Around five in the evening on September 11, 2001, I was sitting in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park in New York City. The air was foul with the smell of the burning World Trade Center and the park was full of people. Many of the folks were park regulars, but many more were people who had escaped that day's death and mayhem not too many blocks south of the park. I was sitting near a group of men drinking beer from brown bags and discussing the attacks. By this time, the general belief was that the perpetrators were Middle Eastern terrorists and that Bush would now find somebody to go to war with. As I drifted in and out of the conversation, I heard one man say that the only way that the US would ever get "those" people in "those" countries over there to behave was if they colonized them. You know, he said, just show them how we do things and make them do them our way. I would have jumped into the conversation at that point, but a female friend that was with me grabbed my hand at that instant and we walked away to talk with some of her friends.
Since that day, it seems safe to say that Washington has been doing exactly what that man suggested. Nowhere is this truer than in Iraq. Despite overwhelming evidence that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11, US troops, CIA agents, diplomat, and mercenaries have been attempting to show the Iraqis how we do things and make them do them our way. Although more and more of us regular citizens are getting fed up with this exercise, there has been no groundswell of opposition to this project in the halls of power. Not in Congress, not in the Pentagon, not in the establishment media, not in the courts, and definitely not in the Executive Branch. Why is this so? Simply put, it's because the powers that run this country believe that it is absolutely necessary for Washington to control that part of the world. Like that gentleman in Washington Square Park that day, the establishment in the United States does not question the fact of US hegemony. Nor does it question that hegemony's rightness or reasonableness. Furthermore, the powers that run this country are willing to spend whatever it takes in taxpayers' money and lives to maintain that dominance.
Back in 2004, Noah Feldman, an NYU professor of law and onetime Senior Constitutional Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, published a book he titled What We Owe Iraq. Reading it today is somewhat revealing in that the reader gets an insider's view on the type of thinking that occurred during the reign of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The book is based on Mr. Feldman's experiences in Iraq in 2003 as part of Paul Bremer's team of "experts." More importantly, it is based on the assumption that he shared with the rest of the US ruling elites that Washington not only would be wise to establish a friendly government in Baghdad, but that it had a moral duty to do so. Hence, the title What We Owe Iraq. To his credit, Feldman is not so blinded by his assumptions that he could not foresee possible pitfalls to the US nation building enterprise. Perhaps most important among these pitfalls, he states clearly that elections in Iraq were more likely to pull Iraq apart than create a Shia majoritarian tyranny.
In an argument that twists a bit here and turns a bit there, Feldman attempts to answer the question he himself poses early on in the text: "How can American nation building in Iraq be morally acceptable if it is designed to serve U.S. interests?" Of course, the growing consensus among most of the world's citizens is that this so-called nation building (or imperialism) is not morally acceptable. However, Mr. Feldman refuses to give into this consensus and insists in the afterword to the book that even though the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq may not head off either a civil war or contribute to a negotiated settlement of the insurgency, those troops should remain. Indeed, states Feldman, not only should they remain, maybe there should be more. After all, he concludes, "moral amnesia is no route to a clear conscience."
It is that last sentence that provides the framework for this book. Feldman, like so many other humanitarian imperialists, seems to honestly believe that the countries of the world would be better off if they were all like the United States-corporate capitalist republics. More dangerously, he also seems to think that the US has a moral imperative to transform as much of the world's nations into such entities. Therefore, he assumes a moral stance that uses as its basis the belief that invasions and occupations of countries that don't meet such a standard are not only morally justifiable, such invasions are morally right, as long as they are done for the right reasons.
Feldman provides a short history of nation building, visiting Woodrow Wilson and the post World War Two situation in Europe. While acknowledging that outsiders cannot build democratic institutions in Iraq, he tells the reader that that is exactly what he was sent to Iraq to do. Furthermore, and this is where Feldman and those that agree with him show their true patronizing colors, he insists that it doesn't matter whether one agrees with the original invasion or not, but now that the US is there it must help Iraq get out of its quandary. This self-serving argument is based on the assumption that what is best for Washington is also best for Iraq (and any other country that Washington deems it so). This fundamental assumption renders hollow any statements made by Feldman claiming that the US is in Iraq for any other reason.
Keeping in mind that the book was originally published in 2004, I hoped that Feldman might have changed his tune in the afterword added to the new edition. After all, many like-minded observers and participants in the Iraq debacle have revised their positions in the wake of successes of the Iraq insurgency and other anti-imperial phenomenon in the country. Unfortunately, even my minimal hopes were dashed. By continuing to dismiss these phenomenon as something other than what they are; and by only listening to those Iraqi elements that he wants to hear (as witnessed by his dismissal of "individual Iraqis (who) are eager to end the US presence" as "aspirational"), Mr. Feldman not only believes that staying in Iraq until a nation is "built" is the practical thing for Washington to do, it is also the moral thing to do. Only hubris would consider the destruction of a country and the slaughter of its citizens to be a moral act.
Recently, John Kerry, a politician who supported the attack on Iraq but has recently issued statements indicating doubts about the war (although he has yet to call for an unconditional an immediate withdrawal), wrote an editorial on the anniversary of his testimony to the US Congress as a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In that editorial, Mr. Kerry wrote, "the most important way to support our troops is to tell the truth." Mr. Feldman's book is one more attempt to do the opposite. What the US really owes Iraq is not a government in its own image (or some facsimile thereof), no matter how such an endeavor is framed and labeled. No, what we really owe Iraq is the respect it deserves to leave it alone and the sense of justice to repay its people for the damage that more than a dozen years of US-led war and sanctions has caused.
Ron Jacobs is a library worker and anti-imperialist activist who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997).
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