Many people (mostly Republicans) say (mostly to Democrats) that it’s wrong to “politicize” the war in Iraq. But politicizing the war is exactly what should now occur. To be precise, those who oppose the war should politicize it as much as the Bush administration has already done. Politics is not just the activity of politicians; it is a democratic people’s chief means of making basic decisions about its future. Such decisions — whether the country’s foreign policy will be imperial or democratic, whether the constitutional system will remain intact, whether the United States stands for or against torture — are now before the electorate. In any case, it seems clear from the President’s speech at the Army War College on May 24 that no basic change in US Iraq policy is likely before November 2. On the other hand, the entire direction of American politics is at stake on that day. To point this out is not to be indifferent to the welfare of the people of Iraq. For the shape of their future will also depend chiefly on the outcome of the election.
The beginning of realism is to acknowledge that the next step in the President’s policy — his promise of “full sovereignty” to Iraq — is a cosmetic operation. The story of the war has been one of official claims or predictions dissolving upon contact with fact. Let’s see how quickly I can run through the over-familiar list: Weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq? Not there. Iraqi ties with Al Qaeda before the war? Missing. Democracy in Iraq? Drowned in blood at Abu Ghraib. Transformation of the whole Middle East? For the worse.
The promise of “full sovereignty” is the next in this series (coming along just in time to refresh the litany). But in one way it’s different. You had to wait some months for the previous mirages to dissipate, but this one is dead before arrival. It is a phrase advanced in the teeth of multiple admissions by the administration itself, which has let it be known that the new “sovereign” will not: possess authority over either American forces or its own; be able to pass legislation; control its own news media; make decisions about the economy of the country. Neither will it enjoy the authority of the “interim constitution” recently promised by Bush but now simply forgotten. Arguably, the new group will possess less authority even than the powerless existing “governing council.” “Withdrawal of power” might be a better description than “transfer of power” for what is about to happen — except that the governing council lacked real power in the first place. As for the election promised in January, this will be as uncertain, once the US election in November is out of way, as the interim constitution turned out to be.
What is at stake on June 30 has little to do with any reality in Iraq. In all important respects, American policy will remain the same. The Coalition Provisional Authority will be renamed an “embassy.” (The President said, “Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy.” This is true if the comparison is to, say, the American Embassy in Chile in 1971.) Some 138,000 — or more — troops will remain in the country, using, in the President’s ominous words, “measured force or overwhelming force.” The electricity, water and oil will stop and start as usual. The fighting will continue. Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis will jockey for power. The prison at Abu Ghraib will be torn down, but a new “modern maximum security prison” — America‘s latest gift to Iraqi democracy — will replace it (as if a building, not the people in it, had been torturing Iraqi prisoners.)
The changes that will occur are all in the realm of appearances. But they are not, for that reason, insignificant, for as the White House well knows, it is appearances that may determine the November election. The trick for the administration is to create, for a period of four months, an illusion that American policy is working. In this effort, there are at least four distinct fronts. One is the United Nations. Theoretically, its man Lakhdar Brahimi is choosing the country’s next government. In actuality, he has become a key figure, however unintentionally, in George W. Bush’s election effort. Now the United States and Britain have placed before the Security Council a draft resolution inviting the UN to give its blessing to the new order in Iraq. The UN is in danger of creating an aura of legitimacy and international control where none in fact exist. The draft permits the Security Council to “review” — not “renew” — the presence of the American and other foreign troops after a year. That is, the United States, wielder of a veto in the council, can keep its troops in Iraq as long as it wants.
The second front is the political leadership in Iraq, which is under intense pressure by the administration to play its part. What happens to defectors was recently illustrated by the treatment of the Pentagon’s former favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, who made the mistake of turning against the occupation, stating, “sovereignty is not to be given, it is to be seized.” With a brutality that is the hallmark of this administration’s approach to any opposition, an Iraqi force accompanied by Americans looted his office and home, breaking up furniture and smashing family photographs.
The third front is the American media. Its members should awaken to the fact that every time they use phrases like “handing over sovereignty” or “transition to democracy” they are misleading the public just as thoroughly as so many did when they accepted at face value the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
A final front is the administration’s Democratic opposition, which is hobbled by Senator John Kerry’s own “stay the course” position. Perhaps he is simply following the old political rule that when your opponent is destroying himself by his own efforts, you should stay out of the way. However, by failing to challenge the President on the war, he risks himself becoming a kind of unwilling accessory to the White House propaganda maneuvers.
The UN should not abandon the people of Iraq; neither, of course, should the leadership of Iraq; American reporters should not become partisans of the Democratic Party; and John Kerry should not adopt any view on the war simply to bait his rival. But all of them should be aware that, to whatever extent they give credence to the charade on June 30, they are above all else assisting in the re-election of the President.
This is a Jonathan Schell “Letter from Ground Zero” column from the Nation magazine. Many of Schell’s Ground Zero columns since 9/11/2001 have just been collected into a book, A Hole in the World, An Unfolding Story of War, Protest and the New American Order (Nation Books). Schell, the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, is also the author of The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People among many other books.
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell
[This article was originally published in the latest issue of The Nation. It first appeared on-line with the permission of The Nation 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.]