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Iraq Zeroes in on Vietnam Analogy

By Nat Parry
July 6, 2004

For the past year, the Bush administration has argued that Iraq is not another Vietnam, which in some ways was true. In South Vietnam, the U.S. was propping up the Saigon government, but the regime was regarded as "sovereign." In Iraq, until June 28, the U.S. was simply occupying Iraq after eliminating the old government.

The supposed step forward that occurred when the United States granted "sovereignty" to Iraq has now created a parallel closer to the Vietnam War. As in South Vietnam, U.S. forces in Iraq have the job of defending a dependent government that couldn't survive on its own.

There was even the feel of Vietnam-style desperation on June 28 when former U.S. administrator Paul Bremer pushed the "sovereignty" ceremony two days ahead of schedule to avoid an expected round of attacks and then held the event behind the high walls of the U.S. compound in Baghdad. After messing up the news networks' pseudo-dramatic "countdown to handover," Bremer rushed to the airport and flew out of the war zone.

The hasty transfer meant George W. Bush missed out on the grand "sovereignty" celebration that was originally envisioned. The Bush administration had to settle for the staged "historic" moment of Bush being handed a note from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice at the NATO summit in Turkey, saying “Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign.” Bush scribbled back, “Let freedom reign!”

The administration and the U.S. press corps played the scene as a genuine news event, as if Bush was surprised and didn't really know that the furtive ceremony in Baghdad had been moved up a couple of days. Under that unlikely scenario, Bush dashed off his comment extemporaneously, not as part of a prearranged scene.

Some critics have noted that the phrase normally is "let freedom ring," but it could be that political adviser Karl Rove had decided to alter the phrase slightly so it would seem fresher – and then had to make sure that Bush knew not to write, "Let freedom rain!"

Fahrenheit 9/11

Whether intentional or not, the "Iraq is sovereign" note-passing also represented a kind of cheesy counterpoint to the scene of Bush in the Florida classroom on Sept. 11, 2001, being told by chief of staff Andrew Card that "the nation is under attack"– after the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center.

The real news event of Bush continuing to sit in the classroom for seven minutes has finally been highlighted in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a scene that is shocking to many Americans, in part, because the national news media had shielded them from the fact that Bush sat frozen with no clue how a president should behave in a crisis. In the do-over scene in Turkey on June 28, Bush is supposedly on top of his game, dashing off a memorable one-liner and shaking hands with fellow world leader, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Still, the larger reality in Iraq is that the "sovereignty" theatrics have not improved the prospects for either the Iraqi people or the 140,000 U.S. troops whose job it is to quell a nationalistic uprising by killing young Iraqi fighters who – for whatever their ideological thinking – want foreign troops off their nation's soil.

Bremer insists that the new government will “exercise full sovereign authority on behalf of the Iraqi people,” but that power falls short of anything resembling classical definitions of “sovereignty.” Of course, the concept of "sovereignty" has been abused before. During World II, France and other occupied European countries technically maintained their sovereignty under puppet regimes. During the Cold War, the same was true for nations of Eastern Europe.

But the overriding fact for the Iraqis is that their country is still controlled by a foreign military presence and governed by compliant "leaders" who can function only under a strict set of external rules. Not the least of these rules is that the foreign troops can open fire on pretty much any Iraqi target with minimal requirements for "consultation" with the new Iraqi officials.

Plus, while Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority may have ceased to exist on June 28, its binding decrees will remain in place indefinitely. The interim Iraqi government also looks like a reshuffled version of the disbanded "Governing Council," which was appointed by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority.

Then as now, the principal criterion for the Iraqi "leaders" is that they be acceptable to the Bush administration. Whether or not they have the "sovereign" right to order out the 160,000 foreign troops, the possibility is moot because the interim officials were selected because they wouldn't order the foreign troops out of Iraq.

Ayad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, is a former CIA operative who also has worked for other foreign intelligence services. Beyond his history of dependence on foreign money, Allawi allegedly engaged in some of the same terrorist tactics to destabilize Saddam Hussein's government that he is now decrying when the tactics are used in an effort to overthrow his government.

Several former intelligence officials say that during the early 1990s, Allawi ran an anti-Saddam exile organization that sent agents into Baghdad to plant bombs and sabotage government facilities under the direction of the CIA. The New York Times reported that Allawi's group, the Iraqi National Accord, used car bombs and other explosive devices smuggled into Baghdad from northern Iraq in attacks that resulted in many civilian casualties. Ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, recalled that one bombing “blew up a school bus” in which “schoolchildren were killed.” [NYT, June 9, 2004]

But the New York Times disclosure has largely disappeared into the memory hole, already. When U.S. correspondents, such as NBC's Tom Brokaw, went to Baghdad to interview Allawi, they furrowed their brows in asking Allawi how he will contend with the inhuman brutality of Iraqi "terrorists," but they tactfully avoided questioning Allawi about his own use of terror tactics.

Through Allawi, the Bush administration also expects to extend its control of Iraq's internal security and foreign policy for years, even if a new government is elected next year. Under Bremer's orders, Allawi will have the authority to choose Iraq’s national security adviser and a national intelligence chief, whose terms will last five years.

The prospects of an elected government early next year also are growing dicier. The promised Iraqi elections, already postponed until January 2005, may be postponed again due to the continuing violence, Allawi said. [BBC, June 27, 2004]

Geneva Rules

Though Iraq's new "sovereignty" may mean little in the day-to-day life in Baghdad, Washington may see it as a way to avert requirements that the Geneva Conventions impose on occupying forces. By calling Iraq "sovereign," some of those responsibilities – and some of the blame for violations – shifts to the new government.

Bremer’s announcement technically ending the occupation, therefore, is reminiscent of assertions made after the invasion when Bush administration officials insisted the Americans were not occupying Iraq and therefore didn’t have to comply with the international legal requirements of an occupying power.

When the International Committee of the Red Cross warned in April 2003 that U.S. forces were violating the Geneva Conventions in failing to live up to responsibilities as an occupation army, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks replied, “Right now we're still a liberating force, and that's how we're approaching our operations.”

The Red Cross told the administration that the concept of “a liberating force” is not recognized in international law. By the definitions of the Geneva Conventions, a foreign power is an occupying power if it operates “effective control” over a territory. Now, by saying Iraq is "sovereign," Washington is again claiming not to be an occupying power, even though its forces remain in effective control.

But several human rights organizations have noted that if the occupation is officially over, there is no legal basis for the U.S. to continue detaining thousands of Iraqis without charges. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Red Cross say that in order to be in compliance with international law, the U.S. must either charge or release the Iraqi prisoners currently being held.

“In the absence of an occupation or an international conflict, no one can be detained under international humanitarian law without being charged with a recognized crime,” Human Rights Watch said. Amnesty International goes even further and insists that the prisoners must be immediately released. If the “occupation effectively ends with the handover, then international humanitarian law requires that all prisoners of war, detainees and internees must be released by the occupying powers,” Amnesty said.

Yet, despite international law and the Red Cross estimate that 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners were rounded up by mistake, the U.S. military has announced that it will continue holding without charge the 4,000 to 5,000 Iraqis in its custody. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is claiming blanket immunity for U.S. forces in Iraq, including immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts for killing Iraqis or destroying local property.

That was accomplished simply by extending Bremer's Order 17, which grants all foreign personnel immunity from “local criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction and from any form of arrest or detention other than by persons acting on behalf of their parent states.” The immunity is in effect until Iraq holds elections, whenever that may be. [Reuters, June 28, 2004]

Sovereignty?

The extension of immunity is only one of the limitations of sovereignty that were instituted by the Coalition Provisional Authority before it was dissolved on June 28.

In the lead-up to the “handover of power,” Bremer issued a number of edicts that placed constraints on Iraq's right to self-rule. The Washington Post reported that Bremer issued 97 legal orders as of June 14, orders which are defined by the U.S. occupation authority as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people.” Since the interim government does not have the power to make laws, Bremer’s declarations will effectively serve as the law until a permanent government is established.

Even if elections take place as scheduled, those election results also may already be pre-ordained by another Bremer edict. He ordered an election law that gives a seven-member commission the power to disqualify political parties and any of the candidates they support.

Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April that “anti-American candidates” might be blocked. “That's why we're going to have an embassy there,” he said. “It's going to have a lot of people and an ambassador. We have to make our views known in the way that we do around the world.” [Washington Post, April 23, 2004]

Bremer also has appointed Iraqis hand-picked by his aides to influential government positions, installed inspectors-general for five-year terms in every ministry, and named a public-integrity commissioner who will have the power to refer corrupt government officials for prosecution. Bremer even formed and filled commissions to regulate communications, public broadcasting and securities markets.

Mahmoud Othman, a member of the recently dissolved Governing Council, complained, “They have established a system to meddle in our affairs.” [Washington Post, June 27, 2004]

U.S. officials have suggested that the purpose of the world's largest U.S. embassy will be to influence, if not dictate, official Iraqi policy. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Grossman was asked what the Bush administration would do if the Iraqi government pursues policies “that are in contradiction to what American foreign policy might be,” such as forging closer ties with Iran or the Palestinian Authority. Grossman intimated that those policies would not be tolerated, which is “why we want to have an American ambassador in Iraq.” [Washington Post, April 23, 2004]

With extremely limited official powers, the new interim government may be even further handicapped in the face of an intensifying insurgency. Hundreds have been killed over the past couple weeks in targetted attacks on Iraqi police stations, Army recruitment offices and other symbols of the “new government.” As the Los Angeles Times put it, “Iraq's insurgent movement is increasingly potent, riding a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism and religious extremism.”

The insurgency has grown increasingly effective over the past year, and has made it clear that not only Americans but those seen as collaborators are targets. The newly adopted practice of beheading hostages and distributing the footage over the Internet may not be making the insurgents many friends across the world, but it has proven effective in solidifying global opinion against the war in general.

The recent beheading of a South Korean hostage sparked a wave of protest in South Korea against the government’s participation in the war and its plans to send additional troops. While the South Korean government did not alter its plans, the protests revealed widespread public opposition and could serve to reinvigorate the anti-war movement.

While the occupation's counter-insurgency attacks and the anti-occupation resistance are becoming increasingly grisly, the bigger story may be that the real national uprising is yet to come. The Iraqi people know that they have had success in expelling colonialists in the past, particularly in their victory over the British Empire in 1921. Many are eager for a replay of that triumph and – having seen how the insurgents in Fallujah essentially expelled the U.S. Marines – are confident they can do it. Some insurgents are predicting a Fallujah-type uprising on a national scale.

In comments made to Western journalists before "sovereignty," several Iraqi resistance fighters asserted that the “big battle” is yet to begin and the “liberation of Baghdad” is near. Asia Times quoted one as saying, “The Americans have prepared the war, we have prepared the post-war. And the transfer of power on June 30 will not change anything regarding our objectives. This new provisional government appointed by the Americans has no legitimacy in our eyes. They are nothing but puppets.” [Asia Times, June, 25, 2004]

These statements could be dismissed as propaganda or bravado, but they echo similar comments made months ago, which have turned out to have been based in reality. In the early days of the insurgency, one resistance fighter claimed, “We have many more people and we’re a lot better organized than the Americans realize. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we’re much more patient than the Americans. We have nowhere else to go.” [Newsday, July 10, 2003]

‘Wars Are Unpredictable’

As the months have dragged on, and the violence has persisted, it appears Washington may be belatedly coming to realize what a threat the resistance poses. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified to the House Armed Services Committee that military planners might have underestimated how persistent the anti-American forces would be even after the leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime had been killed or captured, conceding that the U.S. may be in Iraq for several years. [NYT, June 22, 2004]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the situation in Iraq is not what the administration had hoped for prior to the invasion in 2003. “Wars are unpredictable, and post-war recoveries are unpredictable,” Rumsfeld said. [BBC, June 27, 2004] But while acknowledging that fact now, he arrogantly rebuffed pre-war advice warning the difficulty of subduing a resistance and rebuilding a shattered nation.

When George W. Bush took the nation to war in Iraq last year, there was never any comprehensive explanation of what post-war Iraq would look like and what the overall plan for “regime change” would be, beyond the administration's expectations of a "cakewalk."

Before the war, Consortiumnews.com was among the news outlets, citing potential problems. One story in February 2003, a month before the invasion, observed, “it is not clear how the U.S. will police a population that is certain to include anti-American radicals ready to employ suicide bombings and other terror tactics against an occupying force.” [See Consortiumnews.com's "Iraq’s ‘Liberation Day.’"]

It is now obvious that Bush was overly optimistic about the outcome. His administration simply didn't prepare for establishing order immediately after Saddam Hussein's government was ousted and had no long-term strategy to deal with a nationalistic uprising. As Knight-Ridder newspapers reported almost a year ago, when the insurgency seriously began to take root, the architects of the Iraq War “didn’t develop any real post-war plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader as the country’s leader.” [Miami Herald, July 12, 2003]

Still, the Bush administration doesn't appear to have come to grips with how fragile its predicament in Iraq is. It's lumbering ahead with its plans of installing a favorable government and establishing permanent military bases. So far, its principal response to challenges in Iraq has been a decision to send an additional 15,000 troops. [CNN, June 25, 2004]

Vietnam

Besides sending more troops, the administration doesn’t seem to have any workable strategy for defeating the insurgency. One likely strategy to be tried will be the introduction of Iraqi government paramilitary forces to duplicate the kind of assassination programs that decimated the Viet Cong infrastructure in Vietnam and wiped out almost a generation of leftist dissidents in Central America. In the $87 billion package approved by Congress last November, $3 billion was appropriated for a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen associated with former Iraqi exile groups. [American Prospect, Jan. 1, 2004]

According to a former U.S. intelligence officer familiar with the plan, “It could be expected to be fairly ruthless in dealing with the remnants of Saddam.” [Telegraph, April 1, 2004] But while these paramilitary forces may kill some leaders of the insurgency, they also are certain to kill many civilians, further fuelling the resentment that is feeding the resistance.

If previous counterinsurgency campaigns are a guide, there is little reason to think that the plan for Iraq will succeed in crushing the Iraqi resistance any time in the near future, if at all. Unlike in Central America, there is no well-entrenched ruling elite backed by loyal security forces.

Perhaps the closest comparison to the situation in Iraq is the Vietnam War. In that conflict, the U.S. was defending a fragile South Vietnamese government – which was widely seen as a puppet of the United States – against a home-grown insurgency that had previously fought occupiers from France and Japan. The only way the Saigon government could survive was with massive U.S. support.

But as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other architects of the war now concede, they failed to understand the enemy and underestimated the determination to expel the American forces. In Iraq, the architects of the war assumed that the overwhelming military power of the United States, showcased by the "Shock and Awe" bombing campaign at the start, would be enough to scare the Iraqis into submission.

Few Accomplishments

Except for the three-week military campaign to seize Baghdad, not much has gone right. A new report by the General Accounting Office found that in a number of ways Iraq is worse off now than before the U.S. invasion, including security, infrastructure and the functioning of the legal system. Twenty million Iraqis are living with less electricity now than they were before the invasion.

Also, there are doubts about the effectiveness of training Iraqi security forces. The GAO noted that Iraq’s new civil defense, police and security units are suffering from mass desertions. On some occasions, those trained and armed by the United States have joined the insurgents in battling the occupation forces. During the siege of Fallujah in May, many of the U.S.-recruited Iraqi security forces that were supposed to help defeat the insurgents abandoned their posts or joined the militants.

The London Telegraph has reported that U.S.-trained police officers and units of Iraq’s new army have formed a united front with Muslim fundamentalists in Fallujah to fight the Americans. One Iraqi lieutenant told the Telegraph that, “Resistance is stronger when you are working with the occupation forces. That way you can learn their weaknesses and attack at that point.” [Telegraph, June 27, 2004]

Even the administration's claim of “progress” in gaining NATO's agreement to help train Iraqi forces may be less than meets the eye. French President Jacques Chirac said he is firmly opposed to seeing the NATO flag fly in Iraq. And, while NATO may be contributing to the training of security units, the NATO member states are not offering Washington any new military forces.

Legal Status

The Bush administration also has suffered defeats within the diplomatic community. Washington was forced to withdraw a resolution before the UN Security Council that would have extended immunity for U.S. forces from the International Criminal Court.

The previous Security Council resolution provided that no forces would be under the court’s jurisdiction if their nations had not ratified the treaty creating the ICC, effectively granting the U.S. blanket immunity from the court. But the U.S. exemption was set to expire on June 30. So the administration sought the two-year extension.

However, facing unusually strong opposition in the Security Council and from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Bush administration decided to withdraw its draft resolution on June 23. Now, U.S. forces could be subject to prosecution in a variety of UN authorized operations.

Abuses such as those that took place in Abu Ghraib prison theoretically could be prosecuted as war crimes, provided that the American legal system is unwilling or unable to deal with the perpetrators, as provided for in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Still, Shantha Rau of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court said the Bush administration has little reason to fear Americans facing prosecution. Even if the court has jurisdiction over the Americans, it is unlikely to pursue a case against American forces, with a glut of cases stemming from conflicts in Uganda and Angola.

Still, the failure to secure an exemption is in marked contrast to the Bush administration’s position of a couple years ago when it appeared that the U.S. was forging a new world order in which all nations were expected bow to American will. Since 9/11, the administration has pursued a dogmatically unilateral approach to international relations, asserting U.S. exceptionalism and demanding that the United States essentially be placed above international law.

In September 2002, the administration issued a new National Security Strategy statement that spelled out its doctrine of pre-emptive war and its goal of world domination. The essential concept of the strategy was to deter, through military pre-eminence, the possibility of any country or alliance of countries to ever surpass or equal the power of the United States.

To this end, the document argued, the U.S. must adopt a policy of pre-emptive regime change to remove actual or potential adversaries and replace them with friendly regimes. The document complained that “the major institutions of American national security were designed in a different era to meet different requirements,” and so, “all of them must be transformed.”

Besides permanent U.S. global dominance, the White House asserted the U.S. president possessed near dictatorial powers. In a series of legal memoranda, the administration argued that neither domestic nor international law could apply to Bush’s prosecution of the “war on terror.”

In order to carry out his “commander in chief” authority, the administration argued, there could be no constraints on his actions. In particular, they asserted, Geneva Conventions do not apply to the U.S. in this war, because the war on terror was not a war envisioned when the Conventions were signed in 1949.

Going beyond theoretical legal arguments, George Bush actually signed an order in February 2002, in which he stated, “I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva.” [AP, June 22, 2004] Bush also used new definitions to grant himself exemptions from international law, such as the creation of a category called "enemy combatants," who supposedly aren't covered by the Geneva Conventions or U.S. constitutional safeguards. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's 'Apex' of Unlimited Power."]

International Push-Back

But in the recent bilateral U.S.-European Union declaration on Iraq, the relevance of the rule of law was upheld and the Geneva Conventions, particularly, were defended. “We stress the need for full respect of the Geneva Conventions,” the declaration read.

Along with the Security Council’s refusal to extend U.S. immunity from the ICC, it is apparent that the international community is trying to rein in the excesses that have become common place since Bush launched the war on terror almost three years ago. The international community appears to have grown weary of the Bush administration’s unilateral declarations about which international laws apply and which ones don't.

The American political system also has taken some steps to limit Bush’s assertion of near-unlimited power. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees being held without charges as “enemy combatants” may have access to U.S. courts.

However, Bush's conservative base continues to bluster against the idea of any constraints on U.S. actions abroad. Right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly referred to Iraqis as a “prehistoric group” and advocated that we “bomb the living daylights out of them.” Earlier, during the siege of Fallujah, O’Reilly used his radio program to urge the military to “level” the city. “We know what the final solution should be,” he said, leaving listeners to wonder whether he meant a nuclear strike.

Bush, too, has shown a tough-guy contempt for international law. When asked once whether his decision to exclude anti-war nations from reconstruction contracts was in compliance with international law, Bush sarcastically replied, “International law? I better call my lawyer.”

How Bush will react if the situation in Iraq goes from bad to worse is anybody's guess, especially if he succeeds in gaining a second term in the White House. Bush could interpret an electoral victory as a carte blanche to seek "final solutions" not only in Iraq but within the U.S. political process.

But, in the meantime, Iraq is looking more and more like a Vietnam War without the jungle, a nationalist struggle waged against foreign domination while Washington rushes in more troops to prop up a tottering puppet regime.

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