Patrick Cockburn on Iraq

by Chris Bertram on December 16, 2005

The “Patrick Cockburn interview in the New Left Review”: is remarkable and informative. Read it. A noteworthy feature is the way in which the interviewer (Tariq Ali? Susan Watkins?) tries to push a silly Sunni-“resistance”-as-national-liberation/Shia-as-collaborators line and is firmly and persistently rebuffed by Cockburn. (Via “Chris at the Virtual Stoa”: ).



abb1 12.16.05 at 6:26 am

Thanks for the link, but why is the ‘Shia-as-collaborators line’ is silly? I don’t think it’s silly at all nor do I see it rebuffed by Cockburn. We’re talking about Shia leaders here, correct?

Cockburn says:

One of the things that has become very apparent in the last two and a half years is the complete failure of the leaders of the old Arab opposition, when handed power by the Americans, to create a coherent government. Ministers and their henchmen—many of them long-term residents abroad—are continually out of the country. Not only is there stupendous corruption, but often they haven’t even bothered to cover their tracks very much. They assume these are likely to be short-lived governments, so the logic is to make as much money as they can, and then get back home, somewhere outside Iraq. This mentality has made them completely reliant on the Americans. They believe they cannot do without them. Most of these politicians are petrified at the idea of the Americans going.


Chris Bertram 12.16.05 at 6:33 am

We’re talking Sistani, and Cockburn is very clear why the Shia religious leadership has taken the line that it has.


abb1 12.16.05 at 7:09 am

Fair enough, I agree that the word ‘collaborator’ doesn’t exactly describe Sistani; still, it’s clear that he’s using foreign bayonets to acheive his sectarian objectives, just like the interviewer said. I don’t think Cockburn rebuffs this point. He seems to suggest to wait/see whether Sistani will demand to end the occupation immediately after the elections. We’ll know in a couple of weeks, I guess.

Seems to me that the interviewer is correct that Al-Sadr’s Najaf uprising in 2004 was the best chance to unite the Sunnies and the Shia and end this thing once and for all – and Sistani let down. The interviewer finds it regrettable; I think it’s a coherent point of view, not silly at all.


Brendan 12.16.05 at 7:33 am

It’s clearly ridiculous to posit the Sunnis as national liberators, but on the other hand it’s not so strange to see them as Sunni liberators. Also: the view of them as national liberators is ridiculous, but it’s not quite as ridiculous as you might think. ‘We’ (i.e. Westerners who swallow the US/UK line) see the Sunnis as all being crazed ba’athists who hate democracy, but that of course is not how they see it. Instead (I have quotes from this from various sources, which I can’t be bothered finding now) they see themselves as attempting to hold Iraq together in the face of Iranian imperialism, as manifested by the Shia (and of course the Chalabi influenced Americans).

The Sunni participation in the elections is only bizarre if you bought the ‘received wisdom’ that he Sunnis ‘hated democracy’ but now ‘because of our superior teaching’ we have now managed to persuade them that democracy is a good thing.

But that’s bollocks. Instead, the Sunnis (and Shias) were always prepared to use any means necessary (violence and democratic means) to get the occupiers out. ‘We’ haven’t taught them anything, and it’s patronising and ethnnocentric to argue otherwise. Cockburn and Juan Cole have both pointed out that current Sunni strategy bears a resemblance to the ‘armalite and ballot box’ strategy used in Northern Ireland. In other words, when it is asked ‘where is the political wing of the insurgency’ it is likely that the ‘established’ and ‘legitimate’ Sunni political parties are already in fact this political wing. Given the threat of civil war perhaps an even better comparison is with ETA and Herri Batasuma.

Undeniably, as Cockburn points out, the catastrophic mistake of the insurgency was to target the media, so the ‘official line’ of the US/UK has gone unchallenged, and the lies of David Aaronovitch and Christopher Hitchens are taken as being fact. Perhaps as they move into politics they will learn to handle the media more intelligently. To quote Cockburn: ‘In the resistance there has never been a call to restore Saddam. ‘ . A rather important fact that somehow rarely gets into the Western media.


abb1 12.16.05 at 8:01 am

Come to think of it, this interviewer does seem to take a much more simplistic position (national-liberation vs. collaboration) than Mr. Cockburn and oversimplification can be silly, but so can be overanalyzing, which is what Mr. Cockburn seems to be doing there quite a bit.


john m. 12.16.05 at 9:06 am

“Perhaps as they move into politics they will learn to handle the media more intelligently.”

This bolsters the comparison to Sinn Fein & the IRA – Sinn Fein have shown a remarkable ability to manage the media and thus gain political advantage. It could well be argued that they have proven far more effective in making progress towards their goals since they took up serious poltics and media management and scaled down the killing of innocent people tactic. Maybe there is a lesson in there for the Iraqi’s…


soru 12.16.05 at 9:41 am

I pretty much agree with Cockburn’s analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq.

Where I think he is wrong is on the ability of the US to work from a position of essential weakness (certainly weaker than the Shi’a establishment).

This requires recognising the limits of the possible, and defining success as reaching them.

fopr example, I’m pretty sure you will see the famous ‘permanent bases’ dynamited on live TV sometime in the next year.

Khalilzad knows the example of the british in Afghanistan as well or better than anyone, and certainly seems to get the basic ideas involved. The difference betwene those currently in charge and the neoliberal types who botched the initial occupation is night and day.



Brendan 12.16.05 at 10:36 am

‘I’m pretty sure you will see the famous ‘permanent bases’ dynamited on live TV sometime in the next year’.

Golly. Well that’s something to look forward to, I suppose, when it happens.


Hektor Bim 12.16.05 at 11:10 am

How can Sistani be a collaborator if he refuses to meet with the occupiers? Note also that he has been insistent on elections and transfer of real sovereignty. After all, the insurgents also collaborate with foreigners: they use them for financing, shelters, troops, and suicide attacks. The only real indigenous forces that are independent of obvious foreign sponsors seem to be the Mahdi Army and the Kurds. Some elements of the insurgency are home-grown and independent, but many aren’t.

Note that the interviewer has no real response to the clear statements that the real opposition to Saddam has always been very Kurdish. If you buy a simple collaborator/resistor system, then you can’t fit the Kurds in neatly, because they were clearly insurgents against Saddam and are now cooperating with the Iraqi government and fighting the Sunni Arab insurgents.


degustibus 12.16.05 at 12:20 pm

The permanent US Bases will be dynamited about the same time we agree to let China have the oil.


abb1 12.16.05 at 12:48 pm

Kurds fighting Saddam is was separatist struggle. I am sure they had their own collaborators, plenty of little intrigues, betrayals and so on, but that’s irrelevant. And I don’t see how the Sunnis (allegedly) getting help from foreigners is particularly relevant either.

What Cockburn says is very interesting and clever and probably true: Sistani may or may not do this, and the Sunnis may or may not do that, and the Kurds will probably do the other but not too much, blah, blah, blah. And, of course, every individual will make some decision today and may or may not change his/her mind tomorrow.

But there is also a big picture there, forest behind the trees: a typical, garden variety national-liberation anti-colonial struggle. Imperialists are trying to divide the natives in order to acheive their goals, as always; some natives resist, others collaborate. And others maneuver – like Sistani. That’s not exactly being a collaborator, but it’s not too far away from it.

And I don’t see anything silly about pressing this point.


Donald Johnson 12.16.05 at 2:28 pm

Abb1, you’re using the term “collaborator” in a moralistic sense. Why should Sistani and the Shiites see things in typical lefty fashion, as good resistors vs. bad imperialists and their collaborators? The Shiites want power and the Sunnis want power and they’re each opposing or supporting the Americans as they see fit. Native Americans reacted in the same complex ways to the European invaders.

I liked the Cockburn article, in part because, I suppose, he reinforced almost everything that I thought or suspected before. I’m not sure he’s right about the relative number of people being killed by Sunni insurgents vs. death squads. Fisk visited the Baghdad mortuary last summer and found there’d been 1000 murders in July–I wonder if there’s any way to tell how many of those political and how many weren’t and who is doing it to whom? But anyway, those murders by gunshot and torture outnumber the number being killed by Sunni bombers.

Cockburn, OTOH, seems to accept that the Americans might be killing very large numbers, or anyway he doesn’t contradict the interviewer when he suggests this.

It’d be nice if you had sensible discussions like this in the mainstream American press– instead we get the fairly crude jingoism of a John Burns in the NYT.


abb1 12.16.05 at 3:13 pm

Um, no, not in a moralistic sense, in a matter-of-fact sense. But the population of the country is in the anti-colonial-struggle phase (read the polls – they want the foreign troops out) so, the collaborators (not Sistani necessarily) are in a sense betraying their fellow citizens, that can’t be very good. And those who’re trying to scheme like Sistani are playing dangerous games.

You can’t avoid being moralistic at least a little bit, otherwise we can slice it to the point where we might say, for example: hey, Saddam Hussein was just taking care of his family, supporting his tribe in Tikrit, supporting his fellow Arabs – so what’s wrong with his gassing Kurds? Yeah, sure, everyone’s in pursuit of their own interests, but that doesn’t normally prevent us from casting judgments.

Although I do agree that it’s not exactly black-and-white situation. Here’s an example of a very successful collaborator who is regarded as a hero in his country’s history books: Ivan I of Russia.


y81 12.16.05 at 8:45 pm

Interesting. I guess to a philosopher, the linked article seems informative, but to a social scientist, the article seems like pure anecdote, of no use whatsoever. Is it really the case, just to take one example, that there are fewer rich people in Iraq than there were 3 years ago? How do we know that? If you can’t tell me in verifiable numbers, of which the linked article has not one, you have no true knowledge.


John Emerson 12.17.05 at 10:27 am

“Yes, one of the surprises of the resistance is just how swiftly it developed. I think this has never quite been explained. The speed with which it took off was very striking.”

Perhaps Saddam knew he would be defeated, and had a backup-plan in place. The American strategy seemed to assume that Saddam, like Wiley Coyote, would do exactly the same thing during the second war that he did in the first — rely on his helpless conventional forces.

At one point along the way there was a story about a big truck loaded with over a billion dollars in
high-denomination US currency. Hard currency goes a long way in keeping an insurgency going. Very few civil wars are self-financed, spontaneous expressions of the will of the people.


Chris Bertram 12.17.05 at 10:56 am

If you can’t tell me in verifiable numbers, of which the linked article has not one, you have no true knowledge.

What a remarkable thing to say! I take it then that we can glean no knowledge of what happened in the Peloponessian War from Thucydides account of it, not of the Gallic war from Caesar. How careless of them not to include some stats.


John Emerson 12.17.05 at 11:17 am

Or by extension, if the insurgency becomes so effective as to make statistics-keeping impossible, then Iraq will become a black hole about which nothing can possibly be known.

That’s almost as good as the spin that reporters are failing to report about how peaceful Iraq is now, because they’re too cowardly to take the risk of being killed or kidnapped.


John Emerson 12.17.05 at 11:20 am

A solid specialized education in almost any field can be sufficient to make someone into a total idiot.


y81 12.17.05 at 7:51 pm

We derive from Thucydides no true knowledge of whether Athenian culture was better under Pericles or his successors: he gives us only his upper class prejudices against the political culture of the later Peloponnesian war. True knowledge would require a knowledge of Athenian social structures which we are denied. Similarly, we derive from Henry Adams no true knowledge of American society in the late 19th century, just an upper class whine. (My own immigrant ancestors were doing just fine during this period of total social decay.) The linked article is in the same category. Obviously, my point about quantitative knowledge as the only true knowledge doesn’t apply to particular historical events like the battle of Sphacteria (although our historical understanding would be much better if we could generate a reliable estimate of the percentage of Sparta’s available forces killed and captured there).


John Emerson 12.17.05 at 8:58 pm

Y81, I doubt you have true knowledge of much of anything, given your rigidity and your defeatist perfectionism about method. You seem to have made yourself incapable of reading newspapers and history, for example.

Believe it or not, we’ve all heard the phrase “show me your numbers” before. Sometimes it’s a smart thing to say, and sometimes it’s a very dumb thing to say.


Donald Johnson 12.18.05 at 12:52 pm

Y81 goes way too far and his dismissal of the Cockburn interview is silly, but in one respect I agree with him–I’d love to have exact quantitative information about how many Iraqi civilians are being killed and who is killing them. But the US government probably has no interest in the world knowing this, so we don’t.


abb1 12.18.05 at 1:43 pm

But the guy is a journalist, not social scientist. He makes phone calls and moves around, talks to truck drivers, waitresses, soldiers, politicians, etc., and then he’s trying to make sense of it all and writes articles. This is not scientific method; it’s journalism.


steve 12.21.05 at 9:39 pm

I think the Sunnis are in fact nationalists in that they want to hold Iraq together in the face of sectarianism and possible Iranian irredentism, as well as, centralize control of Iraqi oil and use it for national development. I realize that some of the facile generalizations about each group having fixed roles and objectives is nonsense. All, it seems, are ultimately opposed to a prolonged US occupation although the Kurds and the Shiites have at various times been able to use it to advantage. The Sunnis have a real opportunity to use their struggle against the destructive and reactionary al qaeda forces of Zarquawi to garner broad popular support and an increased role in determining the political future of Iraq not previously afforded by US controlled electoral processes and constitution writing. If this is the case, and the Sunnis are successful in building a broad-based insurgency which incorporates progressive secular elements whose goals are both developmentalist and tolerant of women, they may indeed become a national liberation force in the true sense.

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