Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nir Rosen on classic colonial tactics and their consequences in Iraq today

Nir Rosen is an accomplished American journalist who has written from the ground in Somalia, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today in the Washington Post he wrote a response to a previous WP column by Paul Bremer, the man who ruled Iraq for United States' coalition for the first year after the invasion. Bremer insisted that his policies were right and necessary (forget about effectiveness. Rosen, who saw more of Iraq than Bremer ever did, disagrees. Rosen is particularly adamant that Iraqis generally did not think of themselves in sectarian terms before the occupation (my students will remember that Anthony Shadid agreed). Here is an important quotation from Rosen's column:

In Bremer's mind, the way to occupy Iraq was not to view it as a nation but as a group of minorities. So he pitted the minority that was not benefiting from the system against the minority that was, and then expected them both to be grateful to him. Bremer ruled Iraq as if it were already undergoing a civil war, helping the Shiites by punishing the Sunnis. He did not see his job as managing the country; he saw it as managing a civil war.

Actually Rosen says much harsher things, but they should not be read out of context.

I include this post not to add to the uncountable number already denouncing Bremer, but to draw attention to the classic "divide and rule" tactic that Rosen attributes to Bremer and those who hired him, accurately, I think. In last year's Islamic Civilization course I tried to put current events into a long context -- actually more than one -- and I thought that students from that course might be interested in this informed perspective.

Nir Rosen has a website which includes links to articles (lots of 'em) . He also has a book.

Image: One of many American references, public and private, to partitioning Iraq. If you read American blogs you find that even people who are vehemently "against the war" all too often think that the USA should impose such a "solution." It's like they never heard of the big two partitions of 1947, Palestine and India, and the consequences thereof. Not to mention Vietnam and Korea...


  1. Hi Steve,

    I’ve read much of Nir Rosen’s material too, including the article you mention in this post. It’s interesting to see how his views stand in contrast to some of Iraq’s governing elite – eg, Allawi – who suggest a federalist state.

    With particular respect to your post, I appreciate the urge to compare the Iraqi occupation to colonialism. I can easily see how one might argue that American officials, such as Bremer, demonstrate a perspective similar to one of the classic colonial mindset – ie, division along ethnic/cultural/racial/religious lines. However, the phrase “colonial tactics” implies a degree of intent and calculation on their part to “divide and conquer”, which I don’t think has been present. Rather, I think that Rosen is right in saying that ignorance and incompetence has played a significant role.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    CTH, you might be more sympathetic to my calling this stuff "colonialism" or "imperialism" if you looked at how Britain in particular dealt with the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Iraq both before and after WWI. This is what is normally called "colonialism" or "imperialism" by scholars now and "empire" by promoters of the process back then.

    Intent: there was plenty of intent by those who promoted the invasion and occupation. I'd agree that they all did not have the same intent. But some wanted to stay forever at the start, and some still do: see
    this blog entry from an Iraqi staffer for American news-service McClatchy:

  3. Steve,

    It appears that something got lost in translation. I’m not sure if I failed to articulate my thoughts well.

    1) If I might, I’ll take a second kick at the can. Regardless of whether the occupation itself amounts to “colonialism” or “imperialism”, my point related to the your word choice (ie, tactics) due to the inherent connotation. I’m not convinced that American officials, including Bremer, intended to divide Iraq society along ethnic/religious lines as a nefarious means of conquering and pacifying. Instead, I agree with Rosen; it was their ignorance that led these officials to unwittingly reinforce these ethnic/religious divides. And I would accept that this ignorance resembles a "colonial" or "imperial" mindset.

    (N.B.: While these divisions within Iraqi society previously existed, no matter how subtle, the extent to which American officials exacerbated them in their efforts to ensure ethnic/religious quotas is not yet clear. But Rosen is right to say that they did, in fact, exacerbate these divides.)

    2) Unfortunately, the url you provided did not take me to any specific post when I copied and pasted it in the web browser. So, I was unable to single out the information you had intended. Could you please provide a link? Or explain what you mean?

    3) Again, I haven’t yet argued, here, whether the Iraq occupation makes the US a “colonizer” or an “empire”. However, I have previously addressed the issue in a post of my own. Frankly, the mere existence of peripheries makes for a banal definition of “imperialism”, and such a definition does not address the real issues that the term has come to stand for – oppression and exploitation.

  4. Let's try this tinyurl:

  5. Is this url correct? Is the reader supposed to interpret a great significance on the construction of the US Embassy? Its completion somehow implies nefarious intent? This can't be the correct url; it's too thin.

  6. I think the significant fact is the attitude taken by an English-speaking Iraqi who works for American employers. Read some more of the Inside Iraq blog from the McClatchy staffers.