Issue 1, 2006 | Bryn Dodson

The Ins and (absence of?) Outs of the Occupation in Iraq

Forum Review: “Post-Invasion Iraq: Exploring the Ethics of Troop Withdrawal”

On 1 May a forum was held at the University of Western Australia entitled “Post-Invasion Iraq: Exploring the Ethics of Troop Withdrawal.” The forum posed the critical question: given that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has occurred, what should happen next? The three speakers were the United States Consul-General in Perth, Ms. Robin McClellan, and two UWA academics, historian Professor Norman Etherington and political-scientist Associate Professor Samina Yasmeen. Mr. Anthony Lepere, a former history and present law student at UWA, summed up the speakers’ arguments with an engaging combination of succinctness and flair, before posing questions to frame the general discussion. The forum was the inaugural event of the Progressive Students Think Tank, a new and ambitious project launched by UWA students to foster the development of sophisticated public debate within the student and academic community. The event was attended by around one hundred people.

McClellan spoke first, and began by asserting that although military victories seem inevitable in hindsight, they appear in a different light during the war, citing the US War of Independence: an ironic example given that Washington was fighting an imperialist power, as Lepere later observed. McClellan argued that remaining in Iraq was both ethical and necessary. She made, essentially, two points in support of this thesis: first, that economic and political progress was being made in Iraq, which US withdrawal would jeopardise; and secondly, that premature US withdrawal would effectively cede an advanced state to terrorist organisations, with disastrous consequences. McClellan cited Iraq’s economic growth, increasing voter turnouts, the proportion of security now handled by Iraqi troops, and the acceptance of its new constitution as evidence of progress in Iraq.

Although, she defended US policy with care, in important respects, McClellan’s analysis ws unconvincing. Reliance on the term “the terrorists,” for example, is analytically problematic. Even if insurgents in Iraq are united in their opposition to occupation, surely it is important to distinguish the motives of the various combatants. To a large extent, the US occupation has created the Iraqi insurgents it denounces, often an enemy with specific grievances and not a pre-existing generalised hatred. It is disingenuous to invade Iraq, provoke intense and widespread opposition, and then say along with Rumsfeld that the enemy “seeks no armistice with free peoples.” Justifying the continued US presence in Iraq requires an argument that the gains will outweigh the inevitable resentment, and the Consul did not provide it.

Further, it is questionable whether democratic institutions necessarily engender an enduring democracy, bearing in mind Lepere’s observation that the former British occupiers of Iraq held no less than seven elections. While Iraq’s economic growth is encouraging, one might also ask whether growth has improved the lives of Iraqis from their pre-war position, or whether it has simply gone some way to repair the damage done by the war. McClellan would rightly respond that we should not abandon attempts to make progress because there are no foregone conclusions. Some of these questions, however, go to the capacity of the United States to deliver a secure and stable Iraq.

Etherington was concerned to place Iraq within a broader history of military occupations, and made an argument for troop withdrawal. He argued that occupations that continue indefinitely lead to ever-increasing resentment among occupied peoples, and unpopularity with voters at home. The resources needed to maintain an occupation, moreover, may in fact constrain an occupying power’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals. While some counterexamples, such as post-war Japan, were raised in discussion, the most controversial aspect of Etherington’s contribution was his insistence that since Islamic fundamentalists have no coherent plan to achieve their aims, we are justified in expecting them to fail. Therefore, it is better in the long term not to intervene against even the most abhorrent regimes. The prudent position, according to Etherington, was that we should expect tyrannical regimes to fail.

One problem with Etherington’s conclusion was that it was not clear what he meant by “fail.” If he only meant that fundamentalists would ‘fail to deliver prosperity’, then his claim is reasonable. However, if he meant that fundamentalists could not feasibly retain power, his claim is demonstrably implausible at least in the medium term, since there are regimes around the world, such as North Korea, which have retained power despite terrible neglect of their national welfare. An additional problem is that in the contemporary world, with the proliferation of missile technology and international terrorism, fundamentalist states are better placed to harm and destabilise other states than previously. Perhaps the prime example of Etherington’s philosophy in action is Iran, where the world has been ‘letting them fail’ for nearly thirty years.

Finally, Yasmeen spoke in favour of troops remaining in Iraq, but for different reasons to McClellan. She suggested that US occupation disrupted or destroyed Iraqi civil society, and that categorising Iraq as a divided society was a self-fulfilling prophecy. (McClellan, by contrast, blamed Saddam’s brutality for destroying Iraqi civil society. The truth is probably that both had a significant impact.) Nevertheless, Yasmeen argued it was too early to leave Iraq, bearing in mind that the speed with which the British withdrew in the early 1930s created opportunities for the military to seize power. She suggested the US needed to do at least three things: admit its failings, conduct dialogue with neighbouring countries who influence, and are influenced by, events in Iraq (it was not clear whether this included Iran and Syria) and finally, tone down rhetoric on Iran so as to avoid the perception that the US has learned nothing from its recent experiences.

Predictably enough, the forum raised more questions than answers. All of the speakers were prepared to move beyond rhetoric, presenting controversial views supported by argument. In that respect alone the forum was a vast improvement on what ordinarily passes for debate on Iraq. The audience had plenty of questions, aimed almost invariably at the US Consul. McClellan was questioned sharply over the unpopularity of the Iraq war with both occupier and occupied, the right of the US to impose institutions on other sovereign nations. At times the Consul appeared uncomfortable with the questioning, at one point suggesting that (at 6.25pm) it was too late at night to be discussing weighty matters. In the end, those at the forum were left with more questions than there was time available and ultimately the success of the event was perhaps the only conclusion which all present would have regarded as uncontroversial.

Disclosure note: One of the editors, Andrew Thackrah, is the chair of the Progressive Students Think Tank. Andrew would welcome private comments on the PSTT event reviewed above, suggestions for future events and general expressions of interest to The PSTT is a student run group dedicated to promoting cross- disciplinary, informed and intelligent debate. In particular the PSTT seeks to link student research interests and public policy reform.