Monday, 6 September 2010

Hollywood versus Iraq: a battle for American prestige?

Specific events often signal the beginning or end of long periods in history. The inception of a new phase is not always recognized in the heat of the moment, only recorded as such by future historians.
Is the American troop withdrawal from Iraq one of these historic instances?
The world has seen such events before: the humbling of the 'white invincibility' myth by Japanese forces during World War II, India's partition and independence in 1947 and the degradation of Soviet military might in Afghanistan are a few recent examples.
Initial Japanese successes during World War II led to the intensification of the decolonization movement against European colonial powers. The independence of Britain's 'jewel in the crown' sounded the death knell of 'Pax Britannica.' Gorbachev's bleeding wound in Afghanistan precipitated the unravelling of the Soviet Union, ultimately resulting in the demise of Eastern Europe's communist bloc and the independence of the Central Asian Republics.

After seven years of combat in Iraq, the Americans have withdrawn a large portion of their troops from the country. The remaining 50,000 troops will provide only support functions, principally training. (By most measures, a force of 50,000 foreign troops in an alien country still qualifies as an occupation force, but why questions the official line?)
Some argue the withdrawal indicates America's achievement of its post-war objectives following the success of the surge strategy. Others suggest the withdrawal is a humiliating defeat similar to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. Undoubtedly, the debate will continue for many decades.
Nevertheless, the damage to international American prestige is severe. The erosion of American goodwill among Muslims is especially acute.
Most everyone associated the Iraq war with a search for the stockpiles of Iraq's infamous WMD, or weapons of mass destruction - the elusive store of illicit weapons which the United Nations representative Hans Blix spoke about regularly in 2003. To date, no such destructive weapons have been found and American credibility took a body blow.
Consequently, many now perceive the US mission as an oil grab or a settling of old scores by the Bush clan.
Additionally, the US occupation of Iraq not only created a new front in the 'War on Terror' but also acts as a powerful recruiting tool for Islamic extremists from Kashmir to Algeria.
As for Iraq itself, an objective balance sheet of US occupation must include several negatives. These include the dismemberment of an already fractured nation state, with Kurdish areas effectively independent of Baghdad's control. Revolutionary Iran's influence is all pervasive in a country which was once a bastion of secularist Arab nationalism. Iraqi democratic freedoms are nominal in nature - anyone exercising the 'wrong' freedoms has a limited life expectancy.
Economic freedoms, despite large oil revenues, have not resulted in any broad based economic renaissance. Controversially, it is easy to advocate the view that Iraq's physical and social infrastructure, from electricity generation to women's rights, is fundamentally poorer than during the later Saddam years.
It takes decades for empires to wither and wane. Yet, unless there is a miraculous revival of fortunes in the next few decades, America's influence in global affairs is decidedly on the wane.
The signs are everywhere.
The US Dollar as a percentage of global reserves has decreased significantly. Global economic recovery relies more upon newer emerging markets like China, not the US playing its traditional role as the international locomotive of growth. An inevitable US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be the next step in the inexorable decline of US military power.
Of course, a middle class Kurd walking the relatively safe streets of Kirkuk, listening to his American made iPod anticipating the next Hollywood movie may argue with this author's views. At an extreme, a Kurdish militia man may even use his brand new American made and supplied rifles to prove his point!

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