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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

August 2003

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In another of the occasional short analytical comments made available through Brown University, the author takes to task the U. S. administration in Washington for its post-war occupation policies in Iraq.—Ed.

Occupational Hazards

If in the coming months Americans begin to notice cutbacks in schools, libraries and public transportation, remember this: Our leaders decided to fund military occupation in Iraq rather than vital services here. And what's worse: If we fail to provide services in Iraq -- services that will be expensive -- we should expect nothing but chaos and violence from the occupation.

Reluctantly, some American officials recently began to use a new word when talking about our presence in Iraq: occupation. Even though the Bush administration worked hard to keep this word out of our national vocabulary before and during the war, it has nonetheless started to appear in press briefings and news reports.

We may not have noticed it at the time, but our style of talking about the new Iraq was forever changed by an institution not normally associated with trends in American lingo: the U.N. Security Council. Seeking to ease the export of Iraqi oil, President Bush asked the United Nations to lift sanctions in May. The United Nations' response stated that it was willing to lift sanctions because Iraq was now under the control of a foreign military power, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. But the message contained more than Bush may have expected. It also stipulated that the foreign occupying power is legally responsible for the governance of the occupied country.

So, what can we expect from an occupation? As Americans, we can turn to our own experiences for some answers. In the many military interventions we have embarked upon over the last few decades -- from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan -- the task of governing other societies with our military has often been more difficult than battlefield victory. Whether we call these interventions imperialist or humanitarian, each has been forced to confront some tough facts associated with occupation: a disproportionate ratio of civilian-to-combatant casualties; chaos about our authority and effectiveness as military governors, especially when we fail to win hearts and minds; and the social and health-related problems, from prostitution to drug use, that often attend the recreation of large armies.

Ah! cry the hawks -- you forget that we were forced to go into Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction and to destroy the Iraqi terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda. But as evidence grows that such allegations were based on dubious intelligence reports, these claims appear laughable. And as violence and chaos reign in U. S.- occupied Iraq, the other big claim, that we went to liberate Iraqis from tyranny, has likewise unraveled.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed by U. S. bombs and bullets, mostly during the war. And as Iraqi frustrations with the current situation flare, there will no doubt be more clashes involving U. S. soldiers, and more civilian deaths. Moreover, while U. S. troops take precautions to avoid civilian casualties, one of the strategies of the outgoing Baathist regime has been to confuse our soldiers into killing Iraqi civilians and committing atrocities. We should not expect tomorrow's insurgents to abandon this effective, if repugnant, strategy. With each civilian death, Iraqi hearts and minds turn further from the publicized humanitarian aims of the U. S. occupation. Meanwhile, each week a few more U. S. soldiers are killed and wounded. At the current rate, in a number of weeks the number of peacetime U. S. casualties will eclipse those of the war.

Now in this context consider also the governmental responsibilities we have just taken on as an occupying power, such as providing essential services like food, water, health and security. Some of us who opposed the war doubted whether the U. S. public was financially prepared for taking on these new responsibilities, especially when our own communities are suffering historic budget cuts. "No problem," some replied. Iraqi oil will fund the projects we undertake in that country. But as petroleum economists point out, the revenues from Iraqi oil will not cover the expenses of the invasion, let alone a prolonged occupation.

Who but us, American taxpayers, will be paying the tab? If in the coming months you begin to notice cutbacks in your children's schools, your libraries, your public transportation, remember this: Our leaders decided to fund military occupation there rather than vital services here. And what's worse: If we fail to provide services in Iraq -- services that will be expensive -- we should expect nothing but chaos and violence from the occupation.

Those who steered us into this occupation have much to answer for, especially since most Americans were not and are not prepared to pay the real costs of becoming a long-term occupying power. But whatever the intentions of those who pushed for the war, we need to wake up and see the new American Iraq for what it is: an occupation that will not only be expensive but also quite hazardous.

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Republished by permission. Copyright Elliott Colla. Distributed by Brown University News Service, Providence, RI, USA.


Elliott Colla is professor of comparative literature at Brown University. He is on the editorial committee of Middle East Report.

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