The Obama doctrine in Iraq

July 22, 2009

The mainstream media accepted without question the Pentagon's claim that it was beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by pulling out of the cities, but the reality is far different.

Michael Schwartz, author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context and a regular writer on Iraq and the Middle East for such Web sites as TomDispatch and Huffington Post, talked to Ashley Smith about the latest developments in Iraq and they mean for the future.

THE MEDIA has reported the U.S. "withdrawal" of troops back to their bases in Iraq as a sign that the occupation is coming to an end. What's the real situation?

LET'S BE clear at the beginning; this is not the end of the occupation. Last year, when the U.S. signed the Status of Forces Agreement, it wasn't interested in granting the Iraqi government withdrawal of its troops from cities of Iraq. It agreed because of pressure from below on the Iraqi government to get the U.S. troops out of Iraq.

From the beginning, U.S. officials made it clear that if they accepted this withdrawal from the cities, they would do it in a way that would allow them to continue operating as they did before.

What we can see, as they reposition U.S. troops, is their solution to this problem. Instead of being inside the cities, U.S. troops will surround the cities. They will leave some urban areas where they feel they have established firm control, and they will focus on cities where they face the greatest resistance. They will then fight battles on the outskirts of those cities, and enter the cities only when the Iraqi military encounters firefights.

A U.S. soldier on patrol in Baghdad
A U.S. soldier on patrol in Baghdad (Staff Sgt. Curt Cashour)

They still face resistance. They're still subject to sniper fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). So they will be compelled to respond. They will go into strongholds of the resistance, break down doors, and kill or arrest leaders, cadres and ordinary citizens.

At the same time, the U.S. will try to get the Iraqi military to do its dirty work. Let's remember that the Iraqi military is under American command. American advisors tell them when to go out on patrol, and which homes to invade. The Americans will order the Iraqi military to enter communities that are hostile to the Iraqi government or the U.S., and arrest or kill people who are suspected of being leaders of the resistance, members of the resistance or supporters of the resistance.

The U.S. hopes that the Iraqi army can handle these operations in some areas. Whether or not it can--and whether or not it will be willing to engage in these attacks--is an open question.

But even if the Iraqi military does take on the dirty work, that doesn't mean the U.S. isn't involved militarily. Remember, the Iraqis don't have any artillery, airpower or logistics. They are dependent on the Americans for all of that. So if the Iraqi troops engage in a real firefight, there will be plenty of American troops providing support, firing the artillery and launching air strikes. And if the Iraqi troops falter, we can expect the U.S. troops to arrive forthwith, inside or outside the cities.

What else to read

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context provides a thorough analysis of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and demolishes the myths used to sell the U.S. public the idea of an endless "war on terror."

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

Patrick Cockburn's Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq analyzes the rise of the rebel cleric. Also valuable is his book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, with a foreword by Howard Zinn.


SO IS it fair to say that you think that the "withdrawal" is really a redesign of an ongoing occupation, both for American consumption and Iraqi consumption?

YES, I think it is. What's interesting about your comment is you say "both for American consumption and Iraqi consumption."

Obviously, Obama wants Americans to think that the occupation is coming to end. In Iraq, the U.S. also wants--as much as it can--to lessen its profile. Military commanders are trying to do more operations at night so the Iraqis won't see the Americans in their cities. It is very important for them to make it appear to the Iraqis that the American presence will be drastically lowered.

As I said, the U.S. wants the Iraqis to take up as much of the dirty work as possible. I don't think it will work. Very frequently, Iraqi units refuse to break down doors. They're not as nasty, and they let people go. They're just not as rigorous as the Americans are at being vicious to the Iraqi people. The American commanders are going to be demanding that the Iraqi units should be this vicious, and the question is whether or not they'll get them to do it.

Even if the U.S. does manage to get the Iraqi military to repress the resistance, the U.S. military will continue to impact Iraqis in innumerable ways. American soldiers will continue driving down Iraqi streets in big convoys, forcing Iraqis to scatter out of the way or get shot. American soldiers will continue to maintain checkpoints where Iraqis can easily get killed or--if not killed--arrested.

And if the U.S. is unable to get the Iraqi military to do the dirty work, American units will have to invade communities where there is any resistance and break down doors, arrest and kill suspected insurgents or sympathizers.

IT ALSO seems that the U.S. is trying to build up surrogates for the occupation. The Nation ran an article recently describing the Iraqi Special Forces, and Jeremy Scahill has emphasized the continued presence of military contractors. Do they have surrogates able to repress the Iraqi people?

I DON'T think they do, but we'll find out. They're definitely trying to build up these forces.

In addition to the ones you mention, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki has created his own special units--his version of the Sunni Awakening Groups--that are loyal only to him, and not under the command of the Ministry of the Interior (which is supposed to be in charge of the military in Iraq). So there's yet another set of units that would appear to have the same mandate to conduct the really vicious parts of the occupation.

But what we've seen in the last six years is that efforts to get the Iraqis to implement this vicious occupation have never been successful--even the most ambitious, like the battle in Basra a year and a half ago. That battle was a miserable failure at trying to get Iraqi military units to successfully invade and pacify an insurgent stronghold. Ultimately, U.S. military needed to rescue the encircled Iraqi forces.

We can probably be fairly confident that this new effort to have the Iraqi troops conduct the operations is not going to work very well.

IF MALIKI uses his Shia forces to repress the Sunni resistance, will that disrupt the relative stabilization that exists in Iraq?

WE WILL see. In many Sunni cities and communities, the Sahwa (Awakening) groups have now become very powerful political groups. They are the sworn enemies of Maliki's regime.

Maliki hasn't been able to dislodge them politically, so he's going to try to dislodge them militarily. He will try to smash them. He's already begun a systematic effort to arrest the leadership, and this has been met in some places by armed resistance from the Sahwa. In these gun battles, the U.S. military has participated on the side of the government, despite U.S. support for the Sahwas and putting the groups on the U.S. payroll.

This effort to suppress, disarm and disband the Sunni Sahwas is going to continue, and probably get more ferocious as the January 2010 elections approach. The question is: Can Maliki conquer these cities and communities without major U.S. help, and if he can't, will American troops come in and fight on the side of Maliki. If they do, then they'll be back to fighting the same old war.

On the other hand, if Maliki doesn't succeed, he might have to reach some kind of political accommodation with the Sunnis. It's also entirely possible that Maliki will establish some kind of accord with the Sadrists, who represent the insurgency in the Shia areas.

If Maliki does move toward some kind of agreement with the Kurds, Sunnis and Sadrists, Iraq will evolve in to something like an independent country. But the Americans don't want that.

Gen. Raymond Odierno said as much in his press conference to announce the wonderful "withdrawal" from all the cities. He stated that he was confident that the outcome of this process would be that Iraq would be a reliable American ally in the Middle East. With that phrase, he really captured what they are trying to accomplish in Iraq.

That goal--of establishing a reliable U.S. ally in the Middle East--precludes any real political accommodation among the various factions in Iraqi politics. Except for Maliki, all the factions want Iraq to become a country independent of American power, and therefore not a reliable ally. And the Sunni (Sahwa) and Shia (Sadrist) insurgencies--however dormant they are currently--are unremittingly determined to expel the U.S. from the country. Any accommodation would therefore pull Iraq outside the American orbit.

Obama would then be faced with the traditional imperial dilemma: Are you going to allow this country to drift away from under your hegemony, or are you going to use your military force to prevent that? In the long term, the huge military question is whether the Obama administration is going to use the American military to discipline the Iraqi government and force it to remain a client regime.

ANOTHER THING that's been in the news, ironically timed to coincide with the "withdrawal," is the question of oil and oil contracts. It seems telling that the privatization and opening up of Iraqi oil fields is occurring at the same time as U.S. troops "withdraw." What do you make of the deals that have come out so far?

THE U.S. has, from the very beginning of the occupation, tried every strategy it could come up with to get Iraqi oil fields placed in the hands of international oil companies (IOCs). That's its goal. It wants to privatize the nationalized oil fields in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

U.S. leaders prefer what they call "production sharing contracts." These would give the oil companies 20- to 30-year leases on the oilfields, and allow them to make all the decisions about where to drill, how many wells to put in and how much to pump. These contracts would deprive the Iraqi government of that entire set of decisions--decisions that have allowed the OPEC countries wield such important economic and political power in the world.

The U.S. has tried three different strategies to accomplish this, and it's failed in each of those. Each time, the U.S. has run into opposition from Iraqis--from the government down to the oil workers.

Recently, the U.S. made a tremendous concession. Instead of demanding that Iraq offer production-sharing contracts, it endorsed (but only for some oil and gas fields) the Iraq Oil Ministry's offer "facilities improvement" contracts to the IOCs. Companies are brought in for the specific job of improving the existing facilities and making them more productive. They aren't being given decision-making control over the level of production or the number of wells to drill and so forth. Those decisions would presumably be left in the hands of the Iraqi government.

But even these contracts were opposed inside Iraq--by the oil workers, who have been the strongest opponents of IOC contracts, all the way up to the chief executive officer of the South Oil Company, one of two state owned oil companies in Iraq, who says we don't want even these deals because they give the oil companies administrative control over Iraqi oilfields.

In a new compromise with this opposition, the Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said he would negotiate contracts that paid the IOCs extremely low rates for their engineering and administrative work. He essentially said he wanted to get the companies to put up all the money needed for modernization, and give them less than $2 per barrel for the oil they pump.

The deal he offered simply didn't meet the companies' targeted profit level, so all but one consortium made bids that demanded far more than $2 per barrel. So Shahristani was forced by the pressure from below to refuse all these deals, except the one that was led by the Chinese national oil company, which agreed to the $2-per-barrel price, despite the fact that they would make little or no profit.

The Chinese weren't concerned so much with a profit as they were with establishing a privileged relationship with Iraq in oil contracts, so they could gain access to Iraqi oil over the long run, as world shortages become more acute.

But even in this case, it's still not clear whether that deal will be signed. The bid was accepted by Shahristani, but it may have to be ratified by parliament, where a majority are against these contracts. Inside Iraq--in the parliament, in the administration of the oil companies, and among the oil workers--they want these new contracts to be given to the national oil companies of Iraq instead of IOCs.

This plan would be viable, because the Iraqi oil companies could then hire the expertise that they didn't have domestically, and have outside experts train Iraqi engineers. That's how they want it done; they don't want the foreign oil companies coming in and having administrative control.

This would, of course, give the Iraqi government continuing control over production and marketing decision-making, which was exactly what the six-year U.S. effort was designed to eliminate. So far, the U.S. have lost this fight over and over again. They might lose this round, too.

RECENTLY, VICE President Joe Biden was in Iraq claiming to be pursuing some kind of political reconciliation between the different ethnic and religious factions. What is Biden really up to, and is there hope for real reconciliation between Kurds, Shia and Sunnis?

BIDEN SAID he was there for three reasons: first, to make sure the Iraqi military is enforcing the occupation; second, to mediate these sectarian conflicts; and third, to ensure that the oil law would pass.

Let's take the last one first. Biden has engaged in a lot of hocus pocus. He gives the impression that the oil law will resolve the issues among the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis, but in fact, the particular law he is pushing to get passed is one that will mandate production-sharing contracts. The one that would mediate between the three groups is actually unwritten.

The larger significance is not so much the details of the policy he's trying to impose, but that Biden was asserting the U.S. is the key power to broker all of Iraqi politics, even as the U.S. is supposed to be withdrawing its forces from the cities, and its presence from Iraqi life.

Biden was attempting to demonstrate to Iraqis that the U.S. is the hegemonic force on all critical policy issues. He was trying to prove that the U.S. is not going to give up on the oil law that it wants. It's not going to give up on the idea that the U.S. will determine the resolution to sectarian disagreements.

This is what you might call the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. is going to control Iraq, make it their reliable ally in the Middle East--their outpost, the way Iran was under the Shah years ago--but accomplish this through much more diplomatic and administrative means than Bush used.

What has been notably missing from the corporate media is any real mentions of the Obama administration's pursuit of a huge new civilian bureaucracy to control almost every aspect of Iraqi life.

This is the essential role of the contractors. Far too much has been made of their military function; their main role is as overseers of Iraq's state, society and economy. That's where the contractors really come in. This is a classic colonial strategy, and Biden is the point person for that right now.

As far as the sectarian divisions in Iraq, I think we have no real idea how they're going to play out--whether there will be military confrontations, factional politics within the government or some kind of negotiated settlement.

For example, at the moment, the Kurdish Peshmerga militias are trying to extend administrative control to border regions outside the three Kurdish provinces. This is particularly important in two key provinces--the one containing Kirkuk and the other containing Mosul, the two big cities near the border of Kurdistan Kirkuk sits on one of the biggest oilfields in the world.

The Kurds want Kirkuk to be the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, which they say is historically part of Kurdistan. So they're attempting to create a fait accompli on the ground, not unlike what the Israelis do in the West Bank through colonization.

They could conceivably succeed. Maliki opposes their expansion and wants to use his military to stop it, but he may not be able to do so, since the Peshmerga could almost certainly defend the territory it already has from the Iraqi military units. This leads to a huge question: whether the U.S. military joins Maliki to help him expel the Peshmerga from these disputed territories, either with air power and artillery, or with U.S. troops. Without this, the Kurds would appear to have the upper hand.

So there's the possibility that the Kurds could achieve a relatively peaceful expansion of Kurdistan into these areas. But it's possible that a battle between the Iraqi government and the Kurds would erupt. In such a battle, the U.S. might support the Iraqi government against the Kurds. At the same time, the Maliki government might also strike some kind of bargain with the Kurds and deescalate the conflict.

What involvement would the U.S. have with this? It's not altogether clear if they'd be willing to fight to prevent Kurdish expansion.

WHAT ABOUT some of the other areas of conflict within Iraq? What is the relationship of the Maliki government with the Sunni Sahwas and with the Shia opposition, like the Sadrists?

LET'S LOOK at the relationship between Maliki and the Sunnis. The Sahwas have been able to establish significant control in many Sunni areas of Iraq, especially Anbar province. In reality, Maliki and his government are not in control of this Sunni area--Falluja, in particular. There is a local Sunni leadership in Falluja that is antagonistic to the central government.

That's inevitable, and it's true in most of the big communities within Anbar. This is where the insurgency was the strongest, and the local leadership will always reflect the policies of the insurgency. That's true throughout Arab Iraq, both Sunni and Shia, where local political forces have taken control of their areas.

What is Maliki going to do about this? The local leaderships won the last election, and they've developed a lot of power on the ground. They are now demanding resources from the central government, which technically controls the oil revenues--the only real source of government revenues. They're saying, "Where's our share?"

A lot of them are very corrupt, and they're just going to steal that money (not unlike the Maliki regime), but others are less corrupt. Even the most corrupt still distribute a lot of the money to the local communities--because they spend the money locally, either on real services, or private construction and other projects that employ local people. The people in the communities are terribly impoverished by the war and tend to support their local leadership, however corrupt. So they support the demand for resources in the hope of getting something to alleviate their plight.

So far, Maliki has refused to give local leaders--even local regimes that have pledged loyalty to him--those resources, for fear of strengthening them and allowing them to become independent of him. In response, the local leaderships have figured out ways to access resources on their own.

For example, in Basra, they've stopped sending electricity to the national grid. In many areas where there's an oil pipeline, the local leadership siphons off oil and sells it on the black market--and uses the money for their own aggrandizement or for their communities. Either way, the money is spent locally.

One of the options available to Maliki is to go in and discipline these buccaneer governments, but this will involve military operations that will require U.S. support or a U.S. presence. I don't think he can win any of these battles with Iraqi units alone. The question is if Maliki is going to try to use force or try to negotiate something. If he negotiates, the local leadership is going to demand a share of the oil resources.

So this is a crisis of major proportions because the national government has no real national administrative presence anywhere. They have oil revenues, but the U.S. still has effective control over them.

The question is what kind of deal will emerge and what will Maliki do. It's clear from his past behavior that Maliki is willing to make large concessions to the different groups just to remain in power. But if he makes any concession to his opposition throughout the country, it will be to nationalist demands that mean Iraq will no longer be a reliable ally of the U.S.

Iraq will become a renegade client government, and that will create a desperate situation for the Obama administration--it will have to choose between "losing Iraq" (which could even become an ally of Iran), or re-escalating the military effort in Iraq, this time with the Iraqi government as a potential enemy.

IN YOUR writing, you pay particular attention to the Iraqi workers movement--and the oil workers, in particular--as a progressive resistance and an alternative to the sectarian divisions within Iraq. What possibilities do you see for that kind of resistance now?

NINETY-FIVE percent of government revenues are dependent on the oil economy. Eighty percent of the oil exits through the city of Basra. Therefore, the oil workers--particularly those in Basra, where they have established themselves--have tremendous power. If they struck, they could shut down the entire economy. The oil workers are taking an increasingly militant and progressive stand.

Just one example demonstrates their power. In the very early days of the occupation, the U.S. tried to put Bechtel in charge of the Basra harbor. The oil workers went on strike, shutting down oil exports, and three days later, Bechtel was gone. It only took three days. They're a very powerful union. And they aren't the only one--there's a very powerful electricians' union. There seems to be increasing unionization going on.

The labor movement is increasingly assertive, even through most of the unions remain illegal. Remember that the only law that Bremer preserved from Saddam Hussein's regime was the one declaring it illegal for government workers to unionize.

The main danger that unionized workers experience is physical repression, especially military action against the strikes. The supposed withdrawal of the American military strengthens them because the Iraqi military isn't even interested in stopping them. The military is made up of Shia, and they're very sympathetic to the mainly Shia oil workers. Moreover, the Iraqi military is recruited from the Shia working class, so it's not going to be a reliable for suppressing the workers. It was unreliable for suppressing the Mahdi army; it's going to be even less reliable for suppressing strikers.

The unions are therefore feeling emboldened after the U.S. withdrawal to bases. They believe they're in a very strong position to make demands on the Maliki government, including protection of the main national resource of the country--its oil. So I think that we're going to see a lot more from the union movement in general, and the oil workers in particular, in the coming period.

The Iraqi government plans to increase oil production, which requires repairing, modernizing and investing in it. When they do so, the oil workers will demand that the oil industry not be delivered to the multinationals, and that all the labor at every level is by Iraqis, not international oil workers. They will thus defend their nationalized industry against imperial neoliberalism.

This creates, yet again, a moment of truth, when the Obama administration has to decide whether it is going to coerce the government and the oil workers.

A LOT of what you say confirms the analysis of Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks in his book The Gamble--where he argues that we're in the very early stages of the occupation of Iraq. What do you think about where the occupation is headed?

I DON'T know whether Ricks' prediction--that occupation is no more than half over--is correct. He has certainly been one of the most informed insider critics of the war, but I think there are many variables at play that could result in a much shorter time horizon.

On the one hand, there is much to support Rick's prediction. I think the Obama administration is trying to strengthen the administrative, diplomatic and political presence of the U.S. in Iraq. You've got the thousand "diplomats" in the Embassy. They're trying to create a colonial administrative structure. To back this all up and enforce their rule, enduring bases have been built to sustain a very long occupation.

On the other hand, Obama's policy isn't going to work. It appears to be just another strategy doomed to failure. In not too many months or years, the administration will probably face a dilemma: It won't have the ability to force local provincial governments and workers in Iraq to accept the economic and political devastation that accompanies the status of U.S. ally. It will therefore need to decide if it's willing or able to re-escalate the war.

If it chooses not to re-escalate the war, I don't think it can get Iraq to accept continuing to be used as a base for operations in the Middle East, to get the Iraqi government to maintain an aggressive stance toward Iran, and to privatize its oil industry. That is, the client government the U.S. seeks will begin sliding away.

What are they going to do? They may only have a couple of years before this crisis matures, and they'll need to make a choice before the next crisis arrives. Maybe it will be political impossible to re-escalate the war. Or maybe the U.S. capitalist class will say "this isn't working; maybe we can learn to survive with an independent oil-bearing Middle East." I don't think it's impossible that the U.S. will decide to leave.

It's also possible that the administration will decide to re-escalate and re-brutalize the war to achieve U.S. goals. That's certainly what Ricks seems to be suggesting they will do.

I think we have to wait and see what they decide when the next crisis comes.

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