Near the ancient temple and ruins at Ur of the Chaldees, the United States last week held its first meeting of Iraqis to ordain a new regime. “What better than the birthplace of civilization,” proclaimed occupation overlord Jay Garner, “for the beginnings of a free Iraq?”
But as handpicked delegates listened to speeches under a gold tent -- and barbed wire and swooping helicopters held back a crowd of ordinary Iraqis -- Washington was lodging its own client leaders in the conquered country. Despite claims of “liberation,” there is an inherent clash between a democratic Iraq and U.S. policy, and thus the potential for popular resistance to the occupation.
As the tent rose at Ur, Washington’s acts belied its rhetoric. Nine days before, the U.S. flew in four huge C-17 transports carrying Ahmad Chalabi and his 700 Pentagon-paid militia members. An ex-banker convicted of fraud in Jordan, Chalabi is a longtime expatriate of reactionary bent with scant Iraqi constituency. Yet he is the Pentagon’s chosen successor to Saddam Hussein.
On April 10, a mob murdered a Shiite cleric whom U.S. forces had similarly just installed in the holy city of Najaf. Furious, prominent Shiite groups boycotted the Ur meeting, while 20,000 Iraqis chanting “Yes to freedom, yes to Islam, no to America, no to Saddam” marched in Nasiriyah, and Baghdad saw a week of anti-U.S. protests.
Washington has rarely been adept, or candid, in fostering authentic democracy. Almost nowhere in half a century -- from 1950s’ CIA coups in Iran, Guatemala and Congo, among other places, to expeditions into the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s -- has regime change left a nation freer. Not even Germany and Japan. The CIA colluded with ex-Nazis in Bonn to fix the rule of a Cold War ally, and covert manipulation entrenched a corporate oligarchy in Tokyo. In the latest case in point, Afghanistan, politics have reverted to the old warlord feudalism. U.S. forces barely venture beyond bases still rocketed by Al Qaeda.
“The United States has no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq,” said Zalmay Khalizad, a White House aide who was also Bush’s envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan. But history says different: U.S. arms and aid for propping up an Iraqi monarchy in the 1950s. CIA-backed coups in 1963 and 1968, one bringing in the Baathists and the second bringing in Hussein himself. The Gulf War. Now its sequel. Five times in a generation, Washington intervened to ensure that Iraq did not defy U.S. interests.
In one of the most fiercely anti-colonial, Arab nationalist states -- hatred of foreign domination the sole cause uniting Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- Iraqi democracy will be at odds with U.S. policy at every turn. What if Iraq chooses a more independent oil policy, as a past regime did until overthrown by the U.S.? Or a Shiite majority rule takes Baghdad into an anti-U.S. alliance with Iran or other Islamic forces? Or Iraqis continue financing the Palestinian resistance, or adopt a more anti-Israeli policy? Or Iraq, among the most dynamic Arab societies with its own popular socialism, flouts the global capitalist canon? Or a freely elected Iraqi regime decides to rearm, or even rival a nuclear-armed Israel?
It all adds to doubts about U.S. policymakers. Recently head of the company selling Patriot missiles, retired Gen. Garner won praise for relief after the 1991 war, though he was also part of the decision to abandon Kurds to Hussein’s savagery. Outside Pentagon orthodoxy, the overlord’s last intellectual brush with the region was as a Florida State undergraduate in the 1950s. Of three proconsuls under him, two are generals with similar lack of substance. Only Barbara Bodine, a Bob Dole protege and career diplomat, has any requisite knowledge.
It is the same with the Washington coterie: Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon deputy Paul Wolfowitz, consultant Richard Perle and others. Though Wolfowitz and Perle have close personal ties to Israel and all are strong supporters of the Israeli regime, the group has no sensibility about Iraq, and they advise a president who, in world affairs, is the least informed in recent history.
Meanwhile, Chalabi set up his U.S.-guarded Baghdad headquarters in a posh club. Denying he was a candidate for office, Washington’s man met with bankers about the new regime. Amid reports that Washington envisions bases in Iraq, there were accounts of mounting tension between Iraqis and U.S. troops and reports of the first bands of Shiite guerrillas. Still, U.S. officials dismissed any worry as Garner set another “democracy” meeting this week. “Freedom is messy,” an aide instructed a reporter. “Everything’s going according to plan.”
Roger Morris, who was on the National Security Council staff under presidents Johnson and Nixon, is the author of several books on American politics and foreign policy. He is completing a history of U.S. covert action in Central Asia, to be published by Alfred Knopf.