The Case for Hypocrisy

Niall Ferguson, author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire", makes his case against the much-demanded quick American exit from Iraq and transfer of full sovereignty to an Iraqi government. First of all, he says, the references to ‘full sovereignty’ made by US President George Bush and many others is unrealistic, because the US army will continue to have a strong presence in Iraq after the June 30 handover. But more importantly, Ferguson maintains, it is unrealistic because even if given the option to choose the exit of American troops, the future Iraqi government will not want to see the ‘liberators’ leave. For with no stable political infrastructure in place and a near-civil war situation on the ground, it would only mean further chaos. Ferguson continues by suggesting that “sovereignty is not an absolute but a relative concept,” citing a Stanford political scientist who argues that 'organized hypocrisy' better describes our era, in which the nations of the world are more politically and economically interdependent than ever before. In short, Ferguson concludes, there is no such thing as ‘full sovereignty,’ and in the current scenario it is to Iraq’s benefit to work within a framework of ‘limited sovereignty.’ After the defeat of Hitler in WWII, West Germany kept the allied forces within its borders while it developed a democratic political system. Iraq should do the same, he argues. – YaleGlobal

The Case for Hypocrisy

History tells us that limited sovereignty after occupation can be the most progressive solution
Niall Ferguson
Monday, June 7, 2004

You are either pregnant or not; there is no such thing as partly pregnant. Does the same apply to sovereignty? The answer is no. It is perfectly possible - and, under certain circumstances, highly desirable - for sovereignty to be limited. Yet the debate over the future of Iraq has been dominated for weeks by the distinctly misleading concept of "full sovereignty".

In his speech two weeks ago at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, President Bush pledged to "transfer full sovereignty to a government of Iraqi citizens" on June 30. In the House of Commons a few days later, Tony Blair assured MPs that "full sovereignty" would soon be restored to Iraq. No sooner had he been proclaimed interim president of Iraq than Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar declared that he "looked forward to being granted full sovereignty".

This phrase is, of course, designed to reassure not only Iraqis, but also Americans and, indeed, the rest of the world that the now deeply unpopular American-led occupation will soon be over. But there is a danger that all this talk of "full sovereignty" will arouse unrealistic expectations. And that may be a more dangerous tactic than candidly spelling out what has to happen in Iraq.

Last year, the Bush administration assured us categorically that Saddam Hussein definitely had weapons of mass destruction. That has since been exposed as untrue - an exposure that has fatally discredited the invasion. Likewise, promising Iraq full sovereignty when there is manifestly no way it can (or should) be granted sets another target which the US is likely to miss.

We know that full sovereignty is not an option. President Bush has made it clear that he intends to "maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary" and that these troops will continue to operate "under American command". This in itself implies something significantly less than full sovereignty. For if the new interim Iraqi government does not have control over a well-armed foreign army in its own territory, then it lacks one of the defining characteristics of a sovereign state: a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.

This limitation is only partly qualified by the draft United Nations security council resolution drawn up by the US and Britain. After June 30, the role of the US-led forces will be subject to "review" either after a year or "at the request of the transitional government of Iraq". The secretary of state, Colin Powell, helpfully translated that to mean: "If they ask us to go home, we will go home." In the second draft of the resolution, that departure is fixed to occur no later than 2005.

The calculation here would seem to be that if the new Iraqi government is given just two options - either the Americans stay or they go - it will simply not have the nerve to choose the latter, given the continuing instability in the country and the absence of adequately trained Iraqi security forces. The chances that the interim government will tell the Yanks to go home on July 1 are effectively zero.

This, then, is not full sovereignty. And that was precisely the point made last month by Marc Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs, during Congressional hearings on the future of Iraq. American commanders would still "have the right, and the power, and the obligation" to decide on the appropriate role for their troops. In essence, what will be transferred on June 30 will be "limited sovereignty". Talk of "full sovereignty" is, as one UN diplomat conceded last week, merely a "charade".

This, of course, is precisely the kind of talk that arouses the ire of the French government, which wants coalition troops to be wholly subordinated to the transitional government after June 30. It is also calculated to incense leftwing critics of the American occupation - such as my old flatmate and Guardian columnist George Monbiot. For George, the US has sought "to impose direct imperial rule in Iraq". And its imperialism, he argued in last week's paper, is the very antithesis of "global democracy".

But let us get real here. First, the only way Iraq was ever going to get democracy this side of the 22nd century was if the US intervened with military force to get rid of Saddam.

Second, the utopian goal of "global democracy" is shared by none other than the arch-fiend himself, President Bush. In his speech last November to mark the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, the president explicitly committed himself to supporting "the world democratic movement", not only in the Middle East but in Asia and Africa.

W hat the anti-imperialists can't bear to acknowledge is that there might be a link between the spread of democracy since the second world war and the role of the US. Despite the cynicism of US foreign policy during the cold war, American power has on balance done more to foster than to frustrate democracy. Think of the 1940s, when the two worst rogue regimes in history - Nazi Germany and nationalist Japan - were first defeated and then democratised.

The third point - which is borne out by the experience of both Germany and Japan - is that after American military intervention, the return to "full sovereignty" can and must be gradual.

Sovereignty is not an absolute but a relative concept. As the Stanford political scientist Steve Krasner has said, much of what passes for sovereignty in today's world of interdependent polities and supra-national institutions is in fact just "organised hypocrisy". It is precisely the kind of government Iraq needs. For history shows that limited sovereignty can, in conditions of economic and political instability, be preferable to full sovereignty.

Take the case of post-war Germany, overrun by allied forces in the spring of 1945. The first elected West German government did not take office until as late as the spring of 1949. It was not until the Federal Republic joined Nato in October 1953, that it was accorded "the full authority of a sovereign state". Even then the victorious powers retained control over Germany's historic capital, Berlin. And, of course, substantial numbers of American and British troops remained in West Germany for another 50 years.

We do not, of course, know how West Germany would have fared if the Americans, as they originally intended, had pulled out after just a couple of years and left the Germans to it. What we do know is that limited sovereignty worked, allowing Germans to relearn the practice of democratic politics.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, many Europeans have assumed that Iraq's only hope lies with a swift termination of the Anglo-American occupation. They fail to consider how much worse things in Iraq could get if that wish were granted. Do they not see the risks of a major civil war? Have they forgotten what happened in Lebanon in the late 1970s?

The "organised hypocrisy" of limited sovereignty may sound unsatisfactory to the bien pensant critics of American imperialism. But it is preferable to an over-hasty American exit from Iraq - and a possible descent into chaos. Better that Iraq's sovereignty should be limited than torn apart.

Niall Ferguson’s new book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire has just been published by Penguin.

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