The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, March 06, 2008


In a post a few years back I noted the parallel between Norman Lewis's description of liberated Naples and what was, is, taking place in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn has done the same in The Occupation:
By the time Bremer left Iraq just over a year later there were few, either among the Iraqis or the Americans who dealt with him, who had a good word to say for him. The White House and the Pentagon blamed him for everything, conveniently forgetting they once shared his imperial hubris and misconception that Iraq was a tabula rasa they could reconstruct [write on, surely?] as they wished. Bremer had many faults but they were not without precedent. He may not even have been, as some believed, the worst American proconsul in history. Towards the end of Bremer's tenure in Baghdad I reread Naples '44, the fascinating account by Norman Lewis, then a low-level member of British intelligence, of the US occupation of Naples in World War Two. I wanted to see if American rule in Baghdad sixty years later was uniquely incompetent and corrupt or if American occupations were always like this. Naples sixty years earlier and Baghdad in 2003 were both dangerous cities. Each was inhabited by destitute and desperate people equally willing to work as a gunman or a labourer. The US viceroy in Naples, General Mark Clark, left behind an even murkier reputation than Paul Bremer. On his first night in the city, Clark dined on exotic fish looted from the Naples aquarium and appointed Lucky Luciano, the head of the New York mafia, as his senior security advisor.

Probably Luciano knew a lot more about Naples than some of Bremer's American-Iraqi advisors did about Iraq.
Alan Whicker was quite scathing about Mark Clark in Whicker's War, accusing him of allowing German forces to slip away while he concerned himself with making a triumphal entrance into Rome.


We're used to thinking about Iraq as a catastrophe, but an article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books from 18th October 2007 put forward quite a different interpretation:
Was the strategy of invading Iraq to take control of its oil resources actually hammered out by Cheney’s 2001 energy task force? One can’t know for sure, since the deliberations of that task force, made up largely of oil and energy company executives, have been kept secret by the administration on the grounds of ‘executive privilege’. One can’t say for certain that oil supplied the prime motive. But the hypothesis is quite powerful when it comes to explaining what has actually happened in Iraq. The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. [...] The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.
The entire article is not very long and well worth reading. I'm no economist or mathematician, so I have to take the figures quoted on trust, though I see that Joseph Stiglitz reckons the cost of the invasion is $3 trillion, not $1 trillion as Holt says. However, the thrust of it is clear enough: the human cost of the invasion, and the consequences for regional and global stability, are considered negligible when set against securing the oil resources and the revenues derived from them. The description of the 'super-bases' I find particularly interesting.

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At 17 March 2008 at 02:10 , Anonymous dead bob said...

I read the Holt article. It's a bit dated, but I do think his premise is spot on has been too quickly and easily deleted from the war discussions in America. Oil was the reason for intervention. Holt goes too far calling the whole affair a success (this is his main argument); Iraq has been a political and economic nightmare. It cost the Republicans both houses of Congress and the Presidency shortly. The American people have lost prestige, the dollar has plummeted, and the energy crunch is destroying the buying power of the middle class. Mr Holt paints rosey, simplified visions of American super bases deep into the future. Too much crystal ball, not enough real politik...

At 18 March 2008 at 00:39 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

It's my impression that realpolitik is exactly the perspective that Holt is addressing - politics devoid of ethical or moral considerations. It's true that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is a complex issue, and I doubt very much if many of its outcomes (thus far) are those anticipated by its architects. But the fundamental reason for doing it is control of the oil, and protecting the interests of the oil companies rather than those of the American public. I don't believe any government which introduces something like the Patriot Act has any real concern for the welfare, never mind the prestige of its citizens. Moreover, while the invasion has been publicly funded, the benificiaries have been private.

As I've said, I'm no economist, but while the astronomical cost of the invasion certainly hasn't helped, my guess is that the financial and economic difficulties of the US are down to other factors such as the sub-prime collapse (lend money to people who can't afford to pay it back: great!) and the Bush administration's policy on deficits.

Regarding the political fallout for the Republicans, yes, this has been considerable. But Bush stole the 2000 election, and the 2004 election according to the Conyers Report, so arguably neither of those are really Republican victories anyway. Looked at another way, if the Democrats win in 2008, this will be an opportunity for them to sort out the financial and economic mess, just as Clinton did in the 1990s, and build up a surplus for the Republicans to squander again. From this perspective it's actually in the Republican interest to lose...

Feel free to come back on any of this, BTW.

As a postscript, I had a moment of satori when P J O'Rourke was on BBC Radio 4 last week, saying that what turns the American public off Hillary Clinton is that she's America's ex-wife: you came back late but not that late, you'd had a couple or five beers, and all of a sudden your bowling ball was in the sewer. While I'm a knee-jerk liberal, he managed to crystallise every nagging doubt I've ever had about her. I was jumping up and down, going, "Yeah! That's what it is!" Which doesn't make me think any the less of her for trying to reform the American healthcare system, I should add.

At 23 March 2008 at 19:49 , Blogger Joe said...

Of General Matt Clark I refer you to that esteemed gentleman of letters and war hero, Gunner Terrence Milligan, Royal Artillery - on seeing Matt Clark's jeep approaching during the Italy campaign Spike and his comrades call out: "hey, why aren't we getting ice cream like your American soldiers?"

Okay, I doubt it adds much to your interesting article, but it made me smile.

On the realpolitik angle though, sadly it was ever thus... Both war or the avoidance of war can be dressed up in all sorts of rhetoric and noble reasons, but throughout history more often than not those are window dressing. Iraq invaded to protect against WMD and to topple an evil despot sounds better than saying go in and fight for oil. Or on avoiding it sounds better to say peace in our time than to say we sacrificed an ally and fellow democratic nation to the tender mercies of the Nazis...

And in the world of myth and literature (and possible history?) look at one of the most famous wars of all time on the Iliad - fought for honour and to retrieve a kidnapped queen. The fact lofty Ilium was supposed to be a fabulously wealthy power which also controlled trading links inland and via the sea had nothing to do with it, of course... Whatever happened to "we fight not for honour, riches or glory but only for that freedom that no man relinquishes save with his life?"?

At 3 April 2008 at 21:20 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

I hadn't heard that take on Troy before. I had heard, courtesy of T. Jones in his series Barbarians, that Caesar's conquest of Gaul was not for the gweatness of Wome but because the Celts had gelt and Caesar was broke, so I'm not entirely surprised by it. Most interesting.


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