Tuesday, December 4, 2007

On the Middle East: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar

A Very Good Interview
State of Nature

(Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Politics at SOAS, London. His books include Perilous Power with Noam Chomsky (2007), The 33-Day War (2007), The Israeli Dilemma (2006), The Clash of Barbarisms (2nd edn, 2006) and Eastern Cauldron (2004))

"State of Nature:Although 2007 proved to be the deadliest year for US in Iraq, the Bush administration is putting on an optimistic front with talk of casualty rates declining, al-Qaeda being routed from Baghdad, Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar and Diyala provinces cooperating with the US forces and so on, all primarily tied to the surge in troops. How do you assess the recent developments in Iraq?

Gilbert Achcar: Well, there's no point denying each and every statement that comes out from Washington. So yes, on the face of it, there has been a relative, but only relative, decline in casualties, at least in recorded casualties. Security controls in Baghdad seem to be working to a certain extent, but that's also because the so-called "surge" was concentrated in the capital and the "Mehdi Army" of Muqtada al-Sadr decided early on to withdraw from any points of possible confrontation with the US army, and so did Sunni insurgent groups. I tend to believe, therefore, that all this has had some effect, but it is purely temporary. There is no structural change, but only a result of the ongoing "surge", which cannot last forever. As with all such operations, people get used to them after a while and the relative decline in the number of casualties can quickly be reversed if the political conditions remain the same.

As for collaboration with the US occupation, there has been increasing friction between some of the tribal configurations in Arab Sunni areas of Iraq, on the one hand, and al-Qaeda, on the other. Coalitions were set up in some instances opposing or trying to get rid of al Qaeda from their area, as part of collaboration between some tribal chiefs and occupation authorities or the Iraqi government. Tribalism has always been a tool of last resort for various proponents of modernisation in Iraq, who ended up making use of this most backward and traditionalist feature of Iraqi society. For example, although Saddam Hussein's regime displayed, on the face of it, a modernist nationalist ideology, Saddam very much exploited tribalism, especially in the last dozen years of his rule after the first US onslaught on Iraq. Before that, of course, colonialism also made quite extensive use of tribalism despite its "civilising" pretentions, and so did various republican leaders after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy. And now, it is the US occupation that has been resorting to this same mechanism of buying tribal leaders with big amounts of money and other privileges.

But all this is very unstable, very fragile. The fact is that, whatever relative decline there is in the level of violence in Iraq, there is no political breakthrough for the United States in the sense that it is not really able to control the country. That's absolutely clear. Probably one of the best illustrations of that is provided by the country's political institutions. Although these were built under US patronage, the US can't have, for instance, the oil law ratified by the Parliament, as there is a majority there that is opposed to the draft law that Washington wishes to push through. This tells us a lot about the lack of real control by the United States over Iraq. And this is a major failure, mind you, because the oil law is one of the key "benchmarks" that the US administration has set for the assessment of the whole Iraqi situation when it launched the "surge".

The failure is blatant. There are lots of contradictions at the governmental level between the various forces that were willing to operate within the institutional framework. To these serious problems, we should add the prospective tension over Kirkuk between the Kurds and the rest, which has not yet come completely to the fore until now. By the rest, I mean not only the other Iraqi communities, the Arab majority and the Turkmen minority, but also the Turks. Turkey itself has been escalating its threats of a military intervention in Northern Iraq, officially because of the PKK, but actually in a context where the issue of Kirkuk was supposed to be settled by a referendum originally planned for November of this year, and then postponed. This is an issue on which the Turkish government has been very nervous. They would not accept Kirkuk to be turned over to the Kurdish de facto autonomous state, and would prevent such an outcome by any means necessary. This is a further problem for the United States because it involves a possible clash between two regional allies -- the Iraqi Kurdish alliance and the Turkish military. If you put everything we've mentioned in the picture, the failure is absolutely dismal. And it's not only a failure in Iraq -- the whole Middle East policy of the US administration is a disaster, actually.

This is even more apparent if you take the "Greater Middle East", as they call it. Just look at Afghanistan, where the comeback of the Taliban is impressive. And Pakistan is now in a state verging on chaos -- a source of anxiety for the United States, because Pakistan is not only a key ally of Washington, but also a nuclear state. Of course, if chaos prevails in Pakistan ultimately, you can imagine what sort of consequences this would have for Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Tehran very clearly shows that it knows well that the US is bogged down with all these problems and therefore it doesn't take US threats very seriously, or at least it shows that it is not deterred by such threats.

There we see the problem of the so-called credibility of US power, which has been very much affected by the disastrous balance sheet of the Bush administration. This administration has dilapidated most of the capital that the United States got out from the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The paralysis and then collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the first war against Iraq as a spectacular demonstration of US tremendous firepower and military gadgetry built up during the Reagan years. The overall image resulting from that was then one of a United States more powerful than ever and ahead of the rest of the world by a longer distance than at any previous point since the middle of last century, when the Soviet Union got the nuclear weapon. George W. Bush inherited not only this military supremacy, increased and enhanced throughout the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, but also a country experiencing the longest period of economic expansion in its history.

So there were a lot of ingredients comforting US supremacy. This administration got the responsibility for managing this huge capital and then achieved the great feat of turning the US Empire's accounts into the red. This is really an achievement! The Bush administration will certainly go down in history not only as the most reactionary the United States has ever seen -- they broke this record already from the start -- but also as the most disastrous ever for the US imperial project. That's absolutely clear, I believe......."

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