MOSCOW – Nuri Said was the puppet prime minister of Iraq during the 1950s, when the British pulled all the strings in Baghdad. When he was toppled by revolutionary Iraqi officers in 1958, Said’s mangled corpse was dragged through the streets. His end more or less confirmed what he used to say: “You can always rent an Arab, but you can never buy him.” The Bush administration is filled with men with short memories who won’t have heard of Nuri Pasha, and aren’t in the frame of mind to listen to his advice.
Asia Times Online told this story in September of 2002 (Russia rooting for a quick hit on Saddam), and 18 months later it deserves to be repeated, especially after Said’s gruesome fate recently befell four American security men at the hands of an Iraqi mob in the town of Fallujah. Since their intensely televised death and dismemberment, the American occupation forces have faced surging rebellions by the two major communities of Iraq, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. Their attacks have also targeted foreign civilians, pseudo-civilians, and soldiers of fortune in Iraq, forcing widespread evacuations.
For the first time, the US military leadership in Washington, fearing the political consequences of adding fresh, inexperienced US forces to Iraq, has cancelled the one-year rotation agreement it had with its troops, extending their service in the war zone for another three months. Rotation was a scheme devised by the White House to limit the extent to which unpopular and unwinnable wars might provoke mutiny in the ranks, and votes against the president at home. The one-year rotation failed to staunch the crack-up of the US Army in Vietnam, but neither presidents Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon dared to cancel the rotation promise.
The political calculation by President George W Bush is that, even if the disgruntled families of the 20,000 troops affected immediately -one in every seven in Iraq – vote against him later this year in the presidential elections, that will still add up to fewer votes against him than if he adds 20,000 new troops who begin to suffer casualties.
The military calculation is that it will not be possible to preserve the US position in Iraq by paying local Iraqis to replace departing US forces. They must stay to fight; or they must retreat. The recent fighting has demonstrated for all to see that Said’s warning has returned to haunt those who ignored it. The Iraqis whom Washington has rented will never risk Said’s fate. And so, win or lose against Democratic Party candidate John Kerry, Bush has started down the slope that once defeated Johnson and Nixon, and put a brief stop to Washington’s imperial ambitions.
That’s a slope which Russian policy has no interest in either precipitating or accelerating – so long as it has the same outcome for US expansionism.
At the time of Nuri Said’s downfall, and again during the Vietnam War, the American leadership attributed its troubles to the cleverness of the Soviet Union, mostly because it was the Cold War, and Washington had no other way of explaining, let alone accepting, outbreaks of nationalism, localism and the like.
President Vladimir Putin, his Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and new Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov understand how easy it would be for Bush and his circle to revive similar charges, and put the blame for their own mistakes and battlefield losses on the Kremlin. They understand, too, how different the war in Iraq is from the war in Vietnam. They realize that the American people have even less commitment to the imperial fight this time than they had before. The Russian policymakers understand that it is Israel, and its men in Washington, who are mostly calling the shots for the president. The Russian assessment, and American public opinion, are therefore likely to converge, as the Arabs begin to exact the same toll on Americans in Iraq, as the Palestinians have been doing to the Israelis in that occupied territory.
Israel is trying to shoot its way out of a casualty ratio of one of their own to three Palestinians. For the time being, the US is trying to cope with a ratio of one to 50. Israel’s effective capture of the White House has taken a half-century to pull off, and for those, like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, who now command the heights of US power, this is a do-or-die campaign. Only it will be patriotic Americans who will be doing the dying. And they are not as malleable as their president.
Russian policy is therefore founded on letting the battlefield serve as a reminder of Nuri Said’s warning. Officially, Moscow would like to effect a substitution of US troops for a combination of Iraqi sovereignty and United Nations support. But sovereignty cannot be rigged by Wolfowitz and Perle, nor paid for by the US Congress and Halliburton Corporation. Nor can Bush’s puppets in England, Australia, Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Japan pretend to UN legitimacy. The Iraqi resistance is making sure that point is already clear (ask Spain). Sooner or later, the allied occupation forces will have to be replaced. But creating a new Iraqi political consensus will take much longer than Bush has realized.
Until that happens, Russian policy is to try to neutralize the damage that the Israeli faction in Washington can do, and try to advance a strategic relationship with the Americans who may be able to wrest power over Bush from the grip of the Israelis. Two remarks by Ivanov on his recent visit to Washington indicate this direction. The Kremlin, said Ivanov, “considered joint Russian-US efforts within the framework of the counterterrorism coalition to be much more important than our differences about the war in Iraq …” The US alliance, he added, regarding the Balkan conflict in Kosovo, but a general principle nonetheless, “must finally understand that one cannot flirt with political extremists”.
For Russia, it is crucial to prevent the deteriorating US position in Iraq from becoming the policy of perpetual war and territorial aggrandizement, which has characterized the Israeli policy for decades. To this end, having such a person as Bush in the White House may be preferable, if the extremists around Bush can be defeated by the simple facts on the battlefield.
Ivanov and other Russian officials have acknowledged recently that if the Americans were to decide to abandon their redoubts in Iraq, as they did in Vietnam, the communal instability inside the country would pose severe risks of spreading. And that isn’t in the Russian interest, so long as Islamic fundamentalism already threatens across several Russian frontiers, and inside the Russian Caucasus. Ivanov made clear also that, beyond the Chechen conflict, Russia is especially concerned to protect the movement of its exports, especially energy, to market through waterways and pipelines that are vulnerable to attack.
Ivanov told his Washington audience that he expects that the most likely conflicts between the Great Powers that may “flare up in the foreseeable future will certainly be related to the economic domain, to the needs to secure by the individual, national states of their national interests, especially in the sphere of economy”. Teaching Washington to accept that Russian economic interests are not antithetical to American ones may take time. But as long as the US keeps making costly mistakes in Iraq, time is on Russia’s side. And so is the price of crude oil.