalition leader Bremer declared as late as March that the U.S. would appropriate all oil revenues, the ultimate UN resolution gave control over these revenues to the interim authority. But this was another of the fantasy elements in the document. These oil moneys are encumbered in a surprising number of ways. In the near term, they are not nearly enough to cover government costs, as Juan Cole recently pointed out:

“It would take about $30 billion a year in income for the Iraqi state to run the country properly and repair everything that needs to be repaired, as well as servicing its debts and paying reparations. In the past year, Iraq has only been able to generate about $10 billion from petroleum, and I doubt the government is able to collect much in taxes. It is not enough to keep things going. If sabotage goes on being this effective, Iraq looks likely to get only half that in oil income in the coming year”

But when (or if) the flow of oil reaches the levels necessary to generate a discretionary surplus, Iraqi administrators will exercise precious little of the discretion. As Andrew Cockburn documented in an article for, the institutional limits on Iraqi decision making are extensive:

*After the fall of Saddam Hussein, management of oil revenues was placed in the hands of the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), a group 10 foreigners and one Iraqi appointed by Bremer. The UN resolution called for this group to continue its work for five more years.

*Even if the interim administration were to wrest control of the DFI from its current incumbents, it is legally prohibited from making changes in oil policy “until such time as an internationally recognized, representative government of Iraq is properly constituted.” This will occur, at the earliest, at the end of 2005 (since the January 2005 elections will create a constitutional-writing body only). As UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi put the matter, the interim government “should refrain from tying the hands of the elected government that will follow it.”

International banking organizations, notably the IMF and the World Bank, will continue to exercise “accounting authority over the spending” of all Iraqi oil revenues. This oversight, which originated because of the Oil for Food Program during the pre-war sanctions era, will continue until a $110 billion Iraqi foreign debt is resolved, a process that promises to take many years.

In light of these encumbrances on future oil funds, the resources for Iraqi reconstruction lie primarily in the $18.4 billion in congressionally mandated U.S. aid, of which slightly over $16 billion remained unspent as the June 30 transfer deadline approached. Dispersal of this money is, however, wholly at American discretion. The United States will therefore almost fully control the resources necessary to rebuild and maintain the country’s infrastructure and the economy, potentially for years to come. At some point, oil revenues may be sufficiently disencumbered to provide the economic basis for an independent Iraqi government, but before that occurs, the financial leverage of the U.S. will be overwhelming.

The situation was summed up well by one of Bremer’s top aides, who told the New York Times:

“American troops will act as the most important guarantor of American influence. In addition the $18.4 billion voted for Iraqi reconstruction last fall by the United States Congress — including more than $2 billion for the new Iraqi forces — will give the Americans a decisive voice.”

Who administers what?

But history is strewn with the wreckage of occupying powers that did not have the administrative capacity to enact their rule. Various American military commanders in Iraq have made this point in complaining about “political” failures that undermined the good work of their soldiers. Viewed from the ground in Iraq, this political failure amounted to the inability (or unwillingness) of the Coalition Authority to deliver sufficient supplies, equipment, expertise, and labor power to the various projects that were the centerpieces of reconstruction policy. And this, in turn, led to the discontent that nurtured and protected the insurgents who were also often targeting these projects..

The implicit expectation is that the June 30th transition will be the occasion for transferring administrative responsibility to the Iraqis, even if ultimate policymaking remained in the hands of the Occupation. To do this, however, would mean to substantially vitiate U.S. domination, since elementary organizational theory teaches us that those in charge of administering a policy can alter, subvert, or even reverse it.

This possibility too was anticipated by L. Paul Bremer’s men. Already CPA officials have set in place an elaborate system that will allow the new Ambassador, John Negroponte, to oversee and control the developing Iraqi administrative apparatus. The most dramatic evidence of this is the well publicized fact that in his “embassy” Ambassador Negroponte will have the largest staff in American diplomatic history, variously estimated at between 2000 and 3000 people.

Colin Powell’s vision of “cooperation”, quoted above, offers a clear sense of how this “oversight” is expected to work: Whatever Iraqi administrative apparatus is developed will be in constant contact with representatives of the American embassy. A more detailed portrait was given by the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreaven and Christopher Cooper:

“As Washington prepares to hand over power, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials are quietly building institutions that will give the U.S. powerful levers for influencing nearly every important decision the interim government will make. In a series of edicts issued earlier this spring, Mr. Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority created new commissions that effectively take away virtually all of the powers once held by several ministries. The CPA also put in place a pair of watchdog institutions that will serve as checks on individual ministries and allow for continued U.S. oversight. Meanwhile, the CPA reiterated that coalition advisers will remain in virtually all remaining ministries after the handover.”

The Coalition is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to key political structures like the media:

“The authority to license Iraq’s television stations, sanction newspapers and regulate cell phone companies was recently transferred to a commission whose members were selected by Washington. The commissioners’ five-year terms stretch far beyond the planned 18-month tenure of the interim Iraqi government that will assume sovereignty on June 30.”

And Bremer’s planning extends well beyond the central government. President Bush assured the Army War College on May 24, that the U.S. would maintain “regional offices in key cities [that] will work closely with Iraqis at all levels of government.”

In other words, the Bush administration is unwilling to risk that any policies it enunciates might be altered or reversed by Iraqi administrators.

Whose fantasy is this anyway?

The broad sweep of American policy regarding the June 30th transition bears an uncanny resemblance to the governing strategy implemented in Afghanistan after the Taliban were swept from power. As in Iraq, the U.S. “transferred power” to a temporary government pending elections that would create a new democracy. But as New York Times reporter Amy Waldman has documented, this transfer of power was symbolic in exactly the sense used by Lee Clarke. Discussing the relationship between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Waldman commented (“In Afghanistan, U.S. Envoy Sits in Seat of Power”):

“The genial Mr. Karzai may be Afghanistan’s president, but the affable, ambitious Mr. Khalilzad often seems more like its chief executive. With his command of both details and American largesse, the Afghan-born envoy has created an alternate seat of power since his arrival on Thanksgiving [2003]… As he shuttles between the American Embassy and the presidential palace, where Americans guard Mr. Karzai, one place seems an extension of the other.”

The situation sounds more and more like a case of American sovereignty in Afghan dress when Waldman describes the daily activities of the Ambassador, who meets with President Karzai as often as two or three times a day:

“Working closely with the Karzai government and the American military, Mr. Khalilzad ponders whether to push for the removal of uncooperative governors, where roads should be built to undercut insurgency, and how to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendancy in a democratic Afghanistan.”

The details of Khalilzad’s activities make his governing role crystal clear. He personally intervened to “secure land” for various projects, including a new Hyatt Hotel, an international school, and a top-tier hospital — overcoming substantial opposition from Afghans who felt the resources would be better spent on services aimed at groups who “lack the most basic health care and education.” He ignored the demands of the governor of Helmand Province to discontinue American house-to-house searches for Taliban militants until claims of brutality were resolved. He hired the Rendon Group, an American public relations firm, to bolster Karzai’s image; though Karzai himself did not approve of the campaign.

It is not surprising that the U.S. is seeking to create in Iraq what it has already created in Afghanistan: a client regime that accepts the broad guidelines of American foreign policy and which implements American responses to a changing local reality. The current acts of our occupation officials are, unfortunately, part of a long term project aimed at constraining the future acts not only of the new interim administration, but also of any successor government, elected or otherwise. The symbolic plan passed by the UN will remain a fantasy document until the U.S. withdraws its troops and dismantles its administrative apparatus.

And yet reality itself calls into question the elaborate structure of domination currently being erected in Iraq. The military occupation, the monetary investment, and the administrative edifice may assure American control of the “government” of Iraq, but it does not insure control of the country as a whole. The recent history of increasing disruption and chaos reflects this fundamental verity, and portends a larger and more unruly rebellion as the symbolic nature of the June 30th transition becomes ever more apparent. Ultimately, the resistance — both violent and nonviolent — may reveal yet another layer of symbolism: Bush Administration plans to remake Iraq as an agent of American policy in the Middle East may themselves be a fantasy.

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on Iraq, on the dynamics of popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government structures. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure and The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz). He is currently completing The Rise and Fall of Detroit, a book analyzing the dynamics of the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers from 1900 to 1990.

Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz