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The Forgotten Iraqi-Sovereignty Sham

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The Bush administration and the Iraqi government are wrangling over the future role of the U.S. government in Iraq. The Bush team wants far more power over Iraqis than the current Iraqi government wants to concede.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in April 2008 that the dispute is concentrated on “sensitive issues,” including the U.S. military’s right to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally and the legal immunity that American contractors enjoy. It is understandable that Iraqis would be sensitive on these points, since permitting foreigners to kill and imprison without legal consequence does make a mockery of Iraqi self-rule.

But the real surprise here is that there should be any such controversy. Didn’t the United States generously grant Iraq sovereignty over itself in 2004?

That was a key bragging point of the Bush reelection campaign that year. It was the ultimate proof that Bush is a great liberator and that the United States freed the Iraqi people. In an April 13, 2004, press conference, Bush declared,

On June 30th, when the flag of a free Iraq is raised, Iraqi officials will assume full responsibility for the ministries of government…. One central commitment of that mission is the transfer of the sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. We have set a deadline of June 30th. It is important that we meet that deadline. We will not step back from our pledge.

Bush hyped the sovereignty turnover as the key to boosting Iraqis’ trust in America:

Were the coalition to step back from the June 30th pledge, many Iraqis would question our intentions and feel their hopes betrayed. And those in Iraq who trade in hatred and conspiracy theories would find a larger audience and gain a stronger hand.

On June 28, 2004, Bush’s man in Baghdad, Coalition Provisional Authority Chief Paul Bremer, handed a leather-bound document to Iyad Allawi, the former CIA operative placed by the United States at the head of the interim Iraqi government. Because of fears of insurgent attacks during the sovereignty ceremony, the Bush administration secretly conveyed the document two days earlier than planned.

At the time, Bush was at a NATO summit in Turkey. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice handed him a slip of paper declaring, “Iraq is sovereign.” Bush jotted, “Let Freedom Reign” on a piece of paper and handed it back to Rice. Some Americans may have thought that this was the same phrase used on the first Independence Day in 1776. But “let freedom ring” is far different from “let freedom reign” — especially when “reign” meant the continued dominance of the U.S. military over a foreign country. Nevertheless, Bush proudly announced to the world, “The Iraqi people have their country back.”

He also announced that day,

This day also marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition. We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed, and to restore sovereignty. We have kept our word.

And he bragged,

Not only is there full sovereignty in the hands of the Government, but all the ministries have been transferred, and they’re up and running.

A Soviet-style sovereignty

However, prior to pseudo-abdicating, the Coalition Provisional Authority dictated that U.S. and British troops would have immunity from prosecution from the new Iraqi government, effectively creating a diplomatic corps of 160,000 people with guns and heavy weapons and no liability for wrongful killings. The sovereignty transfer did not impede the U.S. military from continuing to heavily bomb civilian areas and sweep up vast numbers of innocent Iraqi civilians for interrogation and detention.

Bremer’s electoral edict also dictated that “one of every three candidates on a party’s slate must be a woman.” In Bremer’s final weeks, he issued a flurry of edicts dictating long-term restrictions on Iraq’s new government and decreeing the hiring of more than 20 Iraqis for five-year terms in key positions. The Washington Post noted,

As of June 14, Bremer had issued 97 legal orders, which are defined by the U.S. occupation authority as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people” that will remain in force even after the transfer of political authority.

Bush bragged in a July 13 Wisconsin speech, “Because we acted, Iraq is a free and sovereign nation.” But the puppet government was no model republic. One of Allawi’s first acts was to issue an edict giving himself dictatorial power “to impose curfews anywhere in the country, ban groups he considers seditious, and order the detentions of people suspected of being security risks.” The New York Times explained that Allawi “wants to show he can rule with an iron fist.”

Bush hit the same theme in an August 5 campaign speech in Saginaw, Michigan:

You see, when we acted to protect our own security, we also promised to help deliver them from tyranny, to restore their sovereignty, to set them on the path of liberty. And when America gives its word, America keeps its word.

But Iraqi sovereignty from the beginning was intended to be a sham. The Iraqis would have self-government — and the proof would be that the American military will constantly remind them that they have self-government. The U.S. government did not intend to permit Iraqis to govern themselves in any way that did not suit the interests and demands of the Bush administration. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was asked on April 2, 2004, what impact the June 30 sovereignty arrival would have on the U.S. military. Wolfowitz replied,

There’s not going to be any difference in our military posture on July 1st from what it is on June 30th, except that we will be there then at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government.

That is akin to the sovereignty that the Soviets awarded Eastern European nations after World War II. U.S. government officials made it clear that they intend to maintain 14 permanent military bases in Iraq. “Do what we say and you won’t get hurt” will be the de facto meaning of sovereignty for Iraqis.

Bush apparently defined self-government for a foreign country as being under benevolent American domination. It is another case of Bush’s assuming that people are dumb enough to fall for a bogus label.

Many Iraqis have never recognized that the United States had sovereignty over them — as opposed to having enough force to suppress resistance. Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi derided Bush’s claims: “Sovereign power will be in the hands of the only military force in the country, which is the United States. It is ludicrous … to talk about a transfer of sovereignty.” University of Michigan professor Juan Cole commented that the sovereignty handover “was always nothing more than a publicity stunt for the benefit of Bush’s election campaign.”

As the Boston Globe’s Derrick Jackson noted,

It appears that the simple illusion of giving the Iraqi people ‘’their country back,’’ while still maintaining 138,000 troops there, was a master stroke. In May, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who thought it was worth going to war was at its lowest point, falling from a high of 76 percent during the war to 44 percent. A month later, just before the handover, the same poll found that the percentage of Americans who thought it was a mistake to go to send troops to Iraq was at its highest, 54 percent.

False hopes over sovereignty

After Bush announced the sovereignty handover, the American media sharply curtailed its coverage of the Iraqi conflict. The media acted as if Bush’s de facto victory proclamation made the Iraq War old news and not worth as much coverage. They let the White House define reality — and thus people were supposed to move along. Americans paid more attention to Bush’s bragging about the “sovereignty hand-over” than to the rising number of dead U.S. soldiers. The average daily number of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq rose sharply from June through September, as did the average number of U.S. military dead per month.

Sovereignty hoopla convinced millions of Americans that the Iraqi problem had been or would soon be solved. A survey done in the 10 days after the sovereignty handover showed that almost twice as many Americans believed that the new Iraq government had at least an equal share of power as believed that the U.S. military was still the supreme power in the country. The poll, by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center, also found that “fifty percent of the respondents said they thought the number of United States troops in Iraq should be reduced to no more than ‘a few thousand’ in six months or less.” That was a peculiar belief, since neither Bush nor Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was hinting at any such withdrawal.

The “sovereignty transfer” also had a big impact because people expected similar results to what had happened after previous conflicts when the U.S. announced it was formally turning over the reins. CNN polling expert William Schneider concluded,

The handover of authority in Iraq at the end of June apparently had exactly the effect that the White House intended: It made Iraq seem like less of an American problem.

Bush could not have won reelection without pervasive deceit over Iraq. A Washington Post analysis after the 2004 election noted that the Kerry campaign “gambled on building up the Massachusetts senator’s image in the belief that voters were familiar with Bush’s weaknesses and the turmoil in Iraq.” Professor Ira Chernus noted that one exit poll showed that “ninety percent of Bush voters said things are going well in Iraq.” In contrast, “Eighty-two percent of Kerry voters said things are going badly in Iraq.”

Bush re-subjugated Americans by claiming to have liberated Iraqis. Far more Americans recognize the futility of the U.S. attack on Iraq now than at the time of Bush’s reelection. But a cowardly media and a docile opposition party have permitted Bush to turn his folly into a long-term albatross around the necks of both Iraqis and Americans.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.