The problem with taking on the superpowers is that they never seem willing to admit that they are beaten, with the result that however successful the resistance to them, there is never an outright victory. Whenever the superpowers have projected their power and been met by determined local resistance, such as the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and (indirectly) Palestine, the resistance faces the problem of actually sealing their victories in political terms. In Vietnam, the Americans eventually packed their bags and fled. In Afghanistan, the Russians were given a (barely) face-saving exit by the Americans. In Chechnya, with no outside support, the resistance fighters faced wave after wave of Russian reinforcements until it became clear that the Russians simply could not be defeated. In Afghanistan, the Americans are hoping to achieve a similar victory of sorts, despite their repeated failures since 2001.
Only in Iraq has the US defeat been sealed – although not formalized – not by any decisive Iraqi victory, but by the American people’s frustrated and angry rejection of the neo-cons who started that war, and their election of a man committed to withdrawing US troops from Iraq. Surrender is unacceptable, the proud Americans have said, so let’s just pack our things and get the hell out of there. It is no coincidence that the tone of the debate in Iraq over the ratification of the draft US-Iraqi treaty, which will govern the continued presence of US troops
in Iraq after the expiry of the UN mandate at the end of this year, changed completely when it became clear that Baghdad would be dealing with an Obama administra-tion rather than a McCain one from January onwards.
Of course, the US’s involvement in Iraq will not end any time soon, and nor will US attempts to maximize their influence there – indeed, to achieve many of the same ends the neo-cons launched the war to achieve in the first place. But the transition from a Bush administration to an Obama one, at the same time as the legal basis of the US presence in Iraq changes from one mandated by a US-dominated UN Security Council for the post facto legitimization of an illegal war to one defined by a bilateral treaty between two governments, marks a significant change in Iraq’s political status. It would be going too far to say that Iraq has been restored its independence, or that it is no longer occupied. But perhaps we can say that it is now as independent and no more occupied than any other Arab nation state. It is, after all, hardly the only one whose government has to put up with the presence of US troops that it would much prefer were not in the country; and it is hardly the only one whose government has to give disproportionate importance to the wishes of the White House over and above those of its own people. Truly it can be said that the years of brave Iraqi resistance, and skillful political maneuvering, have achieved for the Maliki government in Baghdad a similar degree of independence, credibility and legitimacy to those long enjoyed by such proud rulers as the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy in the Arab peninsula.
This was, of course, not what most Iraqi resistance fighters had in mind; most, whether Sunni or Shi‘i, had higher and more idealistic goals than that, and most would have envisaged some more Islamic version of statehood. That may or not be possible to establish on the basis of the political and communal wreckage left by the Americans. Much will depend on the maturity and understanding of Islamic movement leaders in Iraq during the next few years – a statement that itself will kill the hopes of many observers of Iraq’s recent history, for not all of the worst damage Iraq has suffered has been inflicted by the Americans. The sectarian violence encouraged by many Iraqi leaders has perhaps been as damaging to Iraq’s fragile social fabric as US bombs and misrule have been to its infrastructure and institutions. Tragically, all the sacrifices of the last few years have probably brought Iraq no closer to the establishment of an Islamic state and order capable of representing all sections of the country’s vibrant and varied Muslim population than it was during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
And so it goes on: the struggle of the Islamic movement will continue now in Iraq, in the unique post-war political circumstances of that country, just as it continues in the many other Muslim countries under Western hegemony.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes his blog, A Sceptical Islamist, at: http://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.