[SERI COLUMN]Big changes are looming over Iraqi skyThree years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, big changes are looming over the horizon. The American press, backed by popular anti-war sentiment, is pressuring the government to pull forces out of Iraq.
Meanwhile, U.S. government agencies responsible for rebuilding the war-ravaged country are cautiously suggesting that Iraqis should no longer rely on American taxpayers’ money for reconstruction.
John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, editorialized in the New York Times on April 15 that Iraqi politicians should be given an ultimatum: by May 15 they have to cobble together an effective national unity government.
In addition a schedule has to be set for American combat forces to exit the country by yearend. Doing so, he stressed, will empower the Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in a position to run their own country and undermine grassroots support for the insurgency.
Thomas Friedman, once a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, turned into a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraqi affairs. In recent columns for the New York Times, he blamed, in particular, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the state of near-civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, although he stopped short of calling for a complete pullout.
In March, the head of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office said, “The Iraqi government needs to build up its capability to do its own capital budget investment.” His remarks are widely interpreted as a signal that the $21 billion reconstruction program has not been satisfactory and it would be terminated soon without an infusion of new money.
These two developments ― force withdrawal and termination of the reconstruction process ― point to a possible change of mind within the [Bush] administration. Of course, one cannot discern an important trend solely from scattered opinions of newspaper commentators. Indeed, many still defend the U.S. government’s Iraq policy.
President George Bush has reiterated on numerous occasions his commitment to building a model democracy in Iraq. He also warned of the dangers in a premature withdrawal, saying it would only embolden Al Qaeda and sectarian militia groups while demoralizing U.S. troops and undermining U.S. credibility.
Which trend will prevail? As anything else in the world, Iraq’s future cannot be known in advance. In this case, it is useful to look in history books for guidance. Although history never repeats itself, there are certain recurring patterns with a few twists and turns from which we can glean parallels and lessons for the future.
In 1920, the United Kingdom formally took control of Iraq, the unlikely amalgam of three ethnically distinct provinces ― Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul ― under a mandate from the League of Nations. Three years before that, the British Army led by General Stanley Maude had taken over Baghdad from the defeated Ottoman Empire. That was when General Maude uttered the now-famous line: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”
Sound familiar? Read on. The British occupation of Iraq was not a popular decision at home. A large-scale Shiite insurgency against the British erupted in 1920 with more than 2,000 casualties, which triggered a domestic campaign to end the occupation. The campaign, called “Quit Mesopotamia,” was led by none other than T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and lasted more than 10 years until the early 1930s.
Successive British governments appeared to defend the official position on Iraq ― that pulling out would only embolden the country’s enemies ― promising that Britain would stay in Iraq until 1951, or until the country was able to defend itself. As early as 1925, however, Britain had been secretly looking to get out of the country, which it did in 1927.
Looking at the series of events leading to British withdrawal, it is not difficult to imagine a similar course of action by U.S. policymakers. Already, the three-year occupation has cost the United States 2,400 casualties and $300 billion. The media are blasting the U.S. administration for the mistake of dragging the country into a quagmire. Publicly, the Bush administration intones its unwavering commitment to freedom and democracy in Iraq, while leaking hints of eventual departure. So many similarities to the state of affairs 80 years ago.
Korea, which has the third-largest contingent of forces in Iraq after the United States and Britain, is scheduled to reduce its military presence by a third at yearend. Korea’s engineering and construction contractors, including Hyundai, SK and Samsung, have had large stakes in Iraq since the 1980s, including more than $1 billion in uncollected debt in the case of Hyundai.
For this reason, what’s going on in Iraq is not a matter totally alien to Koreans, both for policymakers and business leaders.
We need to closely follow developments in Iraq and U.S. policy on the country.
* The writer is managing editor of SERIworld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of Samsung Economic Research Institute.
by Sangho Chung