Passing the buck in Iraq

Bush and Blair are 'transferring sovereignty' to shirk responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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The discussion about the transition to sovereignty in Iraq has little to do with the needs and interests of the Iraqi people – who look likely to have no more say over the running of their country after 30 June than they had beforehand.

On 24 May the US government’s draft UN Security Council resolution on the transfer to an Iraqi-led administration was released. This was the same day that US intelligence launched an investigation into allegations that Iran had fed false intelligence on Iraqi WMD to America, through Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Both initiatives look like desperate attempts to pass the buck for the US-led engagement in Iraq.

According to the UK Guardian, one senior US intelligence official said: ‘When the story ultimately comes out we’ll see that Iran has run one of the most masterful intelligence operations in history. They persuaded the USA and Britain to dispose of its greatest enemy.’ Another said: ‘It’s pretty clear that Iranians had us for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’ (1) So the war was the responsibility of the Iranians, and the US and UK governments were dupes.

The transfer of sovereignty, bringing to an end the formal rule of the Coalition Provisional Authority, can’t come soon enough for the pressurised Bush and Blair administrations. Advocates of intervention, including Oxford Professor Adam Roberts, warn that ‘the transfer of authority must not become an excuse for an abandonment of responsibility.’ (2) But from start to finish the whole Iraq venture has been an exercise in avoiding responsibility – with no clear legal justification for the war, ever-shifting war aims and a postwar strategy made up as the coalition went along. Even the much-awaited transition to Iraqi sovereignty is being developed in an ad hoc fashion.

The fact that the transition is being externally managed from outside indicates that the formal announcement of sovereignty will change little on the ground, where international appointees from the USA and the UN will oversee the transitional arrangements. Celebrations at the ‘Countdown to Sovereignty’ website (available through the coalition’s website (3)) have more to do with the needs of the US government than the Iraqi people.

While the buck-passers in US intelligence are unlikely to convince the world that the Iranian government is to blame for the war, it is likely that the Iraqi people will be held responsible for the instability of postwar Iraq.

The recent history of nation-building demonstrates that the Western governments and international institutions that set down the framework for ‘the path to democracy’ are just as concerned with avoiding responsibility for the problems caused by international intervention as they are with maintaining their control over policymaking in the newly formed states.

Although the transitional mechanisms are still far from clear, one thing is certain – under the language of empowerment, capacity-building and the protection of minorities and cultural identity, new mechanisms of external regulation will be maintained. The supposedly full sovereignty that will be granted to the Iraqi people will be about as meaningful as the sovereign status granted to the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the autonomy granted to Kosovo, where the people were also apparently liberated with the help of US airpower.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, the problems arising from external intervention are not seen to be the result of the interventionist policies of the international community. In Kosovo, Western governments fought a war in order to pre-empt ethnic cleansing yet have presided over the creation of a mono-ethnic state, where neither ethnic-Albanians nor Serbs and other minorities feel their rights are secure.

The fragile Bosnian state was also the product of international military intervention, which imposed the borders of a state that over half of the population, the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, felt little allegiance to. This lack of legitimacy meant that the constitutional framework and trappings of sovereignty – such as the national emblems, currency and passports – all had to be imposed from without.

Bosnia and Kosovo are reminders of the nonsense of using international intervention to resolve internal political problems, and of the desire of Western governments to distance themselves from the consequences of their involvement. In Kosovo, executive and administrative power is held by the office of the UN Special Representative, but ethnic divisions are blamed, not on the international intervention that fed extremism on both sides, but on the immaturity of the population who are apparently not ready for self-rule.

The Bosnian state has formal international recognition and ‘full sovereignty’, yet it is run on similar lines to Kosovo – except rather than the UN having formal executive powers the state is the fiefdom of the Office of the High Representative, overseen by an ad hoc self-appointed coalition of the willing, the Peace Implementation Council. The current international bureaucrat in charge, Lord Paddy Ashdown, has interfered in the policy process at every level, directly imposing laws and in the process sacking elected politicians and refusing the Constitutional Court the power to review his decisions.

For US and UK strategists, the appeal of the transfer to sovereignty in Iraq lies in the attempt to escape responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Claims that the transfer is anything more than buck-passing by the governments of America and Britain should be taken with as much credibility as their claims that they started the war in the first place because they were told to by double-dealing Iranians.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    (1) US Intelligence Fears Iran Duped Hawks into Iraq War, Guardian, 25 May 2004

    (2) Iraq’s Day of Reckoning, Guardian, 25 May 2004

    (3) Countdown to Sovereignty

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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