Shock and Sham

Then there were the Kurds pushing against the CPA for something barely short of an independent Kurdistan, the Sunnis organizing politically, and with those 30,000 protestors marching in Basra, the Shiites… well, there, undoubtedly, lies the real oppositional tale not just of the moment but of the future. Finally, there was the Turkish prime minister threatening that, should Iraq fall into internecine strife (and Kurdistan implicitly become anything close to a reality), his country would intervene. This news comes from a piece in the Turkish press (Zaman, 1/15/04) spotted by the eagle-eyed editor of www.warincontext.org that got, as far as I can tell, no attention here:


“Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said yesterday that in the event of Iraq‘s disintegration, Turkey will intervene. Erdogan stated that Iraqi Kurds are trying to take the oil regions under their control and “this should not be allowed. Kurds should be prevented from playing with the fire,” warned Erdogan.”


And speaking of playing with fire, there was Ayatollah Sistani insistently striking matches and moving them ever closer to the last bit of foundation under America’s teetering version of Iraq: After all, the clear and present danger of Saddam’s Iraq, the 9/11 connection, the weapons of mass destruction arsenal have all evaporated and what’s left in our explanation arsenal is overthrowing a brutal dictator in the name of “democracy.”


I can imagine a little dialogue in Washington right now that might go something like (you fill in the names): “Who said democracy? “I didn’t say democracy, did you?” “I didn’t, did you?” “Not me, did you?” and so on…


I mean who expected a bunch of Shiites in Iraq to take us seriously? “Democracy” was the last code word we had for getting what we wanted out of Iraq. We didn’t mean actual elections, honestly folks, not ones at least that might result in any version of a Shiite-style republic. What we meant by “democracy” was obscure “caucuses” — a word, by the way, for which, according to Robin Wright and Daniel Williams of the Washington Post (“U.S. Scrambles to Salvage Transition,” 1/16/04), “there is no precise equivalent in Arabic… nor any history of caucuses in the Arab world, U.S. officials say.”


There’s a bit of an irony here. We were bringing them “democracy,” but when some of them actually demanded the promised goods, we said, impossible, can’t be done in the time available, and insisted instead that the Shiites in particular settle for a process of choosing so obscure and indirect that it just might result in a government which we would feel comfortable turning “power” over to.


Unfortunately for the Bush men, Ayatollah Sistani has as of yet refused to give in on the matter of elections. As Dilip Hiro describes the situation in the Nation magazine (“Sectarianism in Iraq,” 2/2/04):


“Although Bush dropped the earlier plan of having Iraq‘s Constitution framed by a committee of ‘experts,’ he and [CPA head] Bremer have been unwilling to let Iraqis elect the provisional assembly to take over sovereignty from the CPA by July 1. The reasons offered — electoral rolls not being up to date and ration-card identification disenfranchising returned exiles — are spurious. Since every Iraqi carries an ID giving name, address and age, and since the 250 parliamentary constituencies are demarcated and have been used five times between 1980 and 2000, there is no need for updated electoral rolls or the use of ration-card IDs. At an estimated 250,000, the number of Iraqi returnees is a mere 1 percent of the population. Washington‘s real reason for depriving Iraqi voters of the right to elect the transitional assembly lies in a poll by the Baghdad-based Center for Research and Strategic Studies, which found that 56 percent of respondents wanted an Islamic Iraq.”


This Shiite insistence, not the armed resistance of the Sunni minority, may prove the administration’s deepest problem. Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website describes the present increasingly incendiary situation this way:


al-Hayat reported that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s representative in Karbala, Shaikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala’i, warned that the coming days will witness demonstrations and strikes, and possibly confrontations with the occupation [Coalition] forces if they insist on ‘their colonialist plot and in designing the politics of this country in ways that serve their interests.’ Al-Karbala’i called everyone in his Friday sermon before hundreds of worshippers ‘to support the religious leadership,’ affirming that ‘the Shiite leadership in Najaf takes a great interest in the process of transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people through general elections.’


“He added that it would ‘never henceforth allow the rights of the Iraqi people and the oppressed religious community [the Shiites] to be stolen from them, and would never compromise on their rights.’ He said that ‘The religious leadership is intent proceeding with this battle until the end. What is asked of you now is not to abandon [Grand Ayatollah Sistani] to himself, since leaving him in the lurch would expose us to the wrath of God and the curses of history.’ He asked the worshippers to ‘forget your disputes and to unite for the sake of the greater cause,’ pointing out that ‘apathy and negligence will lead to more long years of repression.’ He warned of enemies of the Shiites who were meeting behind closed doors to plot the political future of the Iraqi people.”


“Colonialist plot.” Uh-oh. This is serious stuff and it drove L. Paul Bremer, our viceroy in Baghdad, who’s looking ever less cocky these days, back to Washington yet again for “consultations.” It also drove American reporters and columnists into some typically dreadful reportage in a language both unexamined and remarkably blinkered.


Here from the same Washington Post piece, for instance:


“Sistani has refused to see any U.S. official, and Washington is not sure how many of the indirect communications have reached the aging and reclusive cleric, U.S. officials add. The United States is still looking for people who know Sistani well enough to act as go-betweens for the negotiations or to explain Sistani’s thinking. Senior U.S. officials note that the current uncertainty is just a part of the political process in a country with no experience in democracy.”


A country with no experience of democracy. No wonder they’re demanding it! What about from a country with no desire to deliver real democracy?


Gee, Sistani’s thinking must be complicated indeed. Democracy is when the majority rules via free elections; the Shiites are a majority in Iraq; elections would undoubtedly mean a Shiite majority. Poor aging, doddering, out-of-touch Sistani looks pretty “democratic” and clever to me. Even if he doesn’t get his elections, he’ll be well-positioned for any post-American future, untainted by the brush of American “colonialism.”


Here’s another passage from the same piece — and pretty typical of reporting from Iraq in our press: “One Governing Council member said that if Sistani pushes too far, members would revolt and the council might collapse. That would leave the United States without an Iraqi face on its authority here and with dim prospects for transferring the management of Iraq to Iraqis.”


Imagine that! There’s a good definition of democracy for you. An “Iraqi face” on our authority. No wonder we don’t really want an election. Here’s another version of the same sort of thing from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on the bleakly amusing prospect of Bremer and the Bush administration turning to – of all places — the UN for help in convincing Sistani that “democracy” shouldn’t really mean “democracy,” not in Iraq anyway. Ignatius begins by suggesting that (“Bremer’s U.N. Lifeline,” 1/16/04):


“Bremer’s problem is that America‘s indispensable ally in Iraq — the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — isn’t budging in his demand that elections precede the handover of sovereignty. In part it’s a power grab by Sistani, who knows these elections will lock in the power of Iraq‘s Shiite majority.”


Ah, a “power grab.” I wonder, just out of curiosity, how Ignatius described the Florida maneuverings of George & Co back in 2000. A power grab? Ignatius then continues:


“So things have come full circle in Iraq: After bypassing the United Nations on its rush into Iraq, the Bush administration now realizes that it needs [UN head Kofi] Annan’s help in getting out. Bremer hopes the Monday meeting will produce a process for bringing the international organization back into Iraq. The fact-finding team will buy time until the July 1 transfer — assuming Sistani goes along. Once Iraq regains its sovereignty, the United Nations can then help write election laws, compile reliable voter rolls, appoint an election commission and write a new constitution. The United States can help in these nation-building tasks. But they will be easier for Iraqis to swallow with a U.N. seal of approval — which should take the sting out of occupation.”


Look at the language there. We “bypassed” the UN in our rush “into” Iraq. We’re talking invasion here. Now, if we can just recruit the UN, we can somehow bypass Sistani, “buy time,” make our version of “nation-building” “easier to swallow,” and “take the sting out of occupation.”


Talk about tortured language. You just wonder what reality these guys live in anyway?


This week Todd Gitlin, who’s launching a new column at the openDemocracy website, in his first piece had this comment on “democracy” — you know, that thing we’re so hot to export — as it’s practiced back in the good old US of A these days (The politics of anti-politics):


“The brontosaurian length of American election campaigns is not a tribute to our collective fascination with politics. To the contrary, such is the political lethargy of the world’s oldest democracy that the campaign must elongate itself if it is to have a chance of roping in even half of the electorate by the time the day finally comes for the people to make known their collective will.


“The roughly two-year-long campaign is evidence of a perverse American disdain for political life and government. What a peculiar thing! This grandiose nation-state with planetary (indeed, interplanetary) reach and colossal global consequence is governed by a government held in contempt by most of its citizens.


“In popular parlance, ‘politician’ is a curse-word. ‘Politics’ – as in ‘that’s just politics’ – is synonymous with pettiness, corruption, unreliability, and warped reasoning.”


Perhaps that’s why the Bush administration was in such a rush to get Halliburton and Bechtel into Iraq. Otherwise when Iraqi “democracy” hits, who’s going to have the dough to make American-style “donations” to the politicians?


What does the real world of Iraq planning look like then? Are we turning over power on July 1 and heading for home. Withdrawing? Taking the last helicopter out of Baghdad? Well, let me give it to you in a line from a Jan. 15 Christian Science Monitor piece by Dan Murphy (“US to begin drawdown in Iraq”), “The US hopes to reduce its presence in Iraq to about 50,000 by the end of 2005, coalition officials say.”


50,000 if all goes well — and it won’t — by the end of 2005. Just remind me of what it is we’re planning to turn over to the Iraqis someday?


Oh, and p.s.on our little wars and what can be seen of them, should anyone care to look — Paul Rogers, also of openDemocracy and always a clear-eyed analyst, reports the following on Afghanistan (A war on several fronts):


“It has been clear for some time that Taliban elements have been regrouping in preparation for a possible substantial campaign in summer 2004. Recent Taliban actions have been directed against aid workers and other non-military targets rather than US forces, with the intention of damaging the morale of the Afghan military, police and public servants. There was, however, some expectation that such violence would diminish during the winter as Taliban units prepared for their coming campaign.


“The latest spurt of violence suggests that even in the middle of winter, Taliban elements are able to undertake damaging attacks on a wide range of targets. At the very least this means that the United States will have to commit many thousands of troops to Afghanistan – against its original plan to withdraw most of its forces by as far back as eighteen months ago. In just over two years since the Taliban regime was overthrown, 100 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan. Afghan civilian, military, police and Taliban deaths are numbered in the thousands.”


Their world and welcome to it


Now, let’s return to our vice president — the man who never saw a bird he didn’t want to shoot, an oil executive he didn’t want to send him on a trip somewhere, or a homeboy Supreme Court judge he didn’t want to hang with — and that speech he gave to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. Even though it was covered in the mainstream only by Maura Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times (“Cheney Warns Against Complacency on Terrorism,” 1/15), James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle (“Cheney’s grim vision: decades of war,” 1/15) and Hil Anderson of UPI (“During his Beverly Hills speech, however, Cheney made no effort to counter any of O’Neill’s recollections nor would he take any questions from the assembled media following his appearance on the podium. What the vice president did do was to fan the flames of urgency over the war on terrorism, largely ignoring Saddam’s potential to threaten anyone other than the Iraqis.” [1/14]) as far as I can tell, it was a barn-burner. Or maybe it was a city-burner.


Go read it yourself and then tell me that these guys weren’t just dying to get at Iraq back in February 2001. In this largely overlooked speech, the VP offered us the hard-core administration version of reality — we’re talking in Texas Chainsaw Massacre terms here — and it should be attended to. I mean, don’t go to sleep tonight and be scared, really scared.


There was his warning about the next terrorist attack (“Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of a single attack, or a [coordinated set] of attacks”); there was his reassurance that we’re fighting in Iraq lest Toledo be next (“We have, today, more than 125,000 Americans serving in Iraq. They are confronting terrorists every day in that country, so that we do not one day meet the same enemies on the streets of our own cities”); there was the use of the “war on terrorism” as a yardstick to measure everything from illegal immigrants (“The problem we have today is we have millions of illegal, undocumented workers in our midst. We do not know when they came. We do not know how long they stay. We do not know what they do while they’re here. We do not know when they leave. From the standpoint of homeland security and securing the nation’s borders, it is a major hole, if you will, in terms of our overall situation.”) to the value of Afghanistan (“The Afghan people are building a decent, a just, and a democratic society — and a nation fully joined in the war against terror”); there was the assurance that preventive war — one, two, three, many Iraqs — is our future (“Given these realities, there can be no waiting until the danger has fully materialized. By then it would be too late. And so we are waging this war in the only way it can be won — by taking the fight directly to the enemy”); there was “the enemy,” just one Enemy; and above all, there was the invocation of a chilling analogy.


9/11, the vice-president insisted, wasn’t really a new Pearl Harbor:


“There are certain moments in history when the gravest threats reveal themselves. And in those moments, the response of our government must be swift, and it must be right. September 11th has been aptly compared to December 7, 1941 — another day in our history that brought sudden attack, national emergency, and the beginning of a sustained conflict. Perhaps a closer analogy can be drawn, not to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and World War II, but to the decisions that faced Harry Truman at the outset of the Cold War… In a short time, our government created the architecture of national security we know today: the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council… All those early commitments, made by one President and carried forward by eight of his successors, helped to bring victory in the Cold War…”


Note not only the invocation of the creation of a new infrastructure of war and national security under Truman, but the mention of those “eight successors.” I mean, folks, here’s Dick Cheney’s reality — and you’re not going to find much about it in our papers or on the prime-time news: In the gospel according to Cheney, we’ve entered what former CIA director and distinct kook James Woolsey has called “World War IV.” It’s just begun and, on the pattern of the Cold War, which qualifies as World War III, it’s going to last the next fifty years or so. This is a terrorizing vision from the man who, if Paul O’Neill is right, is just behind that chair in the Oval Office.


I leave you with this small comment from James Fallows, part of a piece in the Jan. 2004 Atlantic on all the prewar planning on postwar Iraq that the administration managed to ignore or sideline (Blind into Baghdad):


“This is the place to note that in several months of interviews I never once heard someone say ‘We took this step because the President indicated …’ or ‘The President really wanted …’ Instead I heard ‘Rumsfeld wanted,’ ‘Powell thought,’ ‘The Vice President pushed,’ ‘Bremer asked,’ and so on. One need only compare this with any discussion of foreign policy in Reagan’s or Clinton‘s Administration… to sense how unusual is the absence of the President as prime mover… It is possible that the President’s confidants are so discreet that they have kept all his decisions and instructions secret. But that would run counter to the fundamental nature of bureaucratic Washington, where people cite a President’s authority whenever they possibly can (‘The President feels strongly about this, so …’). To me, the more likely inference is that Bush took a strong overall position — fighting terrorism is this generation’s challenge — and then was exposed to only a narrow range of options worked out by the contending forces within his Administration.”


[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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