Dead Men Left

Thursday, May 20, 2004

It is strange to see just how quickly the US/UK occupation of Iraq has fallen apart. Strange, though perhaps not wholly unpredictable. The calculation made by the neo-cons around Rumsfeld was that the absolutely decisive technological advantage the US enjoyed militarily could be used to decisively alter the political situation to their advantage. Their estimation that a conventional war could be fought to successful conclusion against a sizeable army with minimum casualties proved quite correct; likewise the calculation, in the case of Iraq, that the Hussein regime enjoyed the barest minimum of support from the population.

Though the war was not launched for this reason alone, Afghanistan acted as a convenient trial run; hence Rumsfeld's delirious suggestion that the battle for the Tora Bora caves represented a major paradigm shift in warfare, involving new technologies and tactics in combination to a produce decisive advantage. Where the calculation was absolutely adrift was in assuming that military control would translate easily into political. In practice, neither (though we hear little about it) in Afghanistan, nor in Iraq has it been possible to impose a technological fix on the political problematic. The marginally saner voices in the Pentagon prior to the war no doubt realised this, and required the "coalition of the willing" - but most of all, Britain - to reassure them that the many burdens likely to face Iraq's occupiers would not be carried by the US alone. This, despite recent revelations that Bush himself was prepared to do without the UK's support, is why the British were needed: the traditional, conservative politics of the Pentagon required coalitions and diplomatic niceties, just as they had in the First Gulf War before an agreement on the invasion could be reached. This, rather than Blair's allegedly restraining influence on Bush - a demonstrably non-existent phenomenon - or the allegedly "special" relationship Britain enjoys with the US through its President is the reason for the UK's importance. Bush and the neo-cons would have tried to invade, regardless of the UK's backing; the Pentagon would have been substantially, and probably decisively, less likely to support such a move.

Saddam fell, and fell quickly. A minority of Iraqis immediately opposed the occupation; a majority appear, after years of wars and sanctions, to have resignedly tolerated it without actively supporting the US/UK. That resignation has shifted over the last year, and the brutal application of further technological fixes - from banning newspapers, to establishing controlled media, to the torture we see in Abu Ghraib - has not prevented it turning into a clear determination to remove the US/UK occupiers. Blair is finished as a result of the Iraq war, with Labour heading for a catastrophic defeat in the June 10 elections; Bush, once apparently unshakeable, is facing his removal in November. In the longer term, as John Gray argued in yesterday's Independent, the consequences for the US are likely to be even more severe than Vietnam. There is no way forward for either occupying force now. Their only real option, much as they twist and turn, is to cut their losses and run. And when they do, not only the whole Arab world, but all those millions who opposed their war, will cheer.