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End of the Empire myth

The coalition left Iraq in spirit long ago - the new UN resolution suggests it wants out in body, too.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Whatever happened to America’s unilateralist plans to dominate Iraq, recolonise the Middle East, and build a new American Empire?

George W Bush has been described as ‘the most unilateralist president in modern history’ for his actions over Iraq – yet he celebrated this week’s UN resolution on the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis, which won the unanimous backing of the Security Council, as an expression of true ‘international support for Iraq’s interim government’. Anti-war commentators have accused Bush of seeking to build a new all-American Empire with Iraq as its foundation – yet the new resolution says that coalition forces’ mandate to remain in Iraq should expire in January 2006. For a unilateralist, Bush seems awfully keen to win international backing – and it’s a strange Empire indeed that plots its own expulsion from ‘the colonies’.

Various theories have been volunteered for this apparent about-face. Some claim that Bush has learned how to compromise in order to get what he wants. ‘US finds humility and compromise go a long way…’, says the Los Angeles Times. Others argue that the new UN resolution shows the success of British diplomacy; that prime minister Tony Blair has taught Bush a thing or two about how to get awkward Frenchmen and Germans on side. In reality, the new resolution is no big turnaround – it is in keeping with the coalition’s war and occupation, which have consistently sought the cover of internationalism. Far from building a new Empire, the new resolution shows that the coalition is desperate to disavow political responsibility for Iraq, and to distance itself from the postwar mess it created. Indeed, the coalition withdrew in spirit long ago – now it wants out in body, too.

For all the charges of unilateralism, an isolated coalition has played the internationalist card again and again. Even the hawks among the Bush administration went back and forth to the UN from late 2002 to early 2003, seeking UN authority to attack Iraq rather than going ahead and launching an attack. Having failed to build the kind of big-power coalition that went to war against Iraq in 1991, Bush and Blair talked up their ‘Coalition of the Willing’ instead, those 50-odd nations that supported the war, only eight of which (excluding America and Britain) sent troops to fight. US secretary of state Colin Powell said the Coalition of the Willing showed that this was no American war for American interests. ‘[E]verybody was saying the United States is going it alone politically and militarily’, said Powell, when in fact America was simply ‘a nation that is part of a great effort to rid Iraq of its weapons’.

Those currently surprised that coalition leaders have gone back to the UN for its rubber-stamp approval of the new interim government clearly haven’t been paying attention. For all the stand-offs between coalition states and anti-coalition states at the UN building in New York over the past two years, Bush and Blair have constantly namechecked the authority of the UN in an attempt to justify their war in Iraq. In February 2003, a month before the war started, Blair said: ‘We act…according to the UN mandate on weapons of mass destruction.’ In a speech to the UN, Bush said the war itself was an attempt to defend the integrity of the UN, because Saddam’s alleged weapon-building posed ‘a threat to the authority of the United Nations’.

The coalition’s claims that the war in Iraq was an internationalist one were not born of any deep respect for the UN, let alone for the states that made up the Coalition of the Willing, which included some of the poorest, most powerless states on Earth, like Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Rather, it was moral uncertainty on the part of the coalition, a sense of political isolation, that forced it to turn to the international arena. The leaders of the coalition borrowed heavily from the moral authority of the United Nations – particularly from the UN’s earlier judgements on Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of WMD – to compensate for their own lack of legitimacy. Unable to launch a ‘just war’ in their own name, coalition officials hoped that some of the UN’s legitimacy might rub off on them.

Indeed, Bush, commander-in-chief of America’s forces and the man who launched the war, has given all the credit for the new government to the UN. ‘I had no role in picking them. Zero’, he says. ‘Lakhdar Brahimi [the UN’s special envoy to Iraq] was the person who put together the group.’ (7)

The new resolution also exposes as nonsense the notion that Iraq was stage one of a new Empire-building mission. The resolution provides for the handover of sovereignty from the US-led occupation to an interim government by 30 June; for a permanent government to take office by 31 January 2006; for the ‘mandate of the foreign force’ to expire once the permanent government is in place; but also for the new Iraqi authorities to be able to demand an end to that mandate sooner if they wish. The coalition’s resolution, it seems, is to wash its hands off the disaster that was its Iraqi venture.

The coalition has constantly played down any Empire-ambitions. Before the war, Bush declared: ‘We have no territorial ambitions, we don’t seek an Empire.’ The Iraq mission looked like an attempt by America and Britain to project their power and authority, but without the will or moral capacity to exercise such power. The coalition outlawed the flying of American and British flags during the war and in the postwar aftermath; the Coalition Provisional Authority insists that it isn’t an occupying ruler – it is headed by an administrator, Paul Bremer, who is guarded by private security guards rather than US soldiers, and its website has excitedly been counting down to the handover of sovereignty for the past six months. The coalition has tried to create a distance between its physical presence in Iraq and political responsibility for what happens there. The new resolution is an attempt by the coalition to remove itself physically, as well as politically.

Yet even now there is a wilful refusal on the part of the coalition’s critics to face up to reality. When Bush said at the G8 summit that America wanted to help bring democracy to the Middle East – in the middle of a speech celebrating international backing for the new resolution – some cited it as further evidence that America wants unilaterally to impose Western-style democracy on Iraq. Some Iraqis might think that the chance would be a fine thing.

The new UN resolution, written by Bush and Blair and agreed by a ‘united world’ (in Blair’s words), may seem like a big turnaround to those who fantasised that the war in Iraq was the first step towards a New American Empire. Back in the real world, the resolution looks like a logical conclusion to a war launched by isolated, cautious leaders, who are now seeking to hand over the chaos that their war created to anybody who’ll take it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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