Fly Me to the Moon

Fly me to Iraq


Eight American soldiers have died (AFP, 1/25/04) and a number more have been wounded in the last 24 hours while, as I write, the news is coming in that the second helicopter to go down in 72 hours has just dropped into the Tigris River with two American soldiers aboard. In the carnage of the last couple of days in the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad, numerous Iraqi passersby have died or been wounded while a bus of cleaning women heading for an American base was attacked by gunmen who murdered four cleaning ladies, a grim, cruel warning to Iraqis in any way associated with the occupation, even those needing to do so to make the most modest of livings. Though it’s been little written about, I’ve heard estimates of somewhere upwards of 600 Iraqi policemen, caught between the occupation and the ragtag insurgency, who have been killed over the last months.


In some sense, as the situation in Iraq becomes murkier and more dangerous, it also becomes clearer. In the north, Kurdish parties are demanding an autonomy that verges on independence (which might, in turn, cause neighboring states to intervene) as well as control over the oil region of Kirkuk, something other Iraqis are unlikely to cede willingly. In the center of the country, Sunni Iraq and the capital, where the occupation is ever more harshly enforced, a low-level insurgency now rages. In the majority Shiite south, a conservative Ayatollah with powerful support insists on a democratic election which will certainly deliver the country into the hands of a possibly weak Shiite government. And yet, nothing is faintly this simple. Iraq doesn’t really divide up neatly into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite areas (even forgetting other minorities); and many in all regions of the country clearly prefer to think of themselves as Iraqis first. Still, one can see here the makings of a truly explosive situation.


Last week, according to the reliable Knight-Ridder team of Warren Stroebel and Jonathan Landay (1/21/04), the CIA issued a warning: “[T]he country may be on a path to civil war, current and former U.S. officials said Wednesday, starkly contradicting the upbeat assessment that President Bush gave in his State of the Union address.” (Do I detect a tad of payback politics here as well?)


In Sunday’s New York Times “Week in Review” section in a piece by Elisabeth Bumiller (who is so far inside the White House she’s practically on staff), I noted the following telling little sentence (“The President Makes Danger His Campaign Theme,” 1/25): “It is no surprise that the biggest fear of the current White House, short of another terrorist attack, is that Iraq will implode before the election.”


And so, while David Kay resigns his leadership of the team in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction and announces that they are undoubtedly nonexistent, L. Paul Bremer and the Bush foreign policy team rush to the UN, reconsider their plans for handing over sovereignty in Iraq, and generally twist madly in the breeze, trying to figure out how to deal with Shiite Ayatollah Sistani’s call for actual democratic elections in Iraq, while still somehow securing an agreement to keep American troops in Iraq for years, ensuring that the economy remains “open” to the Halliburtons of our world, and installing someone in Baghdad not likely to abrogate all this. Stay tuned, folks…


As Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian last week (“Why the US is running scared of elections in Iraq,” 1/19):


“At least in Iowa, the Democratic party caucuses involve elections. Not in the US plan for Iraq. The US is proposing that ‘notables’ in each province attend these caucuses to appoint an assembly which would select a government. Not surprisingly, the Shia leadership smells a rat. After generations of being excluded from power, first by the British occupiers in 1920, and then by successive Sunni governments up to the one led by Saddam, they are angry.”


Ehsan Ahrari of the Asia Times asks (“When Sistani speaks, Bush listens,” 1/17):


“Who is the most powerful man in Iraq today? Not L Paul Bremer, the US viceroy of Iraq, not even Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the coalition forces. It is that quiet Shi’ite cleric who is seldom seen in public, and who does not grant any interviews, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. He communicates with his followers through written edicts (fatwas), and everyone, including the US president, listens…


“Hojatul Islam Ali Abdulhakim Alsafi, the second most senior cleric of Iraq, in a letter to President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has adopted a threatening tone by stating that their refusal to let the Iraqis chose their own institutions would drag their countries into a battle they would lose. Needless to say, Alsafi was saying what Sistani wasn’t saying directly and explicitly, but really meant to say.”


The Washington Post‘s superb correspondent in Iraq Anthony Shadid reports (1/23) that recently Sistani


“deemed a U.S. plan for the country’s political transition unacceptable in ‘its totality and its details.’… The depth of the objections suggested a widening gulf between compromises U.S. officials are willing to consider and the demands of a man who is perhaps Iraq‘s most powerful figure…


“The confrontation between the Bush administration and Sistani, who has not appeared in public in nearly a year, has created an enduring irony for the U.S. occupation, with the conservative clergy emerging as the most vocal constituency pressing for democratic elections. Sistani’s call has resonated among the long-repressed Shiites, whose gratitude following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April has given way to mounting frustration over joblessness and to distrust of U.S. plans… [Sistani spokesman] Musawi also warned that the clergy would be sensitive to U.S. or British pressure and suggested that Sistani would retain the right to veto any alternative the [visiting UN] team proposed.”


The Sistani veto. We’re certainly seeing the formation of a new system in Iraq — just as the Busheviks once claimed they fervently wanted.


The most vivid description of this administration’s idea of “democracy” and its elaborate plan for caucuses meant to put its own Iraqis in power for 17 months before any election even theoretically need occur, can be found in a piece by the remarkable Naomi Klein in the Toronto Globe and Mail in which she writes in part (but do read the whole piece, posted on ZNet):


“Iraqi sovereignty will be established by appointees appointing appointees to select appointees to select appointees. Add to that the fact that Mr. Bremer was appointed to his post by President Bush and that Mr. Bush was appointed to his by the U.S. Supreme Court, and you have the glorious new democratic tradition of the appointocracy: rule by appointee’s appointee’s appointees’ appointees’ appointees’ selectees.”


By the way, while considering the present carnage in Iraq, here’s an instant myth that deserves to be shot down: The Vietnam analogy doesn’t apply to Iraq because American casualties there are so relatively modest. After all, 58,000 American died in Vietnam. In contrast, R. Jeffrey Smith in the San Francisco Chronicle offers this startling comparison (“US toll in Iraq over 500,” 1/18):


“The U.S. military death toll after 10 months of engagement in Iraq surpassed 500 this weekend, roughly matching the number of U.S. military personnel who died in the first four years of the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam.”


So it’s true that Vietnam doesn’t apply, just not in the ways we imagined.


Oh yes, and in the overstretched-military category, about a week ago I mentioned rumors I had seen about retired reservists being called up. The following interesting e-letter came in from a reader:


“RE: your comment ‘and according to the Albany Times Union, rumors are circulating that the military may soon start calling up retired reservists.’ I am a retired medical corps reservist and am in the process of being called up. The paper work is done and I am waiting for the time to leave.”


If this isn’t a limited and unfair “draft” for a desperately overstretched military, I don’t know what is.


Fly me to my stomach


Is there a UN program the Bush administration wouldn’t like to eliminate, an international effort it wouldn’t like to shoot down, or a treaty it wouldn’t like to ditch? I think not. This administration has given new meaning to former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” anti-drug campaign. At the very moment that the administration has turned to the UN for some help in salvaging its Iraq wreck (but not too much help please, just get that Ayatollah off our back), it managed this week to toss a monkey wrench into the works on the least controversial of international efforts — not a curb on global warming or biological weapons or land mines, but an attempt to cut down on one of the great international killers, sugar.


According to Reuters, “The United States, where two-thirds of adults are overweight, succeeded Tuesday in stalling a global plan [by the World Health Organization] to fight an obesity epidemic.” WHO was about to launch a global campaign against sugar’s role in obesity, but it hardly had turned the key in the motor when the American Hummer crushed it (with the help of a couple of sugar-producing islands, Russia, South Korea and India).


Why? Well, after pointing out that we are the globe’s major sugar junkies (“Americans, who comprise only 5% of the world’s population, account for a whopping 33% of total global sugar consumption – over 10 million tons annually. According to the WHO, over half of Americans are overweight and 31% — 38.8 million people — are obese. Obesity rates in children have risen 50% in recent years”), Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis explains not just how overconsumption of sugar leads to cardiovascular disorders and diabetes, but why the WHO campaign was put on hold (“Overweight America is hooked on sugar,” 1/25):


“The real reason for the administration’s preposterous position is that the powerful U.S. sugar industry is one of its biggest financial backers, and a major power in the key electoral state of Florida. The sugar industry is also one of Washington’s most successful lobby groups and a huge contributor to congressmen and senators of both parties.


“The result: the federal government subsidizes U.S. sugar producers to the tune of $1.4 billion US annually. Import restrictions protect them from foreign competition and keep domestic sugar prices three or four times higher than world prices. Sugar remains the nation’s most heavily subsidized crop at almost $500 per acre per annum.”


Sugar in outer space anyone?


Pardoning the turkeys


Just because I can’t help it, let me end by recommending a new piece by Arundhati Roy, who has been one of the freshest voices on planet Earth since 9/11. She’s got an essay in the 2/9/04 Nation magazine on the “New Imperialism,” or how an empire is to be run in this post-modern age and offers the following passage on the far less messy “New Racism” that goes with it.


“The best allegory for New Racism is the tradition of ‘turkey pardoning’ in the United States. Every year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the US President with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year, in a show of ceremonial magnanimity, the President spares that particular bird (and eats another one). After receiving the presidential pardon, the Chosen One is sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia to live out its natural life. The rest of the 50 million turkeys raised for Thanksgiving are slaughtered and eaten on Thanksgiving Day. ConAgra Foods, the company that has won the Presidential Turkey contract, says it trains the lucky birds to be sociable, to interact with dignitaries, school children and the press. (Soon they’ll even speak English!)


“That’s how New Racism in the corporate era works. A few carefully bred turkeys–the local elites of various countries, a community of wealthy immigrants, investment bankers, the occasional Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, some singers, some writers (like myself)–are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park. The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut, and die of AIDS. Basically they’re for the pot. But the Fortunate Fowls in Frying Pan Park are doing fine. Some of them even work for the IMF and the WTO–so who can accuse those organizations of being antiturkey? Some serve as board members on the Turkey Choosing Committee–so who can say that turkeys are against Thanksgiving? They participate in it! Who can say the poor are anti-corporate globalization? There’s a stampede to get into Frying Pan Park. So what if most perish on the way?”


[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.]

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