The press tells us that our “thrilled” President was “conservative” or “carefully guarded,” or expressed “cautious optimism” in responding to the death of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, the small-time thug, beheader, fomenter of Sunni/Shia civil war, and all-around violent extremist who became an American poster boy for terrorism in Iraq. Who had even heard of him until, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, “he was denounced in 2003, by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN Security Council as the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”
Zarqawi was the most minor of minor figures, used by the Bush administration mainly as bogus “evidence” of the Saddam/al-Qaeda connection until he made himself conveniently available to step into the explanation gap left open after Saddam had been captured and things in Iraq only got worse.
His face filled the screen in life and death malevolently and photogenically. He looked the villain — particularly useful for an administration focused on a Manichaean world of good and evil, governing a country that tends to like its enemies straight-up and, if at all possible, personified in a single face. So it didn’t take long before Zarqawi was America’s most-wanted man in Iraq.
As far as we can tell, he never actually controlled more than a few hundred to a thousand Iraqis and foreign jihadis (though he may have trained others in Iraq, which in the wake of the American invasion has indeed become the President’s “central theater in the war on terror,” for mayhem elsewhere). He was, as Megan Stack of the Los Angeles Times wrote, more “looming image” than military commander. But his great skill, like that of his al-Qaeda betters, lay in creating his own outsized image and in imagining the brutal attack or slaughter of civilians that would, by its nature, draw the camera and magnify his importance.
The Bush administration helped inordinately, putting a $25 million dollar reward on his head, crowning him the “prince” of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Karen de Young and Walter Pincus put it this way in the Sunday Washington Post: “[Administration] magnification of his role and of the threat he posed grew to the point that some senior intelligence officers believed it was counterproductive.”
Now, he’s dead and, in death, he’s gotten the kind of news attention once devoted to Saddam (who was, at least, a significant regional figure to be reckoned with). On the night his death was announced, CBS prime-time news was typical in devoting almost every moment of a half-hour newscast scoured of actual news to his death alone, as it otherwise might have done only for a major world figure. The full “news” to be gleaned from that half hour was evident in the first fifteen seconds: Zarqawi is dead.
Our papers are filled with discussions of whether or not, after so many Iraqi “turning points” that weren’t, this one is. Our “cautious” President nonetheless hailed Zarqawi’s death as “a victory in the global war on terror” and spoke — in one of those plagiarized Churchillian phrases his speechwriters favor (perhaps because they transport us out of the ugly present and back into a version of World War II once seen in movie theaters) — of how this might represent “an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide of this struggle.” This is “cautious” only compared to a President who, as late as November 2005, used “victory” fifteen times in a single speech on Iraq. One “victory” to a speech is indeed something of a victory deficit for him.
But haven’t we been through all this before? Haven’t we had our turning points, turned our many “corners,” passed all those “milestones” again and again? When Saddam’s sons were killed in a shootout at their safe house, when Saddam was plucked from his “spiderhole,” when endless “key lieutenants” of Zarqawi were reported rounded up or killed, when several elections took place? Now, Zarqawi has been plucked from his “spiderhole” too… well, whatever it was, under whatever circumstances those were.
As is typical of absolutely any story out of this Pentagon, the details of the first version of the Zarqawi death are already beginning to blur and shift. Did a child die in the rubble? Was Zarqawi really alive in that devastation? Did American soldiers find him and try to administer first aid, as a military spokesman reported? Or did American soldiers beat the wounded terrorist to death, as CBS reported a witness saying Saturday? Or could our troops have kicked him repeatedly in the chest while shouting for him to reveal his name, as Hala Jaber, Sarah Baxter, and Michael Smith report in the London Sunday Times? Did he mumble a few unintelligible words and quickly expire, as the first U.S. military reports had it? Or did it take him, as other witnesses reported, an hour and fifteen minutes to die after Iraqis living near the house in which he was hiding pulled him from the rubble? Was he really turned in by someone in his own organization, as some American reports have had it, or is that just a nice little piece of U.S. disinformation meant for whatever is left of his movement? Was he tracked down by Jordanian intelligence or turned in by some part of the Sunni resistance which loathed his tactics? We don’t know, but stay tuned.
In the meantime, “cautious” administration officials, hardly capable of containing their glee, sensing an approval-rating bump in the polls (however brief), are trying to manage a situation that may prove especially dangerously for them. They may soon find themselves caught in the tangles of, to coin a phrase, their own self-fulfilling propaganda.
Let me, on this, be neither conservative, nor cautious. Every now and then, you have to rely on history as your guide. And hasn’t this happened to us enough? Don’t we know that, in every turning-of-the-tide moment in Iraq, it soon turns out that, despite the hoopla, our tide was ebbing and someone else’s invariably rising? A number of experts are already suggesting that Zarqawi’s death will have “minimal impact” on the Iraqi resistance and may, in fact, serve to strengthen it by removing the most divisive and detested oppositional figure in the country; or perhaps, as the superb independent journalist Nir Rosen suggests in a thoughtful obit at the Truthdig website, Zarqawi’s death “was the greatest advertisement for his cause” and the path he blazed into sectarian warfare is now unstaunchable.
Paul Woodward of the War in Context website sums matters up this way:
“Zarqawi’s death fits on a trend line. Unfortunately for the Bush administration and the Iraqi government this isn’t a trend of increasing success in quelling the insurgency. On the contrary, it seems to reflect a growing hostility between native and non-native Sunni insurgents. Zarqawi’s loss may be a blow to foreign jihadists, but many Iraqi Sunni insurgents may now be quite comfortable seeing him ‘promoted’ yet operationally sidelined as a jihadi emeritus.”
Already we know that, in the wake of Zarqawi’s death, our President and his military advisors no longer believe a simple announcement of a draw-down of American forces in Iraq to the 100,000 level by year’s end is possible, not even to help Republican candidates in the midterm elections. (In fact, the numbers on American troops in Iraq, while murky, are actually on the rise.) According to David E. Sanger and James Glanz of the New York Times in a piece headlined, U.S. Seeking New Strategy for Buttressing Iraq’s Government, the President is convening a “two-day strategy session” at Camp David this Monday “to revive highly tangible efforts to shore up Iraq’s new government.”
The report cites “several” of the unnamed “American officials” who invariably swarm through such stories as reviving one of the oldest and most patronizing images from the early days of the Bush administration’s Iraq fiasco: “It is also an effort to hand off leadership to Mr. Maliki’s government and, in an analogy used by several American officials, to begin to let go of the bicycle seat and find out if the Iraq government can stay upright with less American support.” Okay, it used to be “taking the training wheels off.” The President’s men are, the journalists report, looking “at the costs of maintaining a[n American military] force of roughly 50,000 troops there for years to come.” Nonetheless, “one of the senior officials involved in the strategy session” characterized this moment in Iraq as a “last best chance to get this right.” Last? Best?
I wonder what they’ll be saying in November 2006? February 2007? Or in any of those post-Zarqawi “years to come”? The real question is: How many more turning points and ebbing tides can the American people (and the American media) take?
[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, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]