x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US makes mockery of sovereignty

Brig Gen David Perkins addresses a press conference at the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Brig Gen David Perkins addresses a press conference at the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Since invading Iraq, the Americans have held regular press conferences in Baghdad, a show of their openness and accountability; a show of respect for that beating heart of democracy, a free media. Sometimes these press conferences are insightful and yield useful information. But on more than one occasion they have been farcical, insulting and casually disregardful of the truth, particularly in the early days.

US officials would stand in the safety of the Green Zone and lecture journalists - lecture Iraqis - about all the progress that was being made even as, out there beyond the concrete barriers, the country collapsed and descended into a sectarian chaos that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Regardless of what was actually said, however, the Americans were at least willing to stand up and publicly answer questions. It was something. Last week, however, they finally made a mockery of even that basic principle.

The usual press conference was held, as planned, on Wednesday afternoon and was attended, as always, by the dwindling Baghdad press corps. Brig Gen David Perkins, the US military spokesman for Iraq, sat down in front of an American flag and read out a bland statement. It mentioned the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations, interference by Iran and progress in training Iraq's security agencies. He failed to address just one small issue: the cross-border attack into Syria by US forces that took place on the Sunday before.

Given that the airborne assault, which left at least eight people dead, was carried out from Iraqi soil and supposedly targeted an al Qa'eda figure who was helping launch attacks inside Iraq, you might consider it worth talking about. In light of the fact that it was technically an act of war by both the US and Iraq on Syria and made international headlines, you might imagine something would be said. Instead, there was a deafening silence.

After reading his opening statement, Brig Gen Perkins asked if there were any questions. One of the Iraqi reporters duly asked about the attack on Syria. The officer's response was brief and to the point: "Umm," he said, "I've nothing to add on that." A few minutes later, another reporter, this time an American, asked about the poor quality of water supplies in Iraq and the US attack on Syria. Brig Gen Perkins entered into a lengthy treatise on the improving security situation and reconstruction efforts, before stating: "I have nothing to add on any other subjects."

In the course of the press conference, two more reporters asked about the raid inside Syria and Brig Gen Perkins simply pretended as if the questions had not been asked. He did not so much as acknowledge them. He did, though, talk of the Status of Forces Agreement as a negotiation between two sovereign nations, the United States and Iraq. Even if you choose to ignore the fact that 120,000-odd American soldiers are stationed in Iraq - not one of whom can be ordered to do anything by an Iraqi or prosecuted in an Iraqi court - it was an irony too far.

One of the clauses Iraq has been insisting must be included in the agreement is a guarantee the United States will not use it as a post for staging attacks on third countries. With negotiations going on, the American military made it clear what they think of that idea. Even given the slim chance the Americans would actually bother to give the Iraqi authorities advance notice in the case of a strike, it is clear the US reserves the right to do whatever it sees fit, regardless of international laws, international boundaries or agreements it is legally bound to uphold.

Another irony: in his opening remarks, Brig Gen Perkins had noted that Iraq was strengthening ties with regional countries, citing the decision by various Arab countries to finally send ambassadors to Baghdad. He mentioned Syria - the only time that word crossed his lips - was reconsidering its decision to dispatch a representative to Iraq after the attack. Syria has also pulled back some of its forces that were trying to secure the border. If it was easy for insurgents to cross before the raid, it has just been made even easier.

Perhaps the final and greatest mockery was aimed directly at the journalists in the room and, by extension, the Iraqi public. The military spokesman's blank refusal to even mention the attack went further than merely destroying the principle of accountability. He could have done that by saying the strike had taken place without offering any explanation for it. That would have been bad enough. As it was, by behaving as if no questions had been asked, the Americans were actually denying the basic right of the Iraqi people to know - not even control, just to know - what America is doing from their soil.

And there we all were, all of us reporters, sitting like fools in that press conference. We probably should have all stood up and walked out, en masse, at the arrogant disregard of us and our profession. Why would any of us ever sit through such a hollow pretence of public accountability again? Why bother holding a press conference if you are not going to answer questions? You cannot claim to be open to scrutiny if you hold back from making so much as a remark about issues as critical as war and peace. Just as you cannot claim to respect Iraq and Iraqis if you keep them in the dark and insult them with silences. What is the outcome of the attack, beyond eight dead people, at least one of whom may or may not have been an al Qa'eda extremist who helped slaughter Iraqi police officers (going after such a man ought to be an act the Americans feel able to justify, which makes the refusal to acknowledge the questions even more baffling)?

Already wary of entering a deal with the United States, Iraqis are probably more reluctant than before to sign a Status of Forces Agreement. The United States is probably now even more discredited in the eyes of the Middle East, and larger world, than it was. If such a thing was possible, it must be seen as more cavalier, irrational and irresponsible. The United States routinely attacks insurgents inside Pakistan as part of its absurdly named "war on terror" - strengthening anti-US sentiment there as it does so - and seems intent on doing the same inside Syria. Why not Iran too, if the Americans are really looking for a wider Middle East war? But in reality, Syria and Iran probably see this attack as the death spasm of the Bush administration. Syria will not want to turn the attack into a crisis; the Syrians are far too canny as politicians to jeopardise relations with the future US president over this. Any response will either be one of symbolic protest or much more subtle than violence that can be directly traced to their doorstep.

The result of this is to expose as false any claims that Iraq is independent or in any real sense a sovereign and democratic state. Democracies are supposed to be by and for the people, and until those in positions of power answer for their actions to the general public, Iraq is no such thing. psands@thenational.ae