Quotes of the day:
- “Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead, they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it. It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history.” (Patrick Cockburn, “I never thought the invasion would end happily. But this is a dangerous Mess,” Independent, 4/9/04)
- “[A] year after the fall of Saddam, the US faces the task of reconquering the country….Pan-Islam and Sunni-Shiite unity in the face of encroaching Western powers have been a political dream since the time of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the 19th century, but have usually proven futile. Donald Rumsfeld has finally made al-Afghani’s dream come true.” (Juan Cole, Informed Comment)
- “It has been the perfect storm,” an official with the occupation authority said. (Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid, “U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric In Risky Move,” Washington Post, 4/11/04)
Does anyone recall the arguments of worried critics of the impending invasion of Iraq early last spring? There was a fear — not realized (until this week) of block by block urban warfare in the streets of Baghdad. Iraq’s capital was to be an enormous trap Saddam Hussein had readied to spring on American troops. Casualties would be high; fighting would be bitter. It would be an urban “quagmire.”
Of course, no such thing happened. As the Americans approached, much of Saddam’s army, including elite units of the Republican Guard, possibly responding to promises that soldiers and officers alike would be respected and used in a new Iraq, simply evaporated. After a bloody firefight, the capital was “liberated”; the dictator disappeared; and Donald Rumsfeld back in the Pentagon was left chortling about the stupidity and timidity of his critics.
Now, on the year anniversary of that moment, the Marines find themselves fighting block by block through the streets of Fallujah; parts of Baghdad are up in arms; and cities in the south of the country are in the chaotic hands of the Mahdi Army and its supporters. One year later, that is, our troops in Iraq are living out the nightmares of the war critics — and Saddam Hussein can’t even be blamed, nor can the usual outside agitators (whether al-Qaedan or Iranian). In this case, the Bush administration can largely blame itself.
The Greeks would have known what to call this result of overweening pride and arrogance — hubris — though our War President doesn’t quite qualify as a tragic figure. Certainly, our neocon viceroy in Baghdad L. Paul Bremer had barely landed before, with the certainty that’s a Bush administration trait, he disbanded the Iraqi military, putting maybe 400,000 men, mostly still armed, on the street with no jobs, nothing to do, and families or themselves to feed. But Father knew best. It was our military in its permanent bases which was to ensure Iraq’s “safety” for an indefinitely prolonged future.
As the Toronto Sun‘s Eric Margolis comments in his latest column, “Bush’s Boy Blunder,” 4/11/04:
- “Any junior imperialist knows the first thing you do when you conquer someone’s country is to buy the loyalty of its existing armed forces, government and police. Otherwise you will have armies of angry, unemployed potential rebels roaming the streets — Iraq today being Exhibit A.”
From the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, they had taken only one lesson: That, as the last Great Power standing at what seemed like the end of hundreds of years of multi-power struggles, of history itself, and with a lead in the technology of applied deadly force that left the military budgets of any conceivable alliance of powers in the dust, they were free to do their damnedest. This was what they meant by freedom — ours to impose our will on them (name and location to be supplied later). They also came to believe that, for the globe’s only hyperpower, military power or the threat of it was the same as power itself; that only a kind of weakness, an imperial wimpiness in the years of Bush I and Clinton I and II, had prevented our ultimate success. Just to be sure, they picked out the weakest looking of their conceivable enemies — Iraq (not Iran or North Korea) — and whacked it good. And won in no time at all. Mission accomplished.
Only this sort of thinking could explain the blunt openness with which they acted to secure an Iraq to their liking — a country disarmed, helpless, run by men chosen by them (this was called “democracy”), economically privatized, and opened utterly to a set of corporate entities known to support them back in Washington. (Has anybody noticed, by the way, that no significant “reconstruction” contracts have been doled out even to our closest allies, only subcontracting crumbs; that the greatest “export” of the British — who turn out to be our Gurkhas — to Iraq seems to be mercenaries for hire?)
A year later, all this has, of course, turned nightmarish for them. A year later, whether they like it or not, care to acknowledge it or not, are in denial about it or not, they will have to come to grips somehow with what Martin Woollacott of the Guardian (4/9/04) calls “the essential meagerness of the military instrument.” (Now it is America that desperately needs rescuing) And it seems they will have to do so in the streets of Iraq.
If you want to check out the train of ham-handed mistakes that led to this moment, read the latest from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, “U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric In Risky Move” (4/11/04). And here’s how Robert Fisk of the Independent sizes up the present “military” situation (4/9/04):
- “So the marines smashed their way into Fallujah, killing more than 200 Iraqis, including women and children, while using tanks fire and helicopter gunships against gunmen in the Baghdad slums of Sadr City. It took a day or two to understand what new self-delusion had taken over the US military command. They were not facing a country-wide insurgency. They were liberating the Iraqis all over again! So, of course, this will mean a few more ‘major military operations.’ Sadr goes on the wanted list for a murder after an arrest warrant that no one told us about when it was mysteriously issued months ago — supposedly by an Iraqi judge — and General Mark Kimmitt, General Sanchez’s number two, told us confidently that Sadr’s militia will be ‘destroyed’…
- “And with each new collapse, we are told of new hope. Yesterday, General Sanchez was still talking about his ‘total confidence’ in his troops who were ‘clear in their purpose,’ how they were making ‘progress’ in Fallujah and how — these are his actual words, ‘a new dawn is approaching.’
- “Which is exactly what US commanders were saying exactly a year ago today — when US troops drove into the Iraqi capital and when Washington boasted of victory against the Beast of Baghdad.”
- “Al-Hayat reports that US Viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, rejects such negotiations [between Muqtada and members of the Governing Council], saying that Muqtada faces three possibilities: He can surrender, he can be arrested by US troops, or he can be killed resisting that arrest. I’d just suggest to Jerry that he be careful what he wishes for. Muqtada’s family has been standing up to that kind of bullying talk for decades, when it issued from the Baath, and they are not the surrendering kind. If the US arrests Muqtada, it can only do so by desecrating among the most sacred shrines in Islam. If you want to see waves of attacks on American interests from Beirut to Tehran and from Kabul to Manama, just go ahead. And once the US has Muqtada, that will simply provoke daily demonstrations in all the southern cities demanding his release. If the US kills Muqtada, his followers will likely go underground and wage a long-term guerrilla war against the US, of the sort Mr. Bremer has failed to put down in the Sunni Arab areas after a year of trying. My advice to him (not that he is good at taking advice) is, if [Council member Nadeer] Chaderji can get him a deal, to take it. Bremer will be back in Washington on July 1, but the Iraqis and the US troops and all the rest of us will have to live with the results of his failed policies and his arrogant obstinacy for the next decade.”
Under the pressure of recent events, as has been true over and over since 9/11, journalists, analysts and pundits are reaching for historical analogies that might help us grasp or even domesticate the rush of events. Certainly, the dominant one here in the last week has been the Vietnam War (pro or con). It’s an experience lodged deep in the American brain and so it’s not hard to think of those urban areas of Iraq as the “jungles” of Indochina or even of the desert as a “quagmire.” Our Secretary of State Colin Powell, for instance, appeared this week to state definitively that Iraq ”is not a swamp that is going to devour us.” (AP, 4/8/04) Okay, so he couldn’t bring himself to say “quagmire.” The point was made. Perhaps the most on-the-mark Vietnam analogy was made by Marilyn Young, historian of our Vietnam wars, who, even before Baghdad was taken, spoke of the developing Iraq experience as “Vietnam on crack cocaine.”
Among the more intriguing comparisons this week, though, were several to France’s Algerian experience and Israel’s Lebanese experience. James Bennet, possibly the best of the New York Times Middle Eastern reporters (and a vivid writer), had a piece on the Lebanon analogy, “The Parallels of Wars Past” (4/10/04), in which he wrote in part:
- “At a grander level, a level of global strategy and even myth-making, Iraq has echoes of Vietnam, which was presented by the White House as a test of American resolve against a rising international menace, Communism. But in terms of specific, stated objectives for the application of military force, Iraq looks more like [Israel's] Lebanon.
- “In Vietnam the Americans had a clear if shaky client, the South Vietnamese government, and an enemy, North Vietnam, with a strong political structure. In Lebanon the Israelis, like the Americans in Iraq, plunged into a vacuum — or more precisely into a maelstrom of political and religious rivalries.”
- “If anyone took the time to interest himself in the troubles of others, he encountered an ironic spectacle: the Americans have supplanted us in the headlines. Their air force carried out targeted assassinations, letting the chips of civilian casualties fly where they may as they lop off the arm of terror. In a confusion of historic images, the Iraqi quagmire was dipped into the Lebanese quicksand with a touch of Vietnam jungle… [T]he peak of the coordination between [Israel and the United States] is the current situation, in which for the last few years we have been witnessing a kind of Israelization — or Sharonization — of America: in its attitude toward the threats of terrorism, America is talking and behaving in Iraq like the last of the hawks on the Israeli General Staff. Instead of giving Jerusalem an example of political daring, Washington has become a huge version of the Israeli army’s ‘we’ll show them’ approach. Sharon’s visit there next week will look almost like the hosting of the aged mentor by his slightly maladroit disciple.”
Let me now offer my own homely analogy, quite divorced from history. Imagine the present situation as a kind of home-gardening experiment on a colossal scale. The Bush administration planted the seeds and in Iraq the crop has just come up. Yes, we went in talking about “liberation” and “democracy,” but our acts were those of dominators, and the men who undertook them from Bush and Cheney to Rumsfeld and Bremer were extremists determined to bend Iraqis and then the larger world to their will. Not surprisingly, they planted mutant seeds and got, I’m sorry to say, the crops they deserved. Iraq is now Bush’s garden, filled with terror and insurrection, kidnapping, insecurity, and extreme acts and oppressive thoughts of every sort. Our gardeners are about to reenter those lands and harvest the weed-infested soil using instruments of deadly destruction. We already know the long-term results. It might have been different.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece Naomi Klein wrote for the Nation magazine (4/19/04) just before the recent upsurge of resistance and violence which catches something of this — of the divide between our words and our deeds.
- “US occupation chief Paul Bremer… is… tackling the rise of anti-Americanism with his usual foresight. Baghdad is blanketed with inept psy-ops organs like Baghdad Now, filled with fawning articles about how Americans are teaching Iraqis about press freedom. ‘I never thought before that the Coalition could do a great thing for the Iraqi people,’ one trainee is quoted saying. ‘Now I can see it on my eyes what they are doing good things for my country and the accomplishment they made. I wish my people can see that, the way I see it.’
- “Unfortunately, the Iraqi people recently saw another version of press freedom when Bremer ordered US troops to shut down a newspaper run by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.”
The U.S. Military
It’s worth starting with the military simply because there the imperial math just doesn’t work. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has spent much of his watch determined to create a leaner, even meaner military force -less men (and women), more machines; most back-up military duties privatized and shipped offshore and into the hands of corporations like Halliburton and the $100 billion mercenary-for-hire business that’s burst on the scene in the last decade. At the same time, intervention (or “preventive war”) being the name of the game, he and his neocon associates Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith have had the urge to garrison ever more of the globe’s energy heartland and its environs. In fact, in or near that “arc of instability,” they’ve just about never seen a potential base they weren’t willing to go after (the latest being in Cyprus, according to the Asia Times on-line, 4/10/04). Throw in two wars that won’t end — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and you have what James Fallows in the March 2004 Atlantic calls “the hollow army” He does the math and it’s well worth reading.
- “It’s a slight exaggeration to say that the entire U.S. military is either in Iraq, returning from Iraq, or getting ready to go. But only slight. The basic problem is that an ever leaner, numerically smaller military is being asked to patrol an ever larger part of the world.
- “‘Unanticipated U.S. ground force requirements in postwar Iraq,’ a report for the Army War College noted late last year, ‘have stressed the U.S. Army to the breaking point,’ with more than a third of the Army’s total ‘end strength’ committed in and around Iraq.”
We all now know that Army General Eric Shinseki, who pointed out that an occupation of Iraq would have to involve hundreds of thousands of troops and was promptly laughed out of the service by the Pentagon’s civilians (followed by Army Secretary Thomas White, who had supported him) was right, to say the least. In perhaps the most intriguing piece of the week, conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that the military brass is now completely enraged at the Bush administration. Pointing out that today no large units are ready to go to Iraq, he wrote in part (“Where Does the U.S. Find More Troops,” Houston Chronicle, 4/8/04):
- “Adhering to the principle of civilian control…, the generals have not publicly expressed their opinion that Shinseki was much closer to the truth than Wolfowitz. However, the widely respected [Centcom commander Gen. John] Abizaid made clear Monday that he was not going to be the fall guy if conditions in Iraq further deteriorate. If commanders want more troops to fulfill their mission, he will ask for them…
- “The uniformed military does not speak out publicly, but the generals are outraged. A former national security official who held high office in previous Republican administrations considers the relationship at the Pentagon between civilians and the military as worse than at any time in his long career…
- “Many [top generals] confide that they will not cast their normal Republican votes on Nov. 2. They cannot bring themselves to vote for John Kerry… But these generals say they are unable to vote for Don Rumsfeld’s boss, and so will not vote at all.”
Iraqi police, paramilitaries, and military
The Bremer plan was essentially to replace the Iraqi military of 400,000 with a lightly armed, border-patrolling, insurrection-quelling force of 40,000 aided by “civil defense” forces and a new police force. We were to train them all, keep them under our control, turn the policing of Iraq’s cities over to some combination of them, and then withdraw our forces into “enduring camps” on the peripheries of or beyond the cities, thus putting an “Iraqi face” on occupation power. In the wake of last week, it’s clear that this is a failed strategy on every count.
As Karl Vick and Sewell Chan recently wrote in the Washington Post (“U.S. Troops Battle to Retake Cities,” 4/10/04)
- “Delays and questions about the training and equipping of Iraqi police and other security forces now appear secondary to basic questions of loyalty… Iraqi police fought beside [the] Mahdi Army near Najaf earlier in the week, and were cooperating with the militia in Najaf and Kut. Several checkpoints along a main highway through southern Iraq were deserted Friday, with pictures of Sadr plastered on an empty pillbox.”
Perhaps more ominously, in terms of Iraqi infiltration of the Coalition Provisional Authority itself, Vick and Chan write:
- “And in an incident that underscored the danger that a broad-based popular insurrection might pose to the occupation, military officials said they had discovered a roadside bomb buried inside the Green Zone, the tightly protected Baghdad compound where the U.S.-led occupation authority is based. The bomb was found at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in front of the Baghdad convention center, planted in an area where only government and military vehicles are allowed. It was safely detonated by ordnance experts while the top U.S. field commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, gave a news conference inside, according to a senior military official.”
- “A battalion of the new Iraqi army refused to go to Fallujah earlier this week to support U.S. Marines battling for control of the city, senior U.S. Army officers here said, disclosing an incident that is casting new doubt on U.S. plans to transfer security matters to Iraqi forces. It was the first time U.S. commanders had sought to involve the postwar Iraqi army in major combat operations, and the battalion’s refusal came as large parts of Iraqi security forces have stopped carrying out their duties…
- “[U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the official overseeing the development of Iraqi security forces] Eaton said members of the battalion insisted during the ensuing discussions: ‘We did not sign up to fight Iraqis.’ He declined to characterize the incident as a mutiny, but rather called it ‘a command failure.’”
One of the options supposedly being pursued by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, now in Baghdad, in helping the U.S. create a governing body for a “sovereign Iraq” has been the “expansion” of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Unfortunately, for him and the Americans, under the pressure of recent events, the Council seems to be shrinking instead. Alissa J. Rubin of the Los Angeles Times (4/10/04) quoted Marina Ottaway, a “democracy expert” with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying, “The Governing Council is falling apart, so the hope of the Bush administration to have even a symbolic transition looks remote, especially because they won’t have anybody to whom to transfer sovereignty.”
Juan Cole has vividly described the startling process this way:
- “Not only has what many Iraqis call ‘the puppet council’ taken a stand against Bush administration tactics in Iraq, but individual members are peeling off. Shiite Marsh Arab leader Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi suspended his membership in the council on Friday. A Sunni member, Ghazi al-Yawir, has threatened to resign if a negotiated settlement of the Fallujah conflict cannot be found. Old-time Sunni nationalist leader Adnan Pachachi thundered on al-Arabiya television, ‘It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal.’ For him to go on an Arab satellite station much hated by Donald Rumsfeld and denounce the very people who appointed him to the IGC is a clear act of defiance. There are rumors that many of the 25 Governing Council members have fled abroad, fearful of assassination because of their association with the Americans. The ones who are left appear on the verge of resigning.
- “This looks to me like an incipient collapse of the US government of Iraq. Beyond the IGC, the bureaucracy is protesting. Many government workers in the ministries are on strike and refusing to show up for work, according to ash-Sharq al-Awsat. Without Iraqis willing to serve in the Iraqi government, the US would be forced to rule the country militarily and by main force. Its legitimacy appears to be dwindling fast… Part of what caused this incipient collapse of the US-appointed Iraqi government is that the US military decided to besiege the entire city of Fallujah to get at insurgents who killed 4 US Blackwater mercenaries last week, even though reports indicated that the guerrillas left the city after the killings.”
This surely falls under the rubric: Be careful what you wish for — and should be considered delamination point 3.
The Japanese, South Koreans, and Ukrainians have withdrawn to their bases and shut themselves in. Like many others in our “coalition,” they never wanted or expected to fight in the first place. The new Spanish government will evidently pull its troops out as soon as it takes power and various small contributors to our ragtag alliance of mini-forces are now announcing that they will either pull out or not send more forces when their present contingents are scheduled to come home. Include in this group, Thailand, Singapore, Kazakhstan, and Norway.
In the meantime, the turn to the kidnapping of foreigners has only created more problems. Three Japanese — none supporters of the U.S. occupation (and one, 18 year old Noriaki Imai, who went to Iraq to study the effects of depleted uranium and is connected to a group that translates Tomdispatch into Japanese) — were, for instance, threatened with death just as Dick Cheney was arriving in Japan to begin an Asian trip bucking up the “allies.” The Koizumi government was thrown into immediate crisis. Evidently, these three are to be released, but the danger to all foreigners in Iraq — and so to governments elsewhere, not to speak of any semblance of “reconstruction” whatsoever — is now severe.
The leaders of allies with bigger fish to fry — Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Poland — have, in some cases shakily, recommitted their forces to Iraq. But from South Korea and Japan to Italy, populations that were generally against the deployments are restive. As with Spain, the Iraq occupation may in the long run change the governing map across the globe – and not in directions the Bush administration is going to care for either. In fact, it may change the map in Washington itself. For a full rundown on the fraying allies — delamination point four — check out: Ewen MacAskill’s Guardian piece, “A coalition showing signs of fracture,” 4/9/04.
Meanwhile back in Washington -think of it as delamination point five — the fear seems to be growing that, thanks to some version of the Tet Effect, the media and the public may be slowly beginning to peel away. An anonymous Republican strategist was, for instance, quoted in the Washington Post (Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei, 4/10/04) as saying, “[The President] should restate what we’re doing over there. He needs to provide a bigger picture to give voters more confidence that we know where we’re going.”
Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that “Bush is ‘absolutely’ losing the public at a quickening pace. He said people are flooding him with pleas ‘to get us out of there.’” Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger added, “We have too much at stake in Iraq to lose the American people.” And Republican Senator Chuck Hagel said, “In both parties, members are concerned. There’s not abject panic, but there’s deep concern, and there should be.”
Maybe a little panic is in order as well.
The members of both parties in Washington, with rare exceptions like Senator Robert Byrd, are still in essential denial over what’s happening in Iraq. They remain if not eager at least determined to “stay the course” — with Democrats like Senator Biden and evidently John Kerry as well calling for more American troops to be sent in (though who knows where they would scrounge up such forces). All you have to do is watch the various officials and former officials, generals and former generals, journalists and pundits parading onto Charlie Rose, CNN, Nightline, the Lehrer News Hour and every other show around, to realize just how out of touch official Washington still is with the Great Delamination that Iraq is becoming. Everyone is for being militarily “firm” but — naturally — “judicious” and “precise” in our military actions, since you don’t want to appear “weak,” but you also don’t want to turn more Iraqis against us. (Easy for them to say.) I keep thinking, what “course” exactly is it we’re “staying”? Whatever’s going on in Iraq, it isn’t, I suspect, a “course” at all and the people who will be “staying” are exactly the people who have made such a mess of things. Why should we expect better now?
According to the Washington Post report quoted above, “What administration officials must avoid, according to members of both parties, is that a continuation of chaos and resistance in Iraq leads to a reassessment of the direction of U.S. policy in Iraq by the public — as happened during the Vietnam War. If that happens, it could undermine overall confidence in the president on the issue of terrorism.”
Oh gosh and golly, and that would be a shame.
Don’t collapse, just relax
Here’s a confidence report on our War President facing the worst crisis of his administration. On Thursday, soon after his national security advisor testified before the 9/11 commission, while the bitter fighting continued in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, he took representatives of organizations like Quail Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and the National Rifle Association on a tour of his ranch in a bid to win the war on birds (and the votes of hunters). Friday, he headed for the water, where, while being filmed with the host of the Outdoor Life Network program Fishing with Roland Martin, he caught an impressive 4 pound bass. (“‘The president was very relaxed,’ Martin said… ‘He didn’t really talk about politics at all. He was just relieved to have a minute to fish.”)
Saturday — give the guy credit — he took one for the team and cancelled his next fishing outing with Martin. (“I’ve been busy. All these crises.”). Now, I happen to like fishing myself — though I don’t watch Martin’s show and I’m your basic twice a year party-boat type guy — but I’m with Joshua Marshall of the talkingpointsmemo.com website, who writes), “Vacation gibes are usually unfair. But with the situation in Iraq so critical, shouldn’t the president be at the White House? It’s a full-time job, comes with a decent salary.”
Dana Milbank and Robin Wright of the Washington Post offered the following summary of our President in war and peace (4/9/04):
- “This is Bush’s 33rd visit to his ranch since becoming president. He has spent all or part of 233 days on his Texas ranch since taking office, according to a tally by CBS News. Adding his 78 visits to Camp David and his five visits to Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush has spent all or part of 500 days in office at one of his three retreats, or more than 40 percent of his presidency.”
No kidding. I keep hearing that we must “stay the course,” but honestly, could not staying the course be worse? If we didn’t stay the course, didn’t keep those permanent bases, didn’t want to control the Middle East and its energy resources forever, maybe we could actually help reconstruct Iraq.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]