United States "Liberation"
From the Philippines to Iraq
Edward S. Herman
(Swans - February 2, 2004) "Liberation" as the objective of the US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq was a fall-back position of the US invasion-occupation managers, put forward after it had become clear that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which had supposedly posed an imminent and dire threat to US national security, did not exist. However, as the Iraqi resistance to the US occupation became more widespread and effective, and the Bush administration moved to a more brutal counterinsurgency war to keep the liberated Iraqis under control, the aim of liberation became harder to maintain and a supplement if not substitute was needed. Conveniently the resistance itself provided a third rationale for the aggression-occupation: these insurgents were "terrorists," so that the aggression-occupation was just a logical and necessary part of the global war on terror. This excuse was a throwback to the US-NATO attack on Yugoslavia, where the 78-day bombing war was widely justified on the basis of the flow of Kosovo Albanian refugees produced by the war itself, which General Wesley Clark had declared the war's "entirely predictable" result. Resistance to the aggression-occupation was also entirely predictable, although it is clear that the Bush administration can't predict anything outside the sphere of domestic public relations.
The description of the Iraqi resistance as terrorism was also entirely predictable, as it falls into the category of patriotic semantics: any opposition to the United States or its prime clients that relies on force is terrorism, by definition. The United States may terrorize Iraqis by encasing towns in razor wire fences, and threaten to shoot anybody approaching or trying to cross them. It may deliberately instill fear and kill large numbers in "shock and awe" attacks, and by raids based on very limited "intelligence" that involve shooting first, treating civilians harshly, and even arresting relatives of "suspected" resisters (de facto hostage taking) -- but this is pacification and counterterror, again by definition and with the assistance of the patriotic media. The barbed wire fences are "for your protection," just as the Strategic Hamlets in Vietnam in the early 1960s were for protecting women and children from their fathers, sons and husbands. Dexter Filkins in The New York Times even quotes a US military officer in Iraq describing the new brutal tactics of the occupation as "a heavy dose of fear and violence" (1) But the paper itself is institutionally incapable of calling such a US operation and its overall thrust terrorism, even if it fits the definition precisely. (2)
The United States has long been in the business of "liberation," in various Orwellian senses of the word. We liberate people from their own irresponsibility in supporting leaders and policies that we disapprove (as Kissinger stated in regard to the Chilean people, justifying US support for their liberator, Augusto Pinochet). We liberate them from the "demagogues" who espouse an independent nationalism and responsiveness to the pressures from below to serve the majority; and we help bring into power "leaders" who will reorient their policies toward integration into the global market and service to external interests and a small and frequently venal local elite, as Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Castello Branco in Brazil, Castillo Armas in Guatemala, Suharto in Indonesia, Mobutu in Zaire and so many others have done. And we liberate them to help our "little brown brothers," on direct instructions from God himself and in the Christian spirit, as William McKinley did in the Philippines ("I'm not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance") and George Bush is doing in Iraq today ("God instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did"). The fact that these acts of liberation are invariably helpful to US transnational corporations and do immense damage to those liberated is one of those remarkable, even if recurring, coincidences.
The case of US liberation of the Philippines is instructive both because of its extremely ugly character and because George Bush actually referred to it as a relevant case in his October 18, 2003, speech given during a quickie visit to that country: "America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule." Here the U.S.'s own Baron Munchausen outdid himself: the United States pushed out Spain, but then crushed the indigenous liberation forces and annexed the Philippines in 1899 in the midst of a brutal war of subjugation -- a follow-on to the Indian wars at home, against a population repeatedly referred to as "niggers" and "savages," with widespread water torture, killing of prisoners, and eventually a wholesale attack on the civilian base because of "the almost complete community of action of the entire native population" (General Douglas McArthur). The civilian toll ran into the hundreds of thousands and may have reached a million.
The Philippines then remained a US colony till after World War II, after which it became a US dependency. When that dependency became a wee bit too liberated, Ferdinand Marcos established a dictatorship there in 1972, with full US support. In a notorious incident during the 14-year dictatorial reign that followed, characterized by state terror and massive looting by Marcos, his cronies, and the transnational corporate community, George Bush I, then Reagan's vice president, visited Marcos in 1985 and toasted him: "We love you sir. We love your adherence to democratic rights and processes." We can see that Bush II's devotion to democracy and liberation is in a great -- and even family -- tradition.
In a speech on November 6, 2003, George Bush compared his campaign for democracy and against insurgents in Iraq to the US "defense of Greece in 1947." As in the case of the Philippines, this reference depends for survival on public ignorance and the media's regular failure to remedy that ignorance with a dose of truth. Greece was not being "defended" by the Truman administration in 1947 -- Stalin had abandoned his leftwing allies in Greece in accord with the Yalta agreement, and in the ensuing civil conflict the United States carried out a vicious counterinsurgency war on behalf of a badly compromised and minority rightwing faction, many of whose members had served Nazi Germany in World War II. The US victory, after many thousands of deaths, resulted in a repressive and undemocratic monarchical government of the far right, one described by Cold War liberal journalist Howard K. Smith as a "discredited monarchy" with "blindly vengeful supporters [aided by a] police force that had served the Nazis...There are few modern parallels for government this bad." (3)
This government, however, was a US creation: liberal Greek leader Andreas Papandreou noted that, from 1949 "and in the decade that followed the American services put together a state and infiltrated it to its very core...The Greek army was really a part of the US army...The Greek intelligence services were built by the American CIA." When Papandreou became a minister with responsibility for the security services, and asked its top officer to end the tapping of his and other officials' phones, he was told that this couldn't be done because the Greek CIA was administered, funded and controlled by the US CIA. When a Papandreou-led government was overthrown by the colonels in 1967 and a regime of torture installed, again with crucial US support, it was led by five junior officers, three of whom had been in the intelligence services. The new head of state was formerly a liaison man between the Greek and US CIA, and was possibly the first CIA agent to be head of a European state. (4)
A very good case can be made that the main thrust of US foreign policy in the Third World for many decades has been democracy- and liberation-avoidance. Democrats and liberated people do not provide the kind of favorable climate of investment and deference to US foreign policy initiatives that military regimes and small venal elites will provide. There have been dozens of "joint ventures" between the US business and military elite, on one hand, and military officers and other "country-selling" leaders, on the other hand, in which the countries were taken over by the local agents, with decisive aid from the United States, to jointly exploit the indigenous people and resources. (5) For example, after the Brazilian military coup of 1964, the military regime not only opened its doors wide to US investors and smashed the popular agrarian organizations and trade unions -- making labor markets very "flexible" -- they even criminalized criticism of the United States, the Godfather who had been crucial in "educating" them in the School of the Americas and helping them engineer the "liberation" of the Brazilian people from a stumbling democratic order. This form of liberation was widespread indeed. (6)
The Bush administration's drive to "liberate" the Iraqis has to be seen in this historic context, in which the desire to put in place a servile regime has always been of first importance. In modern times this has rarely been done by permanent or even lengthy occupation, as it was in the Philippines and many backyard states like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua in earlier years. Instead it has been accomplished mainly by quickly getting into place amenable rulers, who will understand the reality of power and behave properly without daily instructions, while taking their share of the loot (including a cut of US aid monies). (7) It also calls for institutional arrangements that will facilitate proper behavior. Sometimes many people have to be killed to remove an opposition leadership, party, and even its support base, in order to render the population passive out of fear (as in Chile, Guatemala, Iran, Greece and Indonesia). The local police and military have to be properly trained in methods of pacification, and close links to US forces must be maintained to keep them properly aligned.
Also important is the restructuring of institutions to make for ready control by economic elites and external parties (foreign banks and investors, the IMF, the US government as dispenser of aid). Privatization is essential in this restructuring process as it reduces government leverage and creates a set of interests supportive of the New Order, and the exercise of rights of foreigners to invest, produce and sell freely, and to own domestic companies, helps even more. All of these make for an integration into the global market and global finance that brings with it an external orientation and financial discipline. With an adequate pacification process, buildup of properly trained security forces, restructured economic institutions and media, including foreign penetration, integration into the global system, and with a sizable and well-directed external funding and support of elections, it is not difficult to control with a nominal democracy in place and without an overt military occupation.
That the Bush administration intended to control Iraq was clear from earlier statements of its high officials on the importance of the United States "projecting its dominance" over the Middle East, with explicit reference to the conquest of Iraq, where "the need for substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." (8) Only a well disciplined or controlled state, democracy or not, would meet this aim. And as noted earlier, real democracies tend to be unsatisfactory instruments of control in the Third World. The idea that the Bush administration would be prepared to spend vast sums to establish an uncontrolled democracy in Iraq is laughable, as is the notion that something other than a democracy would trouble them.
That a controlled entity was envisaged by the Bush team was quickly made clear early in the occupation when it was revealed that the United States intended to establish and maintain four military bases in Iraq. That announcement was not consistent with the assumption of a liberated Iraq, which if truly liberated might not want four US bases. More recently, the US commander in Iraq, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, asserted that the US forces will likely have to remain in Iraq at least "a couple more years," with the clear implication that he and his bosses would determine time of exit, not any Iraqi leaders. And US officials now talk about a forthcoming agreement to be signed with the Iraqi Governing Council by the end of March for a continuing US military presence after the installation of an interim and supposedly independent government, as in "Bosnia and Afghanistan." (9) But the Bosnian and Afghanistan governments are not independent; Bosnia is literally run by a colonial governor, and Afghanistan's government is wholly dependent on the United States and its allies for money, military protection and more. Governments of this character can be depended to "invite" a continued US presence, as US proconsul Bremer suggested that a liberated Iraq would surely do.
The United States has taken a number of its traditional steps to consolidate its power in Iraq, although it is running into difficulties. One of the difficulties is that the invasion-occupation was incompetently managed, without planning or resources for a collapse of the economy, state authority, and state services, leading to mass unemployment, privation, anger, crime, and a widening rejection of the occupation. The entirely predictable US response was intensified force, which helped further widen the rejection and resistance. A second difficulty is the communal division within Iraq, with Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds on less than friendly terms and with different agendas. The majority Shiites lean toward Iran and favor an Islamic-oriented state. The US authorities have no means or program of integration of these communities and would be opposed to an Islamic-Iran-oriented state, which might result from majority rule. A third difficulty is that institutions and mechanisms supportive of democracy do not emerge overnight and none of these are likely to be in place and effective by July 2004. The Bush administration has rushed to try to arrange for at least a nominal transfer of power by July 1, both to placate international opinion critical of continuing "coalition" control of decision-making and in hopes that it might help tame the resistance to have Iraqis in nominal control.
One of the first steps taken was the selection of an Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as the on-paper Iraqi participants in the rule of the country. Although selected by the United States immediately following its act of aggression in violation of the UN Charter, and with important representation by US-sponsored Iraqi expatriates, the IGC did obtain quick UN recognition as representing the Iraqi people. However, the IGC has been so marginalized in decision making that its members have openly complained about their token and powerless role, and the Iraqi public holds them in contempt. Another step has been the beginning of training of Iraqi police to take over some of the security functions inadequately handled by "coalition" members. This has moved slowly under incompetent management and its future is uncertain. After initially firing all of the prior regime's army and police, the US managers decided to hire some of them -- at $55 per month, while paying hired security guards from abroad at prices as high as $1200 a day.
The US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) also took steps to restructure the Iraqi economy in the traditional mode, and to attack organized labor. There was a rush to privatize Iraqi state assets and open Iraq to foreign trade and investment. On June 7, 2003, import barriers were removed by proconsul Bremer's order. On September 21, 2003, under CPA Order 39, Bremer announced that all Iraqi companies and assets (apart from natural resources) would be put up for sale, with foreign buyers fully eligible. He also announced the free remittance of corporate profits abroad and a low corporate income tax rate (15 percent). A week earlier, on September 15, in Order 37, Bremer had proclaimed that "The highest individual and corporate income tax rates for 2004 and subsequent years shall not exceed 15 percent." (10) The London Economist called this program a "capitalist dream" that met the "wish list of international investors." Rightwing US economists Gordon Norquist and Bruce Bartlett were enthused about the tax program, Bartlett expressing gratification that the "leaders of the new Iraq" favored this new tax arrangement.
Baroness Shirley Williams, leader of the liberals in the British House of Lords, pointed out that this program was illegal, as Hague rules require an occupying power to respect the laws in force "unless absolutely prevented." She also pointed out that these "reforms," which effectively "put Iraq's economy up for sale," were inconsistent with the UN undertaking to allow the Iraqi people "freely to determine their own future." (11) This illegal program, which if fully implemented will undercut local producers and bring in downsizing foreign companies, will almost surely cause more unemployment, crime, and social unrest. However, it would fulfill traditional US priorities in bringing Third World countries into the US orbit of domination. And just as the UN, "international community," and US liberals have accepted the aggression as a fait accompli, so they do not find the "sale of Iraq" seriously objectionable and the basis for condemnation, sanctions, or even a refusal to cooperate with the aggressor planning to loot his victim.
The traditional attack on labor has also been implemented by the CPA, which enforces a Saddam-era law of 1987 that forbids union organization in state-owned enterprises. A June 6, 2003, CPA order threatens prisoner of war status for anyone who "incites civil disorder," which can readily encompass strikes and street protests. In addition to scattered arrests of union leaders leading demonstrations, a more serious attack was carried out by the occupation soldiers against the headquarters of the Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions on December 6, with 20 soldiers arresting eight members of the Federation's executive board, seizing files, and vandalizing the facility. No explanation was given for the arrests, damage or release of the officials the following day. In liberated Iraq, while foreign companies are given a warm welcome, privileges, and protection, workers rights shrink.
Because of the great difficulties and expense encountered in pacification, the difficulties in getting external support, and the global criticism and close watch over US efforts, the "coalition" has accelerated plans for an election and turnover of authority to Iraqis. In the late Fall of 2003, also, the U.S.'s plans to privatize Iraq's state-owned businesses were scaled back, with many of the state enterprises leased out to private contractors. This resulted in good part from the pace of resistance attacks, which included the killing of Iraqis going along with the privatization plans. There was a fear that privatization, with its concurrent downsizing and job losses, which would add to the already devastating unemployment situation (a 60-80 percent rate), might imperil the Bush plan for some kind of exit before the 2004 US presidential election.
Economy as well as Bush's electoral needs require at least a partial US exit and getting others to share the burden of occupation, all of which call for more Iraqi authority. But an important part of the motivation for the war was the ability to control Iraqi politics and Iraqi oil. Crucially, the Bush administration plans to maintain a sizable military and diplomatic presence in liberated Iraq, (12) which will make genuine liberation difficult. We are in for some tight-rope maneuvering as the Bush administration will surely try hard to arrange for elections that will get in place "realists" and exclude independent nationalists who might not want a US military presence or US domination of its oil resources -- or "free trade" and integration into the global market. It will be interesting to see how the Bushies work for continuing domination, and how the media in this country put a positive gloss on it, as they have always done and are likely to continue to do.
© Edward S. Herman 2004. All rights reserved. Please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. See our reprint policy.
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. Letters to the Editor should be 500-word long maximum and include your full name, address and phone number for verification purposes. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country. Please, E-mail the Editor. (Letters may be shortened and edited.)
Other Essays in this Special Issue
Or jump to any one author (in alphabetical order): Tanweer Akram || Justin Alexander || Anthony Arnove || Naseer Aruri || Jan Baughman || George Capaccio || Milo Clark || Gregory Elich || Sara Flounders & John Catalinotto || Manuel García || Denis J. Halliday || Edward S. Herman || Rania Masri || Thomas J. Nagy, et al. || Michael Parenti || Louis Proyect || John Sloboda || Gerard Donnelly Smith || Michael W. Stowell
Iraq on Swans (all articles regarding Iraq published on Swans)
Outside Resources on Iraq (Web sites of interest)
Additional Resources (compiled by Tanweer Akram)
2. The Webster Dictionary definition of terrorism is "a mode of governing, or opposing government, by intimidation." The US Code makes an "act of terrorism" "a violent act or an act dangerous to human life intended (a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (c) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping." (back)
7. Ingrid Palmer estimated that there was a 30 percent "corruption drain" in aid programs to Indonesia, following the Suharto takeover and massacres of 1965-1966; "The Economy, 1965-1975," in Malcolm Caldwell, ed., Ten Years' Military Terror in Indonesia (London: Spokesman Books, 1975), p. 148. (back)
8. Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America's Defenses. Report of September 2000, p. 14 - http:///www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf (last visited, January 8, 2004). (back)
9. Thom Shanker and Steven R. Weisman, "U.S. Negotiating Over Role Of G.I.'s in a Sovereign Iraq," The New York Times, December 19, 2003; Robert Schlesinger, "U.S. Expects March Deal to Keep Troops in Iraq," The Boston Globe, November 18, 2003. (back)
10. Neil King, "U.S. Pushes Iraq Privatization," The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2003; Herbert Docena, "Will the Real Collaborators Please Stand Up," Asia Times Online,
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/EK1BAk02.html (last visited, January 8, 2004). (back)