By Hussein Ibish
Special to The LA Times
If concern is growing that ideological convictions at the Defense Department resulted in costly miscalculations regarding the war in Iraq, even greater alarm is warranted by glaring missteps in the preparation for what comes after the war.
Take, for instance, the political profile of the man tapped to lead the occupation, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner.
Garner’s stated opinions on Middle Eastern politics make him singularly unsuitable for the indescribably sensitive task of being the first U.S. administrator of a large Arab country. In 2000, Garner signed a statement backing Israel’s hard-line tactics in enforcing the occupation of the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This statement, which was organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank close to the Israeli far right, praised the Israel Defense Forces’ “remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of a Palestinian Authority” and advised the strongest possible American support.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Arab politics knows that any association between an American occupation of Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands poses great danger. It is guaranteed to breed deep resentment and bitter opposition, especially as U.S. checkpoints in Iraq begin to look increasingly like those in the West Bank.
Persistent reports in the British and American press suggest that Garner will be in charge of 23 ministries, each headed by an American with Iraqi advisors. Not only will this look and feel like a colonial administration, the identity of some of the Iraqi advisors rings alarms.
Most disturbing is the role apparently planned for Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-created opposition group based in London with no visible presence or support in Iraq. He is extremely popular with the neoconservatives in and around the administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.
In the Middle East, however, Chalabi is also known for swindling tens of millions of dollars from a bank he headed in Jordan. In April 1992, he was sentenced in absentia to 22 years’ hard labor on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and speculation with the Jordanian dinar. For many months this man has been demanding that Washington appoint him prime minister of Iraq. It is cold comfort indeed to learn that he will be Garner’s “advisor” at a ministry of finance.
Other early signs for how the administration of Iraq will function are equally not encouraging.
The management of the port of Umm al Qasr, one of the few places in Iraq under complete Western control, has produced a split between British and American authorities. The British view is that the Iraqi manager, who has been in his position for years, is capable of doing the job. Our government insisted, however, in providing a lucrative contract to run the port to Stevedoring Services of Seattle.
Australia has expressed concern that its existing wheat contracts with Iraq will be transferred to U.S. interests.
This appears to be the pattern set for most such arrangements in Iraq, with not only allies, the United Nations and major nongovernmental organizations frozen out of the process but with local Iraqis as well, in favor of American corporations.
Some NGOs, of course, will be present in Iraq, and one of the first to announce its intention to follow in the footsteps of the invasion force is the evangelical organization led by Franklin Graham. Graham, who has repeatedly insisted that Islam is a “very evil, wicked religion,” will hardly be a reassuring presence to ordinary Iraqis.
The behavior of some of our troops has also provided ominous signs of political problems to come. Gestures such as naming Army bases in Iraq after Exxon and captured airstrips “George W. Bush International Airport” do not convey a message of liberation.
Between Garner, Chalabi, Stevedoring, Graham and “Camp Exxon,” not to mention the checkpoints, the prospects for winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis seem dim indeed.
By Hussein Ibish