No one genuinely likes liberators. After the initial enthusiasm wears off, the term ‘occupation’ rapidly succeeds it. The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge noted how British soldiers were purposely precluded from a prominent role in the liberation of Paris in 1944 because it was felt the French might take better to the American GI. Such assumptions were naïve. The Parisians whitewashed the problems of Vichy and collaboration with the Third Reich with the idea of spontaneous revolt: they had, in a carefully constructed mythology, self-liberated.
Liberation in Iraq, if one can even call it that, has been a problematic issue from the start. Invasions are often hard sells. As the US soldiers begin leaving on their scheduled (and at times re-scheduled date) of June 30, we will be contemplating whether the loss was worth it, a Middle East gamble at huge cost to life and material. Emotions will, of course, be mixed. Will Iraq crumble? Will autocracy, or perhaps theocracy, reassert their respective roles?
Empires are within themselves deeply contradictory entities. The American imperium more or less purchased entire nations to fight on their side in the conflict in a fatuous ‘coalition of the willing’. But it did so on a premise of intervention that was shown to be patently false. Protesters against the intervention, branded by Rupert Murdoch’s minions as lovers of appeasement, were shown in their millions to have been justified. Worst of all, the public relations firms of the West had to build up the intervention as a mission of emancipation, something that figured somewhat lowly in the calculations of Western leaders involved in the mission.
Americans continue to have nervous reactions against the term ‘occupation’ or ‘empire.’ The stock response is, ‘we helped’; ‘we aided’; ‘we retrained’. The mothers of the slain will be pleased about the efforts of rebuilding in Iraq, and those unconvinced by that will be told to change their minds. The commanders will be relieved that they have attained concrete goals of stabilization, though this is another illusion in an exercise of illusions.
The short of it is that liberations, and their occasional occupations, are often best avoided. Had the US and its bought allies stated the mission in a humanitarian way from the start, matters might be different, if only slightly. Instead, they were saddled with inadequate plans for state-building they were ill equipped to muster, on a mission that was undercut from the start. Back in 2004, the US proconsul (perhaps viceroy?) Paul Bremer, decided to pre-occupy himself with motoring laws, forbidding Iraqi motorists to drive with only one hand on the wheel. Meanwhile, the insurgency was ratcheting up the bombing campaign. Such is the absurd nature of state building on the cheap.
The writing of the mission was on the wall fairly early on. The State Department was woefully short of Arabic specialists. That same institution remains strikingly short on historical knowledge, a fact admitted on occasion by those who have served under its umbrella. The historian Niall Ferguson, who has a long-lasting infatuation with the idea of empire, has argued that America should admit its imperial station yet seems limited in how it goes about fulfilling it. The best and brightest, he has admitted with resignation, prefer managing MTV to Mesopotamia.
It is hard to ignore, though a good fist of that is being made in the US, that the forces are leaving a country torn and destabilized. Bombings continue, the most recent being a Kirkuk car bomb which killed 20. The embers of insurgency still burn. Sectarian hatreds continue to govern human emotions. Gains made are small and incremental, a case of flawed tactics rather than sound strategy. The ghost of Saddam lingers.
We can hope, often the last resort of the pious and the bereaved, that the seeds of democracy have been planted in Mesopotamia. But history will still be marshaled against the invasion, stripping it of its virtue, and placing it in other categories of imperial rule (and misrule). The US may be a hyper-power, adept at deploying force, but it falls down badly in the occupation stakes. Lethal drones are easier to command than subject populations. That is the enduring legacy of an anti-imperialist empire.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.