Red Pepper blog on Obama
'Change we can believe in?'
Saturday, November 1, 2008
So the count-down begins. ‘Blessed Good Boy’,
the literal Arabic translation of ‘Barak Hussein’ Obama is inspiring working
class, and his key demographic ‘the middle class’, voters with his big-tent
unity politics. He may be calling for social change from below, but what effect
would an Obama presidency have on ordinary Iraqis? To understand Obama’s policy
on Iraq, we need to take a closer look at his right hand man – running partner
and potential future President of the United States, Delaware Senator Joe
Obama may have voted against the Iraq war but Joe Biden was for
it. A proponent of liberal military interventionism, post-invasion, Biden has
been critical of the conduct of the occupation administration and the civil war
A Blueprint for Break-Up
The solution he proposed in 2006, however,
represents no departure from what many saw as a key tennet of the original plan
of the invasion and occupation: partition of Iraq into three separate statelets,
governed by US-friendly, installed elites, in order for the country to be
pacified and provide an uninterrupted supply of oil and gas under longterm
contracts with Western companies.
The Oil Law and the long-term deals it allows for reflects a
militarised neo-conservative energy security strategy to re-fuel faltering US
oil companies and promote their competitive advantage ahead of rival emergent
(China and India) and hostile (Iran) economies.
Biden drew up the ‘soft
partition’ plan with Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign
Relations. It called for a division of Iraq along sectarian identity lines of
‘Sunni’, ‘Kurd’ and ‘Shia’ which would be loosely administered by a central
Biden and Gelb’s Op-Ed in the New York Times was published on May Day 2006. Despite the day being
one of working class celebration, the implications of the plan could not be
worse for working class Iraqis.
The top-down social and cultural
engineering Biden and Obama support in Iraq directly contradicts the aims of
grassroots empowerment that Obama’s campaign claims in the
Iraq is Not Bosnia
Biden and Gelb wrote: ‘The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq
by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group - Kurd, Sunni Arab and
Shiite Arab - room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government
in charge of common interests’.
But Bosnia is not Iraq. The reputation
and relationships between UK and US elites and their counterparts in Iraq,
compounded by the historical violence inflicted upon the country, vary wildly in
comparison to Bosnia.
The US and UK-backed partition of Bosnia was a
painful and contested process, yet the historical agency of the UK and US in
strategically stoking conflict in Iraq and the injustices committed there, from
the artificial creation of the country to the serious war crimes committed
there, are incomparable.
The intermittent occupation of Iraq since 1920
by the British, the social engineering through the installation of puppet
regimes such as that of King Faisal in the 20s, the militarised oil plunder, the
active support for Saddam Hussein, the war games of attrition with Iran,
‘genocidal’ sanctions (as they have been described by UN official Denis Haliday) which killed a million
Iraqis, and responsibility for the deaths of over a million
Iraqis through this ongoing gulf war alone arguably make the
country a far more manipulated, militarised and traumatised place.
115bn barrels of oil to the fire, and its role as a strategic commodity and
bedrock fuel of an increasingly militarised free-market capitalism, and the
results are socially, politically and ecologically incendiary.
Gelb went on to say of their partition plan: ‘We could drive this
in place with irresistible sweeteners for the Sunnis to join in, a plan designed
by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American forces, and a regional
Irresistible sweeteners? Sunnis, a religious
identity co-existant within and with Iraqis alongside other ethnic, class,
religious and cultural identities, is concentrated in, but not exclusive to, the
western and central regions of Iraq.
The occupation invasions of Fallujah
in April and November 2004 saw over 200,000 residents flee their homes, entire
neighbourhoods levelled to the ground, the use of white phosphorous and cluster
bombs, and over 6000 people killed.
Bodies were buried in back gardens
and the town’s football stadium. Fallujah, like many other majority Sunni towns
was laid siege to by US troops who operated retina scan ID checks, refused
non-residents entry, searched and occupied homes and regularly killed civilians
Oil for Pacification
What ‘sweeteners’ could a
plan for division and de facto cantonisation orchestrated in Washington bring to
those still grieving, and those still fighting? Already blast-walls have been
built between communities and around those defined as ‘security threats’. These
new concrete facts on the ground fuelled by politically engineered sectarianism
have created the conditions for cantonised communties, territorial subdivisions
based on religious sectarian identity that could irreparably change the social
map of Iraq.
The ‘sweeteners’ to create these new facts on the ground are
capital and power. The powers for appointed elites to sign their own deals with
oil companies and take a cut from the sales and eliminate any resistance that
stands in their way.
The Iraqi Oil Law – written in July 2006 and
re-drafted with the ‘advice’ of nine multinational oil companies, the US and UK
authorities and the IMF - was always misrepresented by Washington as a ‘revenue
sharing law’. Infact only one of its 46 articles deals with revenue sharing; its
primary aim is to sanction Production Sharing Agreements – privatisation deals –
and create a Federal Oil and Gas Council made up of regional political elites
empowered to have the final say on signings.
An actual oil revenue
sharing law was passed this year along with another bundle of laws on the
reformation of the Iraq national oil company and Ministry of Oil.
sharing has never been an issue of contention between regions. The authority to
decide how and with whom and on what terms Iraq’s resources are developed and
controlled is the issue. This is why the law remains off Iraq’s statute books
two years later, despite being Bush’s number one ‘benchmark’, and surpassing
over five deadlines set by Washington.
The Oil Law is more than just a
document determining investment conditions and contracts for foreign oil
companies. It is also a political blueprint for federalising economic
decision-making. With oil sales accounting for approximately 95% of government
revenue, oil is the economy. The Law would allow regions to pass their own oil
laws, run their own industries and sign their own contracts with international
oil companies without any democratic oversight.
Biden’s states: ‘Each group would have an incentive to maximize oil
production, making oil the glue that binds the country together’, risking
entrenching an oil export-lead economy in Iraq for the longterm and rendering
the country exposed to price-shocks and fluctuations in
Biden’s definition of ‘Sweeteners’ also coheres
with the Republican plan for incentivising factions to put down the armed
resistance by parcelling out oil control to the regions. The Oil Law is such a
‘sweetner’, creating ‘shared stability interest among stakeholders Iraq-wide’,
according to President of the American Chamber of Commerce and former Vice
President of the Republican National Lawyers, Timothy B Mills.
The Law as a model can also act as ‘a parting
gift’ of ‘oil for peace’ according to former Vice President of Policy at BP, Nick Butler.
Oil control for social control.
Timothy B Mills, who represented the
Bush-Cheney campaign during the disputed Florida votes in 2000, is also an army
Colonel reservist. Mills articulated his ‘oil for social peace’ politics in a
piece written for an Iraq petroleum summit held in Dubai last
Titled 'High Risk Opportunities? Practical Challenges and Solutions
to doing business in Iraq Circa 2007', Mills explores the security advantages if
the Oil Law’s provision for regional signings comes into
‘Each political and social
faction would share a strong interest in quelling the unrest that has persisted
for the better part of the past four years. Continuing unrest in the country
would keep international oil companies and the accompanying billions of dollars
of investment from coming in, and thus, would frustrate the aspirations of all.
Collective enforcement action, centred on Iraqi means, would follow - quite
similar to what is currently transpiring with respect to current
counter-insurgency activity undertaken by the tribal sheikhs in Al Anbar
This ‘collective enforcement
action’ means a substitution of US military occupation force with ‘Iraqi means’,
i.e Iraqi military and mercenary forces; an escalating interplay of carrot and
stick, most recently visible in the establishment of the ‘Awakening
Councils’ in Anbar.
The 75,000 member-strong Awakening
Councils are the ‘carrot councils’ which followed the ‘sticks’
of massacre in late 2005. The concept of paid-off, al’qeda-resisting, Sunni
allies had long been part of the US’s agenda to break resistance directed
towards the occupation. The Awakening Councils, conceived by US occupation
strategists in Baghdad and Tribal leaders in Anbar province, represented the
turn towards US protection and alliance that Washington had been looking
The Councils are fast becoming a political force to be reckoned
with. According to Iraq commentator Juan Cole, ‘The Iraqi Islamic
Party and its fundamentalist allies have 44 seats in Parliament and control
several Sunni-majority provinces, yet the IIP fears that the Awakening Councils
as a political force will displace it in the upcoming provincial
The Oil Law’s devolution provisions would also
economically empower the aspirations of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. SIIC,
formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in
Iraq (SCIRI), is a Shiite party with an
occupation-legalised militia and has been the most co-operative political and
military force with the occupation since 2003.
Last year Jalal al-Din
al-Saghir, a Shi‘i preacher affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq
declared his party’s intentions to form a 9-region super-state in the south of
Iraq. He told Christian Science Monitor journalist Sam Dagher that ‘a massive operation’ was
underway to secure the establishment of a Shi‘i super-province in Iraq, to be
named the ‘South of Baghdad Region’.
Sadirist, secular, Yazidi, Turkoman,
Da’awa and independent MPs mobilised against the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council’s
proposal earlier this year by drafting a ‘Baghdad Charter’ opposing any
territorial division of Iraq.
The document expressed strong reservations
over the regional empowerment of elites to sign their own contracts with foreign
oil companies and also added that the status of Northern oil city Kirkuk should
be resolved only through negotiation and consensus. It stated that Kirkuk should
become a ‘model of national unity, coexistence and social integration of the
people of a single united homeland’.
Ahead of the game by 15 years are
the Kurdish parties which have long had their US protectorate in the North. The
Kurdish Regional Government has interpreted the Iraqi constitution as giving
them the right to start signing privatisation contracts - written in English,
not Kurdish – with foreign oil companies, and passing their own regional oil law
and forming an autonomous ministry of oil.
Baghdad has responded by
banning all contracted companies from any lucrative south and central based
deals, or from exporting through the centralised State Oil and Marketing
Following the surges of 2004 and 2005 against
majority Sunni resistance strongholds, the US occupation administration found
their political parties to work with. But ‘genuine’ community leaders apparently
felt excluded. A mercenary heading a British private military security firm
which will be protecting energy companies in the region told me earlier this
‘When Westerners get killed, you’ve got a
‘When Westerners get killed, you’ve got a
problem. That’s why we aim to train up Iraqis. There are advantages, they know
the territory. Our plan is to have a fully functioning Iraqi division in the
future, employing all Iraqi guards.’ The journalistic war-zone mantra of ‘what
bleeds leads’ doesn’t apply to dead Iraqis. Iraqi mercenary lives are deemed
expendable, ‘Western’ lives lost, with the bad publicity and calls for
regulation and accountability that accompany them, are not.
partition plan was rejected by both ordinary Iraqis, and the Maliki
administration which defined it as a way to ‘partition or divide Iraq by
intimidation, force or other means’. Biden wrote an angry repost to Baghdad in
the Washington Post in October 2007.
Advice with Guns
‘If the United States can't put this federalism
idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and,
without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind.’ Biden
believes that Washington still knows what’s going to be best for Iraqis. ‘We are
not trying to impose our plan.’ He explains, ‘If the Iraqis don't want it, they won't and
shouldn't take it, as the Senate amendment makes clear. But Iraqis and the White
House might want to consider the facts’.
Obama, although he missed the
vote on Biden’s soft partition plan in 2006, appears to tow the line with his
running mate. Mother Jones magazine reported that in a July 2007 town hall event, Obama
he told Fox News ‘They may not want to call it what I was talking
about. But the end result is, there is a lot of autonomy in the Anbar province
today. There is a lot of autonomy up in the Kurdish area today. And there is
increasing autonomy in the Shia regions’. Facts on the ground have been created
through coercive and co-opting carrot and stick measures, top-down social
engineering enforced by military might and elite-ratified occupation crafted
Obama’s website states that both he and Biden ‘will make
sure we engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society—in and out of
government—to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision
of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid
to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces.’ Will this include
hitherto ignored Iraqi civil society? The oil unions which are vehemently opposed
Obama also states that US forces will remain – albeit without
‘permanent’ military bases – to train Iraqi personnel. With resistance still
high against US forces, how would these forces protect themselves without
resorting to more permanent bases?
Obama has also stated that he will ‘retain the right to intervene
militarily, with our international partners, to suppress potential genocidal
violence within Iraq.’ A claim worryingly close to the liberal interventionism
arguments still used to justify the war on Iraq.
So what can we believe
in? It’s difficult to see the level of agency Obama can have within the context
of Washington’s lobbyist-stalked corridors and party heirarchies. Where do we
look? Can we come to conclusions based on his advisors such as Polish hawk and
former Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski,
Merrill McPeak, a backer of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and Dennis Ross, a supporter of
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? Or the supposedly more progressive
advisors such as Joseph
Cirincione and Lawrence
Korb of the Center for American Progress, and human rights professor Samantha Power, who had
to resign after calling Hilary Clinton ‘a monster’?
Walking on Fire
How do we judge a future from a page of just
over a 1000 words on an official website, an OpEd in the New York Times and no-detail rhetoric in televised debates and
speeches? Withdrawal, $2bn in support for Iraqi refugees, and a ‘hands off’
policy look appealing, but election-path dreams can soon turn to nightmares of
u-turns and more of the same.
Obama’s levelling rhetoric of ‘now more
than ever, we’re all in this together’, may be re-drawing the electoral map of
America. But the Oil Law and partition of Iraq as articulated by Obama’s right
hand man, could re-draw the social and physical map of Iraq and further
Gene Bruskin, Co-Convenor of the 3million strong US
trade union network US Labor Against War, has said that the job of the US
anti-war and trade union movement will be ‘to hold Obama’s feet to the fire’,
and tell him, ‘Don’t you dare go back on your promises’.
and others, acting in solidarity with Iraqi unions, will be able to keep up the
pressure on Obama remains to be seen. The momentum of the campaign has in no
small part been driven by an army of volunteers, lead by both paid and un-paid
professional campaigners who will be moving on to the next big thing
A friend volunteering in the swing state of Colorado
confessed he has no idea what’s next if Obama wins. His focus is: ‘I’m just here
to make sure McCain doesn’t get in’. This short-term election-oriented surge is
reflected in a campaign poster which he works his 14 hour-days under: ‘Remember,
you can sleep in November’.
Change We Don’t Believe In
But can the grassroots organisers and engaged
constituencies afford to ‘sleep’ after an Obama victory?
If anything it
would mark the beginning of a wake-up, to push harder for more - within the
confines of a liberal super-structure state-reinforcing politics – and breaking
out beyond it.
The early signs are that a grassroots infrastructure is
being consciously constructed out of the campaign process. Neighbourhood clubs,
networks, new friends and relationships, are being mapped into databases,
contact lists and email trees to keep the democratic momentum alive and
accountable throughout Obama’s presidency.
There will indeed be the need
to hold those feet to the fire that walked into power on the back of votes for
‘the change we need’. This is particularly true for ongoing solidarity with
Iraqis who themselves have been organising for the ‘change they need’ – an
immediate end to the occupation.
Obama says he is committed to creating
five million green collar jobs and ending the USA’s dependency on foreign oil.
Yet should his foreign policy as president follow Bush and Biden’s on pushing
Baghdad to sign the Oil Law, the results will be division, conflict and decades
of dependency on foreign oil companies for Iraqis. This is a change ordinary
Iraqis don’t believe in.
Biog: Ewa Jasiewicz is a freelance journalist and human
rights activist based in London. She spent 9 months living in occupied Iraq
working with Iraqi unions including oil workers. She is involved with the
international Hands Off Iraqi Oil campaign and ‘Naftana’ – the UK
to any division of Iraq, the Oil Law, foreign oil
control and the occupation itself?
‘In terms of Anbar, the Iraqi Islamic party were voted in but the
local sheiks, and leaders, they’re now saying, look ‘we’re the real
representatives, we should be in power, not these guys’ and they’re demanding
In line with the co-optation of Iraqis to act in foreign interests which
care little for their lives, this mercenary explained how he hoped his company,
defending UK oil and gas interests in Anbar, would soon run on Iraqi staff
‘[Partition] may end up being the best solution, but here's the
thing. We can't impose it on the Iraqis. The Iraqis have to make the decision
themselves…. If the Iraqi government believes that it can form a unified
government they should do that. If they want a soft partition, they should do
that. If they want us simply to leave, we can do that too. But they have to make
a series of decisions.’
Biden still believes dividing Iraq along ethno-sectarian and communal lines
can work and is indeed already working. Talking to reporters on his campaign
plane in Septembersupport group for the Iraqi
Federation of Oil Unions.