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Synthesis/Regeneration 35   (Fall 2004)

The Dynamic of Occupation

by Azmi Bishara

Given the mountain of written words coming out about Iraq, it sometimes seems as if writers outnumber soldiers by some 1,000-to-one. Yet it is the outpourings of researchers and intellectuals affiliated with the US administration that are most astonishing and, unfortunately, far more significant than the flood of information coming out of Iraq. Many of these people produced one book after another in the 1980s as they climbed up the academic ladder. Now they find themselves advising the occupation authorities in Baghdad. They are in a rare position for academics: they can put their theories into practice. Washington’s voracious appetite for ideology has given these academics-cum-advisors a chance to dictate approaches to the Greater Middle East.

These administration-affiliated academics conveniently define the Middle East as that area designated as such by US Central Command. Such a glib formulation saves any speculation on whether the Middle East is Arab or not, or on why it should include Pakistan and not Turkey, etc.

If any good comes from all this twaddle it is to be found in the sudden realization that the academic machine and the whirlwind of conferences and seminars it spawns is pointless. Professor Larry Diamond of Stanford University is a good example. Diamond has advised the administration to act swiftly against Al-Sadr’s movement and to disarm its militia. His argument is that democracy will never materialize in the presence of militias.

What Diamond conveniently omits is any reference to the militias operated by parties participating in the Governing Council, perhaps because the latter symbolize the sectarian federalism on which the Americans are so keen. It makes one regret ever reading the books Diamond penned, one after another, on democracy and the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Abstraction serves the status quo. The professional theorists who dwell in academia and propagate notions of the abstract truly believe that dictatorship is something that lacks roots. They are stunned when the collapse of a dictatorship leads to the collapse of other structures. They truly believe that dictatorship is a naked force that, once smashed, would make room for democracy pure and simple.

According to the theorists this can happen without democrats, without the middle classes. It is the result of a relentless imperial quest that breaks the country into pieces and gives the nation a foretaste of sectarianism.

Resistance is a fire that spreads through the timber of communal aggravation.

It is interesting to see the theorists link references to dictatorship in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” with commentary on unwanted foreign intervention by Syria and Iran, and both of the above with the latest outburst of Shia extremism. Quite a puzzling situation.

Large sections of the population, it would appear, benefited in some way from dictatorship and now resent the US presence. The abstract images no longer hold true. The simple contrast between dictatorship and democracy tells us nothing. Suddenly the “triangle” has morphed into a trapezoid.

Having vacillated endlessly on its definitions of evil, from Al-Qa’eda to Saddam and back, the Americans have found an easy way out. Blame it all on an alliance between Al-Qa’eda and Saddam Hussein. Look no more for evidence or explanations. The democratic media, in its newfound role as the mouthpiece of officialdom, will take it from there, thank you very much.

Does it make any sense that the US administration cannot explain to its own public, or to itself, the nature of the Iraqi resistance? What is happening in Falluja? Why did the Americans expect Al-Sadr to backtrack once threatened with detention, only to be faced with a Shia uprising? Why have things become so desperate that troops of an advance party of marines, sent to replace the intelligence unit of the 82nd Airborne, are told to grow moustaches to win over a local population which supposedly equates moustaches with manliness?

The Americans have bombed a mosque because five marines were injured by shots from within it. It is as if America is not supposed to pay any price for occupation, as if an injured marine justifies the bombardment of a mosque and the killing of 50 civilians. What can this conduct be if not an amalgam of fundamental fanaticism, imperial arrogance and barbarism?

Arab nations can no longer see US policy in Iraq and Palestine except as an all-out war against them.

The US has created a new dynamic in Iraq and it is the dynamic of occupation. Once the occupation was in place and once its intentions became known, conflict became a question of “when”, not “if.” This is a classic model of what happens under occupation and we have yet to see the last of it. America, a country that boasts about democracy and the rule of law, issues an arrest warrant for the young cleric in connection with a murder case but then uses the warrant as a bargaining chip to make him alter his political stand. This is also a part of the occupation dynamic. The occupying authority is now above the law. It furthers its own interests in whatever manner it deems suitable, and the manner is invariably imperialist.

Resistance is a fire that spreads through the timber of communal aggravation. We may not know much about the Iraqi resistance, but it mirrors both the people and the country, both the good and the bad. Resistance may be accompanied by chaos as well as fanaticism, vitality as well as backwardness. What we see in Iraq is an armed uprising against a merciless foreign occupation, an occupation that symbolizes everything backward, fanatical, and bellicose about America. What we see in Iraq is an armed civilian uprising, and there is no contradiction in terms here. The Iraqi combatants are civilians under arms.

It is absurd that US officers grumble about how the resistance fighters mingle with civilians so that occupation forces cannot distinguish between the two. These combatants are actually civilians under arms. What does the US army expect them to do, set up a camp outside Falluja? The combatants mix with the civilian population because they are civilians, because they live in civilian homes. The occupation comes without civilians because it is far removed from home, because its soldiers are not sleeping in their own homes—they only bomb the homes of others. The aerial bombardment of a civilian house leaves mutilated bodies. The media have just carried scenes of the Israeli bombardment and its effect on the bodies of Al-Rantisi and his companions. What was that if not mutilation?

The occupation authorities may soon regret the disarmament of the Iraqi Army, an ill-advised move taken on the advice of the Pentagon and its Iraqi advisers. Suddenly, 400,000 Iraqi troops were disbanded, jobless. Any imperialist novice should know that the first task of the colonial is to buy the loyalty of the security forces. In Iraq the US civil administrator disbanded the army and other institutions having assumed that democracy would materialize overnight. And what do we see in Iraq today, apart from the US attempting to exercise its will?

America cannot even impose its will. Iraq is undemocratic and a pain in the neck, a pain that comes in many shapes and forms. Even America’s men in Iraq, with and without moustaches, now find it convenient to distance themselves from US actions. When opportunists begin deserting, expect the worst.

This is an occupation. It may not end well, or in democracy. Democracy is not an automatic substitute for dictatorship. The alternative could be another dictatorship, or chaos. Only democrats can make democracy an option and then only when the political and economic elites decide such a course is in their favor.

The US occupation is not a model one. Remember Afghanistan? Well, you will soon enough. The US elections will bring it to mind, for the US president and his administration need a foreign policy accomplishment to boast of, Iraq being out of the question. Let us remember Afghanistan. Elections there have been postponed from June to September because, more than three years after the occupation, only 15 percent of eligible voters have registered.

Afghanistan’s elections will have to be held before November’s US elections, more for the sake of US than Afghan democracy. Let us also remember that the Afghan president is basically the mayor of Kabul; that Afghanistan still produces three-quarters of the world’s opium; that pro-US militias live on revenue from narcotics; that the Taliban still has checkpoints in parts of Afghanistan.

Remember Palestine? The same US administration that promised to compensate for its unilateralism in Iraq by showing respect for international decisions in Palestine has changed its mind. It has just issued a pledge that closely echoes the Balfour Declaration. Unilaterally, it shifted the course of the roadmap presented by the Quartet.

Bush has promised Sharon that any lasting solution will not involve a return to the 1967 borders or honor the right of return for refugees, and that certain settlements are there to stay. This is old- fashioned colonialism. The Israeli occupation is being rewarded for the status quo it enforced. Land seized by force is being primed for annexation. This is the logic of the current US administration, a logic that undermines any basis for negotiations in Palestine; a logic that has sent Israel on a rampage of killing and bullying in a bid to impose Israeli-US dictates without negotiation. Anyone who questions this logic is killed.

Under these circumstances any hope pinned on the roadmap is pointless. Any Arab politician claiming otherwise is deceiving himself and his people. US policy has put an end to wishful thinking. Arab nations can no longer see US policy in Iraq and Palestine except as an all-out war against them. Arab regimes are left with no face-saving options. If you think this is just a phase the region is going through, think again.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinain member of the Israeli Knesset. Mr. Bishara maintains a website at: http://www.azmibishara.info and can be reached directly at: abishara@knesset.gov.il.

[17 aug 04]

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