Thursday, February 5, 2015

The US is unwise to imitate British ways so closely

Last week, The Washington Post revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad had collaborated in the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mugniyeh, reportedly the head of Hizbollah’s international operations.

The revelation raised questions as to under what authority Mughniyeh was killed. It reminded many people of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants. “The operation in Damascus highlighted a philosophical evolution within the American intelligence services that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks,” the Post wrote. “Before then, the US government often took a dim view of Israeli assassination operations.”

The American willingness to follow Israel’s lead in the Middle East is hardly new. Even though their contact with Arab societies is highly restricted, the Israelis have long been regarded by Americans as experts on the region. This confidence in Israeli expertise has given Israel an interpretive edge that translates into considerable influence in Washington.

Yet Israel has not been alone in American admiration. As the Bush administration’s behaviour after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, there were apparently those who looked at Britain’s experiences in Iraq when making decisions. The same may hold true of the Obama administration’s more recent decision to resort to air power against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Discussions within the Bush administration regarding the American occupation of Iraq were recognisable to those familiar with the debate over the British administration of Iraq after the First World War. Britain had a League of Nations Mandate for Iraq.

The first head of the post-occupation American administration was a retired general, Jay Garner. His priority, when Baghdad fell, was to put in place mechanisms that would hand power over to the Iraqis. Mr Garner didn’t last long before the Pentagon brought in Paul Bremer, who sought to establish a more intrusive American administration that did not make elections a priority. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was transformed into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Mr Bremer formed an interim Iraqi Governing Council, but selected the members himself and retained veto power over its decisions.

When Mr Bremer organised Iraqi elections later on, he aimed to implement a system of provincial caucuses to select members to a transitional national assembly. The members were to be vetted by the CPA. This was opposed by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who demanded elections. He prevailed and in June 2004, his term having ended, Mr Bremer returned to America.

Under the British there was a similar dividing line over Iraq in 1918-1920. Arnold Wilson, the acting civil commissioner for Mesopotamia, advocated a direct form of British control. He rejected measures to hand over authority to the Iraqis, even manipulating an opinion survey requested by London to show, quite misleadingly, that Iraqis desired British rule.

Opposing Wilson was the oriental secretary, Gertrude Bell. She favoured handing over some powers to the Iraqis. While Whitehall would go along with the acting civil commissioner, the British government had no clear ideas about how to govern Iraq and it would reverse its position after the revolt of 1920.

Facing severe financial constraints due to the economic losses of the First World War and the cost of addressing uprisings in Ireland and Egypt, as well as financing a brief war against the Bolsheviks, the British government would seek to cut expenditures across the board. Wilson’s direct-rule scheme was expensive and provoked resentment. By 1932, Britain would hand over power to a nominally independent Iraqi state under King Faisal I.

One consequence of this situation was another innovation that the Americans appeared to have followed in Iraq: maintaining security from the air. In line with Britain’s decision to cut spending, it was the Royal Air Force that policed Iraq. In 1930, Britain imposed a treaty on Baghdad granting it the use of two airbases, at Habbaniyeh and Shuaiba.

Today the United States is employing a similar strategy, limiting its spending and exposure in Iraq by relying primarily on air power against ISIL. While this will not resolve fundamental problems in the country, it has contained a dangerous situation with minimal risk.

It’s difficult to determine just how much Washington has intentionally reproduced British policies. But one must look at the bigger picture. British rule in Iraq was of uneven success, partly because it went against the mood in the country. American actions come in a different context. Doing what the Israelis and British did may sometimes work, but the gains are usually short term. The imitation game means little if broader dynamics in the Middle East are misunderstood.

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