Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The "R" Word - Reparations for Iraq

Published by Online Journal at: and by at:

Americans of all political persuasions are slowly beginning to face the enormity of what their government and their armed forces have done to the country and the people of Iraq. Out of the emerging awareness that we have been responsible for the destruction of a country and for at least a million human casualties, we are trying to come to grips with precisely what obligations and responsibilities our government’s actions have placed upon us, both collectively and as individuals.

Millions of Americans are now participating in various forms of political action to oppose escalation, end the war and bring U.S. forces home. Smaller numbers are active in the movement to hold American politicians responsible for their actions through a process of congressional hearings, impeachment and prosecution.

The Iraq Study Group co-chairs prefaced their report, “Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our country has made, the United States has special obligations.” But the question we are all grappling with is the precise nature of these obligations, and the answer must be based on the actual moral and legal nature of our country’s actions rather than on political rhetoric.

American rhetoric surrounding the war has claimed a baffling array of motivations for the invasion, from destroying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to establishing a democracy. But American evidence for the existence of the dreaded WMD was shamelessly fabricated, and the U.S.-backed “Iraqi Parliament” has rarely made a quorum because so few of its members even live in Iraq. Its composition is as much of a fabrication as General Powell’s speech at the U.N. Other justifications presented by U.S. officials at different times have proved just as misleading. So we cannot base a serious effort to understand our responsibilities on any of these improvised political expedients.

The bare facts are that the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and have waged a war there for four years that has killed between 500,000 and a million people and has progressively destroyed much of the physical, governmental and societal infrastructure of that country.

It is generally accepted that a nation that inflicts war on another country brings on itself an obligation to provide compensation to repair the damage it has caused. In recent years, these obligations have increasingly been interpreted to include payments to individual victims as well as to governments.

Arguments that have been made against reparations in other cases do not apply to the U.S. war in Iraq. The United States will not emerge from this war as an impoverished country that cannot afford to pay for the costs of its actions. Neither would this be a case of arbitrary justice -- there is no question that the United States attacked Iraq and not the reverse. Nor would this be a case of an innocent people being forced to pay for the actions of a dictatorial government that they had no control over -- we elected Bush and Cheney, or at least failed to effectively challenge their declared election victories, and our elected representatives voted to let them take us to war.

So, in this case, the question really becomes: “Why would the United States not owe reparations to Iraq?” International law does not allow for a great diversity of legitimate reasons for the use of military force -- it’s pretty much self-defense or collective action by the Security Council; and, if only one thing is clear about the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is that neither of these justifications existed.

The only conceivable argument against reparations would have to be that the United States was not acting as an aggressor in its own interest, but was somehow acting in good faith on behalf of the international community in the interest of peace or security, albeit in defiance of its partners on the U.N. Security Council and the judgment of almost the entire world. Many Americans still cling to some variant of this view, in effect that the war was a terrible and tragic mistake, but not a deliberate international crime.

Although the war clearly violates the letter of the U.N. Charter, could it nevertheless mitigate our moral and legal responsibility to some degree if our leaders had some good faith rationale for their actions? But, if so, what was it? If there is a saving truth hidden somewhere among all their lies and evasions, what could it be?

Three years into the war, the U.S. government’s failure to offer any serious or credible justification of its policy led veteran correspondent Helen Thomas to ask Mr. Bush directly at a White House press conference, “Why did you really want to go to war with Iraq?” Predictably, Mr. Bush did not even attempt to answer her, but she has explained in subsequent interviews why she asked him that question, “I think the astounding thing [is that] if you were in a room with many people and you went to 10 people and asked them why we're in this war, you would get 10 different answers . . .”

If we don’t even know why our country attacked and occupied Iraq, and our leaders won’t tell us, on what basis can we absolve ourselves of the obligation to compensate Iraq and its people for what we have done to them? The simple truth is that we allowed the damage to be done, in our name, and it is now our responsibility.

So, what would reparations entail? Ironically, the most appropriate model for a reparations regime to compensate Iraq would be the one imposed on Iraq itself following its invasion of Kuwait. U.N.S.C. resolution 687 established Iraq’s legal responsibility for the losses of Kuwait and its people, and the Iraqi government accepted its responsibility in a letter to the council three days later. The resolution created a compensation fund and directed the Secretary General of the U.N. “to recommend mechanisms for determining the appropriate level of Iraq’s contribution to the fund, taking into account the requirements of the people of Iraq, Iraq’s payment capacity and the needs of the Iraqi economy.”

The details were then spelled out in UNSC resolution 705, which established a U.N. Compensation Commission in Geneva, with representatives of each country that had a seat on the Security Council, but without a veto for permanent members. The U.N.C.C. received claims against Iraq totaling $352.5 billion, and eventually awarded a total of $52.5 billion to settle 1.55 million claims. A harsh 30 percent levy against Iraqi oil export revenues funded the payment of the claims -- this was later reduced to 25 percent, and more recently to 5 percent. The fund has disbursed $21 billion in 16 years, and it was decided from the outset that awards to individual victims would receive priority and be paid before those to governments.

By contrast, the severe damage to Iraq’s infrastructure in the present war would require that the post-occupation Iraqi government receive payment from the compensation fund from the outset, along with individual war victims. Fortunately, the United States is wealthy enough to make substantial payments both to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and to help its people to bind their wounds at the same time.

Naturally, we may wonder what total Iraqi claims against the United States would add up to. They could quite possibly exceed the trillion dollars or so already spent on the war, but this would be up to the compensation commission. The U.N.C.C. reduced the amount claimed by Kuwait and its people by 85 percent, and it appears to have conducted its deliberations fairly and impartially. We would hopefully have the good grace to accept the authority of a similar compensation commission and to comply with its rulings.

The most compelling reason to pay reparations to Iraq is one of simple justice and responsibility. But there are additional reasons that are worth considering. Nietzsche wrote that “living and the practice of injustice are synonymous . . . For since we happen to be the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their blunders, passions and misunderstandings, indeed of their crimes; it is impossible to free ourselves completely from this chain.” And yet the whole enterprise of human social progress is an effort to loosen this chain rather than tighten it, and the acceptance of liability and the payment of reparations for our actions would establish a powerful precedent to deter such behavior in the future.

The expectation of impunity for American war criminals and the lack of collective accountability for their actions have granted a freedom of action to American leaders that they have consistently abused in successive military adventures. It has also fueled the development of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about. The presumption of impunity and the profitability of corporate militarism have proved to be a corrupting and dangerous combination, and it would far better serve our own interests as well as our humanity and our foreign relations to once and for all embrace both executive accountability and collective responsibility for our country’s international behavior.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “We can no longer simply afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.”

It has continued to do so repeatedly since she wrote that. But the United Nations Charter, the development of international human rights law, war crimes prosecutions and reparations regimes have each played a role in establishing new standards and gradually loosening the chain that ties us to injustice. The weakness in the international system remains the immunity of the most powerful countries, the veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, from rules that have gradually succeeded in constraining aggression by less powerful ones.

It seems counter-intuitive that we can further our country’s interests by accepting constraints and liabilities that no other country has the power to enforce upon us. And yet, this is the nature of the process that President Roosevelt began when he conceived of the United Nations in the first place. When we understand that peace is the overarching international value to be achieved and the precondition for solutions to all our other problems, then we will gladly renounce such dubious privileges as impunity for American war criminals and the freedom to launch devastating attacks on other countries without liability.

So, in the end, American acceptance and payment of reparations would not only provide some compensation to the people of Iraq for what we have inflicted on them, but it would also be an important building block for the more just and peaceful world that we all want to bring about for our children and grandchildren.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Iraq Study Group

Published by Online journal at: and in Z Magazine (February 2007) at:

The Iraq Study Group has published the most candid review of the crisis in Iraq so far by an official American policy group. The principal weakness of its assessment is that it evades two central issues: the full extent of American responsibility for the crisis; and the illegality of the U.S. invasion and the resulting illegitimacy of the role that the United States is now playing in the affairs of Iraq.

In its tortuous efforts to skirt the issues at the heart of the crisis, the Iraq Study Group has highlighted them by default, and thereby defined the necessary first step toward peace, the complete withdrawal of American military and civilian occupation forces from Iraq.


American responsibility for the crisis in Iraq is acknowledged three times in this report -- first, in the letter from the co-chairs; second, in the introduction to the Assessment chapter; and, lastly, as a justification for rejecting the option of “Precipitate Withdrawal.”

The co-chairs, James Baker III and Lee Hamilton, state in their introductory letter, “Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our government has made, the United States has special obligations.” Instead of going on to explain the “special obligations” of a country that has invaded another one in violation of the United Nations Charter, such as withdrawal of its forces, and the payment of reparations, it asserts weakly, “Our country must address as best it can Iraq’s many problems.”

This logic is repeated in the introduction to the Assessment chapter: “Because events in Iraq have been set in motion by American decisions and actions, the United States has both a national and a moral interest in doing what it can to give Iraqis an opportunity to avert anarchy.”

What follows is a damning assessment of the state of occupied Iraq, but one that carefully avoids directly linking any of the specific conditions it describes to “American actions and decisions.”

The section on Sources of Violence acknowledges “multiple sources of violence in Iraq: the Sunni Arab insurgency, al Quaeda and affiliated Jihadist groups, Shiite militias and death squads, and organized criminality.” Unless it is meant to be included in the last category, which would be valid but seems unlikely, there is no mention of the primary source of violence in Iraq, the U.S. invasion and military occupation of the country.

The epidemiological study recently published in the Lancet by researchers from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities, found with 97.5 percent certainty that at least 26 percent of violent deaths since the invasion were attributed directly to “coalition” forces. In another 45 percent of cases, relatives were unable or unwilling to say who had killed their loved ones, so that the actual number of people killed by coalition forces is probably much higher. At an absolute minimum though (99.94 percent), this means that U.S. and other foreign troops have killed at least 110,000 people in Iraq.

In discussing militia violence, the report notes, “Many Badr members have become integrated into the Iraqi police . . ." and “While wearing the uniform of the security services, Badr fighters have targeted Sunni Arab civilians.” It does not mention the U.S. role in forming and training the Interior Ministry Special Police Commandos; nor the continuing role of U.S. advisors working with these Interior Ministry forces after they were merged with the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades and launched as death squads against the Sunni population; nor that the U.S. government is currently negotiating with SCIRI and Badr leader al-Hakim to give them a larger role in the next puppet government.

In the section on Operation Together Forward II, the report notes a 43 percent increase in violence in Baghdad during the period covered by this U.S. operation, but fails to explain why it had this effect. In fact, this operation targeted the same Sunni neighborhoods that had been under assault by Special Police Commandos and other Shiite militiamen since April 2005, but which had been resisting these attacks with some success. The nominal goal of the U.S. operation was to eliminate both Sunni resistance and Shiite militias, but the Iraqi auxiliary forces that were partnered with the U.S. 4th Infantry and 172nd Stryker Brigade were all comprised of or allied with Shiite militias. It was entirely predictable and therefore presumably intended that this operation would intensify the ongoing attacks on the beleaguered Sunni population of Baghdad. The recent increase in violence in Baghdad is thus a direct and apparently deliberate result of U.S. policy.

When the report goes on to discuss Some Alternative Courses in Iraq, the “role and commitments of the United States in initiating events that have led to the current situation” suddenly come to the fore as a reason to keep fighting, and the need for withdrawal is rejected as an article of faith: “we believe it would be wrong for the United States to abandon the country through a precipitate withdrawal of troops and support. A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions.” No evidence is presented to support this assertion, and other sections of the report contain ample evidence that the U.S. occupation is the primary source of violence in Iraq.

We have already discussed the effect of Operation Together Forward II in Baghdad, escalating rather than stopping violence in the capital, and the role of U.S.-trained death squads in initiating sectarian violence. One would think Iraq could do without this kind of “support.”

Then, in discussing the More Troops for Iraq option, the report states, “Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq.” The argument for keeping exactly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is a Goldilocks argument, that this number is not too few and not too many, but “just right.” This is not a rational argument. Senator McCain is correct that if U.S. forces were really a force for stability in Iraq, then more of them would bring more stability. The More Troops for Iraq section acknowledges that this is not the case, but its sound reasoning has not been extended to the faith-based “Precipitate Withdrawal” section.

Recommendation 40 in the Way Forward chapter is prefaced by more discussion of the role of U.S. forces: “adding more American troops could conceivably worsen those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the U.S. presence is intended to be a long-term “occupation,” but then “the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is moderating the violence.” This last formulation is an interesting allusion to what U.S. forces are really doing, tactically applying their own destructive power against the Sunnis in concert with the local forces of violence that the occupation has unleashed, while selectively attacking al-Sadr’s forces to keep them in check when possible.

This discussion outlines the basic dilemma facing U.S. policymakers over Iraq. They are losing the war with the Sunnis, whose level of resistance is still increasing, while Muqtada al-Sadr has quietly become the de facto leader of the Shiites throughout most of the country. The Americans have tried to take on the Sunnis and leave al-Sadr for later, but this has not worked. The result has been that both the Sunni resistance and al-Sadr have only grown stronger and the positions of the U.S. and its various puppets are weaker than ever.

The report’s prescription is to concentrate on training security forces loyal to the puppet government, but the loyalty of these forces can never be guaranteed. If it should come to a showdown with al-Sadr, most of them would suddenly be on the other side, and the Kurdish peshmerga would prefer to fight for an independent Kurdistan than for Baghdad.

In the end, the Iraq Study Group has followed the same self-serving logic regarding America’s responsibility toward Iraq as General Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule”: “You break it -- you own it.” But a country that “breaks” another country doesn’t “own” it -- that’s nonsense. The only way to paraphrase Powell’s statement in the real world would be: “You break it -- you get out of my store before you do any more damage . . . and I’ll send you the bill.” And in the real world, that is exactly what the Iraqis are saying.


The word “invasion” does not occur anywhere in this report. The word “legitimacy” occurs once, in relation to diplomatic relations between Iraq and neighboring countries. The false presumption of legitimacy that underpins the American role in Iraq is, however, a ghost in the machine that makes both its presence and its insubstantiality felt throughout the report.

The Security section of the report’s Assessment begins by explaining that U.S. forces are part of the Multi National Force authorized by UNSCR 1546. It does not explain that these were the same forces that invaded the country in violation of the U.N. Charter in March 2003, and that, because of the United States’ role as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, subsequent U.N. resolutions have been unable to confront the reality of this situation.

The United States has prevented the Security Council from fulfilling its responsibility to restore international peace and security, leaving the council to act under this constraint to do what it can under the circumstances. When the history books are written, we will probably find that some members and some U.N. officials practiced quiet diplomacy to try to reclaim the protection to which the people of Iraq are entitled under international law, while most were governed primarily by their own interests in maintaining a stable relationship with the United States.

Unresolved questions of legitimacy underlie the report’s discussions of many issues: the status of Iraqi Kurdistan; “amnesty for those who have fought against the government”; the flight of the technocratic class from the country, including government officials, academics and petroleum engineers; the refusal of the Ministries of Health, Agriculture and Transportation to work with American advisors; the uncertain framework for foreign investment; the growth of popular opposition to the occupation; and the fact that 61 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces.

Initiatives on Building an International Consensus and the New Diplomatic Offensive are clearly designed to engage other countries in discussions that could strengthen the American presumption of legitimacy and the de facto position of the U.S. and its puppets in Iraq. The tenuous position of the Iraqi puppet government is also the theme of Recommendations 19 and 20, requiring closer cooperation with U.S. officials to meet milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance.

Recommendations 22 and 23 speak to the heart of the American enterprise in Iraq, asking President Bush to “state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq” and “that the United States does not seek to control Iraq’s oil.” The report does not ask Bush to take any concrete steps regarding these issues, such as halting construction on U.S. bases or the Vatican-sized U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, or abandoning U.S. pressure for “Approval of the Petroleum Law,” as one of the Milestones for Iraq.

In fact, recommendations 62 and 63 are a complex 10-part prescription for the disposition of the Oil Sector in Iraq. They would “create a fiscal and legal framework for investment,” and commit U.S. military forces to work with Iraqis and foreign mercenaries to protect oil infrastructure and contractors.

“The United States should encourage investment in Iraq’s oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies” and “The United States should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise.” These statements reveal continuing support for the Oil Production Sharing Agreements that Western oil companies have been eagerly awaiting since the invasion. Such agreements would be a throwback to the time before the major oil-producing countries nationalized their oil industries, when Western companies could help themselves to oil in exchange for the payment of small royalties to national governments. Until the Second World War, Anglo-Iranian (now BP) paid only a 16 percent royalty on oil production to the government of Iran.

Kevin Phillips reported in his book “American Theocracy” that American oil companies hoped to earn greater profits on Iraqi oil under these new Production Sharing Agreements than they currently make on the rest of their worldwide operations combined. The Iraq Study Group’s inclusion of this item in their report shows that the primary commercial goals of the invasion have not changed, even if they mean destroying the country that has the misfortune to sit atop these precious oilfields, city by city, block by block, life by life.

An analogy

Somebody once told me how hunters in a certain part of India catch monkeys for food. I don’t know if this is really true, but it provides a good analogy for the American predicament in Iraq.

A hunter places a large piece of fruit in a heavy earthenware jar with a long, narrow neck. The hunter hides as a monkey approaches the jar. If monkeys were more intelligent and a little less greedy, the monkey would just tip the fruit out of the jar, pick it up and run away with it, but there is always the fear that another monkey might grab the fruit first as it falls to the ground.

So, the monkey reaches into the jar, and clenches the fruit in his fist. He can feel the fruit; he can smell it; he can almost taste it. But this is actually the moment that he is trapped. With the fruit in his fist, he cannot pull his hand back through the narrow neck of the jar.

If he would only let go of the fruit, he could scamper away unharmed. But, instead, he only screeches and pulls vainly on the heavy jar as the hunter approaches with a club in his hand.