Colonizing Iraq: The Obama Doctrine?
by Michael Schwartz
Here's how reporters Steven Lee Myers
and Marc Santora of the New York Times described the highly touted
American withdrawal from Iraq's cities last week:
"Much of the complicated work of
dismantling and removing millions of dollars of equipment from
the combat outposts in the city has been done during the dark
of night. Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall American commander in
Iraq, has ordered that an increasing number of basic operations
- transport and re-supply convoys, for example - take place at
night, when fewer Iraqis are likely to see that the American withdrawal
is not total."
Acting in the dark of night, in fact,
seems to catch the nature of American plans for Iraq in a particularly
striking way. Last week, despite the death of Michael Jackson,
Iraq made it back into the TV news as Iraqis celebrated a highly
publicized American military withdrawal from their cities. Fireworks
went off; some Iraqis gathered to dance and cheer; the first military
parade since Saddam Hussein's day took place (in the fortified
Green Zone, the country's ordinary streets still being too dangerous
for such things); the U.S. handed back many small bases and outposts;
and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proclaimed a national holiday
- "sovereignty day," he called it.
All of this fit with a script promisingly
laid out by President Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign.
More recently, in his much praised speech to the students of Egypt's
Cairo University, he promised that the U.S. would keep no bases
in Iraq, and would indeed withdraw its military forces from the
country by the end of 2011.
Unfortunately, not just for the Iraqis,
but for the American public, it's what's happening in "the
dark" - beyond the glare of lights and TV cameras - that
counts. While many critics of the Iraq War have been willing to
cut the Obama administration some slack as its foreign policy
team and the U.S. military gear up for that definitive withdrawal,
something else - something more unsettling - appears to be going
And it wasn't just the president's hedging
over withdrawing American "combat" troops from Iraq
- which, in any case, make up as few as one-third of the 130,000
U.S. forces still in the country - now extended from 16 to 19
months. Nor was it the re-labeling of some of them as "advisors"
so they could, in fact, stay in the vacated cities, or the redrawing
of the boundary lines of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, to exclude
a couple of key bases the Americans weren't about to give up.
After all, there can be no question that
the Obama administration's policy is indeed to reduce what the
Pentagon might call the U.S. military "footprint" in
Iraq. To put it another way, Obama's key officials seem to be
opting not for blunt-edged, Bush-style militarism, but for what
might be thought of as an administrative push in Iraq, what Vice
President Joe Biden has called "a much more aggressive program
vis-à-vis the Iraqi government to push it to political
An anonymous senior State Department official
described this new "dark of night" policy recently to
Christian Science Monitor reporter Jane Arraf this way: "One
of the challenges of that new relationship is how the U.S. can
continue to wield influence on key decisions without being seen
to do so."
Without being seen to do so. On this General
Odierno and the unnamed official are in agreement. And so, it
seems, is Washington. As a result, the crucial thing you can say
about the Obama administration's military and civilian planning
so far is this: ignore the headlines, the fireworks, and the briefly
cheering crowds of Iraqis on your TV screen. Put all that talk
of withdrawal aside for a moment and - if you take a closer look,
letting your eyes adjust to the darkness - what is vaguely visible
is the silhouette of a new American posture in Iraq. Think of
it as the Obama Doctrine. And what it doesn't look like is the
posture of an occupying power preparing to close up shop and head
As your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness,
you begin to identify a deepening effort to ensure that Iraq remains
a U.S. client state, or, as General Odierno described it to the
press on June 30th, "a long-term partner with the United
States in the Middle East." Whether Obama's national security
team can succeed in this is certainly an open question, but, on
a first hard look, what seems to be coming into focus shouldn't
be too unfamiliar to students of history. Once upon a time, it
used to have a name: colonialism.
Colonialism in Iraq
Traditional colonialism was characterized
by three features: ultimate decision-making rested with the occupying
power instead of the indigenous client government; the personnel
of the colonial administration were governed by different laws
and institutions than the colonial population; and the local political
economy was shaped to serve the interests of the occupying power.
All the features of classic colonialism took shape in the Bush
years in Iraq and are now, as far as we can tell, being continued,
in some cases even strengthened, in the early months of the Obama
The U.S. embassy in Iraq, built by the
Bush administration to the tune of $740 million, is by far the
largest in the world. It is now populated by more than 1,000 administrators,
technicians, and professionals - diplomatic, military, intelligence,
and otherwise - though all are regularly, if euphemistically,
referred to as "diplomats" in official statements and
in the media. This level of staffing - 1,000 administrators for
a country of perhaps 30 million - is well above the classic norm
for imperial control. Back in the early twentieth century, for
instance, Great Britain utilized fewer officials to rule a population
of 300 million in its Indian Raj.
Such a concentration of foreign officialdom
in such a gigantic regional command center - and no downsizing
or withdrawals are yet apparent there - certainly signals Washington's
larger imperial design: to have sufficient administrative labor
power on hand to ensure that American advisors remain significantly
embedded in Iraqi political decision-making, in its military,
and in the key ministries of its (oil-dominated) economy.
From the first moments of the occupation
of Iraq, U.S. officials have been sitting in the offices of Iraqi
politicians and bureaucrats, providing guidelines, training decision-makers,
and brokering domestic disputes. As a consequence, Americans have
been involved, directly or indirectly, in virtually all significant
In a recent article, for example, the
New York Times reported that U.S. officials are "quietly
lobbying" to cancel a mandated nationwide referendum on the
Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated between the United
States and Iraq - a referendum that, if defeated, would at least
theoretically force the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops
from the country. In another article, the Times reported that
embassy officials have "sometimes stepped in to broker peace
between warring blocs" in the Iraqi Parliament. In yet another,
the military newspaper Stars and Stripes mentioned in passing
that an embassy official "advises Iraqis running the $100
million airport" just completed in Najaf. And so it goes.
Most colonial regimes erect systems in
which foreigners involved in occupation duties are served (and
disciplined) by an institutional structure separate from the one
that governs the indigenous population. In Iraq, the U.S. has
been building such a structure since 2003, and the Obama administration
shows every sign of extending it.
As in all embassies around the world,
U.S. embassy officials are not subject to the laws of the host
country. The difference is that, in Iraq, they are not simply
stamping visas and the like, but engaged in crucial projects involving
them in myriad aspects of daily life and governance, although
as an essentially separate caste within Iraqi society. Military
personnel are part of this segregated structure: the recently
signed SOFA insures that American soldiers will remain virtually
untouchable by Iraqi law, even if they kill innocent civilians.
Versions of this immunity extend to everyone
associated with the occupation. Private security, construction,
and commercial contractors employed by occupation forces are not
protected by the SOFA agreement, but are nonetheless shielded
from the laws and regulations that apply to normal Iraqi residents.
As an Iraq-based FBI official told the New York Times, the obligations
of contractors are defined by "new arrangements between Iraq
and the United States governing contractors' legal status."
In a recent case in which five employees of one U.S. contractor
were charged with killing another contractor, the case was jointly
investigated by Iraqi police and "local representatives of
the FBI," with ultimate jurisdiction negotiated by Iraqi
and U.S. embassy officials. The FBI has established a substantial
presence in Iraq to carry out these "new arrangements."
This special handling extends to enterprises
servicing the billions of dollars spent every month in Iraq on
U.S. contracts. A contractor's prime responsibility is to follow
"guidelines the U.S. military handed down in 2006."
In all this, Iraqi law has a distinctly secondary role. In one
apparently typical case, a Kuwaiti contractor hired to feed U.S.
soldiers was accused of imprisoning its foreign workers and then,
when they protested, sending them home without pay. This case
was handled by U.S. officials, not the Iraqi government.
Beyond this legal segregation, the U.S.
has also been erecting a segregated infrastructure within Iraq.
Most embassies and military bases around the world rely on the
host country for food, electricity, water, communications, and
daily supplies. Not the U.S. embassy or the five major bases that
are at the heart of the American military presence in that country.
They all have their own electrical generating and water purification
systems, their own dedicated communications, and imported food
from outside the country. None, naturally, offer indigenous Iraqi
cuisine; the embassy imports ingredients suitable for reasonably
upscale American restaurants, and the military bases feature American
fast food and chain restaurant fare.
The United States has even created the
rudiments of its own transportation system. Iraqis often are delayed
when traveling within or between cities, thanks to an occupation-created
(and now often Iraqi-manned) maze of checkpoints, cement barriers,
and bombed-out streets and roads; on the other hand, U.S. soldiers
and officials in certain areas can move around more quickly, thanks
to special privileges and segregated facilities.
In the early years of the occupation,
large military convoys transporting supplies or soldiers simply
took temporary possession of Iraqi highways and streets. Iraqis
who didn't quickly get out of the way were threatened with lethal
firepower. To negotiate sometimes hours-long lines at checkpoints,
Americans were given special ID cards that "guaranteed swift
passage in a separate lane past waiting Iraqis." Though the
guaranteed "swift passage" was supposed to end with
the signing of the SOFA, the system is still operating at many
checkpoints, and convoys continue to roar through Iraqi communities
with "Iraqi drivers still pulling over en masse."
Recently, the occupation has also been
appropriating various streets and roads for its exclusive use
(an idea that may have been borrowed from Israel's 40-year-old
occupation of the West Bank). This innovation has made unconvoyed
transportation safer for embassy officials, contractors, and military
personnel, while degrading further the Iraqi road system, already
in a state of disrepair, by closing useable thoroughfares. Paradoxically,
it has also allowed insurgents to plant roadside bombs with the
assurance of targeting only foreigners. Such an incident outside
Falluja illustrates what have now become Obama-era policies in
"The Americans were driving along
a road used exclusively by the American military and reconstruction
teams when a bomb, which local Iraqi security officials described
as an improvised explosive device, went off. No Iraqi vehicles,
even those of the army and the police, are allowed to use the
road where the attack occurred, according to residents. There
is a checkpoint only 200 yards from the site of the attack to
prevent unauthorized vehicles, the residents said."
It is unclear whether this road will be
handed back to the Iraqis, if and when the base it services is
shuttered. Either way, the larger policy appears to be well established
- the designation of segregated roads to accommodate the 1,000
diplomats and tens of thousands of soldiers and contractors who
implement their policies. And this is only one aspect of a dedicated
infrastructure designed to facilitate ongoing U.S. involvement
in developing, implementing, and administering political-economic
policies in Iraq.
Whose Military Is It?
One way to "free up" the American
military for withdrawal would, of course, be if the Iraqi military
could manage the pacification mission alone. But don't expect
that any time soon. According to media reports, if all goes well,
this isn't likely to occur for at least a decade. One telltale
sign of this is the pervasive presence of American military advisors
still embedded in Iraqi combat units. First Lt. Matthew Liebal,
for example, "sits every day beside Lt. Col Mohammed Hadi,"
the commander of the Iraqi 43rd Army Brigade that patrols eastern
When it comes to the Iraqi military, this
sort of supervision won't be temporary. After all, the military
the U.S. helped create in Iraq still lacks, among other things,
significant logistical capability, heavy artillery, and an air
force. Consequently, U.S. forces transport and re-supply Iraqi
troops, position and fire high-caliber ordnance, and supply air
support when needed. Since the U.S. military is unwilling to allow
Iraqi officers to command American soldiers, they obviously can't
make decisions about firing artillery, launching and directing
U.S. Air Force planes, or sending U.S. logistical personnel into
war zones. All major Iraqi missions are, then, fated to be accompanied
by U.S. advisors and support personnel for an unknown period to
The Iraqi military is not expected to
get a wing of modern jet fighters (or have the trained pilots
to fly them) until at least 2015. This means that, wherever U.S.
air power might be stationed, including the massive air base at
Balad north of Baghdad, it will, in effect, be the Iraqi air force
for the foreseeable future.
Even the simplest policing functions of
the military might prove problematic without the American presence.
Typically, when an Iraqi battalion commander was asked by New
York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers "whether he needed American
backup for a criminal arrest, he replied simply, 'Of course.'"
John Snell, an Australian advisor to the U.S. military, was just
as blunt, telling an Agence France Presse reporter that, if the
United States withdrew its troops, the Iraqi military "would
In a World Policy Journal article last
winter, John A. Nagl, a military expert and former advisor to
General David Petraeus, expressed a commonly held opinion that
an independent Iraqi military is likely to be at least a decade
Whose Economy Is It?
Terry Barnich, a victim of the previously
discussed Falluja roadside bombing, personified the economic embeddedness
of the occupation. As the U.S. State Department's Deputy Director
of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office and the top adviser to
Iraq's Electricity Minister, when he died he was "returning
from an inspection of a wastewater treatment plant being built
His dual role as a high official in the
policy-making process and the "top advisor" to one of
Iraq's major infrastructural ministries catches the continuing
U.S. posture toward Iraq in the early months of the Obama era.
Iraq remains, however reluctantly, a client government; significant
aspects of ultimate decision-making power still reside with the
occupation forces. Note, by the way, that Barnich was evidently
not even traveling with Iraqi officials.
The intrusive presence of the Baghdad
embassy extends to the all-important oil industry, which today
provides 95% of the government's funds. When it comes to energy,
the occupation has long sought to shape policy and transfer operational
responsibility from Iraqi state-owned enterprises of the Saddam
Hussein years to major international oil companies. In one of
its most successful efforts, in 2004, the U.S. delivered an exclusive
$1.2 billion contract to reconstruct Iraq's decrepit southern
oil transport facilities (which handle 80% of its oil flow) to
KBR, the notorious former subsidiary of Halliburton. Supervision
of that famously mismanaged contract, still uncompleted five years
later, was allocated to the U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
The Iraqi government, in fact, still exerts
remarkably little control over "Iraqi" oil revenues.
The Development Fund for Iraq (whose revenues are deposited in
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) was established under U.N.
auspices just after the invasion and receives 95% of the proceeds
from Iraq's oil sales. All government withdrawals are then overseen
by the U.N.-sanctioned International Advisory and Monitoring Board,
a U.S.-appointed panel of experts drawn mainly from the global
oil and financial industries. The transfer of this oversight function
to an Iraqi-appointed body, which was supposed to take place in
this January, has been delayed by the Obama administration, which
claims that the Iraqi government is not yet ready to take on such
In the meantime, the campaign to transfer
administration of core oil operations to the major oil companies
continues. Despite the resistance of Iraqi oil workers, the administrators
of the two national oil companies, a majority bloc in parliament,
and public opinion, the U.S. has continued to pressure the al-Maliki
administration to enact an oil law that would mandate licensing
devices called production-sharing agreements (PSAs).
If enacted, these PSAs would, without
transferring permanent ownership, grant oil companies effective
control over Iraq's oil fields, giving them full discretion to
exploit the country's oil reserves from exploration to sales.
U.S. pressure has ranged from ongoing "advice" delivered
by American officials stationed in relevant Iraqi ministries to
threats to confiscate some or all of the oil monies deposited
in the Development Fund.
At the moment, the Iraqi government is
attempting to take a more limited step: auctioning management
contracts to international oil companies in an effort to increase
production at eight existing oil and natural gas fields. While
the winning companies would not gain the full discretion to explore,
produce, and sell in some of the world's potentially richest fields,
they would at least gain some administrative control over upgrading
equipment and extracting oil, possibly for as long as 20 years.
If the auction proves ultimately successful
(not at all a certainty, since the first round produced only one
as-yet-unsigned agreement), the Iraqi oil industry would become
more deeply embedded in the occupation apparatus, no matter what
officially happens to American forces in that country. Among other
things, the American embassy would almost certainly be responsible
for inspecting and guiding the work of the contract-winners, while
the U.S. military and private contractors would become guarantors
of their on-the-ground security. Fayed al-Nema, the CEO of the
South Oil Company, spoke for most of the opponents of such deals
when he told Reuters reporter Ahmed Rasheed that the contracts,
if approved, would "put the Iraqi economy in chains and shackle
its independence for the next 20 years."
Who Owns Iraq?
In 2007, Alan Greenspan, former head of
the Federal Reserve, told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward
that "taking Saddam out was essential" - a point he
made in his book The Age of Turbulence - because the United States
could not afford to be "beholden to potentially unfriendly
sources of oil and gas" in Iraq. It's exactly that sort of
thinking that's still operating in U.S. policy circles: the 2008
National Defense Strategy, for example, calls for the use of American
military power to maintain "access to and flow of energy
resources vital to the world economy."
After only five months in office, the
Obama administration has already provided significant evidence
that, like its predecessor, it remains committed to maintaining
that "access to and flow of energy resources" in Iraq,
even as it places its major military bet on winning the expanding
war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There can be no question that
Washington is now engaged in an effort to significantly reduce
its military footprint in Iraq, but without, if all goes well
for Washington, reducing its influence.
What this looks like is an attempted twenty-first-century
version of colonial domination, possibly on the cheap, as resources
are transferred to the Eastern wing of the Greater Middle East.
There is, of course, no more a guarantee that this new strategy
- perhaps best thought of as colonialism lite or the Obama Doctrine
- will succeed than there was for the many failed military-first
offensives undertaken by the Bush administration. After all, in
the unsettled, still violent atmosphere of Iraq, even the major
oil companies have hesitated to rush in and the auctioning of
oil contracts has begun to look uncertain, even as other "civilian"
initiatives remain, at best, incomplete.
As the Obama administration comes face-to-face
with the reality of trying fulfill General Odierno's ambition
of making Iraq into "a long-term partner with the United
States in the Middle East" while fighting a major counterinsurgency
war in Afghanistan, it may also encounter a familiar dilemma faced
by nineteenth-century colonial powers: that without the application
of overwhelming military force, the intended colony may drift
away toward sovereign independence. If so, then the dreary prediction
of Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent Thomas Ricks
- that the United States is only "halfway through this war"
- may prove all too accurate.
A professor of sociology at Stony Brook
State University, Michael Schwartz is the author of War Without
End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket Books), which explains
how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle
the Iraqi state and economy while fueling a sectarian civil war.
Schwartz's work on Iraq has appeared in numerous academic and
popular outlets. He is a regular at TomDispatch.com. (An audio
interview with him on the situation in Iraq is available by clicking
here.) His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.