More than half a million deaths, an army trapped in the largest military debacle since Vietnam, a Middle East policy already buried in the sands of Mesopotamia – and still George W Bush is in denial. How does he do it? How does he persuade himself – as he apparently did in Amman yesterday – that the United States will stay in Iraq “until the job is complete”? The “job” – Washington‘s project to reshape the Middle East in its own and Israel‘s image – is long dead, its very neoconservative originators disavowing their hopeless political aims and blaming Bush, along with the Iraqis of course, for their disaster.
History’s “deniers” are many – and all subject to the same folly: faced with overwhelming evidence of catastrophe, they take refuge in fantasy, dismissing evidence of collapse as a symptom of some short-term setback, clinging to the idea that as long as their generals promise victory – or because they have themselves so often promised victory – that fate will be kind. George W Bush – or Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara for that matter – need not feel alone. The Middle East has produced these fantasists by the bucketful over past decades.
In 1967, Egyptian president Gamel Abdul Nasser insisted his country was winning the Six Day War hours after the Israelis had destroyed the entire Egyptian air force on the ground. President Carter was extolling the Shah’s Iran as “an island of stability in the region” only days before Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution brought down his regime. President Leonid Brezhnev declared a Soviet victory in Afghanistan when Russian troops were being driven from their fire bases in Nangahar and Kandahar provinces by Osama bin Laden and his fighters.
And was it not Saddam Hussein who promised the “mother of all battles” for Kuwait before the great Iraqi retreat in 1991? And was it not Saddam again who predicted a US defeat in the sands of Iraq in 2003? Saddam’s loyal acolyte, Mohamed el-Sahaf, would fantasise about the number of American soldiers who would die in the desert; George W Bush let it be known that he sometimes slipped out of White House staff meetings to watch Sahaf’s preposterous performance and laugh at the fantasies of Iraq’s minister of information.
So who is laughing at Bush now? Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, almost as loyal a retainer to Bush as Sahaf was to Saddam, receives the same false praise from the American president that Nasser and Brezhnev once lavished upon their generals. “I appreciate the courage you show during these difficult times as you lead your country,” Bush tells Maliki. “He’s the right guy for Iraq,” he tells us. And the Iraqi Prime Minister who hides in the US-fortified “Green Zone” – was ever a crusader fortress so aptly named? – announces that “there is no problem”. Power must be more quickly transferred to Maliki, we were informed yesterday. Why? Because that will save Iraq? Or because this will allow America to claim, as it did when it decided to allow the South Vietnamese army to fight on its own against Hanoi, that Washington is not to blame for the debacle that follows? “One of his frustrations with me is that he believes that we’ve been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people.” Or so Bush says. “He doesn’t have the capacity to respond. So we want to accelerate that capacity.” But how can Maliki have any “capacity” at all when he rules only a few square miles of central Baghdad and a clutch of rotting ex-Baathist palaces?
About the only truthful statement uttered in Amman yesterday was Bush’s remark that “there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq [but] this business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.” Indeed, it has not. There can be no graceful exit from Iraq, only a terrifying, bloody collapse of military power. The withdrawal of Shia ministers from Maliki’s cabinet mirror the withdrawal of Shia ministers from another American-supported administration in Beirut – where the Lebanese fear an equally appalling conflict over which Washington has, in reality, no military or political control.
Bush even appeared oblivious of the current sectarian map of Iraq. “The Prime Minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want, and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence,” he said. “I agree.” But Iraq is already “split into parts”. The fracture of Iraq is virtually complete, its chasms sucking in corpses at the rate of up to a thousand a day.
Even Hitler must chuckle at this bloodbath, he who claimed in April 1945 that Germany would still win the Second World War, boasting that his enemy, Roosevelt, had died – much as Bush boasted of Zarqawi’s killing – while demanding to know when General Wenck’s mythical army would rescue the people of Berlin. How many “Wencks” are going to be summoned from the 82nd Airborne or the Marine Corps to save Bush from Iraq in the coming weeks? No, Bush is not Hitler. Like Blair, he once thought he was Winston Churchill, a man who never – ever – lied to his people about Britain‘s defeats in war. But fantasy knows no bounds.