From Ground Zero
by Jonathan Schell
The Iraqi struggle for independence from American rule has begun in earnest. US forces there now face a double insurrectionone part Sunni Muslim, the other Shiite Muslimthat threatens at the same time to turn into a civil war. Only the Kurdish north is quiet. With these events, US policy on Iraq has taken leave of reality as thoroughly as Americas claims regarding weapons of mass destruction did before the war. The policy was declared on November 21, when Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), announced that on June 30 of this year the occupation of Iraq will end, and Iraq will then enjoy sovereignty. Since then, news commentators and officials have habitually told the public that on that date the United States will hand over...sovereignty to the Iraqi people (in the words of Dan Senor, a senior advisor to the CPA), who will then enjoy what is commonly called an interim Constitution. Every word of these short phrases is based on assumptions radically at odds with the facts.
1. Sovereignty. According to Websters,
sovereignty is supreme power, especially over a body politic. But
it is no longer possible, if it ever was, to argue that the United States and
its allies wield supreme power in Iraq. True, US forces can go where
they like, but do they rule? Do the Iraqi people obey them? When the American
authorities order something to happen, does it? On the contrary, none of the
US plans for running the country announced by the Bush Administration have so
far even been enacted, much less succeeded. Even now, GOP Senator Richard Lugar,
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that he has no
idea what the plans for the June 30 transition are.
Iraqi political figures, by contrast, have been making a lot happen. According
to the always invaluable (and now winner of a Pulitzer prize) Anthony Shadid
of the Washington Post, the most popular of the Shiite leaders, the comparatively
moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, launched a petition against the US-sponsored
Constitution. The petition quickly gathered tens of thousands of
signatures. This peaceful opposition to American rule, however, was quickly
superseded, at least for the time being, by the Shiite insurrection, led by
the extreme Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Iraqi blogger Zayed, until now pro-occupation, offers the following portrait
of life in Baghdad the day after the insurrection:
No one knows what is happening in the capital right now. Power has been cut off in my neighborhood since the afternoon, and I can only hear helicopters, massive explosions, and continuous shooting nearby. The streets are empty, someone told us half an hour ago that Mahdi [Sadrs militia] are trying to take over our neighborhood and are being met by resistance from Sunni hardliners. Doors are locked, and AK-47s are being loaded and put close by in case they are needed. The phone keeps ringing frantically. There is no sovereign, American or other, in this Iraq; there is anarchy. The less sovereignty the United States possesses, it appears, the more quickly it wants to surrender it.
2. Hand over. How can the United States hand over power that it has never possessed? In any case, sovereignty is not a physical object, like a desk, that can be moved from one office to another. It is a relationship among peopleone of command and obedience. Even if the United States did have sovereignty in Iraq, as it obviously does not, it would not be able to pass it on to someone else. Either the United States would remain the real sovereign behind the scenes or the new group would have to build up sovereign power for itself. Admittedly, the United States does possess something in Iraqoverwhelming military force. But this is one thing, needless to say, that the United States decidedly will not hand over on June 30 or any other day. (Other things it is not planning to hand over are control of the central bank and the news media.) Will the Governing Council, which many Iraqis call the Governed Council, command American troops or, for that matter, even their own Iraqi troops? Not likely. Meanwhile, the misnamed administrator of the misnamed coalition will be replaced by a misnamed ambassador, presiding over what is to be the largest US embassy in the world.
3. The Iraqi people. The Iraqi people
will have no involvement, whether as givers or takers of power, on June 30.
Those to whom the United States plans to hand over something or other (it will
certainly not be power) are a small group of Iraqi officials, most of whom are
to be US appointees. No one knows yet exactly who they will be or how they are
to be chosen, Bremers previous plan of selecting them by means of managed
caucuses having been scuttled in the face of opposition from Ayatollah
4. Interim Constitution. A series of temporary regulations promulgated, before any election has been held, in the name of a conquering power and its local appointees is wholly misdescribed as a Constitution. A Constitution is the fundamental, enduring law of a country. In a democracy, it proceeds from the will of the people. Nothing of this kind will be instituted in Iraq on June 30.
5. June 30, 2004. Among political observers,
it is widely and believably said that this date is geared not to any events
in Iraq but to the 2004 US presidential election. The Bush Administration wants
to bolster the Presidents campaign by creating an impression of progress
in Iraq, and is staffing the CPAs office of strategic communications with
GOP operatives including Rich Galen, former press spokesman for Newt Gingrich
and Dan Quayle.
Keeping all these things in mind, we should revise the commonly used phrases.
Instead of saying, On June 30, the Coalition will hand over sovereignty
to the Iraqi people, we should say, On June 30, the re-election
campaign of George W. Bush will hand over the appearance of responsibility for
the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq to certain of its local appointees.
And the Iraqi people? They are busy, violently and otherwise, struggling for their own future. One of the organizers of the Sistani petition, Saad Taher, commented to Shadid, America has a term: the rebuilding of Iraq. We are rebuilding ourselves. We want to create a new Iraqi personality. Thats our task. Thats not the Americans task. For better or worse, these words are already on their way to becoming true.
This article first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Nation magazine. Many of its ideas were explored by Schell in his talk at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse in early April.