In the weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote approvingly of “the breath-taking audacity” of the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq.

Friedman noted that the invasion would lead to “a long-term U.S. occupation” and that “Iraq will be controlled by the iron fist of the U.S. Army.” Apparently he didn’t regard any of this as a problem — just part of the job of remaking Iraq to fit the fantasies of U.S. policymakers.

Friedman’s casual acceptance of Washington’s right to redesign other countries — an attitude rampant among media commentators as well as U.S. officials — sheds light on why the occupation of Iraq has been such a disaster, and why there’s little reason to believe Iraq is on the path to democracy.

No matter how inspired the rhetoric, the U.S. project in Iraq has never been about democracy. It’s been about getting control of Iraq’s vast, virtually untouched oil reserves, and extending Washington’s military reach over the region. “Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath; you can’t ask for better than that,” Wall Street oil analyst Fadel Gheit told me in an interview.

Bush officials never wanted to run Iraq themselves, but rather to have a loyal local do it for them. Before the invasion, their plan was simply to install the wealthy, CIA-groomed exile Ahmed Chalabi. They also drew up sweeping plans to privatize the entire Iraqi economy, including the oil sector — before the Iraqi people got to cast a single vote.

But the “iron fist of the U.S. army” has not been popular in Iraq, fuelling a resistance that has turned key parts of the country into a free-fire zone.

Among other things, this made meaningful elections impossible. If large numbers of people are too terrified to vote, the results won’t reflect the popular will — yet they’ll give an aura of legitimacy to a government that may represent a minority.

But while useless in advancing real democracy, the election is highly useful to George W. Bush, who will point to a “democratic” transfer of power.

Questioned last week, Bush said the U.S. would withdraw if asked by the new government. Really?

Earlier in the week, the Pentagon acknowledged plans and budgets to keep 120,000 troops there for at least two more years.

It sure looks like Washington plans to go on calling the shots in Iraq, but now there will be a plausible government to show off to the world. If Iraq’s oil industry is put on the chopping block and ends up in the hands of U.S. oil companies, Washington will be off the hook; the decision will have been made by the “elected” Iraqi government.

At last — mission accomplished.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...