The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Critics Weigh In On Alternative U.S.-Iraq Policies

by Saadia Iqbal

Western analysts take on difficult subjects such as foriegn military presence, the prospect for elections and alternative ways forward, arriving at a range of proposals that differ from the current US outlook.

Nov. 7, 2004 – Since so much of the US presidential campaign was dominated by debate over the slightest of differences between the major candidates’ views on how to "stay the course" in Iraq, the considerable dissent among analysts offering alternative proposals for US policy toward Iraq was drowned out. But many say that if the US government were able to admit mistakes and consider policy changes, there are some ideas with the potential to provide Iraqis a better chance at achieving the security and stability they so desperately lack under the US-led occupation as it is currently conducted.

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Analysts moved to step out of the dominant train of Western thought on the Iraq question and present a broad spectrum of analysis and suggestions. Their ideas range from moderate to dramatic and differ on issues such as the importance and potential for elections, what role if any US and other foreign troops should play in Iraq, and what pro-active steps the United States could take in the short-term to build confidence among Iraqis. But the common thread across the alternative proposals they present is the need to substantially adjust the approach, or at least the outlook, taken by Iraq’s interim government and foreign custodians.

Naomi Klein, an author and journalist who reported from Iraq for The Nation earlier this year, told The NewStandard that the first step toward a decent Iraq policy would have to include admitting that the situation is much worse than previously stated -- a tall order for the recently re-elected president who initiated the war.

Michael Donovan said that although he too believes the presence of American forces is driving the resistance, pulling out immaturely would make the situation disintegrate further still.

She also says US troops should leave Iraq.

The Military Occupation

Klein said the presence of the American military on Iraqi soil is itself a provocation. "It’s not a way to ensure security, but rather it incites violence, because [US troops] are the central provocation," she said. "And there is no way the UN can now try to act as a genuine alternative, having already sided with the US -- there is no way they can come in and be seen as different while there are continued US troops in Iraq."

Michael Donovan, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a progressive think tank focused on military issues, said that although he too believes the presence of American forces is driving the resistance, pulling out immaturely would make the situation disintegrate further still.

"There could even be a civil war," he said. "The US has an obligation to remain until the Iraqi government is capable of defending the country itself."

Another respected analyst says that contrary to some appearances and the claims of critics like Klein and Donovan, it is not US troops driving the violence.

"The insurgents just want to make things more complicated," said Rick Barton, Co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "They don’t want to build, just destroy. The number one reason for the violence is not the presence of US troops. I think whatever the provocation, [the insurgents] have lost power and they’re not happy."

Carl Conetta recommends the US declare that it wants no long-term military position in Iraq, the UN and US should work toward creating national committees to serve as watch dogs over the interim government, and these committees should comprise recognized Iraqi leaders to ensure representative governance.

Nevertheless, Barton shares other critics’ concerns about the use of occupying forces thus far. "The way the troops were deployed, the way the patrols were set out, everything was flawed," he said. The Bush administration, in Barton’s view, has made many bad choices, resulting in the current situation. "Generally, we’ve been flawed," he said. "We’ve never really known what the Iraqi people were thinking, and they didn’t know what we were thinking. We had poor analysis and poor understanding. Our most fundamental mistake was that we did not establish public safety in Iraq. So we’ve ended up with a situation where there’s a loser in Iraq, but nobody won the war."

While the analysts are critical of how the Bush administration has handled the war, Carl Connetta, co-director of a progressive, Caimbridge-based think tank called Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), says that "internationalizing" the postwar effort is not the whole solution either, contrary to what John Kerry suggested during the campaign. Conetta has created a thorough, detailed proposal entitled Radical Departure: Toward a Practical Peace in Iraq.

"‘Internationalization,’ although a prerequisite of success," wrote Conetta, "is neither sufficient nor even primary. The first and most important step is selecting a practicable set of mission objectives. And these are not yet in sight."

According to Conetta’s paper, none of the major moves taken by or proposed for the United Nations would mitigate the situation enough for US troops to leave. The installation of the interim government, Security Council Resolution 1546 endorsing the interim government, and even the prospect of a greater UN role in Iraq all fall far short.

Rick Barton proposes that a priority should be placed on making Baghdad safe.

Conetta explained the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq as resulting from a desire "not only to repair and selectively reform Iraq, but to virtually reinvent the nation --economically, socially, and politically. The mission also has aimed to substantially decide the future political balance inside Iraq and to establish the country as a reliable ally and base for US operations.….


While Conetta concluded that the postwar mission should move Iraq as quickly as possible to national elections, Michael Donovan at the CDI said the elections would probably not help.

"Much though I would like to embrace the idea of elections and self-determination in Iraq, I don’t understand how you can have elections in a war torn population," he said. "Segments of the Sunni population won’t participate, or won’t be able to participate, because there are areas where the US forces and the interim government can’t go."

Donovan added: "Beyond the point of Iraq governing itself, was the idea of bringing the warring factions together under an umbrella of political action... I think there will be a lot of bloodshed during and after election, and I don’t think the election is going to bring all warring factions together and lead to a cessation of violence."

Meanwhile, Klein says the time to hold elections was back in January 2004, when Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and hundreds of thousands of his Shi’ite followers made a vehement call for democracy.

"The excuses were complete fabrications for why the elections shouldn’t take place," Klein said. "Washington claimed that the security situation was too bad at the time and that they didn’t have enough [information] on voter rolls. And the UN, in a terrible act of submission, complied with the US. Now [Washington is] saying it is possible to have elections, but they have made no progress on voter rolls, and the security situation has deteriorated."

The “pre-conditions for genuine democracy” proposed by Naomi Klein include debt relief and reparations for the war and sanctions.

Klein said it was not surprising that the United States took that position. "It was in their interest to create a puppet government," she said, which many agree is the role of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "What’s terribly distressing is the role the UN played in legitimizing it."

The US’s refusal to grant Al-Sistani’s demand for immediate elections earlier this year, said Klein, contributed to the subsequent elevation of more extreme figures like rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who was a minor player at the time.

"The US has to stop trying to control who will run in the election," Klein added. "The attempt to keep Sadr out of the election has massively increased his popularity. The US has basically run his election campaign for him."

The Way Forward

"Not to put too fine a point on it," Conetta of PDA wrote, "the United States will retain a unique and profound capacity to shape and crimp the ‘free will’ of the Iraqi government." Conetta quoted Adam Roberts, Oxford University professor of international relations, who concluded that Iraq is set up to have "the same independence as a dog on a leash."

In his alternative plan, Conetta proposes that the US and the Iraqi interim government "begin a broad and pro-active campaign of ‘truce making’ and ‘political integration’ with insurgent groups," mediated by "local village, municipal, tribal, and religious leaders." However, Conetta advises that foreign fighters and terrorist cells should be excluded from that initiative.

Conetta also recommends the US declare that it wants no long-term military position in Iraq, the UN and US should work toward creating national committees to serve as watch dogs over the interim government, and these committees should comprise recognized Iraqi leaders to ensure representative governance.

To create economic stability, Conetta wrote, the US should increase the number of Iraqi firms involved in postwar reconstruction efforts, and the postwar mission in Iraq should essentially limit itself to activities such as humanitarian relief, infrastructure building, establishing civil order, preparing for elections, and arresting war criminals and human rights violators.

Conetta’s report notes several things the postwar mission should not do, such as advancing the "narrow interests, foreign policy agenda, or power of any one state or group of states, and making decisions that usurp the prerogatives of the Iraqi people -- such as restructuring the Iraqi economy and education system, setting the foreign policy of the nation, or committing the nation to alliances or long-term contracts."

Not all of the analysts we consulted had elaborate visions to offer.

Barton of CSIS proposes that a priority should be placed on making Baghdad safe. "One third of the population lives there," he said. "We need to first of all focus on making Baghdad safe with a combination of military policing and local community initiatives. Not just the US and internationals, but a very rich combination of all parties because everything is so out of control."

Donovan at CDI is pessimistic about any short-term solution in Iraq.

"Right now I don’t see a plan for peace in Iraq," he said. "I’m very disheartened and not very optimistic about a coalition of forces that can come together to provide any level of peace. The political and economic resources are few, and the insurgency has a momentum that’s very difficult to stop. I don’t see any way to displace continued violence over the next few years."

Donovan said the only solution he could think of was an extremely long-term slog that sounds much like a realist’s version of the current policy.

"We need to struggle against the weight of insurgent violence to try and improve the lot of Iraqis’ lives while simultaneously trying to empower the Iraqi government to defend itself and serve public interests," Donovan said, reflecting more conventional wisdom. "If we succeed in doing that while keeping insurgents at bay, then more and more Iraqis would hopefully support the government, and support for insurgents would dry out."

Donovan’s proposed timetable, however, departs from established views. "This would take a decade," he said, "and there’s no magic bullet to make it happen."

In the end, Donovan places an imperative on the United States to make up for its blunder. "The US fundamentally has a responsibility to see this through," Donovan said. "We created this mess, we’ve got to clean it up."

Klein agrees about the cleaning up part, but she is more willing to depart wholly from the established course and set forth specific challenges she says the United States can meet in order to begin building confidence among the population it occupies.

"There are several concrete steps than can be taken to convert ‘liberation’ and ‘democracy’ from empty promises to actual possibilities," she said. "The real question we need to ask ourselves is: what are the pre-conditions that would make liberation and democracy meaningful in Iraq, and that would restore some faith in the process?"

Klein’s own hefty helping of "initial" suggestions includes putting "an immediate end to criminal air strikes on Iraqi cities," aborting the pre-election military offensives that "will mean massacres of civilians in Fallujah and the other so-call ‘rebel strongholds.’"

But Klein does not believe the prerogative is that of the American government alone. "The anti-war movement needs to act fast if it is to be any kind of credible voice of solidarity. The latest estimates are that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion, most in attacks like this, with scandalously little public outcry," she said, referring to the findings of a recent study published by the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet. Other independent estimates have put the number of civilian dead at between around 15,000 and 30,000, along with unknown thousands of Iraqi soldiers and rebel combatants.

"Next," Klein continued, "the anti-war movement needs to pick up on Kerry's promise in the first debate that he would show that the US does not have ‘long-term designs on Iraq.’ That statement was false -- the US does have long term designs on Iraq, as expressed by attempts to lock in 40-year privatization contracts [and] saddle the next government with [International Monetary Fund]-imposed ‘reforms,’ and by the construction of so-called ‘enduring military bases.’"

Klein says that a "meaningful democracy" can only be brought about through a reversal of plans the US has in store for Iraqis. "One step would be immediately overturning [former occupation chief Paul] Bremer's economic laws that allow foreign corporations to come in and buy up Iraq." She also thinks a caveat should be added to already-established contracts relieving a government elected in the future from being bound by agreements made between non-elected Iraqi or foreign officials and international corporations.

Other "pre-conditions for genuine democracy" proposed by Klein are debt relief and reparations for the war and sanctions. "Iraq is saddled with a $200 billion debt that guarantees a future shackled to the agendas of its foreign creditors," she said. "Rather than paying Saddam's debts, or the occupation's debts, Iraq needs to receive massive war reparations for an illegal invasion, occupation, and for twelve years of brutal sanctions."

Like most other critics, Klein does not offer a complete program, but she insists these and other concrete efforts constitute a prerequisite for establishing the trust most Iraqis seem to believe the US has consistently violated since the beginning of the occupation.

Editors' Note: Aware that the use of exclusively Western sources in an article presenting policy ideas regarding the future of a country like Iraq has severe limitations. Iraq correspondent Dahr Jamail is pursuing a complementary article what will feature only Iraqi analysts. That piece will understandably take longer, but we expect to publish it later this month.
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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Saadia Iqbal is a contributing journalist.

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