Thinking About Military Occupations
Roger Owen Al-Hayat - 14/03/06//
One of the most significant features of the contemporary world is the institution of military occupations by powerful industrialized countries over much weaker nations such as Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq. Some of the issues this raises, including the central characteristics of such occupations themselves, was the subject of a recent workshop organized at Harvard by a group of programmes and centres including the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
The use of a comparative perspective greatly facilitated discussion of the structure and processes involved in occupation beginning with how they differ from those imagined by the drafters of the Hague Convention of 1907. As far as the latter were concerned, occupations were supposed to be temporary, and so distinct from acts of annexation or colonialisation, no were they supposed to disturb or restructure what the Convention terms the local 'vie publique'.
The Convention also insisted on the obligation to return sovereignty to the occupied nation without delay, a condition which became much more complicated as a result of the international treaties following the second world war in which sovereignty was generally vested, not in a sovereign ruler, as in 1907, but in a sovereign people. And yet what to do if the occupied state contains a divided, even fractious, population, which prevents the easy creation of new national institutions designed to represent the interests of all? At the very least, a considerably shaping of the vie publique has to take place to allow this to happen.
Discussion of the three particular cases - Chechnya, Iraq and Palestine - provided graphic illustrations of these points, as well as helping the participants to view each occupation as a process with a structures, a logic, all its own. In the case of Iraq, for example, what became clear is the enormous difference between the decision to invade, probably taken Washington in the summer of 2002, and the decision that invasion should be followed not by the installation of a provisional government but by a more lengthy period of political engineering, something which seems only seems to have been made by the replacement of Jay Garner by Paul Bremer two months after the invasion was complete.
This is turn is characteristic of one of the other central features of such occupations, the way in which the bureaucratic infighting and political differences present in the occupier's homeland are transported almost whole-sale to the occupied territory, making the Green Zone in Baghdad pretty much an extension of the central institutions of government in Washington DC. One result was not the absence of a plan for post-invasion Iraq - the usual criticism from outside - but a number of rival plans, a situation made even worse by President Bush's conspicuous failure to make sure that his chief lieutenants, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. were all pursuing the same strategy and the same agreed set of aims.
Another central feature of the modern military occupation is the deliberate creation of what at the workshop we termed 'zones of emergency' - either for whole or parts of the occupied territory - in which both international and local laws are suspended in the interests of establishing or maintaining what is euphemistically called 'security but which, for the people of Fallujah, or of Grozny or Gaza, is a state of heightened insecurity, with the commanders in charge free to destroy whatever they think fit with little fear of being held accountable.
Observations of this type lead on, inevitably, to considerations of praise or blame. Where a focus on occupations as events with their own well-defined character can add something here is by asking from what perspective should they be judged? As most criticism of, say, the Iraqi occupation, makes abundantly clear, most critics still assume that better planning or better policies would have produced a 'better' occupation, whatever that might mean. At the very least it would seem impossible to come to a satisfactory historical judgment until many years after the occupation is over.
The workshop suggested that there are at least two alternatives. The simplest is to adopt the simple position that, as the practice of occupation is wrong, then everything undertaken in connection with it is also wrong. A more fruitful alternative, of so it would seem to me, is to examine the ways in which the logic of occupation has its own special character which dictate many outcomes regardless of individual human volition. To give one example, criticisms are always made that the occupiers embark on occupations with little or no knowledge of the country to be occupied. Yet, this begs the further question, what could such knowledge possibly consist of, and, even if largely accurate, how could it possibly translate into sensible advice about what to do next? Given the complex power relations involved, given the inevitably fact the occupations will need unexpected forms of resistance, it's certainly more accurate to see them as involving dangerous, and usually murderous, forms of trial and error.
This is not to say, however, that we should ignore individual responsibility for the death and destruction which occupations cause. Those who ordered them should be held accountable to what happens, just as those who execute those orders must be as well, both under their own laws and according to international norms.
The notion of occupations having definite structures and processes also produced valuable insights into those taking place in Chechnya and Palestine. In the case of Chechnya, it is true that only the rebels, and not either the Russians nor the international community see it as an occupation in the first place. Nevertheless, it embodies many of the characteristics of the modern occupation including a deliberate creation of a zone of emergency, masterly manipulation of the Russian media and a policy of what might be called Chechenisation, that is handing over some of the local administration to what is in effect a puppet, and particularly brutal, Chechen government.
In Palestine, on the other hand, the notion of occupation as a finite process has been eagerly embraced by Prime Minister Sharon and most of his cabinet but only as the pretext for appearing to hand over a meaningless sovereignty to the Palestinian National Authority while continuing its military management of the territories by other means, notably by its control of Palestinian skies.
A final thought: although most of the participants thought of occupations as involving western invasions of non-western countries, there as just one question about the little analyzed subject of eastern occupations of eastern countries, for example Egypt's five years in North Yemen, 1962-67. It is an intriguing thought.