Military Occupations - the Good, Bad, and Ugly

By Cobban, Helena | The Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Military Occupations - the Good, Bad, and Ugly


Cobban, Helena, The Christian Science Monitor


War is always an unpredictable, tragic undertaking. We cannot foresee the future course of the US-led campaign against Iraq, though we know that people are already being killed, maimed, and traumatized because of it. What we can foretell with some degree of confidence is that if the war continues, the US-led coalition will win militarily and will end up controlling all or most of Iraq.

What then?

From the vantage of, say, 2008, might Americans look back and say that getting into Iraq was the easy part - but that getting out still, as of then, looks really difficult?

To answer that, we need to be clear about the status of US and allied forces inside Iraq. President Bush and his advisers claim that those forces are there as "liberators." But as a matter of international law, their status is that of "military occupiers." (This latter term is not a moral judgment. It's a technical term that describes the status of armed forces who, in the course of any war, end up controlling territory that's not their own.)

A military occupation is, almost by definition, not pleasant for most of the folks being "occupied." It does, after all, involve being ruled by a foreign military force. But over time, an occupation can end up being judged successful by everyone concerned - if it leads to the rebuilding of the "occupied" nation on a sound basis, and to a healthy regional order that prevents the resumption of war. Or, an occupation can turn out very badly indeed.

By these yardsticks, the multiyear, US-led occupations of West Germany and Japan after World War II were both extremely successful. And Israel's occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, 1967-1979, looks fairly successful. There was a nasty war along the way there in 1973. But in 1979, Israel withdrew from Sinai and the two countries concluded a peace that has since endured.

Some other military occupations in the Middle East have been far less successful for the occupiers.

Iraq's occupation of part of Iran in 1980 led to an eight-year war in which around 1 million people from both sides perished. Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait prompted Kuwait's exiled leaders to call in a huge, UN-authorized military force that liberated Kuwait and imposed tough postwar punishment on Iraq.

Both those Iraqi military occupations ended up imposing massive costs on the Iraqi people as well as on their neighbors.

Israel's occupations of all of the West Bank and Gaza, and of parts of Syria and Lebanon, have also turned out badly.

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