Political failure, military mess

April 25, 2004|By Mahmood Mamdani

MORE THAN 600 people were killed in the U.S. siege of Fallujah; according to the director of the town's general hospital, the vast majority were women, children and the elderly.

The outcome makes clear key shortcomings in U.S. policy in Iraq.

Politically, the Bush administration's claim to bring democracy to Iraq is bogged down in a singular contradiction. Having gone to Iraq with a blueprint on what democracy in Iraq should be like, the administration is both unprepared for and unwilling to allow a democratic process unless it has a fixed and guaranteed outcome.

It does not help that the same constitutional blueprint that guarantees individual rights and freedoms for women also stands in the way of an effective exercise of sovereignty, both by undercutting the recognition of a political majority and by watering down the very meaning of sovereignty.

Is it surprising that voices from the majority see a constitutional blueprint that gives a minority of as few as 20 percent - the Kurds - the right to veto any constitutional change as nothing but a design to cripple the majority?

What, they ask, is the point of confining the meaning of sovereignty to governance alone, but not to effective military control of the national territory? If a sovereign Iraqi authority is to administer Iraq while American occupation forces patrol it, will not that authority be seen as no more than a mask for a continuing occupation? Will it be any different from the string of governments that were said to rule Vietnam while American troops waged the war?

The political failure translates into a series of battlefield dilemmas. Wedded to a military solution through the use of massive and overwhelming force, the United States seems unable to separate civilians from fighters or to distinguish between different kinds of fighters.

Unable to tell apart those who resort to violence to end the occupation and those who embrace violence to hit at Americans, civilian or military, the United States is unable to distinguish between different uses of violence, in self-defense and as terror. Without a political strategy that distinguishes between nationalists and terrorists, it cannot separate wheat from chaff. The result is that as nationalist grievance spreads and is shared by a growing proportion of the population, Iraq is turning into a terrorist haven.

It is time to recall the core lesson of Vietnam - that one had to distinguish between self-determination as the legitimate aspiration of nationalism and as the expansionist agenda of a superpower, the Soviet Union, even if the two were in an alliance. Even a world power such as the United States cannot expect to win a war against nationalism unless it is prepared to commit genocide - kill the very people it claims to be liberating - as a preemptive strategy.

The tragedy of Iraq is twofold. As the occupation proceeds, it is clear that the United States is emulating the worst aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, Iraq has come to mark the point where the war on terror has gone from a war of self-defense to an imperialist war.

The first international cost of a brutal imperialist war will be the isolation of America. More and more of America's allies are becoming aware that they stand to lose from the anti-Americanism that the war is fuelling, not only in Iraq and the Middle East but also globally. The Spanish decision to withdraw troops from Iraq was followed by a similar decision from Honduras, and now two announcements, one by the Dominican Republic that it will withdraw its forces earlier than originally planned and the other by the Norwegian foreign minister that Norway will probably pull out its forces from Iraq within a couple of months.

In the rapidly growing crisis, there is a need to identify the main issue and to think strategically. The main issue is the occupation. What is required is a full and complete withdrawal from Iraq, including military withdrawal.

Once it is clear that American actions on the ground are indeed guided by that strategic objective, all else will follow. It will separate nationalists whose demands will have been satisfied from terrorists who will continue to shoot, but without the shield of a popular uprising. Just as surely as it will dissolve the alliance for occupation, it will build a new alliance wedded to a guarantee of democratic process without a blueprint, leading to effective and full sovereignty for Iraq.

Mahmood Mamdani is a professor in the departments of anthropology and international affairs at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, published this month by Pantheon.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.