The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende announced the withdrawal of all Dutch troops from Iraq. All 1350 military personnel are expected to be back home before mid March.
The US government put pressure on the Dutch government claiming that all good work done by the Dutch troops would now be lost, and one of the governing coalition parties, the Liberal Party calls the decision inconsistent. Yet, the majority of the Dutch population will be relieved and glad that finally the government follows the wish of the population it is supposed to serve.
The involvement of the Netherlands in Iraq has been a peculiar story from the onset. In the run-up to the invasion, the government took the position that only under UN mandate the Dutch could consider a military role in the invasion. A majority of the population was found opposing the war, even with UN mandate, and a very large majority (almost 80 percent in the end) opposed an invasion without UN consent. The government however was in principle in favor of `the Iraq adventure` as it is often called by Dutch politicians. In the end the government, finding itself in the awkward position not wanting to rub skin off the nose of it`s longstanding allies while concerned to alienate it`s own population and constituency, came up with a peculiar decision. The Netherlands would support the invasion politically, but not in any way military. To this date, there is a lot of unclarity as to what that meant in practice. Nevertheless, it seemed to work. The Dutch population had the feeling it was taken serious andthought that the Netherlands were not involved in `the Iraq adventure`. At the same time it also worked for the US, who would have preferred military involvement of the Netherlands, but was happy to settle for lip service since it allowed the US to list the Netherlands as one of the prime partners in it`s “Coalition of the Willing”.
Already on the first day of the invasion however, questions began to arise about the Dutch military involvement in the war. At a press conference of the Military Command of the invading forces, a Dutch high military official was present, and at the wrong side of the table. Also, the Dutch government passively supported the US military, allowing troops and military equipment to be transported through the country, mainly coming from US military bases in Germany, and going to the Rotterdam Harbor. Indirectly, the Netherlands also helped the invasion by taking over some of the US tasks in military operations elsewhere.
After the war, little pressure was needed to convince the Dutch government to join the apparently glorious victorious coalition. Despite the majority in the Netherlands still saying “NO” to any involvement in Iraq, the government needed little time to take up a modest task in the occupation of Iraq. 1350 personnell were stationed in relatively safe surroundings in the South of Iraq under occupation, send there to – in the words of the government – stabilize the country, keep order and support the local inhabitants to rebuild their country after the war.
When in July 2004 the extent of the Dutch involvement was discussed in Parliament, it showed once more that there was serious difference of opinion within parliament but also within the governing coalition, made up of Christian Democrats (CDA), Liberals (in the European meaning of the word) (VVD) and the small and therefore insignificant Liberal Democratic Party (D`66). It was felt then already, that the picturesque idea of restoring order, protect and serve local citizens had been inadequate.
Insurgencies and threats had made it virtually impossible for the soldiers to “do good”. What was left for them was the task of occupying, contolling the region, and the locals were increasingly regarded as potential danger. In a typical Dutch show of consensus politics, a deal was forged in which the troops would remain in Iraq, but only until after the US presidential elections. One can only conclude that this choice of words was an overt support for the re-election of befriended statesman George Bush Jr. Still, the decision not to withdraw troops already showed the little confidence remaining in the mission itself. Looking back at it now, it seems the troops stayed primarily to not let down `our longstanding allies`. No one could any longer sincerely claim that the troops remained in Iraq `for the good of the Iraqi citizens`.
The current decision to withdraw was as expected, and as agreed on in July 2004. And as expected, the decision was as painstaking as was the decision made in 2004. Diplomats and politicians form the UK and the US put a lot of pressure on Dutch politicians to change their minds in favor of extension of the Dutch involvement in Iraq. And for a moment, the pressure seemed to pay off as well. Politicians already in favour of keeping the troops in Iraq, choose the offense, stating that ending the mission would `undo all the good that we did over the past months` because `the Iraq adventure (!) was not ended`. The troops should not be brought home, and whats more, the situation in Iraq called for more troops rather than less.
The US MoD similarly stated that removing the troops would be a waste of what was accomplished alreadyt. And indeed some politicians, mainly of the
parties now in government changed their minds, now favoring further Dutch
deployment of troops. All the while, diplomatic travel in and around The Hague was unusually busy, so say Dutch politicians. Members of parliament were visited by coalition ambassadors, calls came from colleague Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Powel was even brought to The Hague, though only to try and convince Dutch politicians of the good of joining the occupation forces in Iraq.
Tension mounted over the past few days when the Minister of Defense, Kamp, spoke out in favor of extension of the Iraq mission at the Party Congress of his CDA on Friday. The situation in Iraq would demand further Dutch involvement he stated. Saturday he withdrew this statement, only to repeat it in less transparent language this morning. After a talk with the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Pot) and Prime Minister Balkenende however, the decision was taken to end all Dutch involvement in the occupation of Iraq.
It`s not the number of troops nor the function they had in the system of occupation that will have worried the “Coalition”. 1350 men and women will be missed, no doubt, but can still relatively easy be replaced by US troops. The real worry of the US is the symbolic notion of the withdrawal of the Dutch troops. The Netherlands have always been a particular exemplary ally, never failing to give the US the benefit of the doubt, whether it came to military operations, US bases in the Dutch Antilles, transport of classified material from the US to Israel, the Eschalon information interception scandal or even when the US codified a law allowing itself to invade the Netherlands when necessary to free US officials or military personnel from the vaults of the ICC or any other War Tribunal. There`s just not much of a `coalition` left by now. The Polish, Ukrainian and now the Dutch troops are out. The Spanish were already. While the captains remain behind on board, the rats are jumping ship. The official line of the Netherlands will be that it did all it had agreed to do and more. That the involvement shown was already more than could be expected regarding the limited seize of the country and equally limited resources of the army. But within and olutside the Netherlands, it will be understood that the Dutch choose to end their participation in the `Iraq adventure` because it lost faith in the idea of a good-for-all ending of the Vietnam-like drama that is unfolding in Iraq. To use the words of a military adviser on national television this evening: “Every country going into a military adventure needs to have an exit strategy……. and the British and US government like no other will understand that this is our exit strategy.”
If the occupation would have developed the way the Americans predicted and the Dutch government hoped, the Dutch would probably have felt the urge to stay. Now that Iraq is rapidly developing according to the worst nightmare scenario for any occupying force, the Dutch decided to use their earlier statements about timing of their involvement as their exit strategy. The “Coalition” is crumbling, 55 cities in Iraq are off limits for US\UK troops, the number of attacks on Coalition forces is mounting and of an increasingly sophisticated sort. The elections planned for January 30th on which the oppressors invested so much of their credibility is widely critizised by now for being illegitimate and fake, and expected by many to do the Iraqi society more harm than good.
For the majority of the Dutch population, this decision comes with a feeling of relief aspecially for the family and friends of those who serve in Iraq. But what`s more, is the tangible sense of fulfillment felt by the majority of the population after being stood up by their government thoughout the whole Iraq showdown up till today. After the war, the majority of the population did not want troops to be sent to Iraq, and at the time of the decision making process about extension of the mandate in July 2004 too, a majority opposed military involvement. Today, a survey shows us that over two third of the population will be relieved that their government finally follows the wish of the population that voted for them to do what is right: To bring our boys and girls home.
What could be read between the lines in the commentaries today in the Netherlands is that by and large, Dutch politicians have lost their faith in the US/UK capacity to bring an end to the occupation that is in any way beneficial to the Iraqi people. At the same time, a small opening was left open for possible future involvement of Dutch troops in peace keeping forces in Iraq, but no longer as part of a US occupation force. Whether there will ever be a UN force in Iraq is questionable. And whether the Dutch voters will support parties that propose to send troops into Iraq under UN command is equally questionable. The net result of the indifference of Dutch politicians with the majority opinion of the population has benefited no-one. Not the population, not the image of the Dutch government domestically or abroad, and certainly not the people who live in the shattered land the Dutch helped to occupy.
Wilbert van der Zeijden, researcher and campaigner for the Transnational Institute (www.tni.org)