Monday, January 01, 2007

It's an Occupation, Not a War

Every now and then I find myself in "enemy" territory.

For instance, I was invited to a small New Year's Eve gathering by some relatively new acquaintances. I understand that many of my views are hard for some folks to swallow at first glance. They cut against the "mainstream", nightly news grain so I don't walk into new environments with pistols blazing or anything. But sometime during the football game the subject of Iraq came up because of Saddam's execution -- it wasn't me, I promise. The reaction of the people there was one of celebration on the one hand and disgust that Muslims could possibly have any complaints about it on the other. So, right then and there it was clear. This is not my target audience -- but maybe they should be.

Anyway, I have nothing against these folks. They seemed damned decent to me and I liked them. They didn't strike me as partisan political junkies at all. They were ordinary folks who, like anyone else, were reacting to the news of the day. But the conversation was peppered with vintage BushCo talking points despite the fact that I didn't get the feeling these were rabid Bush supporters. Still, they were riding the "fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" horse like Willie Shoemaker. That stuff is like horseradish or dirty diapers to me -- damned near impossible to ignore. It's hard to let that stuff go unanswered.

My opening came when one of the guests mentioned that our involvement in the war was now longer than our involvement in World War II. That factoid seemed to surprise some of the others in the room and that gave me the opportunity send up my trial balloon.

"That's true," I said, "but when you really think about it, it's not really a war so much as it is an occupation," I offered helpfully.

"I mean, there's not really a line of troops with tanks, air support, attack chopper and gunships facing our guys over there," I added.

I finished it off with what I admit was a bit of superficial rhetorical camouflage, "So, if you look at it in terms of other occupations, it's not really that long at all."

Everyone reacted positively to that one, to my pleasant surprise, agreeing that it was more like an occupation than a hot war like WWII or even Vietnam.

Seed Planted

The distinction between war and occupation is an important one when it comes to people's perception of our involvement in Iraq. The Bush administration seems to realize that as long as they can keep the public locked into the war paradigm they can still kick up little dust-bunnies of support for their program. Their well-worn assortment of schoolyard taunts, accusing critics of wanting to "cut & run" or "appease the enemy" are just enough to earn them at least the grudging support of an American public that feels obligated to back their country in a war, right or wrong.

But something happened in that room when I managed to get people to acknowledge the true nature of what's happening in Iraq. Once they accepted the idea of it being an occupation instead of a war all the talk of "victory" ended abruptly. Now, one might suspect that this happened because I'd made them uncomfortable, but I don't think so. That's not the feeling I got. What I think really happened is that everyone realized that you can't win an occupation the way you can win a war.

So here we see how language, the words we choose to use, effects the direction and tone of the debate -- a fact that I promise you is not lost on the Bush Administration. The power of language is why our media establishment is so squeamish about naming the obvious civil war that is taking place in Iraq. They insist on calling it all "sectarian violence" because "civil war" just seems too damning for their tastes and those of the White House. They would be even more squeamish about labeling our presense there an occupation if any significant pressure to do so even existed.

If it's called a war then the more than 3,000 dead servicemen can be minimized as insignificant compared to other wars. But that's not a fair comparison, is it? How do those numbers stack up in comparison to other occupations? How many of our troops died in Germany? Japan? The Balkans? Somalia? Need a I go on? That simple shift of the paradigm changes the whole ballgame.

War allows people to behave like cheerleaders, cheering on our armed services as they slug it out against military adversaries who can be tangibly defeated. Victory is easily defined as the operational incapacitation of the enemy. Whoo-hah.

Occupation, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. An occupation is carried out against a civilian population and it's a lot harder to get decent, ordinary Americans cheering for military assaults on civilians.

What's more, the only possible victory that exists in the occupation of people who neither want to be occupied nor share your goals for their country is the continuance of the occupation. Victory is no longer an attractive end to be achieved but a seemingly permanent, artificial condition to maintained. As such, an occupation mind-set forces people back home, like the ones I met last night, to think and ask the only questions that matter.

"Why are we there again?" and "When are we going to leave?"

Why are we there?

Because being there is the whole point. Being there to control the oil supply; being there to threaten Iran and Syria; and being there to influence the region by our very presence are all the stated reasons outlined by top Bush Administration officials years before 9/11 ever happened.

We don't have to speculate on any this because these fools wrote it all down long ago in a series of documents dating back as early as 1992. The message was tweaked, expounded upon and polished again until it was finally published on the web at the website of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). A full year before the events of 9/11 ever happened, in a document entitled "Rebuilding America's Defenses" (PDF file) the PNAC spelled it all out very plainly:

Indeed, the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

So you mean Saddam isn't the real reason? The outlines of the same ideas described in that PNAC document can be found with even more refinement at the White House's own website in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America.

These are no low-level small fries I'm talking about. The PNAC is comprised of officials and advisers from the very top of our government, past and present -- names like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bush, Libby, Khalizad, Podhoretz, Bennett and Cohen just to name a few.

They're proud of this stuff. For them victory does not mean ending this conflict. For them victory means occupation and occupation means control, which brings us to the true answer to the second question.

When are we going to leave?

Never. Understand this. We don't ever intend to leave. This is why we're building 14 permanent bases and the largest foreign embassy in the world over there. This is why our President is so stubbornly opposed to any timetable for withdrawal. A timetable would mean too much pressure to actually withdraw and he doesn't really intend to ever withdraw. It's a problem for future presidents, you know.

And what about all this recent talk of a "troop surge" and an "expansion" of the military? Are these ideas being pursued for the purpose of helping to end this occupation or to facilitate its continuance? It's well-known that the military at it's current size can barely keep up it's current pace as it is. It certainly can't pursue any significant new wars without diverting resources away from Iraq. But a "troop surge" and "expansion" would make it possible to continue the occupation unabated while launching new optional wars against nations like Iran or Syria.

An aside:
For those of you doing Vietnam analogies at home:

Troop surge & expansion = escalation
Iran and/or Syria = Cambodia

This just so happens to dovetail very smoothly into the PNAC's pre-9/11 prescriptions for the US military. Quoting from PNAC's "Rebuilding America's Defenses" again, two "core missions" for the US Military are to:

• fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars;
• perform the “constabulary” duties associated with shaping the security critical regions;

To accomplish these missions the PNACers most notably prescribe the following:

RESTORE THE PERSONNEL STRENGTH of today’s force to roughly the levels anticipated in the “Base Force” outlined by the Bush Administration, an increase in active-duty strength from 1.4 million to 1.6 million. [read: "Expand the military"]

REPOSITION U.S. FORCES to respond to 21st century strategic realities by shifting permanently-based forces to Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia, and by changing naval deployment patterns to reflect growing U.S. strategic concerns in East Asia.

In the above formulation the repositioning of forces would seem to merely surround the middle-east. But in a later section describing their thoughts in greater detail, under the subheading, "Persian Gulf", they explain:

After eight years of no-fly-zone operations, there is little reason to anticipate that the U.S. air presence in the region should diminish significantly as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power... From an American perspective, the value of such bases would endure even should Saddam pass from the scene. Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has. And even should U.S.-Iranian relations improve, retaining forward-based forces in the region would still be an essential element in U.S. security strategy given the longstanding American interests in the region.

In short, again, they have no intention of ever leaving Iraq.

Israel's methods, Israel's results

Again, this is an occupation, not a war. The war portion of our program ended within about two weeks of the invasion. Since that time we have been actively engaged in the permanent occupation of a Muslim country. To assist us in this enterprise we have enlisted the aid of world's foremost authorities on the occupation of Muslim countries, the United Kingdom and Israel. Both have extensive experience from their occupations of Palestine. But Israel in particular has occupied Muslim neighbors in Palestinian territory and the Golan Heights section of Syria continuously for the last 40 years, with stints in Lebanon sandwiched in between for good measure.

The role of Tony Blair's UK in Iraq has been well-documented and needn't be rehashed here. But less is said about Israel's role. From the very outset the US has also relied heavily on Israel's military and intelligence services. Our troops receive training from Israeli Defense Forces in their counterinsurgency efforts, drawing from "lessons learned in the conflict with the Palestinians". Israel also supplies a great deal of the intelligence on Iraq that our government relies on in its continuing operations there.

Let's think about that for a moment. We're taking advice from the Israelis on how to end an insurgency and terrorist activity. In it's 40 years of occupation in Palestine the Israeli terrorist problem has gotten nothing but worse. How are they the ones to go to for tips on how to end terrorism?

Answer: They're not. Instead, they're the ones to go to for tips on how to manage it.

That's an important distinction. In an earlier post I cited University of Southampton professor Oren Ben-Dor's explanation of how this all works. For Israel the idea is not to end the conflict in Palestine at all. Instead they seek to manage it, to contain it and to use it when needed to justify its actions. The ongoing violence resulting from their occupation are made-to-order pretexts for punitive military action, the expansion of Israeli territory and the suppression of Palestinian rights.

This too threatens to be the way of the US occupation of Iraq. Every day of violence justifies our presence and our presence engenders more violence in a self-sustaining loop. When you view the situation from that perspective, focused on the occupation, everything the Bush administration has done makes perfect sense. The permanent bases, the absolutely HUGE embassy, the refusal to enunciate a public plan for withdrawal, the close consultation with Israel and the circular nature of the operations in general all play very conveniently into an open-ended, indefinite, long-term occupation of that country. Even Bush himself is now calling it "the long struggle". Israel has kept this kind of game up for 40 years so don't hold your breath waiting for the US to leave Iraq.

However, it stands to reason that if you employ Israeli methods you're likely going to get Israeli results. Unfortunately, there's nothing in Israel's long-term counter-terrorism track record that suggests that its methods will lead to anything other than more terrorism, more local dissatisfaction and desperation, and the increased radicalization of the occupied population.

Israel's creation and its subsequent occupation of what is left of Palestinian land eventually led to the formation of the PLO in the first place, which we used to think was as bad as it gets... until we saw Hezbollah.

Hezbollah itself was created in response to Israel's occupation of Lebanon and the civil war it caused (stop me if that sounds familiar). We all thought that was uniquely bad... until we saw Hamas.

Hamas was formed in response to Israel's continued occupation and expansion into Palestine and we now, very clearly, care for them even less. It gets more radical as we go along.

With the US, like Israel, occupying a Muslim country using Israeli tactics and methods it can expect to reap the exact same results Israel is getting. Terrorism against the US, even inside the US, stands to mirror that of Israel in the future. This is true, not in spite of our occupation of Iraq, but because of it. This occupation almost guarantees it. We'll be fighting them over here much more than we otherwise might have precisely because we're occupying them over there.

Of course, the US is not Israel and there certain structural truths about Israel that don't exist in the US. However, in the eyes of the Arab world (and in our own congress apparently) the two have always been viewed as nearly synonymous. Our actions in Iraq only serve to reinforce, if not cement, that perception. We allow this at our own peril.

This is the barely-hidden truth that, if revealed convincingly to a wide audience, will unravel this whole thing politically. We are not at war with Iraq and Iraq never threatened our freedom. We are occupying Iraq and we are doing so because that's how our current leaders want it.

They only way for the American people get their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends out of Iraq is to make a significant change in our nation's leadership and to let the new leaders who take their place know that they are on the clock. That process begins by abandoning the self-serving psychological framework the current administration has crafted to justify their actions. Understand that this "war" is actually an unnecessary and wholly premeditated occupation that must end. It is imperative that we do so. The alternative is unthinkable.

I think I brought a few folks closer to this realization last night.

UPDATE: In this post I made mention of the enormous US embassy that BushCo is building in Baghdad. Today the Financial Times published a story about that embassy that, I think, underscores the reality of the situation there. Our presence there is part of a long-term occupation, not a war on terror:

At the heart of George W. Bush’s “new way forward” – which the president is expected to announce on Wednesday and involve substantial troop reinforcements – is the plan already under way to expand the US civilian presence across Iraq and complete the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad.

Construction of what critics call “Fortress Baghdad” has led to arguments inside the State Department amid fears that the overwhelming diplomatic presence will perpetuate a sense of US occupation and become a focus of local anger.


The embassy compound being built inside Baghdad’s Green Zone covers 104 acres, making it six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York. A city within a city for more than 1,000 people, it will have its own water, sewers and electricity, six apartment buildings, a Marine barracks, swimming pool, shops and some walls 15 feet thick.

The State Department has told the Financial Times that the US civilian presence in Iraq has “grown considerably beyond the numbers projected for the new embassy compound”, which is scheduled for completion by September 1 at a cost of $592m (€455m, £307m).


Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, and other officials have repeatedly sent cables to personnel around the world saying diplomats have a patriotic duty to volunteer for Baghdad and the expanding “provincial reconstruction teams”, where diplomats work out of military bases.

“Baghdad dwarfs everything else. It is becoming a monster that has to be fed every year with a new crop of volunteers,” says one diplomat.


John Brown, who resigned as a US diplomat in protest against the 2003 invasion and now teaches public diplomacy, says the embassy “will be a symbol of the US occupation and the near-total separation of US embassy staff members from the society with which they are supposed to interact”.

“Indeed, the planned embassy reminds me of the huge, cavernous buildings that housed Soviet missions in eastern Europe during the cold war. They were hated by the local population for all they stood for: secrecy, arrogance and domination.”



PBI said...

Nice post with some unusual and thought-provoking perspective!

Naomi said...

A most excellent post! (You must thank Mike at Crooks&Liars--he has never steered me wrong.)

Addendum: You forgot Condoleeza Rice (orignal PNAC signer) and the Bush you mention is probably Jeb Bush, who signed a much later PNAC document, which is missing Rice's signature. They number many, many more corrupt neocons who seek, through unexamined motivation, to control our government and, to some extent, the world.

Is it 2009 yet?


theaulddubliner said...

A really fascinating, well threaded article there. It is scary that 4 years of idiocy can be abridged to 3,000 words.

I wonder if the seed you planted in your New Year's Eve friends has taken root and blossomed or has it suffocated in manure since then.

Keep up the good fight !

From my little perch here in Dublin...

FearItself said...

Thanx for the kind words. I don't if can quite take credit for summing up the entire Bush White House occupancy in 3,000 words though. The subject of what's wrong with this administration is so vast I don't think we'll get to the bottom of it all for a generation at least. But thank you.

I did take the time to drop Mike a thank you note. It's always nice to get feedback in this dimly-lit corner of cyberspace so I certainly appreciate it.

As for Condi Rice, people who know me are aware that I would never pass on a chance to point out how overrated she is. She is a long-time product of the ultra-conservative movement (the Hoover Institution, for example; people like her are grown in such labs, metaphorically speaking). But this time I wasn't aware of her having direct connection to the PNAC. I'll have to go over their stuff again to find her there. Thanks for the heads-up.

Take care.

FearItself said...

Some day I'll learn how to proofread. :-)