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The Tragedy of American Diplomacy in Iraq*

During the summer of 2004, the Historians against the War sponsored a Town Hall Meeting in New York City to discuss how far to the right the Bush administration has moved. The historians group invited West Point graduate and eminent scholar of international relations, Andrew Bacevich. The former colonel surprised the crowd by announcing that he voted for Bush in 2000, but was distressed by the administration’s “stupidity” and “arrogance” as well as its muscular unilateralism and sheer lack of vision. The self-described conservative seems to be a bit of an anomaly. His text, American Empire, urged scholars to accept that the U.S. is an empire before it became fashionable to do so. Bacevich pointed to William Appleman Williams as an exemplar of someone who encouraged Americans “to contemplate the implications of their imperium.”[1] Professor Bacevich is no aberration; a host of conservative writers are contemplating the dire prospects of the American imperium in light of the Iraq tragedy. These conservative commentators offer insightful analysis on the strategic failures in Iraq, while formulating arguments for a speedy withdrawal. It is my contention, however, that U.S. foreign policy behavior is structurally incompatible with stability and democracy in the region. Indeed, the work of diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams enables us to better grasp the institutional causes behind the U.S. tragedy in Iraq. Such causes demand that the U.S. exit Iraq at once.

As for the conservatives, the Cato Institute offers a compelling case for withdrawal. Its director, former Navy officer, Christopher Preble, convened a task force that calls for U.S. withdrawal “at the earliest possible date.” The study, Exiting Iraq, acknowledges that a departure will cause a short term loss of honor, but holds a long term gain against Al Qaeda, which uses the U.S. invasion as a primary recruiting tool for new members. U.S. forces are “a lightning rod” for dissent and rebellion. According to Preble, 57 percent of Iraqis also want the U.S. out immediately. An orderly exit should take, “no more than six months,” Preble says. Although the Cato study dismantles the administration’s plan to stay in Iraq, it speaks in strictly strategic and not moral terms. Nonetheless, this important book makes a cogent argument for an “expeditious withdrawal.”

An Open Door for Iraq?

Although Preble hints at the economic dimension of the war, he stops far short of contemplating the consequences of imperialism. Muslims see the war as motivated by the U.S. “desire to control Iraq’s oil resources,” Preble writes, but such arguments “seem absurd at face value.”[2] A Center for Public Integrity report regarding Executive Order 13303 helps illuminate why these “absurd” charges hold currency. Bush’s order states that, “judicial process is prohibited” against the Iraq Development Fund and “petroleum and petroleum products.”

Recall that the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance long ago fantasized about controlling Iraqi resources. The U.S. should “establish and protect a new world order,” the document attributed to Paul Wolfowitz reads, including “access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil.”[3] Even the American Conservative has questioned U.S. economic behavior in Iraq. “We have imposed policies,” the conservative journal carefully explains, “that worked against the recovery of Iraq’s industry and commerce.” It reports that 7 out of 10 Iraqis are unemployed, a situation exacerbated by the invasion.

I am not suggesting the war is driven by oil, but such measures only “confirm in the minds of Muslims around the globe the malicious intentions” of the U.S., as Preble says.[4]

Here it is worthwhile to follow Bacevich’s nod to William Appleman Williams for a better grasp of U.S motives. As Williams noted regarding the Cold War, it is “in reality only the more recent phase of a more general conflict between the established system of Western capitalism and its internal and external opponents.” The Iraq invasion seems to fit the pattern. Consider that the U.S. quickly ratified Bremer’s infamous Article 39, which privatized much of Iraq’s infrastructure, turning it over to foreign corporations along with other measures that ensure a favorable tax scheme on all profits rendered. At the same time, the U.S. has refused for decades to ratify the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which calls for people to control their own resources. Harper’s Magazine interviewed Iraqis on the street, plagued by astronomical unemployment, who complained about factories shut down due to lack of electricity. Some even moaned about “privatization.”[5] The U.S. argues that it wants to bring democracy to Iraq. If so, it should immediately rescind order 39 and related provisions to guarantee full Iraqi control of its industries and resources. Holding Iraqi banks, factories and business’ hostage is simply incompatible with democracy. Halliburton and Bechtel contracts certainly do not help the U.S. cause.

Whatever the motives behind the intervention, it is a failure that must come to an end, according to many former military strategists. William Odom, Director of the National Security Agency in the eighties, describes Iraq as a “strategic disaster,” the “sooner we leave, the better.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, William Crowe, puts it bluntly: “we screwed up…we have got to get out.”[6] It was William Appleman Williams who strongly urged us to use such moments of “disaster” as an opportunity to refashion American adventurism. Iraq is fast becoming a monumental crisis that begs for an evaluation of the American empire.

Closing the Door on Empire  

Part of this evaluation concerns the U.S. track record with the conflict parties in Iraq. Recent U.S. behavior in Iraq is entirely at odds with a peaceful, orderly solution. During the 1980s, we now know that the U.S. supported the Ba’athists, providing logistics and support to the murderous Hussein, even during the Halabja massacre in 1988. As for the Kurds, the U.S. double crossed them twice—1975 and 1991. In 1972, Iraq nationalized its petroleum and the Nixon team drafted a covert plan to disrupt the Iraqi’s move. It entailed a Kurdish uprising, aided by Iranian Shah Pahlavi. But, the Shah was able to cut a deal in 1975 turning a strategic waterway over to Iran at the last moment, and the covert program was aborted. Kurds desperately fled into Iran, with almost no assistance. Kurds also seek statehood, a complicated matter, but one that is opposed by U.S. ally, Turkey. To be sure, recent U.S. behavior in Iraq is incompatible with stability and democracy.

Historically, the U.S. also hindered democracy in the Middle East. Shah Pahlavi was installed in Iran in 1953, replacing the democratically elected Mosssadeq. In 1949, the U.S. encouraged a military chief, Hunsai Zaim, to overthrow the existing government of Syria, setting the stage for a military dictatorship. According to the historian Douglas Little, Ziam immediately authorized a Western pipeline project. Of course, the reasons for these interventions are complicated, but they illustrate that the U.S. is most successful in subverting democracy in the region rather than building it. Such observations are not lost on those living in the region, nor were they lost on Eisenhower who admitted that U.S. actions in the Middle East fomented hate.[7] 

Ending the Tragedy in Iraq  

Bush dangerously bordered on offering a similar confession regarding the U.S. occupation of Iraq: “I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied,” Bush said.[8] The Cato Institute adds that the ongoing occupation incites resentment. It seems that the deaths of Iraqi civilians are a primary source of this hostility. A study in the British journal Lancet estimates that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of U.S. actions in a controversial report. Perhaps a bit overstated, but the U.S doesn’t offer casualty figures. That 50 U.S. air strikes against Iraqi leaders missed their targets in 2003 certainly suggests that significant numbers of Iraqi civilians are being killed. Conservative estimates are still near 10,000 civilians killed. Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, what the Red Cross calls “serious violations of International Humanitarian Law,” add to the toll of suffering.[9] Unfortunately, we can add the roughly 1,400 dead U.S. soldiers to this tragedy.

Despite these gruesome realities, Bush supporters say it is unrealistic to ask for immediate withdrawal. It is far more unrealistic to expect the very nation that belied world opinion and went to war any way, then destroyed and tortured a nation, to bring democracy to Iraq.

An orderly withdrawal makes more sense than prolonging disaster. This withdrawal entails rescinding all economic orders that privatize Iraq. It would illustrate to the world that the U.S. is serious about democracy. Even terrorists kill for a reason; this is one reason that they attack all things USA. Second, a massive international coalition, with Arab forces and blue helmets, must enter Iraq. Armed yes, but trained as police and without any economic control over Iraq’s resources. UN consultant, Johan Galtung, rightly suggests a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East, chaired by Jordan or a party in the region. Related issues such as Israel/Palestine, Kurdish independence, and a Middle East common market with Israel’s participation should be part of the discussion to avoid isolating issues that matter to the conflict parties.[10] Third, invite significant participation of the Red Crescent in Iraq to repair the walking wounded. Fourth, a U.S. aid package, with no absolutely no strings attached, to rebuild the infrastructure it destroyed, in the spirit of recent tsunami relief. In short, the U.S. is responsible for repairing the damage it inflicted on Iraq. The presence of American soldiers is hardly necessary to begin this healing, a multinational force and massive aid is far more desirable than a U.S. force that has wreaked so much havoc on the country. My scheme is only a starting point and is hardly perfect, but it is far better than a U.S. occupation that only encourages resistance and violence.


Some critics will be tempted to describe this analysis as “revisionist,” even anti-American. Within America it sounds radical, outside the States it comports with the mainstream world citizen’s perspective on Iraq. Remember, too, that most of the world’s citizens and governments, as well as the UN opposed the invasion in the first place. Bush opted instead for “unilateral” action, while Condoleezza Rice warned of “mushroom clouds.” It turns out there were no WMDs, no mushroom clouds, no yellow cake, no Saddam link to 9.11, no Atta meeting in Prague. In fact, just about everything the administration claimed about Iraq’s weapons program was wrong. And, their argument that U.S. can’t simply withdraw from Iraq is equally incorrect, it is as misguided as barking, “Bring ‘em on.”

Lastly, Bush recently expressed regret over his “Bring ‘em on,” comment. Maybe it symbolizes a rare moment of introspection. If so, the president may wish to dust off his autobiography for further reflection. “I also learned the lesson of Vietnam,” Bush wrote, “Our nation should be slow to engage troops.” Not only did we have “no exit strategy” the president complained, but interventions must “respect and nurture our traditional alliances.”[11] The U.S. rushed to war in Iraq with no exit strategy, while simultaneously straining traditional alliances. It is unlikely that Bush will follow the advice of the Historians against the War, even when they invite an erudite conservative to their meeting, but Bush needs only to read his autobiography to understand why he failed in Iraq. Bring the troops home.


*This title is derived from William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972). I wish to thank Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemisch for commenting on an early draft; however I remain solely responsible for its content.

1. Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 31.

2. Christopher Preble, Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda, Report of a Special Task Force on Exiting Iraq Sponsored by the Cato Institute, (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2004), p. 2, 34, 66.

3. See David Armstrong, “Dick Cheney’s Song for America,” Harper’s Magazine, October 2002. PBS also aired a program that addressed the DPG in 2003. Predictably, Cheney and Wolfowitz deny any knowledge of this version of the draft and a revised version was circulated after news reports on the DPG surfaced.

4. William R. Polk, “A Time for Leaving,” The American Conservative, 17 January 2005. Preble, Exiting Iraq, p. 31.

5. William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), p. 10. On Order 39 and Iraqis, see Naomi Klein, “Baghdad Year Zero,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2004.

6. Paul Alexander, ‘Seven Retired Military Leaders Discuss what has gone wrong in Iraq,” Rolling Stone, 2 November 2004. This article was sent to me via e-mail from the Professors for Peace.

7. On Syria and Iran, see Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 52-8. Eisenhower quoted as saying a “campaign of hatred against us, not by the governments but by the people” in the context of the Lebanon intervention in Little, p. 136. Information on Kurds derived from William Blum, Killing Hope (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995).

8. Bush quoted in Preble, Exiting Iraq, p. 66.

9. At Slate.com, Fred Kaplan challenges the Lancet study in an article titled, “100,000 Dead—or 8,000—How Many People have Died as a Result of the Iraq War,” 29 October 2004. On torture, see Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, ( New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), p. 251-75. Danner reprints the Red Cross report that discusses abuse at several installations, and notes that physical coercion was used in “a systematic way” and “appeared to be part of standard operating procedure.” For information on air strikes, see Human Rights Watch, “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” (2003), available at: http://www.hrw.org

10. Galtung expands on these possible solutions and offers some brilliant insights on constructive ways to resolve international conflict, see Johan Galtung, “Human Needs, Humanitarian Intervention, Human Security and the War in Iraq,” (February 2004), posted at http://www.transcend.org

11. On Bush’s regret, see “Bush Rethinks his Tough Talk,” Newsday, 15 January 2005. I applaud the President’s reflection and encourage further reflection on his policies. Quotations in George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House, (New York: Perennial 1999), p. 50, 55, 240.