Tomdispatch: Michael Schwartz, The Loss of an Imperial Dream

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[Note for Tomdispatch readers: The next post will be on Tuesday morning May 27th.]

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, with its 225,000 or more deaths in 11 countries, shocked the world; so, in recent weeks, has the devastation wrought by a powerful cyclone (and tidal surge) that hit the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. It resulted in at least 78,000 deaths (with another 56,000 reported missing) and a display of recalcitrance on the part of a military junta focused on its own security while its people perish. Similarly, a devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province that hit 7.9 on the Richter scale and whose tremors were felt 1,000 miles away has swept into the news. Its casualty count has already reached 51,000 with unknown numbers of Chinese still buried in rubble or cut off in rural areas and so, as yet, untallied, and an estimated five million people homeless.

These are staggering natural disasters, hard even to take in, and yet it’s a reasonable question whether, in terms of damage, any of them measure up to the ongoing human-made (or rather Bush administration made) disaster in Iraq. Worse yet, unlike a natural disaster, the Iraqi catastrophe seems to be without end. No one can even guess when it might be said of that country that an era of reconstruction or rebuilding is about to begin. Instead, the damage only grows week by miserable week and yet, as has often been true in the last year, Iraq continues to have trouble even cracking the top ten stories in U.S. news coverage.

Just this week, Iraqi troops moved into the vast, battered Shiite suburb of Sadr City in east Baghdad after weeks of fierce fighting. The first descriptions of the damage — U.S. air power was regularly called in over the last months in this heavily populated slum area — are devastating: “As I moved into the neighborhood,” writes Raheem Salman of the Los Angeles Times online, “the destruction from weeks of fighting was horrible. Most of the shops and kiosks have been damaged. Doors are knocked off their hinges. Windows are shattered. The walls are riddled with bullet holes. Some buildings are blown apart by missile fire.”

But then Iraq itself is a devastation zone. From the first shock-and-awe attacks on Baghdad as the Bush administration’s invasion began in March 2003 — which killed only civilians — and the early bombing, missiling, shelling, and even cluster bombing of urban areas as the invading U.S. military barreled north, death, chaos, and destruction have been the Bush administration’s tidal surge in Iraq. By now, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis are either refugees abroad or internally displaced and, depending upon which study or whose numbers you use, hundreds of thousands to a million or more Iraqis have died in the last five years. There is, of course, simply no way to measure the mental stress and anguish that those same years have inflicted on Iraqis.

The New York Times recently profiled a psychiatrist working with hopelessly antiquated equipment amid a tide of desperate, wounded humanity at Ibn Rushid, a psychiatric hospital in Baghdad. It’s now a run-down hulk from which seven of its 11 staff psychiatrists have fled — either for Kurdish areas to the north or abroad — fearing kidnapping or assassination. In some hospitals and universities in Baghdad, staff has reportedly been reduced by 80%. The economy is in tatters; governmental authority hardly exists; disease is rampant; the medical system in ruins; significant parts of the middle class gone; militias in control; and still, amid this rolling, roiling catastrophe, the Bush administration adamantly persists in its course.

Much scorn has rightly been poured on the junta in Myanmar recently, but, when it comes to recalcitrance and putting self-interest ahead of the well-being of masses of desperate souls, the American President, Vice President, and their top officials have proven themselves a planetary junta of the first order. When it comes to Iraq, to this very day, they remain obdurate and well-defended from the results of the human version of the 7.9 quake they let loose on that country.

Back in January 2005, considering the Indian Ocean tsunami, Rebecca Solnit wrote at this site: “You can say in some ways that what has happened in Iraq is a tsunami that swept ten thousand miles from the epicenter of an earthquake in Washington DC, an earthquake in policy and principle that has devastated countless lives and environments and cities far away” But this has not exactly been a popular image in the American mainstream media; and so, in recent weeks, no one has even thought to connect our ongoing Iraqi disaster to the natural disasters in Asia, or the acts of the Burmese junta to those of our own leaders in relation to Iraq. After all, we are largely inured to, and generally oblivious to, the ongoing harm for which we are responsible.

And yet, as Michael Schwartz points out, Iraqi resistance to Bush’s desires and designs predictably continues. This sort of resistance has been with us at least since the Catholic peasants of Spain — the Sunni fundamentalists of their day — resisted, and finally defeated, Napoleon’s army, the finest in Europe at the time. And to judge by Francisco Goya’s famous series of aquatints, The Disasters of War, you would no more have wanted to meet those peasants in a back alley than you would many of the resisters in Iraq today.

Schwartz, whose original and canny analyses of Iraq have long been part of Tomdispatch, has now built on that work to create a striking new book, War Without End, which will soon be published. This piece on how a nation of 26 million managed to resist the planet’s “sole superpower” — and the price it paid — is adapted from that book’s conclusion. Tom

River of Resistance
How the American Imperial Dream Foundered in Iraq
By Michael Schwartz

On February 15, 2003, ordinary citizens around the world poured into the streets to protest George W. Bush’s onrushing invasion of Iraq. Demonstrations took place in large cities and small towns globally, including a small but spirited protest at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Up to 30 million people, who sensed impending catastrophe, participated in what Rebecca Solnit, that apostle of popular hope, has called “the biggest and most widespread collective protest the world has ever seen.”

The first glancing assessment of history branded this remarkable planetary protest a record-breaking failure, since the Bush administration, less than one month later, ordered U.S. troops across the Kuwaiti border and on to Baghdad.

And it has since largely been forgotten, or perhaps better put, obliterated from official and media memory. Yet popular protest is more like a river than a storm; it keeps flowing into new areas, carrying pieces of its earlier life into other realms. We rarely know its consequences until many years afterward, when, if we’re lucky, we finally sort out its meandering path. Speaking for the protesters back in May 2003, only a month after U.S. troops entered the Iraqi capital, Solnit offered the following:

“We will likely never know, but it seems that the Bush administration decided against the ‘Shock and Awe’ saturation bombing of Baghdad because we made it clear that the cost in world opinion and civil unrest would be too high. We millions may have saved a few thousand or a few tens of thousand of lives. The global debate about the war delayed it for months, months that perhaps gave many Iraqis time to lay in stores, evacuate, brace for the onslaught.”

Whatever history ultimately concludes about that unexpected moment of protest, once the war began, other forms of resistance arose — mainly in Iraq itself — that were equally unexpected. And their effects on the larger goals of Bush administration planners can be more easily traced. Think of it this way: In a land the size of California with but 26 million people, a ragtag collection of Baathists, fundamentalists, former military men, union organizers, democratic secularists, local tribal leaders, and politically active clerics — often at each others throats (quite literally) — nonetheless managed to thwart the plans of the self-proclaimed New Rome, the “hyperpower” and “global sheriff” of Planet Earth. And that, even in the first glancing assessment of history, may indeed prove historic.

The New American Century Goes Missing in Action

It’s hard now even to recall the original vision George W. Bush and his top officials had of how the conquest of Iraq would unfold as an episode in the President’s Global War on Terror. In their minds, the invasion was sure to yield a quick victory, to be followed by the creation of a client state that would house crucial “enduring” U.S. military bases from which Washington would project power throughout what they liked to term “the Greater Middle East.”

In addition, Iraq was quickly going to become a free-market paradise, replete with privatized oil flowing at record rates onto the world market. Like falling dominos, Syria and Iran, cowed by such a demonstration of American might, would follow suit, either from additional military thrusts or because their regimes — and those of up to 60 countries worldwide — would appreciate the futility of resisting Washington’s demands. Eventually, the “unipolar moment” of U.S. global hegemony that the collapse of the Soviet Union had initiated would be extended into a “New American Century” (along with a generational Pax Republicana at home).

This vision is now, of course, long gone, largely thanks to unexpected and tenacious resistance of every sort within Iraq. This resistance consisted of far more than the initial Sunni insurgency that tied down what Donald Rumsfeld pridefully labeled “the greatest military force on the face of the earth.” It is already none too rash a statement to suggest that, at all levels of society, usually at great sacrifice, the Iraqi people frustrated the imperial designs of a superpower.

Consider, for example, the myriad ways in which the Iraqi Sunnis resisted the occupation of their country from almost the moment the Bush administration’s intention to fully dismantle Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime became clear. The largely Sunni city of Falluja, like most other communities around the country, spontaneously formed a new government based on local clerical and tribal structures. Like many of these cities, it avoided the worst of the post-invasion looting by encouraging the formation of local militias to police the community. Ironically, the orgy of looting that took place in Baghdad was, at least in part, a consequence of the U.S. military presence, which delayed the creation of such militias there. Eventually, however, sectarian militias brought a modicum of order even to Baghdad.

In Falluja and elsewhere, these same militias soon became effective instruments for reducing, and — for a time — eliminating, the presence of the U.S. military. For the better part of a year, faced with IEDs and ambushes from insurgents, the U.S. military declared Falluja a “no go” zone, withdrew to bases outside the city, and discontinued violent incursions into hostile neighborhoods. This retreat was matched in many other cities and towns. The absence of patrols by occupation forces saved tens of thousands of “suspected insurgents” from the often deadly violence of home invasions, and their relatives from wrecked homes and detained family members.

Even the most successful of U.S. military adventures in that period, the second battle of Falluja in November 2004, could also be seen, from quite a different perspective, as a successful act of resistance. Because the United States was required to mass a significant proportion of its combat brigades for the offensive (even transferring British troops from the south to perform logistical duties), most other cities were left alone. Many of these cities used this respite from the U.S. military to establish, or consolidate, autonomous governments or quasi-governments and defensive militias, making it all the more difficult for the occupation to control them.

Falluja itself was, of course, destroyed, with 70% of its buildings turned to rubble, and tens of thousands of its residents permanently displaced — an extreme sacrifice that had the unexpected effect of taking pressure off other Iraqi cities for a while. In fact, the ferocity of the resistance in the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq forced the American military to wait almost four years before renewing their initial 2004 efforts to pacify the well-organized Sadrist-led resistance in the predominantly Shia areas of the country.

The Rebellion of the Oil Workers

In another arena entirely, consider the Bush administration’s dreams of harnessing Iraqi oil production to its foreign policy ambitions. The immediate goals, as American planners saw it, were to double prewar output and begin the process of transferring control of production from state ownership to foreign companies. Three major energy initiatives designed to accomplish these goals have so far been frustrated by resistance from virtually every segment of Iraqi society. Iraq’s well-organized oil workers played a key role in this by using their ability to bring production to a virtual stand-still in order to abort the transfer — only a few months after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime — of the operation of the southern oil port of Basra to the management of then-Halliburton subsidiary KBR.

This and other early acts of labor defiance turned back the initial assault on the Iraqi government-controlled system of oil production. Such acts also laid a foundation for successful efforts to prevent the passage of oil policies shaped in Washington that were designed to transfer control of energy exploration and production to foreign companies. In these efforts, the oil workers were joined by both Sunni and Shia resistance groups, local governments, and finally the new national parliament.

This same sort of resistance extended to the whole roster of neoliberal reforms sponsored by the U.S.-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). From the beginning of the occupation, for instance, there were protests against mass unemployment caused by the dismantling of the Baathist state and the shuttering of state-owned factories. Much of the armed resistance was a response to the occupation’s early violent suppression of these protests.

Even more significant were local efforts to replace the government services discontinued by the CPA. The same local quasi-governments that had nurtured the militias sought to sustain or replace Baathist social programs, often by siphoning off oil destined for export onto the black-market to pay for local services, and hoarding local resources such as electrical generation. The result would be the creation of virtual city-states wherever U.S. troops were not present, leading to the inability of the occupation to “pacify” any substantial portion of the country.

The Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was probably the most successful — and most anti-occupation — of the Shia political parties-cum-militias that systematically sought to develop quasi-government organizations. They tried to meet, however minimally, some of the basic needs of their communities, supplying food baskets, housing services, and serving a host of other functions previously promised by the Baathist government, but forsworn by the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government that the United States installed when “handing over” sovereignty in June 2004.

The American occupationaires expected that their plans for the rapid privatization and transformation of the state-driven economy would indeed generate resistance, but they were convinced that this would subside quickly once the new economy kicked into gear. Instead, as the occupation wore on, demands for relief grew more strident and insistent, while the country itself, in chaos and near collapse, became visible evidence of the failure of the Bush administration’s “free market” policies.

An Iraqi Agenda for Withdrawal

Occupation officials faced the same dilemma in the political realm. The original goal of the Bush administration was a stable, pro-Washington government, stripped of its economic and political dominance over Iraqi society, but a bastion of resistance to Iranian regional power. This vision, like its military and economic cousins, has long since disappeared under the weight of Iraqi resistance.

Take, for example, the two high profile Iraqi elections, celebrated in the mainstream American media as a unique Bush administration accomplishment in the otherwise relentlessly autocratic Middle East. Inside Iraq, however, they had quite a different look. It is important to remember that the United States initially planned to sustain its direct rule — the Coalition Provisional Authority — until the country was fully pacified and its economic reforms completed. When the CPA became a hated symbol of an unwanted occupation, planning shifted to the idea of installing an appointed Iraqi government, based on community meetings that only supporters of the occupation could attend. Full-scale elections would be postponed until winners fully supportive of the Bush agenda were assured. An outpouring of protest from the predominantly Shia areas of the country, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forced CPA administrators to move on to an election-based strategy.

The first election in January 2005 delivered a sizeable parliamentary majority voted in on platforms calling for strict timetables for a full U.S. military withdrawal from the country. American representatives then forcefully pressured the newly installed cabinet to abandon this position.

The second parliamentary election in December 2005 followed a similar pattern. This time, the backroom bargaining was only partially effective. The newly installed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, reneged on his campaign promises by publicly supporting an ongoing American military presence, which caused deep fissures in the ruling coalition. After a year of unproductive negotiations, the 30 Sadrists in parliament, originally a key part of Maliki’s ruling coalition, withdrew from both that coalition and the cabinet in protest over the prime minister’s refusal to set a date for the end of the occupation. Subsequent parliamentary demands for a date certain for withdrawal were ignored by both the government and U.S. officials. While Maliki continued in office without a parliamentary majority, the controversy contributed to the soaring popularity of the Sadrists and waning support for the other Shiite governing parties.

By early 2008, with provincial elections looming in November, there was little doubt that the Sadrists would sweep to power in many predominantly Shia provinces, most critically Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and southern oil hub. To prevent this debacle, Iraqi government troops, supported and advised by the U.S. military, sought to expel the Sadrists from key areas of Basra.

This use of military force to prevent electoral defeat was only one of many indications that the Iraqi government was feeling the pressure of public opinion. Another was the reluctance of Prime Minister Maliki to maintain an antagonistic stance toward Iran. Despite fervent Bush administration efforts, his government has promoted social, religious, and economic relationships between Iraqis and Iranians. These included facilitating visits to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf by hundreds of thousands of Iranian Shia pilgrims, as well as supporting extensive oil transactions between Basra and Iranian firms, including distribution and refining services that promised to integrate the two energy economies. A formal military relationship between the two countries was vetoed by U.S. authorities, but this did not reverse the tide of cooperation.

The River of Resistance

As the occupation wore on, the Bush administration found itself swimming against a tide of resistance of a previously unimaginable sort, and ever further from its goals. Today, cities and towns around the country are largely under the sway of Shia or Sunni militias which, even when trained or paid by the occupation, remain militantly opposed to the U.S. presence. Moreover, though the prostrate Iraqi economy has been formally privatized, these local militias — and the political leaders they worked with — continue to raise demands for vast government-funded reconstruction and economic development programs.

The formal political leadership of Iraq, locked inside the heavily fortified, U.S.-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, remains publicly compliant when it comes to Bush administration plans to transform Iraq into a Middle Eastern outpost — including the continued presence of American troops on a series of mega-bases in the heart of the country. The rest of the government bureaucracy and the bulk of Iraq’s grass roots are increasingly insistent on an early American departure date and a full-scale reversal of the economic policies first introduced by the occupation.

In Washington, for Democratic as well as Republican politicians, the outpost idea remains at the heart of the policy agenda for Iraq in this election year, along with a neoliberal economy featuring a modernized oil sector in which multinational firms are to use state-of-the-art technology to maximize the country’s lagging oil production.

Iraqi resistance of every kind and on every level has, however, prevented this vision from becoming reality. Because of the Iraqis, the glorious sounding Global War on Terror has been transformed into an endless, hopeless actual war.

But the Iraqis have paid a terrible price for resisting. The invasion and the social and economic policies that accompanied it have destroyed Iraq, leaving its people essentially destitute. In the first five years of this endless war, Iraqis have suffered more for resisting than if they had accepted and endured American military and economic dominance. Whether consciously or not, they have sacrificed themselves to halt Washington’s projected military and economic march through the oil-rich Middle East on the path to a new American Century that now will never be.

It is past time for the rest of the world to shoulder at least a small share of the burden of resistance. Just as the worldwide protests before the war were among the upstream sources of the Iraqi resistance-to-come, so now others, especially Americans, should resist the very idea that Iraq could ever become the headquarters for a permanent United States presence that would, in the words of Bush speechwriter David Frum, “put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans.” Unlike the Iraqis, after all, the citizens of the United States are uniquely positioned to bury this imperial dream for all time.

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. His analyses of America’s Iraq have appeared regularly at, as well as Asia Times, Mother Jones, and Contexts. His forthcoming Tomdispatch book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context (Haymarket, June 2008) explores how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling a sectarian civil war. His email address is [email protected].

Copyright 2008 Michael Schwartz