The American Insurgency in Iraq?

News Abroad

Priya Satia is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. Her latest book is Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East (Oxford, 2009).

During last week’s election, Ayad Allawi, Nouri al-Maliki’s closest rival for the Iraqi premiership, made a curious remark about the heavy voter turnout despite violence that killed nearly forty people.  “You know that Iraqis do not get scared,” he said.  “They will not be scared by tanks, bombings and explosions.  They fought the British, as it is known, with simple weapons and kicked out the British empire.  So this intimidation will not work.”

The media have eagerly reprinted this portrayal of an Iraqi populace determined to vote at whatever cost, hailing Iraq’s long-awaited “political maturation.”  But, typically, they have missed the real point of Allawi’s words:  the analogy between the insurgents intent on disrupting the election and Iraq’s British occupiers in the twentieth century.  To Allawi, and other Iraqi politicians, the insurgents are as against Iraqi democracy as foreign occupiers; indeed, they are perhaps doing the dirty work of today’s occupiers, who are the real force bent on ruining Iraqi democracy.  Why would America want to ruin the Iraqi election?  Because, Iraqis think, real democracy might result in a government inimical to American interests, and why would America allow that to happen?

Take, for instance, the exhortions of Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Shiite Sadr movement, who also called on Iraqis to defy the violence:  Voting, he said, was an act of “political resistance” against the U.S. military presence (another much-quoted line).  While the press commends this sign of Sadr’s acceptance of Iraq’s political process, they miss the larger point that Sadr apparently believes the U.S. does not accept that process.  Voting can be construed as an act of defiance against the Americans only if you believe the Americans are against the election.

But why would Iraqi leaders imply the Americans do not want them to vote, that the Americans are on the side of the insurgents, that they perhaps are the insurgents?  Preposterous paranoia?  No more preposterous than the Iraqi suspicion of U.S. involvement in the 1963 coup that brought the Baathists to power.  And no less preposterous than suspicions in the early thirties that the British were behind the Saudi raids into Iraqi territory—manufacturing an excuse for their continued presence in the interest of Iraqi “security.”  That particular accusation may have been way off the mark, but who was to say how fantastical the truth might be?  After all, the British were trying to finesse their departure from Iraq in a manner that would ensure the “independent” Iraqi government continued to conform to British interests, and the notion of British-backed Bedouin raids was hardly far-fetched given T. E. Lawrence’s famous instigation of tribal insurgency against the Ottoman rulers of the region only a decade earlier.

In short, the paranoid view of today’s insurgents as America’s henchmen seems fairly reasonable against the backdrop of the West’s history of covert activity in the region, a style of intervention that has enabled fulfillment of imperial goals in an increasingly anti-imperial world.

To be sure, it’s all to the good that Iraqis see their state, if not the particular government of Nouri al-Maliki, as legitimate enough to inspire a nationwide 62 percent turnout for the election; for the first time, Sunnis did not boycott the elections but voted in heavy numbers.  Where voting was once seen as an act of collaboration with an illegitimate foreign-backed government, it is now seen as the means of resisting the foreign backers whose oily fingerprints can be discerned on the shoulders of particular politicians but do not tarnish the machinery of government itself.

To some extent this optimism is a result of the postcolonial universalization and normalization of democratic state institutions (especially after the end of the Cold War seemed to announce the end of alternatives—and the Islamic experiment next door has certainly proved uninspiring).  To many people around the world, the state is simply a state—a series of institutions performing roughly similar administrative, welfare, and policing tasks in different countries around the world (with varying degrees of efficiency and probity); what matters is whose hands are on the steering wheel.  Going by last week’s turnout, Iraqis don’t mind the U.S. gift of new state machinery but want to ensure it is manned by individuals without puppet strings.

Likewise, last week major media praised the Iraqi state for coming into its own: its efficient blanketing of the country with security forced the insurgency to abandon car bombs for mortars and rockets and turned the nation solidly against violent resistance.  But before we hastily conclude the American invasion has found some kind of redemption in the long voting lines of 2010, we must heed the important revelation of Iraqi belief in the existence of a colonial presence lurking on the margins of their state, able to discreetly conjure up “insurgents” to threaten the state whenever it sees fit.

Indeed, the “colonized” status of Iraq has been a running theme in the rhetoric of a range of parties, despite their commitment to the political process spawned by the Americans: as Juan Cole has pointed out, everyone from the Sadrists to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is calling for accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops—a demand that will weigh on al-Maliki, who can only come to power with the help of these parties. It is the U.S. troops—the state behind the state—that Iraqis seek to expel, like they expelled the British before.

American encouragement of democracy is, to them, merely lip-service to an ideal that the pragmatic U.S. cannot afford to see in action--just as the British cynically arranged the outcomes of elections to their convenience in the 1920s and the Americans handpicked Allawi as PM of the first post-invasion Iraqi government in 2004.

It is this wisdom born of real historical experience that inspires Sadr’s furious insistence that the ballots remain out of the hands of U.S. troops; it explains why Allawi’s party sees the tight race as evidence of election fraud. Iraqis may be willing, even desperate, to vote, and the resonance of the belief that the insurgents are America’s puppets may have the ironic (and happy) effect of solidifying Iraqi opinion against violent resistance to the state, but as long as the Americans hover on the sidelines, the political process will never be fully legitimate and Iraqi faith in it will be fragile at best.  The outcome of the election will not be easily accepted by the losers—this is the cost of the continued presence of U.S. troops.  The withdrawals last year may have made their presence more discreet, and after 2011 Obama intends to make them even more so, but sadly Iraqis know too well what power discretion can conceal.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/20/2010

Unfortunately, Mr. Stout, long tradition of US foreign policies tells any conscientious observer that this country actually impedes/deters democratic developments through sabotage, diversion, military coups (and if the first ones don't help through direct or proxy invasion or bombing strikes) in any country that does not follow American cruiser (of course under the pretext of protecting democracy; after all, ours are not middle ages when one did not need any pretext for aggression except one's will and determination to strike.) One has to be blind and deaf not to notice that imperial pattern in American foreign policy.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

Surely, we are all surrounded by conspiracy theories... trumped up by
kovachevs of this world and their practical consequences: The Iranian democratically-elected government of 1950s conspiring with Soviets to bring Communism to Iran, which resulted in CIA's-led coup to overthrow Mossadehk and installation of hated by the Iranian majority Shah (and later by his consequent replacement by Muslim fanatics);
the domino theory that brought death to millions and destruction of the whole South-Eastern Asia;
the central American narco-bosses threatening the very existence of the
US, which led to invasion to Panama, killing thousands (mostly workers and peasants) there; Grenada's deadly menace (that later was found to be a hoax) that resulted in trumping democracy there; Libya's as main terrorist state, bombing its capital and almost killing the family of its President, Sudan's nuclear program - in bombing to the ground its single pharmaceutical factory with terrible consequences for Sudanese; terror campaign against Cuba, recent anti-Iraq WMD hoax with horrible consequences for the victimized country, and continuing anti-Iran nuclear weapons hoax, which will almost certainly lead to as minimum massive bombing strikes on Iranian territory, as a maximum to the same as they did in Iraq - terror and occupation.
And that's just to name a few; the list of those well-known conspiracies made into major ideological and social beliefs in the US, despite definitely proven to be myths is as long as it gets.
But such dinosaurs of long-gone (for normal folks) Cold War as kovachevs still refer to KGB and Communists all the time, once more acknowledging their static, frozen into the past and worn-out ideological constructs.
Well, soon they all be gone together with their imperialist and Zionist greed and stubbornness.

omar ibrahim baker - 3/19/2010

"But how does one tell this to a naive 21st century USA which is so intoxicated by the exuberance of its own megalomania mania of being the only super power on the planet? "

That is indeed the real pertinent question.

The way the latest financial cum economic crisis in the USA was "resolved": taxpayers paying with their taxes and pensions for banks to go on dishing astronomical bonuses to their executuves, including "achievement" bonuses to failed banks and mega corporations, should make the American public rethink the whole system under which they live also!

shreekant koardia - 3/18/2010

Really folks, full credit is due to Ms.Satia for a decent analysis of the West's legacy of imperial manipulation in the affairs of the Middle-East. But how does one tell this to a naive 21st century USA which is so intoxicated by the exuberance of its own megalomania mania of being the only super power on the planet?

Mark Stout - 3/15/2010

It seems to me, as an American, that Ms. Satia's assessment, if true, is good news.

I think anti-American sentiment expressing itself through free and fair elections is a great thing. The important thing is the democracy itself. If the price of launching real democracy in Iraq is anti-Americanism--and this seems likely--then so be it.

Furthermore, given the fact that the United States appears as an oppressor whenever it has friendly relations with a non-democratic Arab government, it would be good for America to have democracy in Arab countries. (Not to mention the great benefits to the citizens of these democratic countries.)

Anti-Americanism in a population isn't incompatible with productive diplomatic relationships. Look at US-French relations over the years.

One might also mention the benefits suggested by "Democratic Peace Theory": that democracies tend not to go to war with each other.

Peter Kovachev - 3/15/2010

Never thought I'd say something like this, Omar, but your own conspiracy theories are actually a few grades above Ms Satiya's. At least you get worked up a bit, use entertaining ersatz-revolutionry jargon (I love your "colons") and come up with a much denser (at times, impenetrable) barrage of fake factoids to keep a slew of us busy for days.

Come, come to America, my friend, and you too can make your fortune as an associate professor, even a department head, on the publicly funded gravy train. You sound already like Eddy Said, you already have the 70s KGB standard-issue anti-colonial and "anti-Zionist" lingo down, and all you now need to do is to remember to cite (even for no discernible reason) Juan Cole or other MESA-approved oracles, just as Ms Satia does.

omar ibrahim baker - 3/15/2010

No matter how "preposterous" is the multitude of political analysis and diagnostics are, though a lot are indeed preposterous, it is NOT preposterous to contend that the USA is against any form of genuine public expression leading to the selection and adoption of a truly genuine representation of the majority opinion(s) of the peoples of the Middle East.
Seldom has the main trends in public opinion, be it of leftist or nationalist or Islamist or even bourgeois liberal type, agreed on a common stand as they all do now in their common declared anti Americanism.
Whenever the means to express that stand is afforded in elections, whether of the highly restricted and limited type as in parliamentary elections or in, the usually less restricted, elections of professional associations the outcome is always the same: unmistakable anti Americanism!

The USA, knowing full well its real standing in public, as distinct from regime(s), esteem simply can not afford such a process that is bound to reflect majoritarian public antipathy and intractable opposition to everything the USA has come to stands for.
During the last decades the USA has come to stand for:
-total unconditional total support of Israeli occupation, expansionism, racism in Palestine and overall regional military supremacy.
In short the USA has come to be identified with Israel to the point of being generally perceived as its alter ego.
-Unflinching support of the more despotic and more corrupt regimes.
-The instigator and major enemy of Islam and Islamist culture in its "war against terror" generally perceived as the thin veneer of its "war on Islam".
A great many USA funded public opinion polls, whose "engineered" ,"distorted " or "manicured" findings were made public together with the outcome of both categories of elections have showed .
Politics being what it is the USA can NOT afford any real Democracy in the Middle East.