Sunday, June 22, 2008

Stirring Up the Pot - Iraq's American Albatross

There are two things George Bush desperately wants to achieve before he's evicted from the White House and they're both huge concessions from Iraq. One is the national oil deal that lets the select Big Oil companies (Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP) "manage" Iraq's oil and the other is the Status of Forces Agreement whereby Iraq accepts a massive and permanent American military presence in the country.

The feckless Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki made some noise about the Status of Forces agreement, even suggesting that the Iraqi parliament might just prefer the Americans to leave by the end of the year, but that was a negotiating ploy at best designed to blunt the wrath of Iraqi nationalists before the country's national elections this fall.

Cutting these deals is somewhat bizarre. Arab leaders have learned never to conclude major agreements involving Washington in an outgoing president's final year in office. The lame duck has little to offer in the long-term. They understand that rude surprises can also follow an American election and change in presidents. Best to keep as many bargaining chips as possible for that first meeting with the new guy.

It's hard to see that these deals are truly in Iraq's or America's interests. Reverting Iraq's oil resources to the very type of colonial management overthrown by every Middle East state, including then Baathist Iraq, seems to play into the hands of Iraqi nationalists like Muqtada al Sadr. Allowing American forces to establish and operate out of 58-bases in Iraq with virtual impunity merely throws fuel on the fire.

Adding these stressors at a time when Iraq's central government is still fumbling the unity problem much less the equally problematical distribution of the nation's oil wealth seems ludicrous. Why would Maliki worsen his own vulnerability and hand over such powerful ammunition to his rival, al Sadr?

This whole business sounds eerily like the Anglo-Iraqi treaties of 1922 and 1930. Why two? Here's a hint. The Brits found big oil fields in Iraq in 1927.

The 1930 treaty enshrined British commercial and military rights in Iraq for which Iraq got - zip, nada, zilch. It gave the Brits almost unlimited military basing and unlimited mobility rights throughout Iraq and a colonial power over Iraqi oil.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar? To protect their interests, the Brits ensured that the minority Sunnis would run the place, compliantly they hoped. That lasted until the Baathist nationalists took over the place after WWII.

Endless comparisons are being drawn between the British experience in the 20th century and America's Iraq predicament of the 21st. Reading too much into them can be misleading. Britain had a vast colonial empire stretching through Asia, the Middle East and Africa at that time. Today's Middle East has thrown off the shackles of colonialism but still harbours bitter memories of subjugation. Even the House of Saud is no longer dancing to Washington's tune.

In fact, America today may more closely resemble the Ottomans following WWI than the Brits prior to WWII. Like the Ottomans, American prestige, power and influence are in retreat as new players such as China emerge to stake out their own turf. America's military prowess was always more potent unused than when it took the field in Iraq and revealed its enormous limitations. America's ability to maintain a conflict such as Iraq entirely on borrowed money and without implementing a draft has been exposed as its ruin.

The next few months promise to be a fascinating time for Iraq and the United States alike. There's a chess game underway and, unfortunately, Washington still has Dick Cheney at its side of the board. At the end of the day, Cheney's hardball tactics may do neither country any good.

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