June 16, 2008 · By Phyllis Bennis
UFPJ Talking Points #59: U.S. trying to “legalize” permanent occupation of Iraq; Shifting discourse on Israel-Palestine
- The Bush administration is escalating its efforts to make permanent its occupation of Iraq through imposing a “bilateral” agreement on the Iraqi government, but Iraqi opposition is growing. If those efforts fail, the U.S. and Iraq may try to pressure the United Nations to extend its current mandate “legalizing” the U.S. occupation.
- While U.S. policy has not yet changed, public and media discourse on Israel and Palestine is in the throes of a major transformation.
“Legalizing” the U.S. Occupation of Iraq
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has intensified its longstanding effort to make the U.S. occupation of Iraq permanent. Its first choice is to coerce the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to sign an ostensibly “bilateral” agreement – what the White House would like to call a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA). The administration is pushing to meet the July 31 deadline that was earlier agreed to for that agreement. There are new indications of Iraqi resistance to the proposed agreement – both U.S. occupation-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the influential Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have recently indicated strong opposition. But the U.S. effort to impose a “security agreement” remains in force.
The reason for the Bush administration’s urgency is that the current United Nations mandate expires on December 31st of this year. That mandate, which the U.S. forced on a reluctant but unwilling-to-resist Security Council, transformed the U.S.-British occupation army into a UN-approved “multi-national force.” It provided a veneer of international legitimacy over what would otherwise be understood to be a thoroughly illegal occupation. That veneer that will be stripped away on January 1, 2009, making the U.S. occupation officially illegal and leaving the 150,000 or so remaining U.S. occupation troops without immunity from Iraqi law.
The Proposed Agreement
The Bush administration claims that the agreement it’s trying to impose is not a treaty, and thus does not require Senate ratification. They are trying to equate this imposed Iraqi agreement with SOFA agreements the U.S. maintains with other countries – the countries that host the Pentagon’s 1000+ foreign bases. But those other countries – such as Germany and Japan – are not at war. Those SOFA agreements do not give U.S. troops the right to arrest German or Japanese citizens and hold them indefinitely without charges; they do not give U.S. troops and U.S.-paid mercenaries complete immunity from local laws; they do not give the U.S. the right to supervise German or Japanese police or defense ministries; and crucially, they do not allow U.S. troops to launch military attacks within their countries or against other countries without even pretending to consult with the local government.
The U.S.-proposed agreement with Iraq would allow all of that, and more. Although the text has not been made public, numerous leaks (primarily in the Arab and especially British press) have indicated that the agreement would include:
- U.S. troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, with numbers to be determined by the U.S., and with troops and military contractors immune from accountability under Iraqi criminal or civil law.
- U.S. troops could launch military attacks in Iraq without consulting the Iraqi government.
- The U.S. would maintain its 58+ military bases in Iraq, including the five huge mega-bases, indefinitely.
- Iraq’s defense, interior and national security ministries and all Iraqi arms purchases would be kept under U.S. supervision for ten years.
- The U.S. can determine that any act by other country [read: Iran] constitutes a “threat” to Iraq, and exercise the right to respond to “protect” Iraq.
- The U.S. will maintain control of Iraqi airspace.
(We should note that all the Bush administration plans for maintaining the U.S. economic occupation of Iraq -through control of oil funds, trade practices, privatization and more -remain in place. However, because of the Dec. 31 UN mandate expiration deadline, the current debate has focused only on the so-called “security” agreement, not on the continuing U.S. goal of a second, broader “treaty” between the U.S. and Iraq.)
So far the Iraqi government, facing massive popular and parliamentary opposition, has indicated it will not accept the terms. On June 12 Maliki expressed direct opposition to some aspects of the text. Iraq’s parliament, also elected and kept in power by the occupation but which has somewhat closer ties to the population, has opposed the agreement even more strenuously. A wide range of parliamentarians sent a letter to Congress stating their willingness to “ratify agreements that end every form of American intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs and restore Iraq’s independence and sovereignty over its land.” Nadeem al-Jaberi, one of the Iraqi parliamentarians visiting Washington last week told a congressional hearing that “the anarchy and chaos in Iraq is linked to the presence of the occupation, not withdrawal from Iraq.”
And in response to the Iraqi resistance, the Bush administration is reportedly now holding $50 billion of Iraqi oil money – deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York because of earlier sanctions arrangements – hostage to the Irag’s agreement to sign on.
If Iraq Rejects the Agreement – Plan B
There is a good chance that unless the administration significantly cuts back the content of the agreement (possible but unlikely to be sufficient) it will be rejected by the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister al Maliki. His opposition stems largely from concern over his close-to-zero public credibility, which is likely to disappear altogether if he signs on with Washington. And with provincial elections coming in the fall, Iraqi parties are tripping over each other to win popularity by claiming to oppose the U.S. occupation.
But whatever the motivation, if the Iraqi government ultimately refuses to sign a new agreement, the consequence would be that on January 1, 2009 all U.S. and “coalition” troops and mercenaries would be in Iraq without legal authorization. The occupation would be officially illegal. And crucially for U.S. domestic political purposes, U.S. troops and mercenaries would become vulnerable to Iraqi law.
That would be a good thing – the occupation is illegal, and recognizing that should force the U.S. to bring home all the troops and mercenaries and to close the bases, because there would be no legal basis for them remain occupying Iraq. But that is unlikely.
It is clear that both Bush and both of his potential successors intend to keep tens of thousands (or more) U.S. troops in Iraq for years to come. To prevent the possibility that the occupation would be recognized as illegal, Plan B is already in the works. That would involve the Iraqi government returning to the UN Security Council under U.S. sponsorship to ask for an extension of the existing UN mandate – despite the current mandate’s explicit recognition that it would be the last one.
Several countries on the Council – including South Africa, Libya, Indonesia, and possibly Viet Nam, along with permanent members Russia and China – likely have some hesitation about the UN being asked once again to provide legitimacy for the U.S. occupation of Iraq and immunity for U.S. occupation soldiers, including immunity for war crimes. But there is little reason to think any of those countries – with the possible exception of South Africa – would be willing to stand up and resist U.S. pressure to give the occupation UN approval.
European Union countries currently on the Council – Britain, France, Italy, Croatia and Belgium – are likely to follow the British lead of continuing occupation, despite France’s history of opposition. (All are now led by right-wing governments eager to maintain close U.S. ties.)
In the U.S. there is significant congressional opposition to the Bush administration’s proposed bilateral treaty. Much of it focuses on the right of Congress to be consulted on the agreement, and the claim (unlikely at best) that it would tie the hands of the next president. There is some substantive opposition as well (to officially “permanent” bases, for instance, although not to the Pentagon’s cleverly-titled “enduring” bases, and unfortunately not to maintaining large numbers of troops in Iraq). Some important opponents of the proposed U.S.-Iraq agreement – unfortunately including Rep. Bill Delahunt who has played a great role in holding hearings on the danger of such an agreement – have taken the view that the only danger is in a bilateral agreement being taken without U.S. congressional approval. They therefore support extension of the UN mandate as a way of protecting U.S. troops from being held accountable to Iraqi law – deeming that more important than the call to simply bring them all home.
But in fact the danger of the U.S. succeeding once again at imposing its will on the United Nations, as it has so often throughout sixty-three years of UN history, is a greater danger. The UN stood up to U.S. pressure once – in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq – because member governments and the Security Council itself faced massive direct public pressure from social movements around the world, demanding that the UN stand up for its own Charter, its own integrity and independence, and against the U.S. war.
The question now is how to make that happen again.
On Palestine: Changing the Discourse
We are in the midst of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is how Palestinians describe the events if 1947-49. During that time 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homeland in what Israelis celebrate as the “war of independence.” They were never, despite the requirements of international law and UN resolutions that Israel agreed to implement, allowed to go home.
The nakba has been commemorated every year since. Certainly the usual triumphalism of the AIPAC conference, with its annual parade of politicians making obeisance to Israeli occupation and apartheid policies did not change. But outside of AIPAC, what was different this year was that the massive media coverage of the overall celebration of the Israeli anniversary and the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” actually acknowledged and gave voice to the nakba as a legitimate component of the narrative. Certainly the mainstream press did not give equal voice to Palestinian suffering or Palestinian rights, but there was a visible and audible breach in the once-unchallenged triumphalism of Israel’s creation. There was widespread recognition that Palestinian voices had to be heard, and the recognition included all three components of the divided Palestinian nation – Palestinian refugees in their far-flung diaspora, those living under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. AIPAC and Israel are no longer the sole proprietors of the Israel-Palestine narrative in the U.S.
Significantly, the change in discourse was powerful enough to reach UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has consistently endorsed Washington’s efforts to protect Israel from being held accountable for its violations of international law. The same day Ban called the Israeli prime minister to congratulate him on the 60th anniversary, he also called Palestinian Authority president to express his support for the Palestinian people after 60 years of the nakba. That announcement was enough to cause Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations to demand that the word nakba be banned from the UN, complaining that the very term nakba “is a tool of Arab propaganda used to undermine the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel, and it must not be part of the lexicon of the UN.”
The shift in discourse is huge, reflecting the massive change in public discussion of this issue that has been underway for the past year or more. Former president Jimmy Carter, both in his book’s using “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy towards Palestine, and in his courageous decision to meet with Hamas officials in defiance of U.S.-Israeli efforts to isolate Gaza and the Islamist organization, has played a huge part. So has the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation – a coalition of more than 250 organizations whose recent “Expressions of Nakba” art competition brought in more than 300 entries from around the world. According to the Campaign’s advocacy director, Josh Ruebner, “Israel’s effort to ban the use of the word nakba at the UN is an act of desperation. They are obviously incredibly threatened by the precariousness of their international standing. So we should view this attempt as a victory for us in our efforts to delegitimize its policies.” (I urge people to go to the Campaign website – www.endtheoccupation.org – and take a look at the incredible photos of the nakba commemoration including the “mobile billboard” that circled the Washington DC celebration of Israel’s anniversary and the AIPAC conference…)
The discourse has also widened on the still difficult but much less contentious debate over one state or two states. The one-state view (transforming what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single democratic and secular or bi-national state based on one person-one vote) remains a minority position. But there is growing realization that the continuing U.S.-supported expansion of Israeli settlements, land confiscations and the apartheid wall are about to or have already rendered a viable two-state option impossible. The two-state/one-state debate is increasingly part of mainstream Palestinian, international, and even some Israeli discourse. And the mere existence of the debate has helped in the process of transforming the discourse on the entire “question of Palestine.”
(Full disclosure: I continue to believe that the role of non-Palestinian supporters of Palestinian rights in the U.S. should focus on changing U.S. policy away from support for Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, and toward a policy supporting an end to occupation and equal rights for all – with full equality both within and between the one, two or six states chosen by Palestinians and Israelis themselves. That is the position of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, which I continue to serve on the steering committee. But my own personal view, throughout 30-plus years of working on this issue, is that a democratic, secular democratic state with equal rights for all has always represented a far more just solution for Palestinians, Israelis and everyone else.)
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.