WP Live Transcript: Middle East Expert on Iraq

Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan and author of Informed Comment, a weblog about Iraq and the Middle East, was online Tuesday, June 1 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the new leaders of the interim Iraqi government, the politics and parties involved and what the implications are for Iraq, the Middle East and the rest of the world.


Interesting stuff.

Irvine, Calif.: Mr. Cole:

The following question was not taken up by Mr. Bennett. Could you help?

Why is the U.S. in Iraq?

Juan Cole: The purposes for which the Iraq war was fought remain opaque to most Americans outside the inner circle of the Bush administration. It is quite alarming that the supposedly democratic US government can be essentially hijacked by about 8 key officials under the right circumstances, especially with regard to foreign policy. Until, like Robert McNamara, these 8 officials repent in their old ages and come completely clean, we can only speculate. Paul O’Neill suggests that Dick Cheney saw lots of opportunities for US companies to explore, drill and refine Iraqi petroleum (in the long term, Iraq’s daily capacity could be 10 million barrels a day, something close to that of Saudi Arabia. Although the US cannot hope to own the petroleum or the receipts for it, there is a lot of money to be made in development and refining). Some think that the old Cold War hawks wanted to finally kill off the Vietname Syndrome and give back to the US government the ability to fight “small wars” at will, especially given that the US is now the only superpower. Iraq would be their test case. It may be that some Department of Defense officials were tired of the stand-off in the Persian Gulf and the lack of a security architecture after the British withdrawal in 1969. Two-thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves are in this region, and it lacked any real security. An Americanized Iraq with a division or two permanently stationed there would solve the problem. For a handful of Neocons, this move may have been seen as a way to improve Israel’s security posture. It was complex, with a lot of different strands coming together. I don’t believe anyone seriously believed in Washington that Saddam posed a military threat to the US.

McLean, Va.: This all reminds me of the whole Mahmoud fiasco in Isreal/Palestine. How long will it be until this new guy in Iraq realizes that he too is supposed to just be a puppet?

Juan Cole: The US in Iraq is far weaker than the Israelis in the Occupied Territories. The US will not find it easy to simply ignore Mr. Allawi or the caretaker government (this is already clear from the appointment process!) The danger seems to me not that the caretaker government will act as a mere puppet. These individuals seem to me hungry for their own role. The danger is that they will not move to early elections, and may inadvertently provoke a revolution against themselves and their American backers. If 300,000 Iraqis start coming out into the street regularly, the US would just have to leave.

Chicago, Ill.: What is the likelihood of the new Iraqi interim government asking the American military to leave Iraq? I imagine that this would be incredibly popular with the Iraqi people and would prove that they are not American puppets. Also, which individual do you see winning the upcoming elections?

Juan Cole: Since the Americans dissolved the Iraqi military and no new such force has been built, the caretaker government is dependent on the Americans for security. This sword is two-edged, since the American troop presence in the country probably causes a good deal of the instability, in itself. But it is hard to see how these politicians would want the US to leave just yet. Remember that two members of the Interim Governing Council were assassinated, and the leader of the SCIRI party, who had his brother occupy the actual seat on the IGC, was also blown up. Any Iraqi government at this point would also want something of an American security umbrella lest neighbors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria decide to try to meddle. I am not saying they are necessarily happy with the US presence–most Iraqis are probably not. I am saying that the Iraqi government is probably stuck until a new army can be formed.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Who will control the Iraqi oil fields under a new regime? Will they continue to be protected from attack by U.S. forces?

Juan Cole: The full control of how Iraqi petroleum receipts are spent by the new Iraqi government is still a contentious issue that has not been explicitly spelled out in the resolution presented to the United Nations Security Council by the US and the UK. Al-Yawar has insisted that the resolution be tightened up and that such issues be explicitly addressed. The US military is trying to protect the oil fields and pipelines, but two spectacular bombings took a million barrels a day offline in May. When the exports can return reliably to pre-war levels or more is still unclear.

North Bay, Ontario. Canada: Given the current disorder, how good are the chances that the new interim government leaders will be able to exercise any authority, or even avoid assassination?

Juan Cole:
The great German sociologist Max Weber defined “authority” as “the likelihood that a command will be obeyed.” The new government will have some authority, especially over the various ministries it heads (health, finance, interior, defense, etc.) and over the police and other security forces. But I’m not sure how many ordinary Iraqis will really respect its authority. Likewise, many of the police and other forces have dual loyalties, to local or sectarian leaders as well as to the government, and in a pinch they have tended to go over to local leaders. Almost all the Najaf police, for instance, defected to Muqtada al-Sadr when the Americans came after him. The new government will have the same problem, and will inevitably be seen as an American imposition. Until a new and effective army is built, a lot of the government’s orders will not be obeyed.

Alot more here on who the players are and other considerations.