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  • Never-Ending Occupations
  • Salah D. Hassan (bio)

A military occupation that ends with the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from the occupied territory almost always is associated with political failure, lost causes, and wasted lives. Just as the launching of an aggressive war of occupation is a messy political affair, so is the postwar situation with the looming prospect of a withdrawal that invariably raises questions about what was accomplished by the war. This last point explains the intense political anxiety about exit strategies and disengagement from the field of battle. The cessation of hostilities and the handing over of authority to a presumably sovereign government—as was the case in Iraq in 2004—may mark the end of the legal occupation, but regimes of occupation often project themselves long into the future, averting complete withdrawal, and instituting a permanent presence in the occupied territory through the establishment of garrisoned military bases that have come to characterize never-ending occupations. For the purposes of this essay, I am particularly interested in current U.S. political discourse on the occupation of Iraq and [End Page 1] discussions of the future of that particularly violent intervention that appears to have no end. I also want to suggest that the United States has a 100-year history of never-ending occupations that have contributed to contemporary views of it as an imperial power. At the core of this paper is an analysis of the political language of rights and freedom mobilized by the Bush White House to justify the war. Critics of the war have tended to dismiss the discourse of democracy as meaningless propaganda designed to conceal U.S. strategic interests in the region, but Presidential speeches, policy statements and legislation provide an important set of coordinates for analyzing the political and cultural ethos that underwrites never-ending military occupations.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is only the most recent in a long history of violent interventions. Despite developments in the international laws of war over the last 100 years, the rhetoric and modalities of the U.S. occupation of Iraq reproduce the features of previous never-ending occupations. One can see a repeating pattern from the 1890s occupation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the mid-twentieth-century occupation of Germany and Japan to the early twenty-first-century occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. In every one of these cases, the U.S. presence was ostensibly temporary, aimed at overthrowing an unjust dictatorship, yet quickly took the form of a permanent military presence. In each case, the occupation resulted from a formal declaration of war and was, therefore, subject to the laws of war, such as they are. These U.S. military occupations were initially explained as an administrative necessity; the end of hostilities witnessed a change of regime and created a political vacuum that was first filled by the U.S. military and its allies and then by some form of civilian administration operating always under the umbrella of the U.S. armed forces. It is precisely the convergence of these circumstances that produce the possibilities for an occupation without end.

In the Philippines, for example, the Spanish-American War culminated in the United States displacing Spain as the colonial authority, according to the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, but Philippine nationalists resisted U.S. hegemony, which took a decisive administrative form with the passage of the Philippine Bill in 1902. Section 3 of the Philippine Bill clearly asserts U.S. sovereignty over the islands: [End Page 2]

That the President of the United States during such time as and whenever the and authority of the United States encounter armed resistance in the Philippine Islands, . . . shall continue to regulate and control commercial intercourse with and within said Islands by such general rules and regulations as he . . . may deem most conducive to the public interests and the general welfare.

(Philippine Bill of 1902)

Here political authority, commercial activity, and public good are all associated with the figure of the U.S. President, the veritable embodiment of sovereignty, who stands in opposition to the armed resistance. In passing the Philippine Bill, the U.S. Congress provided the...


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