Remarks to the Annual Conference of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations

Thank you John. That was such a fulsome introduction that I don’t have a lot of time to speak, and I’ll try to keep it very short.

A year ago I stood before this gathering and raised a question or two about the then pending adventure in Iraq. I cannot say that all the questions I asked have been answered; those that have been answered seem to have gotten the wrong answers. I am not going to review those questions today. Instead I will simply note that in the past year, in three areas of concern to me, as someone concerned with the quality of U.S.-Arab relations and U.S. policy in the Middle East, things have not gone well.

First, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been successfully vilified in the eyes of the American public. The consequences of this are manifest in many ways. For those from the region who take delight in the distress of the Saudis, and there is some Schadenfreude over this, let me point out that the Saudis’ problems drag all Arabs down.

When one looks at polls in the United States showing that a large majority of the American people believe that Iraq was complicit in the events of 9/11, one does not see considered judgements by our compatriots, but rather a simple awareness that some bad Arabs did very bad things to the United States. Coupled with this, I’m sorry to say, is the judgement that most Arabs are probably bad.

It has been obvious for a long time what needed to be done by both sides about this. I gather Dr. Al-Iryani spoke this morning about what might be done on the Arab side, and I understand he will have some remarks about what ought to be done on the American side, so I will not dwell on this. But it is sad that so much time has been wasted and that the trends have been so consistently negative in this area.

Second, perhaps first in importance, the Israeli-Palestinian interaction has seen the road map obliterated by zero sum gamesmanship on both sides. The extremists run the government in Israel, they dominate the politics of Palestinians, with no hope remaining among Palestinians for resolution of their problems by peaceful means. We must now be concerned whether the violence of the Holy Land will not spread beyond its borders.

Finally there is the issue of Iraq, one we took up last year and which was addressed by Dr. Phebe Marr and others this morning Dr. Marr will have some more remarks about this.

Sad to say, half a year after Americans neoconned ourselves into invading Iraq, we still don’t know why we’re there. And we haven’t figured out what to do with it. Last night’s Presidential address did not answer either question.

The ouster of Saddam, the one achievement of U.S. policy that is lauded everywhere is, we have learned, not enough. It leaves too much undone in Iraq. It leaves too many disputes with allies and friends untouched and untended. And it leaves too many questions about America’s proper role in the world undefined. Saddam’s tyranny, a decade of international sanctions and three weeks of highly destructive U.S. Air Force bombing have made a thorough mess of Iraq, the full dimensions of which we have only belatedly grasped. The task of reconstruction, as the President finally admitted last night, will be a lot longer and will be a great deal more expensive than we thought.

Who’s going to pay for this? The United States with a little help from a few friends, or the broader international community with a lot of help from the United States? This will be decided by who occupies Iraq and by what authority that occupation is there. If Iraq remains a Pentagon-operated theme park, the United States, not the international community will be held accountable for what happens there and Americans, almost alone, will pay for it in both blood and treasure.

We can’t share the glory of the brilliant military victory our British allies and we achieved over Saddam Hussein; but it is in our interest to share the credit, and the burden, of success in nation-building, as well as the blame if we fail to midwife a new Iraq.

American circumvention of the United Nations and the cold shoulder we gave to our allies and friends as we went into Iraq has created a serious problem that won’t easily go away. With promises of state visits to Washington and other inducements, the administration did manage to extract statements of support from about a fourth of the world’s member states. This enabled the president to assure Americans that “a broad coalition of nations” backed our actions in Iraq.

But with a few truly remarkable exceptions (I think of Japan’s unprecedented offer of troops as well as aid) the countries we enlisted lack the will, the money or the troops to work alongside the United States and Britain effectively in Iraq. Some, for example, Poland and Ukraine are willing to risk the lives of their soldiers if we pay for them. But it turns out that when it comes to paying bills or carrying out perilous military tasks, lip service from a penniless, unarmed claque is a very poor substitute for support from the coalition of major powers at the heart of the UN Security Council.

In the real world, to manage and pay for real change in Iraq, we need both political cover and a lot of financial help from the three fourths of the nations that six months ago openly derided our rhetoric as deceptive, our attitudes as insulting, our reasoning as amoral, and our actions as those of a scofflaw. Given these attitudes, simply asking the international community to give us the money to let the Pentagon do the job in Iraq, as we’ve done, is not a promising course.

Those critical of the United States, who include some of our historically closest allies in Europe and elsewhere, say that they’ll help us in Iraq if they have a real say, a real say, in what happens there through the UN. They’re pretty confident we won’t call their bluff by letting them have any such role. And their attitude toward our difficulties in Iraq frankly, is pretty unattractive. It is “you broke it, you own it. Gee we’re sorry to see you make such a mess of it.”

The contempt, like the cynical shaudenfreude, is of course mutual. But if Iraq, which has been up to now primarily an embarrassment for the Pentagon civilian leadership, becomes a debacle for the United States, it will be a debacle with global reach, threatening not just US-Arab and US-Muslim relations and the regional order in the Middle East but the international order as a whole.

Conversely if Iraq goes right, and it still could, the whole world stands to gain. Enough is at stake to justify a real hard look at ourselves and a serious effort by all parities to get past the ugly, shortsighted mood we’ve all been in. We need to reforge alliances and friendships and partnerships that can enlist the whole power of the international community behind the earliest possible self-determination of a reconstructed Iraq.

Tall tales about weapons of mass destruction may have helped to inveigle America into Iraq, but this doesn’t alter the fact that we are there. Whatever the domestic political fallout of the war may be, whether people do or do not thank some in the Pentagon for putting the “con” back into conservative, the challenges of consequence management press urgently upon us in Iraq. How to restore basic services and rebuild a country while being shot at, in no small measure because of anger borne of the failure to restore basic services? How to preclude sporadic acts of resistance to occupation by Iraqi nationalist from escalating into a broader guerrilla war? How to prevent radicals throughout the Arab and Muslim world from making common cause with disgruntled Iraqis; using the American occupation forces in Iraq as target practice, training for global jihad? How to make sure that democratization means something other than de-secularization, the empowerment of Sunni and Shiite religious extremists and the emergence of faith-based politics in a society that was long notable for its separation of religion from political life?

These aren’t easy questions. Addressing them means that we need to come to some kind of agreement about why we are in Iraq now that we are there. Rehashing old arguments about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or connections with terrorism frankly doesn’t help this process. Nor do attempts to hoist a sort of UN fig leaf over a chain of command that keeps the U.S. Secretary of Defense calling the shots and running the reconstruction in Iraq. That won’t work.

President Bush used to say that the U.S. military should be not tasked with nation building, I think he was right. They are superb war fighters. They are not cut out to be politicians, gendarmes or social workers. The U.S. military should not be left to hold the bag in Iraq.

I think just about everyone would agree that the U.S. mission in Iraq will be a success if we accomplish true regime change, not just regime removal, which is all we’ve done to date. And if the Iraqi people, other Arabs and the international community conclude that we have liberated, not conquered and subjugated Iraq. Frankly, neither objective requires U.S., still less Pentagon control, to be achieved. In fact, both would be advanced by the earliest possible de-Americanization, true internationalization, of the occupation, and the development of a timetable for U.S. military disengagement from Iraq. It would be a great deal cheaper to fund an international development effort in Iraq than to try to run Iraq as a Defense Department satrapy. Internationalization seems to me to be key to the speedy return to Iraqis of full sovereignty and accountability for what happens in their country. This is the liberation we promised them.

If there is no credible timetable for this, and if the United States remains in control on the streets and in the ministries in Baghdad, no matter how many Iraqi faces we put out front, Americans will continue to bear full responsibility and pay the full price for whatever happens in Iraq. Iraqi nationalists, some of them at least, have already begun to view the only good American as a dead American. And they have begun to seek allies among religious extremists with the proven capacity to strike at the U.S. homeland. Without a credible internationally endorsed plan for U.S. military withdrawal, backed by an effective multinational reconstruction effort with generous funding by the United States, Iraq resistance to our presence in their country will broaden and deepen. So will the demands on our military and the attacks on Americans everywhere.

By asking for 87 billion U.S. dollars for the coming year, the first of many years perhaps, in Iraq, the President has taken an important first step. American money is essential, but American money alone will not free the United States of Iraq or Iraq of the United States.

Let me conclude. Such are the perils of empire, I suppose some will say. Americans frankly understand these perils of empire more than most people. Our republic was born in a reaction to imperial administrators and military garrisons. In the past century we’ve fought two world wars and numerous skirmishes during a near-world war, the Cold War, to liberate captive nations and to prevent their occupation, not subjugate them.

The traditions of American internationalism extol the uniqueness of our refusal to acquire the empire our power would have permitted us to create. What’s happening in Iraq frankly invites us to rededicate ourselves to these important American traditions not abandon them.

We want to see ourselves, and to be seen by others as the liberators, not the imperial administrators of the Iraqi people. We want to be seen as the benefactors, not the conquerors of Iraq. But neither we nor the world will see us this way until we’ve shown that we are more interested in liberating Iraq than in commanding and controlling it. And more interested in accomplishing Iraqi reconstruction than in vindicating the unilateralism that took us there. Thank you.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Washington, D.C.

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