Occupational hazards

Iraq 2003 is a world away from Germany 1945.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

On 15 June, the same day that the US military launched Operation Desert Scorpion to round up the ‘pockets of resistance’ in Iraq, US officials met in Kuwait to discuss rebuilding a part of Iraqi society that has been ‘decimated by war and years of neglect’ – its Olympic Games programme. ‘Sport has the power to create hope and opportunity’, explained an official from the US Olympic Committee, as America committed itself to boosting Iraq’s sports structures (1).

In the absence of a political vision for Iraq, US forces have turned to ‘gymnastics, football, and track and field’ in the hope of finding some hope (2). Elsewhere, US officials have promised to rebuild Iraq’s schools (to ‘prepare citizens for democracy’), hospitals (again to ‘offer hope’), and agricultural industry (no doubt because jobs make people happy), as part of America’s ‘Renewal in Iraq’ programme (3).

In a state like Iraq, with no central authority, political parties or social structures, these look like gesture measures. In an attempt to restore hope and generate democracy, the USA is tinkering with the symptoms of a failed state rather than overhauling and remaking it. Meanwhile, away from the sports centres, everyday Iraq is spinning out of control. ‘Iraqis struggle to survive postwar chaos’ said a Reuters headline in early June, as US forces continued to clash with demonstrators (4). Much of postwar Iraq remains without electricity or access to water.

In response to the seeming contradiction between increasing instability and America’s standoffish approach, some have demanded a tougher occupation, along the lines of what US forces did in Germany after the Second World War. Commentators have reminisced about ‘the most successful instances of occupation and reconstruction the USA has had – in Japan and Germany’ (5). President Bush himself has cited America’s German experience, claiming that just as America ‘left constitutions and parliaments’ in Germany, so it will in Iraq (6).

By talking up the reconstruction of Iraq in these terms, both the coalition and its critics overlook two little factors. Iraq is not Germany. And America today is a very different imperialist power to America 50 years ago.

After the Second World War, the USA’s Marshall Plan for economic reconstruction in Europe pumped $20billion into Western European states still reeling from the war. America set up a Military Occupation Government in Germany, to ‘redemocratise’ the defeated state. US forces assumed total control of Germany’s political and economic infrastructure, spending billions on an extensive ‘rebuilding programme’.

Within a year of the war ending – a war that had devastated Germany – the Military Occupation Government had appointed mayors to most major cities, written a constitution, organised municipal and state-level elections, and made moves towards developing an integrated economy and ‘healthy currency’. America posted thousands of troops in West Germany (who remain there to this day), and in other parts of Western Europe.

But in postwar Germany, unlike in postwar Iraq, there was something to build on. Germany was a major capitalist state, one of the most powerful nations on Earth. It had an economy and political structures. It had an elite (including many of the old Nazis) who, after a bit of redemocratisatising, could be posted into positions of power. Iraq, by contrast, is a weak and largely artificial state, created by colonialists who drew lines in the sand, and sustained for decades by outside interference, oil revenues and a heavy dose of repression. Chasing out the Ba’ath Party officials – who dominated every aspect of Iraqi society for over 30 years – has left it a hollow state, a world away from postwar Germany.

More importantly, today’s America is a world away from the America of 1945. Where the USA had a sense of global mission in 1945, a desire to stamp its authority and leadership on the postwar world, today’s US elite is sorely lacking such a sense of purpose. Where, after some debate, US forces in the 1940s committed themselves militarily, politically and economically to rebuilding postwar Germany – as an expression of their power and an extension of their influence – today’s administration is increasingly defensive about its global role and wary of getting stuck into Iraq.

Far from installing anything like a Military Occupation Government, US occupation forces in Iraq chase chancers and gunmen around the backstreets of Baghdad. Despite the anti-war lobby’s claims about America wanting to remake Iraq in its own image, US forces are cautious about impressing themselves on to postwar Iraq. As a hangover from the war, US soldiers still avoid flying the Stars and Stripes – and when Bush hawk Richard Perle claimed that America had a ‘high moral purpose’ in Iraq, he was criticised by some for appearing imperialistic (7).

In postwar Germany, America’s detailed provisional constitution eventually became ‘The Basic Law’, which remains the German constitution today. In Iraq, US forces have so far only come up with a ‘13-point plan’, a single side of A4 paper which suggests what might be nice for the new Iraq, with little detail or commitment. The plan says that ‘Iraq must be democratic….must be built on respect for diversity, including respect for the role of women…and the Ba’ath Party must be dissolved’. But it says little about how any of this might be achieved (8).

Far from being a constitution in the traditional sense, the 13-point plan (like Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-point plan for recovery from addiction) sounds like therapy, some friendly advice for Iraqis rather than a document for the organisation of society.

Indeed, inasmuch as reconstruction is occurring in Iraq, it often appears more therapeutic than political or economic. Major General Tim Cross, the most senior British official involved in rebuilding Iraq, says the coalition’s main aim is to boost Iraqis’ self-esteem. Under the headline ‘Most important task is rebuilding Iraqi morale’ in The Times (London), Cross called on Iraqis to ‘get themselves into a new mindset’. According to a UNICEF child protection officer in Iraq, one of the aims of getting schools open again is to ‘rehabilitate the children, many of whom lack self-esteem’ (9).

US forces have justified their overblown reconstruction efforts – from the sports imitative to rebuilding hospitals to kickstarting agriculture – as ways of ‘restoring hope’ in Iraq and making Iraqis feel better about themselves. Where America rebuilt postwar Germany as a political project to boost its global influence, today’s US forces act like uniformed Oprah Winfreys, whose mission is to spread some love and self-esteem across an Iraq that they just destroyed.

Amid the occupation debacle, it is striking that the only criticism raised by the coalition’s critics is that the occupation isn’t tough enough – overlooking the fact that it was the coalition’s war that destabilised Iraq in the first place, and that the coalition’s continuing presence ensures that it stays that way. Bush, Blair and the rest are unlikely to be phased by a critique that asks them to go in harder, rather than calling for hands off Iraq.

Behind this non-debate, the ongoing confusion in Iraq exposes America’s lack of a project today – as much as it shows up the absence of political and economic structures on which to build in Iraq. And whatever else postwar Iraq might be, it’s no new Germany.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Group to discuss Iraq’s Olympic programme, John Marshall, Associated Press, 15 June 2003

(2) Group to discuss Iraq’s Olympic programme, John Marshall, Associated Press, 15 June 2003

(3) See the Renewal in Iraq section of the White House website

(4) Iraqis struggle to survive postwar chaos, Huda Majeed Saleh, Reuters, 7 June 2003

(5) US could become mired in Iraq occupation, Stratfor, 30 December 2002

(6) President’s radio address, George Bush, White House, 1 March 2003

(7) Perle’s ethics standards as adviser on Pentagon board in question, Maureen Dowd, New York Times, 25 March 2003

(8) 13-point plan for Iraq, ABC News Online, 16 April 2003

(9) Too poor to go to school, Electronic Iraq, 6 June 2003

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Topics World


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