Vilsacking Iraq



Here’s a terrible exercise I want nobody to actually perform.  Go up to the next person you see on the street and hit him over the head with a baseball bat. Knock him to the ground.  You might even knock him out for a moment.  Then stand over him and smack him some more. Put your foot on his back and push his face into the sidewalk. 


Now, wait for someone to observe this assault and express their discomfort with it.  The observer might ask or tell you to step away from the person you appear to be trying to kill.  As the observer comments and perhaps tries to intervene, start telling your victim – make sure the observer can hear you – that you are only trying to help him. Inform him that you’ve “just about run out of patience.” 


Tell your victim that you’ve done nearly everything you can to improve his pathetic life but that at a certain point he’s just going to have to “take responsibility” for his own existence. Tell him there’s no more free lunch and no more welfare.  Tell your victim it’s time for him to stand up on his own.  Tell him you’ll “stand down” when he “stands up.”


Tell the observer they are witnessing the application of “tough love” to a self-destructive drug addict and/or welfare-dependent you are trying to “help.” 





I’ve got a name for this lovely little exercise.  I call it a Tom Vilsack.  But we could just as well call it a Steny Hoyer.  Or a Carl Levin.  Or an Evan Bayh.  Or an Obama.


Tom Vilsack is the centrist (Democratic Leadership Council – Republican Light) Governor of Iowa who recently became the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the presidency.  “We live in a great nation,” Vilsack told reporters, when “a boy raised in an orphanage” (as Vilsack was) can “grow up to run for president.” 


I saw the onetime orphan give the Commencement Address at Iowa’s Grinnell College last May.  It was a depressing 20 minutes. It was a warm spring day. Hundreds of bright seniors in caps and gowns had come to receive their diplomas and get their pictures taken after four years at a demanding liberal arts college in the middle of the great Midwest


They hadn’t come to hear Vilsack speak, as he did, about the need to “hunt down” America’s “enemies” and “if necessary, kill them.”  These and other lovely phrases showing Vilsack’s determination to execute a bold and murderous foreign policy recurred throughout the Governor’s address.(I heard a graduate’s grandmother observe that she didn’t think state governors can invade foreign countries).  It was obvious that Vilsack saw the commencement as all about his presidential ambitions.


The speech received polite applause from the college’s president (a Republican) and faculty and complete silence from the student body.  Not one kid clapped.


“Recently Vilsack made it on to John Stewart’s politically humorous “Daily Show.”  There was some witty repartee and then some weighty discussion of crucial foreign policy matters.  Here’s part of the official Associated Press report on Vilsack’s appearance:


“Toting a stuffed duck wearing a ‘#1 Vilsack Fan’  button, Iowa‘s Democratic governor gamely answered questions Monday from Jon Stewart, host of the ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central. Vilsack traded barbs about his name and even found a few minutes for some serious talk about Iraq.”


“The duck was a present for Stewart who, in the weeks since Vilsack formally announced he was running for president, has used an animated duck to poke fun at how Vilsack’s name sounds like ‘Aflac’ – the  insurance company that uses a loud-mouthed duck as a pitchman.”


“Pulling the stuffed duck out of a gift bag, Stewart looked at it and smirked before squeezing it.”


“ ‘ Aflac,’ it squawked.”


“Stewart seemed impressed.”


” ‘ So you’re not going to run away from duck-related humor?’  Stewart asked.”


” ‘ I’m not gonna duck the issues. That’s right,’  Vilsack deadpanned.”


“Vilsack and Stewart found common — and more serious — ground talking about Iraq. Vilsack was critical of President Bush saying he was the only person in the country who believes the United States should stay the course in Iraq.”


“Vilsack said Iraqis needed to take responsibility for their own security. He called their reliance on the United States ‘an addiction.’”


” ‘ We’ve created this culture of dependency,’  he said.”


“In a teleconference with reporters after the show’s taping Monday, Vilsack said he enjoyed his experience.” (Associated Press, “Vilsack Shows Humorous Side, Discusses Iraq on Daily Show,” December 18, 2006)


As far as I can tell, John Stewart played along with the dependency and addiction line.  He didn’t find anything to poke fun at there – no jokes about Vilsack’s pathetic dependency on, and addiction to corporate campaign cash, for example. 


Vilsack has an interesting take on the Iraqis nearly four years after world history’s most powerful military state illegally invaded their country, killed 700,000 civilians, sacked their civil society, and essentially disbanded their state. One lovely expression of our desire to help the Iraqis take personal and collective responsibility for their dysfunctional lives came during our vicious assault on the Iraqi town of Fallujah – targeted for special imperial crucifixion because it had resisted the occupation with special militancy. As sociologist Michael Mann notes;


“The US launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November 2004.  It used the power resources it possesses – devastating fire-power from a distance which minimizes US casualties.  In April, after each bout of aerial bombing and strafing, military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted and killed insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly…In November, they encouraged civilians, except males of military age [forced to stay, P.S.], to leave the city.  The initial aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent-held territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties.  US forces then went right through the city, virtually destroying it.  Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin’s Russian troops had razed it to the ground” (Michael Mann, “Incoherent Empire” (New York: Verso, 2005, p.xii)  


The ongoing U.S. attack on Iraq – gearing up perhaps for a new “Surge” that boldly defies majority public U.S. (and Iraqi)support for a rapid American withdrawal – is motivated by a desire to deepen U.S. control of the Middle Eastern oil and thus of the world imperial system. It bears the openly Orwellian label “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  It  comes in the historical wake of an earlier “ferocious assault” (“Operation Dessert Storm”)and more than a decade of mass-murderous, U.S.-led “economic sanctions” that killed in excess of a half million Iraqi children – a “price worth paying” for the advancement of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy intentions in Democratic Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s nationally televised declaration. Dessert Storm’s tough-love highlights included the use of munitions containing Depleted Uranium and civilian-targeting cluster bombs and the notorious slaughter of untold thousands of surrendering Iraqi troops on the “Highway of Death.”


After all that and more, the Iraqis’ problem, the Vilsack line holds, is that they’re a bunch of dysfunctional drug and welfare addicts.  Yes, we’ve just got to drop our liberal-paternalist illusions and stop trying to impose our whiny Great Society on those damn Iraqis!  No more AFDC and crack cocaine for those lazy, self-loathing “underclass” Mesopotamians!!  “Now hear this, Iraqi people:  we’ve done all we can to help lift you up but now it’s time for you to pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps!” Right: enough of this bleeding-heart New Deal coddling: the liberal orphanage is closed and we’re just not going to keep being the Iraqis’ indulgent Daddy forever.  





Vilsack isn’t the only leading Democrat trumpeting this viciously racist, neoconservative (and neoliberal) line on the Iraqi beneficiaries of our rugged loving kindness. Other examples include U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan), who used recent Iraq war hearings at the Senate Armed Services Committee (which Levin will head starting next year) to claim that “we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves” and to argue for “putting the responsibility for Iraq’s future squarely where it belongs – on the Iraqis.”


Late last November, the newly elected House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) suggested that those benevolent American forces might have to (partially) leave Iraq because that nation’s people are just too disorganized.  “In the days ahead,” Hoyer said, “the Iraqis must make the tough decisions and accept responsibility for their future.  And the Iraqis must know: our commitment, while great, is not unending.”  Never mind that the preponderant majority of Iraqis have long wanted the U.S. forces to leave, support attacks on U.S. troops, and blame the occupation for destabilizing their nation! One wonders how many “fresh kills” U.S. forces on the imperial killing grounds celebrated in Iraq as Hoyer uttered his terrible words.   


U.S. Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) thinks that the Iraqis “seem unable or unwilling” to “stabilize their country with” – get this – “the assistance we’ve proffered them.” 





And then there’s presidential hopeful and national celebrity Barack Obama (D-IL). In a recent speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), Obama claimed that a “timetable” for “phased [and very partial, P.S.] withdrawal” of U.S. troops would “send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the U.S. is not going to hold together the country indefinitely [emphasis added] – that it will it be up to them to form a viable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq” (Obama, “ A Way Forward in Iraq,” Speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006)  This was a remarkable statement from an ostensibly “antiwar” Senator from a military superpower that has spent nearly four years deliberately tearing apart the society and public capacities of an already desperately poor and devastated (thanks in preponderant measure to U.S. policy)nation. 


The brutal, ongoing U.S. assault was naturally missing from Obama’s claim last November that “Iraq is descending into chaos based on ethnic divisions that were around long before American troops arrived.”  Beyond its belated dating of Iraq’s collapse into civil war, this morally challenged formulation neglects the imperial assault’s role in smashing the public institutions that had restricted internal Iraq “chaos.” It deletes the critical role of the invaders in setting Iraqis against each other along ethnic lines.





But the most noxious and revealing moment in Obama’s  CCGA oration came when Obama had the imperial audacity to say the following in support of his disturbing claim that U.S. citizens have strongly supported “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in support of O.I.L., P.S.].  They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”


This was a spine-chilling selection of locales, for reasons suggested above (please note Mann’s emphasis on minimizing U.S casualties).  Not surprisingly, Fallujah is a leading symbol of rapacious American imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  It is a deeply provocative and insulting place for Obama to choose to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the imperialist occupation of Iraq


Perhaps Obama should have broadened his interpretation historically to reference the noble “sacrifice” and “resolve” Americans showed in massacres at places like Mystic River, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Luzon (in the U.S.-occupied Philippines), No Gun Ri (Korea), My Lai (Vietnam), Panama City (1989), and the southern Iraq “Highway of Death” (1991). How about mentioning German “resolve” in the Nazi assault on Guernica (1936), to which many observers have likened the U.S. actions against Fallujah? 


Of course, none of the Democratic politicians quoted above are calling for rapid or full-scale withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq.  They support the continuing and long-term presence of American military forces and bases there, consistent with America’s continuing imperial addiction to, and dependency on, the control and exploitation of Middle Eastern oil.




Cindy Sheehan spoke at the University of Iowa (UI) before the Congressional elections.  She spoke about American citizens’ need to take responsibility for – and put their lives on the line to stop – the criminal policies of the Bush administration in Iraq and elsewhere. Her talk combined numerous humorous moments – Sheehan can be very amusing – with serious reflections on the war that killed her son Casey.  She expressed little hope in the Democratic Party’s capacity to function as a vehicle for the advancement of peace and justice. She conveyed willingness to work for an anti-imperial third party in the U.S.


The horrific statements of Vilsack, Levin, Hoyer, Obama and other blood- and oil-soaked Democrats are richly consistent with her sentiments.  


Sheehan is a bona fide national personality and I was surprised to see just 200 or so people attending her talk.  There couldn’t have been more than three or four UI professors in the auditorium. 


At one point in the question and answer session after her talk, somebody asked Sheehan why she’d never appeared on “The Daily Show.”  Stewart had rejected her so far, she reported, because, as he told her publicist, “she’s not funny.”


No, she’s not like that murderous laugh riot Tom Vilsack, the ex-Governor whose name sounds like an insurance corporation. I wonder if his corporate-addicted campaign finance profile includes any donations from Aflac yet.



Veteran radical historian, journalist, and activist Paul Street (paulstreet 99@ yahoo. com) is an anti-centrist political commentator located in the Midwestern center of the U.S. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).



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