Just Disconnect

Small world:You would think, especially after the capture of Saddam, that Rumsfeld could pack it in, go out on top and settle down in that ranch in Taos, N.M., that he co-owns with, among others, Dan Rather.” (From a Time magazine year-end portrait of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by Michael Duffy and Mark Thompson)


Even smaller world:Firms, Which Together Include Former Heads of the NSC [National Security Council], CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], Combine Expertise to Offer Clients Powerful Combination of Business Building Services and Capital… Civitas Group llc, a homeland security consultancy, and Paladin Capital Group, a private equity investment firm, today announced a strategic alliance. Civitas (which includes former National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, leading Republican strategist and Co-Chair Charles R. Black, Jr., and security industry veteran Michael J. Hershman) and Paladin (which includes former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former NSA Director Kenneth A. Minihan, and private equity veteran Michael R. Steed) will identify and seek to jointly serve emerging companies with new technologies that have a direct application to homeland security… ‘Many members of our respective firms have worked together, in and out of government, for more than five Administrations,’ noted Civitas Co-Chairman Berger. ‘We’re also united by our goal of helping America protect against future terrorist attacks.’” (Financial Services News, 12/9)


One tiny world: “[As spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman,] Alisa Harrison has worked tirelessly the last two weeks to spread the message that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is not a risk to American consumers… For her, it’s a familiar message. Before joining the department, Ms. Harrison was director of public relations for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the beef industry’s largest trade group, where she battled government food safety efforts…and sent out press releases with titles like ‘Mad Cow Disease Not a Problem in the U.S.’


“…Right now you’d have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate. Dale Moore, Ms. Veneman’s chief of staff, was previously the chief lobbyist for the cattlemen’s association. Other veterans of that group have high-ranking jobs at the department, as do former meat-packing executives and a former president of the National Pork Producers Council.” (Eric Schlosser, “The Cow Jumped Over the U.S.D.A.,” New York Times, 1/2/04)


One small bite:President Bush shot quail on a hunting trip yesterday but ate beef, and encouraged Americans to do the same despite concern over mad cow disease. ‘I think I shot five,’ Bush told reporters at Brooks County Airport after returning from the hunt with his father on a dusty, desolate stretch of land in southern Texas. The president said Americans should feel comfortable eating beef while Agriculture Department officials try to prevent any mad cow outbreak after an infected Holstein was found in Washington state.” (Deb Riechmann, “Bush encourages US to eat beef despite mad cow concerns,” Boston Globe, 1/2/04)


One world (or how to create an imperial legion): “As Bush was ramping up the Iraq war last winter, Canadian military officials were startled to discover Pentagon recruiters roaming through their nation’s native population reserves trying to persuade Inuit and others to enlist in the U.S. military. The Americans started cropping up on the Atlantic Coast in Quebec, in the Sault Sainte Marie area of Ontario, and in Western Canada. A Canadian Defense Ministries report said the U.S. claimed that under the 1794 Jay Treaty it had the right to recruit Canadian native inhabitants for its military because aboriginal Canadians held dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship.” (James Ridgeway, “Uncle Sam Wants You, Eh?,” Village Voice, 12/24-30/03)


Just connect — the kingdom of looting


It’s a small world — wasn’t that Disney’s theme-park dream? And it is kind of dreamy when you think about it, just how small it is. In Washington, it’s like a small village where everyone knows everyone knows everyone — and these days, are any of them not doing business with and/or relaxing with each other?


Meanwhile in the ever-less-frozen north, there was Uncle Sam, representative of a global-warming nation, scouring the snowdrifts for Inuit to send off to Iraq to protect our oil lifeline and do their small bit to melt their part of the planet. Linkages, it’s so thrilling! (James Ridgeway of the Village Voice does report that the Canadians finally insisted our recruiters stop patrolling their territories. Then again, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Mongolia do beckon.)


For those of you curious about how Washington connections sort themselves out in the small world of offshore planning that passes for the occupation of Iraq, two pieces were published during my holiday break that shouldn’t be missed. In the Nation magazine Naomi Klein wrote about Rebuilding Iraq 2, “a gathering of 400 businesspeople itching to get a piece of the Iraqi reconstruction action.” It was held not in Iraq, of course, but in Arlington, Virginia. (How about, for instance, purchasing a garbage can, available in stylish Hunter Green, Fortuneberry Purple and Windswept Copper, capable of “containing” a C4 plastic explosives blast? It’s the perfect thing, by the way, to put right next to your Hummer in that oversized garage of yours.)


Klein comments (“Risky Business,” 1/5/04):


“As Iraqis protest layoffs at state agencies and make increasingly vocal demands for general elections, it’s becoming clear that the White House’s prewar conviction that Iraqis would welcome the transformation of their country into a free-market dream state may have been just as off-target as its prediction that US soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy. I mention to one delegate [attending Rebuilding Iraq2] that fear seems to be dampening the capitalist spirit. ‘The best time to invest is when there is still blood on the ground,’ he assures me. ‘Will you be going to Iraq?’ I ask. ‘Me? No, I couldn’t do that to my family.’”


It turns out, however, that the fly — think not housefly but monstrous mutation here — in the ointment is insurance. Even L. Paul Bremer’s former company, Marsh & McLennan, which sells “political risk, expropriation and terrorism insurance,” won’t go to bat for the Viceroy of Baghdad. So the Bush administration, in the form of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), has just kicked in.


“Who bails out OPIC?” Klein asks Michael Lempres, VP of insurance at OPIC. “‘In theory,’ he says, ‘the US Treasury stands behind us.’ That means the US taxpayer. Yes, them again: The same people who have already paid Halliburton, Bechtel et al. to make a killing on Iraq’s reconstruction would have to pay these companies again, this time in compensation for their losses. While the enormous profits being made in Iraq are strictly private, it turns out that the entire risk is being shouldered by the public.”


She concludes that Iraq‘s reconstruction is a “vast protection racket, a neocon New Deal” — and what a phrase that is. The reconstruction of Iraq is, in a sense, a vast body (of cash) topped by a pinhead, and Klein’s descriptions of the way the pasha, or rather representative, of Halliburton KBR at the conference lorded it over various scrabbling representatives of foreign and Iraqi companies trying to get tiny scraps of the reconstruction pie tells you all you need to know.


To grasp just how much of a con (as well as neocon) game reconstruction is, however, you should turn to Herbert Docena’s on-the-spot report for Asia Times on-line ( Iraq reconstruction’s bottom-line):


“This war to liberate Iraq was never about liberating the Iraqis. Unsurprisingly then, the reconstruction effort is also not about reconstruction. In this occupation, the US and its allies’ primary goal is not to rebuild what they have destroyed; it’s to make a fast buck. Contractors like Bechtel and KBR are assured of getting paid no matter what; that the power plants will eventually be constructed is just incidental…


“The US and its contractors are not even trying, for a simple reason: it’s not the point. To assume that they are striving, but are merely failing because of factors beyond their control, is to presuppose that there is an earnest effort to succeed. There isn’t. If there were, there should have been a coherent plan and process in which the welfare of the Iraqis — and not of the corporations — actually comes first….


“As the reconstruction process continues to disillusion Iraqis, the myth that the US is here to help is also steadily collapsing. With no light, no gasoline and no paychecks, more and more Iraqis are no longer just cursing the darkness. ‘If you want to live in peace, Americans, give us our salary,’ warned Hassim, the Iraqi protesting at the gates of the Coalition Provisional Authority. ‘If you do not, next time we’ll come back with weapons.’”


Just disconnect — the kingdom of lies


Not surprisingly, for those following events in Iraq these last months, American troops continue to die at a steady rate — Saddam or no Saddam — a constant, if low-level (unless they’re your kids), drip, drip, drip of casualties. Friday, a helicopter was downed near Falluja with one death reported; Saturday, an American base near Balad north of Baghdad was mortared with another death and several casualties, and a roadside bomb in Baghdad killed two more soldiers in a Humvee. American deaths have averaged nearly one a day since Saddam’s capture.


In fact, if you compare the last four months to the previous four, they’ve actually doubled; while the wounded have more than doubled in the same period. (Vernon Loeb, “In Iraq, Pace of U.S. Casualties Has Accelerated,” Washington Post, 12/27) Since Christmas, American casualties seem to be on the rise again — and that doesn’t even count the South Korean who was shot last week, or the Bulgarians and Thais who died in the Karbala suicide bombings, or the Poles wounded in an ambush, or the many Iraqis who die, uncounted, from myriad causes. (Two dozen Bulgarian soldiers destined to be sent to Iraq have just refused to go.) Throw in endless gas lines, absent electricity, massive unemployment, incipient inter-ethnic and religious strife, various problems of your choosing, and an occupation force getting ever more brutal as it feels the sting of an insurgency that won’t end, and you have the makings of another year in hell — and endless trouble for the Bush administration.


Iraq is the great election challenge for them. However, the realities of that devastated country, of its reconstruction or lack of it, of the casualties and the insurgency may matter little if news of it can somehow be made ordinary and banished from front pages and the nightly news. (This, as you might have noticed, has happened for the last week-plus, thanks to color-coded-heightened-alerts-that-shouldn’t-be-taken-seriously, tales-of-airline-terror-that-hasn’t-been, flights-that-were-cancelled-for-unknown-reasons, and preparations-for-whatever-kinds-of-arriving-terrorists, plus solemn punditry on all of the above, monopolizing news headlines and perhaps the first ten minutes of every prime-time news show I’ve caught). While throwing up endless news smoke-screens, can the Bush men manage a “withdrawal” that turns what passes for the reins of power over to some Iraqis, any Iraqis, chosen somehow, but not by means of a national election? Can they then reestablish the Green Zone as a vast “embassy” to a sovereign government, send ever more native troops into battle, and hunker down at our sprawling bases in-country to wait out November 2004?


From the administration’s point of view, it may be less a matter of bringing our troops home than bringing the press and TV journalists home. Juan Cole at his Informed Consent website made this point over the holidays, while discussing Shiite Ayatollah Sistani’s insistence on democratic elections as part of the process of turning over of sovereignty:


“Sistani’s refusal to budge poses a severe problem for the US, which wants now to move quickly to an “Afghanistan” model, hold an American-invented Iraqi ‘Loya Jirga’ or council of hand-picked notables, “elect” a transitional government, and turn over sovereignty to it, as they did to Karzai in Afghanistan. This plan appears to derive from despair that the US will actually be able to administer Iraq for very much longer, given Iraqi sullenness about the occupation, and from a desire of the Bush administration to bring home the reporters, if not the troops, well before the November 2004 elections. Karl Rove probably figures that the US press simply won’t cover Iraq as intensively if the US isn’t running it, just as they don’t cover Afghanistan any more now that Karzai is in charge (even though the US has 10,000 troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan). US journalism is dedicated to the principle that the American public doesn’t want to read about anything that is in the least bit distant, foreign, or hard to understand. The existence of the Coalition Provisional Authority creates the illusion that Iraq is part of the US beat for journalists; renaming it ‘the US embassy in Iraq,’ Bush hopes, will dissolve that illusion. Sistani is therefore standing in the way of a smooth political progression that has enormous import for the next US election.”


To some extent, Rove et. al. may already be succeeding. The daily casualties seem slowly to be making their way — at least in my hometown paper — toward the inside pages where they will be fodder for news junkies. Of course, the divergence between what others in the world know as news and the news we get has long been a phenomenon. In his eighth year writing a “media follies” round-up for the Working for Change website, Geov Parrish comments in passing that “every year… the gulf between what people in this country and those elsewhere in the world are told about the same events has continued to widen.”


Here’s a tiny test. Just consider the beginning of part of a humdrum Jan. 3 Iraq piece by John Burns of the New York Times on a U.S. raid on a Sunni mosque:


“In the raid in Baghdad on Thursday that led to the arrests of the Iraqis, many of them Muslim clerics, American troops operating behind an advance party of Iraqi civil defense and police units stormed into the Ibn Taimiya mosque… a stronghold of the Salafist school of Islam, a hard-line, back-to-basics sect that includes Osama bin Laden among its proselytizers.


“The United States military command has said often that its policy is to avoid entering mosques whenever possible, so as not to inflame religious feelings. But the raid set off a firestorm among the Sunni Muslims who have been Saddam Hussein’s strongest supporters and the fount of the insurgency. After the 1 p.m. prayers on Friday, clerics led a large crowd of worshipers into the mosque’s courtyard for choruses of contempt for America and denunciations of American troops they accused of tearing up Korans, smashing wooden doors in the sanctuary and otherwise ‘desecrating’ Islam. The American command denied the allegations.”


Here, on the other hand, is how Luke Harding of the British Guardian begins his Jan. 3 report on the same raid:


“Surrounded by upturned chairs and an abandoned turban, Sabah Al-Kaisey surveyed his ransacked office yesterday. The American troops who burst into his mosque on Thursday morning had smashed down the front gate, broken the air conditioners and ripped up the carpets. They had also thrown several Korans on the floor and allegedly punched the man giving the call to prayer in the face. ‘They even took our nuts,’ said Mr Kaisey yesterday, opening the door of the mosque’s empty fridge.”


Read them both and see what you think. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the mosque was indeed filled the weapons of insurgency, nonetheless the effect of the two stories is certainly quite different as is the impression they give of U.S. tactics in Iraq. If you don’t grasp the impact of such American actions — of angry, undoubtedly nervous American troops bursting into a holy place and ripping it up (think: defilement) — you’re not going to be able to imagine the kinds of resistance such actions are likely to arouse and then how will you make sense of Iraq? I hate to mention Vietnam…


[continue to part 2]

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