When nation-building goes wrong

Middle East Eye

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.

Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.

Iraq descends

Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismanted Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.

Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.

It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.

Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.

However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.

After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.

Ruthless rulers emerge

Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.

Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.

The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.

As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.

A graveyard for nation-builders

Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.

Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.

The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.

The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.

Fragmented societies

Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.

America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.

The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.

America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.

The Afghan experience

Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not been signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.

After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.

Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.

Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.

In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Geopolitical interests

These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.

Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.

Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.

Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.

A history of failures

United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.

Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.

America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.

The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.

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On Bradley Manning and America

Richard Falk writes in a guest column that originally appeared on his blog

I am posting on this blog two important texts that deserve the widest public attention and deep reflection in the United States and elsewhere. I would stress the following:

–the extraordinary disconnect between the impunity of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Yoo, and others who authorized and vindicated the practice of torture, were complicit in crimes against humanity, and supported aggressive wars against foreign countries and the vindictive rendering of ‘justice’ via criminal prosecutions, harsh treatment, and overseas hunts for Snowden and Assange, all individuals who acted selflessly out of concern for justice and the rights of citizens in democratic society to be informed about governmental behavior depicting incriminating information kept secret to hide responsibility for the commission of crimes of state and awkward diplomacy; a perverse justice dimension of the Manning case is well expressed in the statement below of the Center of Constitutional Rights “It is a travesty of justice that Manning who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators are not even investigated.” And “We fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.”

–the vindictive punishment of Bradley Manning, a historically stiff imprisonment for the unlawful release of classified documents, a dishonorable discharge from military service that is a permanent stain, a demotion to the lowest rank, and imprisonment for 35 years;

–the failure of the prosecution or the military judge or the national leadership to acknowledge the relevance of Manning’s obviously ethical and patriotic motivations and the extenuating circumstance of stress in a combat zone that was producing observable deteriorations in his mental health;

–an increasingly evident pattern of constructing a national security state that disguises its character by lies, secrecy, and deception, thereby undermining trust between the government and the people, creating a crisis of legitimacy; it is part of the pattern of ‘dirty wars’ fought on a global battlefield comprehensively described in Jeremy Scahill’s book with that title;

–the mounting challenge directed at President Obama to grant Manning’s request for a presidential pardon, and to reverse course with respect to the further authoritarian drift that has occurred during his time in the White House; ever since Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he claimed American adherence to the rule of law, it has been evident that such a commitment does not extend to high level governmental violators at home (“too important to prosecute”) or to the sovereign rights of foreign countries within the gunsights of the Pentagon or the CIA or to the crimes of America’s closest allies; international law is reserved for the enemies of Washington, especially those who resist intervention and occupation, or those who dare to be whistle-blowers or truth-tellers in such a highly charged atmosphere that has prevailed since the 9/11 attacks; the opening of Manning’s statement below suggests the relevance of such a context to the evolution of his own moral and political consciousness;

–the noted author and public intellectual, Cornel West, offered a salutation to Manning relating to his announcement about his/her gender identity shift that I wholeheartedly endorse: “My dear brother Bradley Manning – and from now on sister Chelsea Manning – I still salute your courage, honesty and decency. Morality is always deeper than the law. My presence at your trial yesterday inspires me even more!”

–read Bradley Manning’s statement and ask yourself whether this man belongs in prison for 35 years (even granting eligibility for parole in seven years), or even for a day; imagine the contrary signal sent to our citizenry and the world if Manning were to be awarded the Medal of Freedom! It is past time that we all heeded Thomas Jefferson’s urgent call for ‘the vigilance’ of the citizenry as indispensable to the maintenance of democracy.

STATEMENT BY BRADLEY MANNING ON BEING SENTENCED

The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Japanese-American internment camps to name a few. I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the <a title=”United States”. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

STATEMENT OF THE CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS

August 21, 2013 – Today, in response to the sentencing of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Center for Constitutional Rights issued the following statement.

We are outraged that a whistleblower and a patriot has been sentenced on a conviction under the Espionage Act. The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistleblowers and journalists willing to publish their information. We can only hope that Manning’s courage will continue to inspire others who witness state crimes to speak up.

This show trial was a frontal assault on the First Amendment, from the way the prosecution twisted Manning’s actions to blur the distinction between whistleblowing and spying to the government’s tireless efforts to obstruct media coverage of the proceedings. It is a travesty of justice that Manning, who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators of the crimes he exposed are not even investigated.  Every aspect of this case sets a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions of whistleblowers – who play an essential role in democratic government by telling us the truth about government wrongdoing – and we fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.

We must channel our outrage and continue building political pressure for Manning’s freedom. President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and if he refuses, a presidential pardon must be an election issue in 2016.

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When Clouds Appear …

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;

When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;

When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?

– William Shakespeare, Richard III

The year gone by has been one of civil protests, upheaval and violence in many parts of the world. Old wars continued, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peaceful awakening movements that sprang up with much hope in Algeria and Tunisia turned violent as they spread east from North Africa to the Gulf region. A brief and bloody war in Libya, with an overt display of NATO’s military power on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces, resulted in his overthrow and brutal killing. For NATO, the Libya war was over, but not for Libyans. A fledgling government now competes with warlords for territorial control and legitimacy in a fragmented country.

External intervention in Syria is more vocal internationally, but shrouded in secrecy on the ground. Accounts of the conflict are based on claims and counterclaims and not much independent evidence to corroborate. If detractors are to be believed, the Ba’athist regime of President Basher al-Assad is on the brink of collapse. The outcome of the Syrian conflict will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, in particular for Syria’s ally Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Palestine.

Human aspirations for liberty and freedom from oppression defined the year 2011. Paradoxically, great powers who played a role in sustaining oppressive systems, and still do where it suites them, declared themselves on the side of liberty in other places. The result is confusion, division, conflict and a more insecure world. Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were America’s “bleeding wounds,” a term first coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. With both Iraq and Afghanistan far from stable, there is an unwelcome prospect of Libya and Syria also extracting a high price in terms of security threats and energy costs in the current decade.

Past events cannot be reversed, nor are their consequences easy to contain. So I have in mind events which I believe the world in 2012 would be better off without. In the United States, from President Obama and administration hawks to his Republican opponents have been talking about punitive action against Iran and others in this election year. Powerful voices in the ruling circles of Israel, France and Britain are egging the American president on. The gap between rhetoric and posturing can lead to something far more serious. How civil movements can be manipulated by external forces for their own interests has been demonstrated during the current upheaval in the Arab world.

The overthrow and killing of Gaddafi may have resolved the conflict in Libya in the West’s view. Now the prospect of real power remaining with the militias, and an ineffective Western-supported government, reminds one of Afghanistan following the 1992 collapse of the last Communist leader Najibullah. Libya, with its porous borders, surrounded by Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, is vulnerable itself and threatens others. The year 2012 could be decisive, not only for Libya, but for the region and beyond.

The situation in Syria is very dangerous. Unlike Libya, Syrian state institutions are more robust. The regime’s friends are not many, but Russia and China are taking a much tougher line with the West. Iran, its ruling allies in Iraq, and Lebanese and Palestinian groups have huge stakes in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by the West, are determined to see the end of the current Syrian regime.

Turkey, a NATO member, has moved from its previous “independent” position to a stance much more in tune with the Western interests in the Middle East. Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey hosts the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and allows the group to train its fighters and orchestrate attacks inside Syria. The Turkish military guards the Syrian rebel base, and a refugee camp, just across the Syrian border.

For Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which professed to seek close relations with its neighbors, this is a complete about face. Two factors appear to be at work here. The Sunni support base of the party is one. The prospect of joining the European Union, an idea that France and Germany in particular oppose, may be the other.

How far Turkey’s moderate Islamic government will go is difficult to predict. It has its own Kurdish insurgency to contend with, so the strategy is risky. Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria reminds one of the 1980s when, from a small beginning, Pakistan, in the midst of ethnic insurgencies, became a base for anti-Communist Afghan forces. The consequences were disastrous.

The conflict in Syria continues to simmer. The sanctions on Iran are steadily being tightened. The talk of military action is persistent and the risk of a weak U.S. president facing reelection being pushed into a war against Iran is haunting. Sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise. The country faces a new political crisis after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, prompting the mainly Sunni party al-Iraqiya to boycott parliament. The Syrian conflict threatens further instability in Lebanon and the wider region. And between Libya in North Africa and Pakistan on the edge of South Asia lies an ominously explosive region, waiting for a trigger strong enough to stage a catastrophe.

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