Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives

Robert Springborg
19 March 2008

 Two contradictory narratives of the United States role in Iraq have existed since its forces’ occupation began to sour shortly after the invasion in March-April 2003. The first casts Uncle Sam as a bumbling, ignorant giant who, having “broken Iraq”, has no other course but to try to fix it. In this circumstance, fear of the consequences of sudden retreat keep the American Gulliver pinned to the Iraqi ground. If only security could be restored, Uncle Sam would happily depart.

This narrative is the dominant one. It is supported by a plethora of books and articles that chronicle the Clancy Cops-like incompetence of the Bush administration. Many of them are written by key architects of the invasion and occupation, each of whom point the finger of blame at the other. Douglas J Feith, who helped orchestrate the debacle from his post in the department of defence, is only the latest to join in this blame game. His massive tome, War and Decision, derides Colin Powell and most of his state department, Condoleezza Rice and the National Security Council, George Tenet and his CIA, General Tommy Franks, L Paul Bremer and other prominent US decision- makers; only Feith’s own boss and patron, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is exempt from scorn.

Such voluminous tales of bureaucratic infighting, compounded by personal animosities and score-settling, typically rounded off with references to lack of knowledge of Iraq, insensitivity to the constraints of the post-neo-colonial era, and failure to prepare for a post-invasion transition - all these ingredients serve as raw material for academics and journalists to recycle into their own tomes or pot-boilers. The collective outcome is a sizeable library that reinforces the narrative of a mission condemned to failure from the outset, leaving a vulnerable, weak Uncle Sam struggling with the mechanics of self-extrication from the Iraqi quagmire.

Indeed, the nature of that struggle - a political as much or more than a military one - has itself become a major focus of attention. Here too a profusion of proposals collide and compete with one other. The comparative merits of Senator Joe Biden’s “soft partition” are weighed against Senator Barack Obama’s and Senator Hillary Clinton’s commitments to commence troop withdrawals in earnest shortly after their presumed elections. These and other ideas emanating from the Democratic Party are contrasted with what are seen as more hawkish Republican plans, and with the actual policies of the George W Bush administration; the difference often seems to come down not to ideology but primarily to the practical preconditions for “bringing the troops home”.

Bush, John McCain and other Republicans are portrayed as convinced believers in withdrawal for the sake of the troops, but more fearful of the consequences of doing so prematurely. Hence (in this understanding) the “surge”, which is designed to provide sufficient security for the Iraqi government to finally manage to get its act together, defeat the insurrectionists, repair the infrastructure and rule the country either alone, or with only minimal US assistance.

Uncle Sam, in this narrative - and whether Democratic or Republican is immaterial - has learned his lesson and is now trying to salvage whatever he can from a bad situation. In the words of Olivier Roy Iraq is “a damage control operation” for the US (see “Iraq will not be a Qaedistan”, International Herald Tribune, 7 March 2008).

A malign intent

A second narrative dismisses this account as naive. George W Bush’s Uncle Sam is more Machiavelli than Gulliver. His Plan A may have failed and his war cabinet may have self-destructed, but the duplicitous president is still not committed to withdrawal in a Plan B. Instead, he is conniving to dig American troops further into Iraq and to ensuring that any successor administration will find it extremely difficult to extract them.

The evidence to support what might be called this “evil genius” narrative is manifold. It includes many actions ordered or directly sanctioned by the president himself:

Paul Rogers has been writing a weekly column on global security for openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.

Many of his articles track the war in Iraq.

The latest is:

The war over there
(7 March 2008)

* the construction in Iraq of sprawling military facilities and a massive US embassy

* continued efforts to build Iraqi security forces that are dependent upon their US counterparts

* negotiation with the dependent Iraqi government of a new legal framework for the continuation of the occupation

* backtracking from earlier commitments to reduce the troop surge and committing itself only to review the situation when the current mandate expires in July 2008 (amidst cautions from US ambassador Ryan Crocker that a new cycle of violence could start if withdrawals “were not handled very carefully”)

* continued holding of Iraqi reserve funds in excess of $27 billion in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

* doubling of monies to support “provincial reconstruction teams’ (PRTs)

* enhanced reliance for reconstruction on the military’s “commander’s emergency response program” (Cerp)

* a steady shift from US financing of Iraqi reconstruction into local financing, as annual Iraqi oil receipts climbed above $41 billion in 2007 and continue to rise as production, exports and prices increase.

These actions specific to Iraq are, in this narrative, part of a broader securitisation approach to global affairs that the Bush administration is seeking to firmly root in Washington. Again, a host of decisions suggest that for the White House, Iraq is simply part of a broader, Manichean global struggle to be fought out with military and security forces:

* the largest military budget in real terms since the second world war

* the vetoing in March 2008 of a bill to prevent the CIA from using “harsh interrogation methods” against suspects

* attempts to intensify the Nato campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan

* replacement of democratisation as a foreign-policy objective by support for US-friendly dictators

* steadfast refusal to rename or downgrade the “global war on terror”.

But even assuming Bush has only modified Plan A and still believes that America can single-handedly re-engineer Iraq, is this not a delusion? Can the narrative of confusion and collapse be so misleading? Could the US really be capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat?

A major gamble

While “victory” (in whatever way that can be meaningfully defined) seems improbable, it is definitely the case that the incentives that drew the Bush administration into Iraq remain powerful. Indeed, they are even more compelling now than they were in 2003. At over $100 a barrel, oil is more than twice the price it was then - and the US economy is suffering mightily as a result. Iraqi production has climbed back to some 2 million barrels per day, with exports of about 1.5 million barrels. Iraq is now grossing more than $1 billion in oil revenues weekly.

This in turn indicates that if the Iraqi government were to spend the entirety of its $48 billion annual budget (which it failed to do in 2007 by a huge margin and is likely to again in 2008), it would still have a substantial budgetary surplus - held in US treasury bills. It could be that Paul Wolfowitz’s claim that Iraqi reconstruction would be self-financing could turn out to be at least less wrong than it was for the first five years after he made it.

Whatever the status of the relatively paltry sums involved in Iraqi budgets for reconstruction, the bigger prize of Iraqi oil is still unclaimed. Present negotiations indicate that when and if the new oil law is enacted, multinational oil companies will claim a very significant share of the action, possibly on contentious production-sharing agreements. Whoever directly benefits from Iraqi production, the indirect benefits to consumers (and especially American ones) of Iraq achieving export targets in line with its possession of the third largest reserves in the world would go a considerable way to pay for what economist Joseph Stiglitz has dubbed “the three trillion-dollar war”.

Among openDemocracy’s many articles on Iraq’s politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida,
The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq” (
5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett,
Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives” 
(3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday,
Looking back on Saddam Hussein
(7 January 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali,
"The end of secularism in Iraq
(18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali,
"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida,
Democracy, Iraq and the middle east” 
(18 November 2005)

Reidar Visser,
Iraq’s partition fantasy
(18 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali,
"Iraq’s war of elimination
(21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani,
"Iraq: not civil war, occupation
(7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael,
The ghost of Saddam Hussein
(30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali,
"Iraqis in freefall
(21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes,
Iraq in 2012: four scenarios
(11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp,
Iraq: the politics of the local
(25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein,
Iraq’s political space
(18 February 2008)    

But even aside from money, Iraq remains vital to the Bush conception of regional geopolitics. In cold-war terminology, “containment” or even “rollback” of Iran has become a US strategic priority, even among Democrats (notwithstanding that support for the American hard line is ebbing away in Europe and most of the middle east, even in the ostensibly threatened Gulf region). On Iraq’s “western front”, Bush’s failure to deliver a knockout blow to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Hizbollah or Palestine’s Hamas has again highlighted the potential utility of Iraq as an anvil to the Israeli hammer. For the US to secure a “strong” but dominated Iraq would in this conception also provide backbone for Washington’s Arab Gulf allies.

In this conception, salvaging Iraq would for Bush be tantamount to salvaging his own tattered legacy. At one swoop he could wipe away the negatives that have overwhelmed his presidency. The personal temptation to have another throw of the dice in Iraq must be huge.

But is this a gamble that could possibly succeed? Is not a 21st-century western occupation of an Arab country, especially a large one with a long history of national resistance, doomed to fail?

A changing context

The original thrust into Iraq was intended in part by the Bush administration to break the mould of modern middle-east history. It has succeeded in at least a small way in doing that. Iraq in 2008 is not what it was in 2003, or even in 2006. Both Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis have become disenchanted with nihilistic, sectarian violence and have increasingly turned their back on narrowly sectarian leaders, especially those who wrap their appeal in religion. Iraqi nationalism is stirring and in its emerging variant appears to be anti-Iranian, even among some Shi’a. The longing for peace, security and development has intensified. The size and capacities of the various Iraqi security forces, all trained, equipped and at least indirectly controlled by US forces, have increased. A precarious balance between the central and provincial governments has been established, in part through the work of the US’s provincial reconstruction teams and devolution of budgetary support to the provinces (see Charles Tripp, “ Iraq: the politics of the local”, 25 January 2008)).

The promise of institutionalising this balance through provincial (2008) and then national (2009) elections is not altogether hollow, despite attempts by incumbent national leaders to postpone or even abort them. In sum, the Bush administration can take some heart from recent developments and conclude, not totally unreasonably, that a modicum of political order can be established, very possibly under nascent Iraqi security forces willing to work with their US “ally”.

The regional and global contexts have also changed. The Arab world has not yet warmly embraced America’s Iraq, but the latter is not the pariah it was even three years ago. Slowly it is being reintegrated into the Arab system, to the extent there is one. Global opposition to the American presence has steadily dissipated. No western leader now raises applause by condemning the occupation and some, including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, endorse it. Public sensitivities about the issue have likewise diminished substantially. Withdrawal of allied troops (Spanish, Danish, Italian, and Australian among them) has worked to strengthen the hand of the US in Iraq - in part because it has reduced domestic opposition to it within those countries, and in part because the US is not constrained operationally nor counterbalanced by their presence. The United Nations is working in Iraq not only on development, but also on political issues. The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has made no statement critical of the US role.

Bush, in sum, has plenty of incentives to fight on in Iraq and has an outside hope of winning. But continuing the fight is itself an objective. By doing so he is setting a trap for his successor, one that those who supported the Vietnam war tried but failed to do. The “stab in the back” theory simply did not persuade an American public that had seen helicopter evacuations from the Saigon embassy rooftop and had to count 58,000 of its young men killed over two decades.

But the Democrats, if they win the presidential election in November, had better be wary this time. The Bush administration is propagating the idea that the surge is working, that normalcy is being restored in Iraq, and that success is just around the corner. “Surrender” in those circumstances would be a risky political undertaking, and one that Hillary Clinton in particular seems acutely aware of as she resorts to verbal gymnastics to obfuscate her intentions. It would, moreover, give a retired Bush a chance to rewrite his legacy to history.

In sum, the Iraq war has created a narrative of US incompetence and defeat that the Bush administration is desperately trying to replace with a second narrative in which the US appears more capable and on the brink of success. The key question is whether or not it can manage to create just enough objective reality to make this second narrative plausible. Hence it is busy manufacturing a political poison pill that will prevent hostile forces from taking over the president’s war in Iraq and ending it. Narratives, after all, define reality, so the struggle over the tale of Uncle Sam in Iraq is not just a matter for historians.

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