Why the U.S. failed in Iraq

Michael Schwartz is the author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context and a regular writer at websites such as TomDispatch.com. He talked with Ashley Smith about the Obama administration's announcement that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by December 31, 2011--and about what this means for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

U.S. soldiers run toward Black Hawk helicopters after a search for weapons caches in Iraq (Spc. Luke Thornberry)

WHAT IS the background and the significance of Barack Obama's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the year?

WE ARE 10 years into the U.S. project in Iraq, counting the planning, which began just after 9/11. Even before the invasion, the Bush administration had envisioned that the U.S. would oust Saddam Hussein, dismantle the Baathist government and establish a client regime, and make Iraq the military and political headquarters for the American presence in what they called "the arc of instability," extending from the horn of Africa through Afghanistan.

Earlier attempts to spread the U.S. troop presence between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were producing resentment and instability. Given the anticipated U.S. troop presence, the multiple-country basing system was simply not working. Remember that the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia was the key element in al-Qaeda's original grievances--and a target of many of their earliest operations.

In its original plans for Iraq, the U.S. planned to construct five large bases--what they called in those days "enduring bases." Each would have the capacity for about 10,000 soldiers and could house much larger numbers for short-term projects. U.S. officials had hoped to use these bases for all their kinetic (or threatened) military operations in the region, including the ongoing war in Afghanistan and planned regime changes in Syria and Iran.

When the Hussein regime was overthrown, the U.S. immediately began building those five bases--and one more, if you count the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which became a huge base in itself. Through all the ups and downs of the occupation, they never abandoned that project.

WHAT HAPPENED to waylay their plans for these bases and a permanent headquarters for U.S. operations in the region?

FIRST OF all, the occupation turned into a catastrophe for the U.S. Its invasion produced mass resistance and then a civil war. The vast majority of the Iraqi people turned against the occupying troops, causing escalating difficulties for the U.S. plans in Iraq and the region.

One key outcome of what became an intractable insurrection was the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the Bush administration signed with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in late 2008. Bush pressed for the SOFA to contain a formal agreement validating the five enduring bases and the 50,000 American troops that would be stationed there on a long-term basis.

But Maliki refused to agree to those terms. The Maliki administration feared that either the ongoing insurgency or the massive civil society opposition to the U.S. occupation would overthrow the government if he agreed to any long-term presence at all.

So after months of friction over this point, the Bush administration signed an agreement saying that all the troops would be withdrawn on December 31, 2011. The Bush administration and the military leadership of the occupation believed at the time that it could utilize the intervening years to successfully pressure Maliki to renegotiate the formal agreement, and accept their plans for five enduring bases staffed by 50,000 troops. When Obama ascended to the presidency, he continued this effort without modification.

In the last year, when they were scheduled to reduce levels below 50,000, the Obama administration and the Pentagon leadership began a major new effort to pressure the Iraqi government for changes in this arrangement. But Maliki was not compliant because he faced enormous internal opposition to any continuing U.S. military presence in the country. And Washington could see that any effort to impose a large U.S. presence on Maliki--for example, 50,000 troops--would re-escalate the violent opposition and destabilize an already fragile regime, perhaps definitively.

So about six months ago, U.S. officials put on the table a proposal for retaining about 15,000 troops. They claimed that these would be trainers, but that has always been a cover. Those "trainers" were then and would be commanders of Iraqi units, and participate in key kinetic operations, which have been continuous during the U.S. withdrawal.

In addition to fighting with Iraqi troops, the 15,000 would conduct needed logistic operations and a multitude of other combat duties considered integral to the ongoing pacification campaign. And in addition to the projected 15,000 Army and Marine presence, the State Department began plans to establish its own military force of several thousand and to hire mercenaries to carry the rest of the weight.

But the Iraqis again refused. When Maliki floated this modified proposal, opposition was expressed from nearly every corner of Iraqi society--from the parliament, from the leading political parties, especially the Sadrists, from the unions, from local leaders, and, of course, from various groupings engaged in armed resistance. This resistance forced Maliki to withdraw his agreement to this proposal and for the Obama administration and its military leadership to retreat further.

The new plan was for a 5,000-troop presence, well below the threshold that the military command felt it needed to sustain the military operations it expected to conduct in 2012 and beyond. The U.S. now was contemplating losing control over the Iraqi military, and also losing the leverage over the Maliki regime that controlling the military conferred.

The U.S. formulated a new plan that involved 5,000 American military troops, augmented with the State Department forces and mercenaries, which would act mainly in a training capacity, while sustaining a presence with key Iraqi units and conducting special operations--perhaps modeled after the traditional relationship between the U.S. military and key Latin American armies, which utilizes institutions like the School of the Americas, weapons sales, etc.

But then the Maliki administration refused to grant U.S. forces an exemption from Iraqi law. This has been a bone of contention ever since the Blackwater incident in Baghdad when mercenaries fired indiscriminately into people and vehicles which were at a traffic stop, waiting for a Blackwater convoy to pass. The mercenaries involved in this mass killing escaped all prosecution--by the Iraqis and the U.S. Other incidents involving U.S. troops also resulted in exoneration by the U.S. military or simply ignoring the demands for prosecution.

Because of this history, Maliki tentatively agreed to the 5,000-troop force if the soldiers would be subject to Iraqi justice--indicted, tried and sentenced in Iraqi courts, and serving sentences in Iraqi prisons if they committed any violations of Iraqi law.

The U.S. was faced with the choice of withdrawing everybody or foregoing immunity, which would constrain U.S. military forces from utilizing the brutal methods that are built into its military operations throughout the Middle East. Washington decided to give up even the very small 5,000-troop presence.

WHAT DOES this withdrawal mean for U.S. plans for imposing free market capitalism on Iraq?

Without this troop presence, the U.S. State Department plans for neoliberalizing the economy of Iraq are fundamentally compromised.

The U.S. had planned to open up the Iraqi oil economy to multinational capital. For example, it had hoped to do extensive oil drilling in Anbar province, which was a center of resistance to the occupation. To do that effectively and safely, the oil companies would need U.S. military protection. Now without that force, the State Department is saying that it, won't be safe and so U.S. officials are scaling back their plans for the continuing neoliberalization of Iraq's oil industry and economy.

Even the New York Times reported recently that economic opportunities are shrinking and dying in Iraq, and Libya will instead be the next gold rush for American companies. The whole idea of opening Iraq to American and international capital investment is starting to look quite iffy. The bottom line is that this is an immense defeat for U.S. imperial efforts in Iraq.

WHAT DOES this mean for U.S. plans for the rest of the Middle East?

THE U.S. is really back on its heels. The Washington leadership faces a real quandary. Without the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, it faces a big problem of where to put its forces to control the region.

The New York Times published a story reporting U.S. plans to redeploy troops in Kuwait and several other Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, while increasing its Naval presence in the region. This plan is not viable. Kuwait simply cannot contain such numbers of troops, and Saudi Arabia is fragile--troops there could antagonize a population already resentful of the U.S. presence.

Wherever the U.S. bases its troops, they will cause resentment and resistance. We see the same dynamic playing out in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There, the Obama administration has staged a belligerent troop surge, launched massive drone attacks and deployed Special Forces for black operations. It has tried to pass all of this off as part of a counter-insurgency project. But it is, in fact, trying to terrorize the populations of both countries into abandoning resistance to the NATO presence. Instead, the U.S. is stoking mass popular opposition to its presence, which is now reflected even among the client governments in both countries.

These failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan point to the incoherence of the American strategy. Whatever it does seems to fail and to cause more resistance.

As a consequence, the U.S. lurches about from one tactic to another. Think about Iraq. U.S. officials don't really have a viable plan. They started by demanding 50,000 troops, but then backed down to 15,000, then 5,000 and now zero. They don't have a good idea of what they are going to do. And now they are facing a real problem of where they are going to put these troops--knowing that wherever they do base them, they will cause resentment and possible resistance to U.S. imperialism.

This imperial crisis is so severe that I expected, once the war began to go badly for the U.S. in 2006, a section of the American capitalist class would at least begin to voice real dissent with the unipolar-world-order-enforced-by-kinetic-military-operations strategy. But there is no sign of such dissent among the elite. And they continue to pursue a primarily military strategy to maintain regional hegemony over the Middle East.

WHAT WILL the retreat from Iraq mean for U.S. policy toward Iran?

IRAN BECOMES more and more important, not because the Iranian regime is as powerful and aggressive as the U.S. says it is, but because Iran constitutes the pole around which a geopolitically independent Middle East can congeal. That's what the U.S. refuses to let happen.

To prevent this, the U.S. wants to bring down the Iranian regime. All the U.S. aggressive statements towards Iran are designed to lay a foundation with the U.S. public for an attempt to topple the Islamist regime; this is what has animated the absurd allegation that Iran was behind an amateur--and perhaps bogus--plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.

Iran has tried in many ways to defuse U.S. plans for regime change. Back in 2003--just after the Hussein regime was overthrown in Iraq, the Iranians were very concerned with the U.S. being right on their border, so they sued for peace. Iran was willing to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for a guarantee that the U.S. would not attack. The Bush Administration refused the offer, demanding that Iran abandon state control over the oil industry--and regime change in order to accomplish this and other neoliberal reforms.

So far, the U.S. has not changed this stance. The Obama administration has sustained this policy: demanding regime change that would transform a state-controlled economy into an open market for international investments, especially in the oil industry.

It's not an accident that the latest saber-rattling against Iran is occurring at the same time that the U.S. abandoned its military presence in Iraq. U.S. officials are trying to recapture the initiative by putting pressure on Iran.

The absurdity of the assassination plot charge is expressive of the level of desperation and incoherence of American policy. Though they may convince the U.S. population that this was an Iranian plot, U.S. officials won't be able to convince anyone else. The Iranians are just not that unsophisticated in their covert operations.

None of the U.S. strategies toward Iran have worked and so, as in many other situations, Washington is flailing about for some kind of solution to its Iran problem. After this assassination allegation, the U.S. could follow up with a diplomatic offensive about Iran's nuclear facilities--or it could unleash Israel. But an Israeli attack on Iran would accomplish nothing from the point of view of the larger American efforts in the Middle East. It could set the Iranians back a year in their nuclear programs.

The world understands that the Iranians are building civilian nuclear power. Pursuing such a program puts them a couple of years away building a nuclear weapon. That's where Japan is at now; it could build a bomb within a year.

This is the point of confrontation that the U.S. has chosen, but it could also let Iran achieve civilian nuclear power and still have a couple years if the Iranians then moved to building a weapon--enough time to take kind of action Washington is contemplating now. In other words, the nuclear issue is a cover for U.S. belligerence against Iran's regime and the ongoing effort to "open up" the Middle East to U.S. political and economic domination.

WHAT WILL the U.S. retreat in Iraq mean for the Arab uprisings with the autocracies?

THE OBAMA administration is trying to look at each country in the Middle East and North Africa separately, and develop very different policies for each. If you look at Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the U.S. is trying to work with the emerging regimes to push them further in a neoliberal direction and try to limit the degree to which they become truly expressive of nationalist and progressive ideas.

Washington is trying to influence all aspects of the new governments: politics, economics and military policy--and in particular, their relationships to Israel. For example, the U.S. is scrambling to shore up the Egyptian military's support for Israel. I would love to see WikiLeaks release American diplomatic cables with Egypt regarding Israel. The U.S. is determined to prevent any break between the two countries.

But it is important to note that so far, the U.S. is not trying to establish military bases in any of these countries. American officials know this is hopeless because of the mass opposition.

In Libya, for example, even with all the support from the U.S., the Transitional National Council, which has in many ways been utterly subservient to the U.S., has publicly announced it will not allow any NATO military presence--at least any visible NATO military presence. Of course, the troops are there, but in small numbers--not in the numbers the U.S. needs to really enforce its dictates.

In other countries in the region, the U.S. has taken a different tack. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has supported regimes forcefully suppressing everything in sight. But again, I would have expected by now that the U.S. would have taken advantage of the situation to deploy an amplified U.S. military presence. Why did Saudi troops save the regime in Bahrain, and not U.S. troops? It shows the weak hand the U.S. has in the region.

SO IS the U.S. retreating from military occupations toward air power, drone wars and special operations?

THERE DOES seem to be a shift. Certainly the U.S. is escalating the drone wars daily, from Yemen to Afghanistan and even Mexico. The U.S. is deploying drones in Mexico and is one step away from launching strikes against some drug kingpin and blowing up a Mexican community in the process. The Mexican government does not know about most of the current drone flights, and it seems like just a matter of time before they morph from surveillance to kinetics.

So the U.S. is increasingly looking to drones as an alternative vehicle for implementing their foreign policy initiatives. American officials are also looking to Special Forces attacks as a compliment to the drone strikes. In the last year alone, the U.S. has conducted Special Forces operations in 70 countries around the world.

If you put all this together, you could say that there is a change in policy from counter-insurgency and occupation to Special Forces and drone attacks. But I don't see signs that U.S. officials are implementing an overall policy consistent with that approach. I see this as another example of their incoherence. They are doing what they can get away with, but it's not driven by a coherent master plan.

I think we're in an era when U.S. foreign policy is truly in disarray. Tragically, that disarray does not make U.S. imperialism any less destructive. In countries around the world, the U.S. is slaughtering people, destroying infrastructure and making it impossible for people to stabilize their lives.

But that cloud has a silver lining. It doesn't have a strategy for maintaining global dominance. While the U.S. still the largest imperial power on the planet, with tremendous destructive potential and power to try to dictate global affairs, it is also the case that the U.S. is the weakest it has been since the end of the Second World War.