“Good News,” Iraq & Beyond, Part 1

Not long ago, it was taken for granted that the Iraq war would be the central issue in the presidential campaign, as it was in the mid-term election of 2006. But it has virtually disappeared, eliciting some puzzlement. There should be none. 

Iraq remains a significant concern for the population, but that is a matter of little moment in a modern democracy. The important work of the world is the domain of the “responsible men,” who must “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” the general public, “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose “function” is to be “spectators,” not “participants.” And spectators are not supposed to bother their heads with issues. The Wall Street Journal came close to the point in a major front-page article on Super Tuesday, under the heading “Issues Recede in ’08 Contest As Voters Focus on Character.” To put it more accurately, issues recede as candidates, party managers, and their PR agencies focus on character (qualities, etc.). As usual. And for sound reasons. Apart from the irrelevance of the population to them, they can also be dangerous. The participants in action are surely aware that on a host of major issues, both political parties are well to the right of the general population and that their positions are quite consistent over time, a matter reviewed in a useful study by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect; the same is true on domestic policy (see my Failed States, on both domains). It is important, then, for the attention of the herd to be diverted elsewhere. 

The quoted admonitions, taken from highly regarded essays by the leading public intellectual of the 20th century, Walter Lippmann, capture well the perceptions of progressive intellectual opinion, shared across the narrow elite spectrum. The common understanding is revealed more in practice than in words, though some, like Lippmann, do articulate it: President Wilson, for example, who held that an elite of gentlemen with “elevated ideals” must be empowered to preserve “stability and righteousness,” essentially the perspective of the Founding Fathers. In more recent years the “gentlemen” are transmuted into the “technocratic elite” and “action intellectuals” of Camelot, “Straussian” neocons, or other configurations.

For the vanguard who uphold the elevated ideals and are charged with managing the society and the world, the reasons for Iraq’s drift off the radar screen should not be obscure. They were cogently explained by the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, articulating the position of the doves 40 years ago when the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam was in its fourth year and Washington was preparing to add another 100,000 troops to the 175,000 already tearing South Vietnam to shreds. By then the invasion launched by Kennedy was facing difficulties and imposing difficult costs on the United States, so Schlesinger and other Kennedy liberals were reluctantly beginning to shift from hawks to doves. That even included Robert Kennedy, who a year earlier, after the vast intensification of the bombing and combat operations in the South and the first regular bombing of the North, had condemned withdrawal as “a repudiation of commitments undertaken and confirmed by three administrations,” which would “gravely—perhaps irreparably—weaken the democratic position in Asia.” But by the time that Schlesinger was writing in 1966, RFK and other Camelot hawks began to call for a negotiated settlement—though not withdrawal, never an option, just as withdrawal without victory was never an option for JFK, contrary to many illusions.

Schlesinger wrote that of course “we all pray” that the hawks are right in thinking that the surge of the day will be able to “suppress the resistance,” and if it does, “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” in winning victory while leaving “the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck,” with its “political and institutional fabric” pulverized. But escalation probably won’t succeed, and will prove to be too costly for ourselves, so perhaps strategy should be rethought. 

Attitudes towards the war at the liberal extreme were well illustrated by the concerns of the Massachusetts branch of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), in Cambridge, the liberal stronghold. In late 1967 the ADA leadership undertook considerable (and quite comical) efforts to prevent applications for membership from people they feared would speak in favor of an anti-war resolution sponsored by a local chapter that had fallen out of control (Howard Zinn and I were the terrifying applicants). A few months later came the Tet offensive, leading the business world to turn against the war because of its costs to us, while the more perceptive were coming to realize that Washington had already achieved its major war aims. It soon turned out that everyone had always been a strong opponent of the war (in deep silence). The Kennedy memoirists revised their accounts to fit the new requirement that JFK was a secret dove, consigning the rich documentary record (including their own version of events at the time) to the dustbin of history where the wrong facts wither away. Others preferred silence, assuming correctly that the truth would disappear. The preferred version soon took hold: that the radical and self-indulgent anti-war movement had disrupted the sober efforts of the responsible “early opponents of the war” to bring it to an end. 

At the war’s end, in 1975, the position of the extreme doves was expressed by Anthony Lewis, the most critical voice in the New York Times. He observed that the war began with “blundering efforts to do good”—which is close to tautology within the doctrinal system—though by 1969 it had become “clear to most of the world (and most Americans) that the intervention had been a disastrous mistake.” The argument against the war, Lewis explained, “was that the United States had misunderstood the cultural and political forces at work in Indochina—that it was in a position where it could not impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself.” 

By 1969, “most Americans” had a radically different view. Some 70 percent regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake.” But they are just “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” whose voices can be dismissed—or on the rare occasions when they are noticed, explained away without evidence by attributing to them self-serving motives lacking any moral basis. 

Elite reasoning, and the accompanying attitudes, carry over with little change to critical commentary on the U.S. invasion of Iraq today. Although criticism of the Iraq War is far greater and far-reaching than in the case of Vietnam at any comparable stage, nevertheless the principles that Schlesinger articulated remain in force in media and commentary. 

It is of some interest that Schlesinger took a very different position on the Iraq invasion, virtually alone in his circles. When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad, he wrote that Bush’s policies are “alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy.” It would be instructive to determine how Schlesinger’s principled objection to U.S. war crimes fared in the tributes to him that appeared when he died and in the many reviews of his journals (which do not mention Vietnam until the Johnson years, consistent with the early version of his memoirs of Camelot).

That Iraq is “a land of ruin and wreck” is not in question. There is no need to review the facts in any detail. The British polling agency Oxford Research Bureau recently updated its estimate of extra deaths resulting from the war to 1.3 million—that’s excluding Karbala and Anbar provinces, two of the worst regions. Whether that is correct, or the true numbers are much lower as some claim, there is no doubt that the toll is horrendous. There are several million internally deplaced. Thanks to the generosity of Jordan and Syria, the millions of refugees fleeing the wreckage of Iraq, including most of the professional classes, have not been simply wiped out. But that welcome is fading, for one reason because Jordan and Syria receive no meaningful support from the perpetrators of the crimes in Washington and London. The idea that they might admit these victims, beyond a trickle, is too outlandish to consider. Sectarian warfare has devastated the country. Baghdad and other areas have been subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing and left in the hands of warlords and militias, the primary thrust of the current counterinsurgency strategy developed by General Petraeus, who won his fame by pacifying Mosul, now the scene of some of the most extreme violence.

One of the most dedicated and informed journalists who has been immersed in the shocking tragedy, Nir Rosen, recently published an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq,” in Current History. He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century”—a common perception of Iraqis as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now. There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.” 

Though the wreckage of Iraq today is too visible to try to conceal, the assault of the new barbarians is carefully circumscribed in the doctrinal system so as to exclude the horrendous effects of the Clinton sanctions—including their crucial role in preventing the threat that Iraqis would send Saddam to the same fate as Ceasescu, Marcos, Suharto, Chun, and other monsters supported by the U.S. and UK until they could no longer be maintained. Information about the effect of the sanctions is hardly lacking, in particular about the humanitarian phase of the sanctions regime, the oil-for-peace program initiated when the early impact became so shocking that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had to mumble on TV that the price was right whatever the parents of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi children might think. The humanitarian program, which graciously permitted Iraq to use some of its oil revenues for the devastated population, was administered by respected and experienced UN diplomats who had teams of investigators all over the country and surely knew more about the situation in Iraq than any other Westerners. The first, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest because the policies were “genocidal.” His successor, Hans von Sponeck, resigned two years later when he concluded that the sanctions violated the Genocide Convention. The Clinton administration barred him from providing information about the impact to the Security Council, which was technically responsible. As Albright’s spokesperson James Rubin explained, “this man in Baghdad is paid to work, not to speak.” 

Von Sponeck does, however, speak in extensive detail in his muted but horrifying book A Different Kind of War. But the State Department ruling prevails. One will have to search diligently to find even a mention of these revelations or what they imply. Knowing too much, Halliday and von Sponeck were also barred from the media during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

It is true, however, that Iraq is now a marginal issue in the presidential campaign. That is natural, given the spectrum of hawk-dove elite opinion. The liberal doves adhere to their traditional reasoning and attitudes, praying that the hawks will be right and that the U.S. will win a victory in the land of ruin and wreck, establishing “stability,” a code word for subordination to Washington’s will. By and large hawks are encouraged and doves silenced by the “good news” about Iraq. 

And there is good news. The U.S. occupying army in Iraq (euphemistically called the Multi-National Force-Iraq) carries out regular studies of popular attitudes, a crucial component of population control measures. In December 2007, it released a study of focus groups, which was uncharacteristically upbeat. The survey “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to prevailing voices of hopelessness and despair. The survey found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups… and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis.” This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results,” Karen de Young reported in the Washington Post (December 19, 2007). 

The “shared beliefs” were identified in the report. To quote de Young, “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So, according to Iraqis, there is hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence, withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis. 

The conclusions are credible, consistent with earlier polls and also with the apparent reduction in violence when the British finally withdrew from Basra a few months ago, having “decisively lost the south—which produces over 90 per cent of government revenues and 70 per cent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves” by 2005, according to Anthony Cordesman, the most prominent U.S. specialist on military affairs in the Middle East. 

The December 2007 report did not mention other good news: Iraqis appear to accept the highest values of Americans, which should be gratifying. Specifically, they accept the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal that sentenced Nazi war criminals to hanging for such crimes as supporting aggression and preemptive war—the main charge against Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, whose position in the Nazi regime corresponded to that of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Tribunal defined aggression clearly enough: “invasion of its armed forces” by one state “of the territory of another state.” The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples, if words have meaning. The Tribunal went on to define aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” In the case of Iraq, the murderous sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing, the destruction of the national culture and the irreplaceable treasures of the origins of Western civilization under the eyes of “stuff happens”-Rumsfeld and his associates, and every other crime and atrocity as the inheritors of the Mongols have followed the path of imperial Japan.

Since Iraqis attribute the accumulated evil of the whole primarily to the invasion, it follows that they accept the core principle of Nuremberg. Presumably, they were not asked whether their acceptance of American values extended to the conclusion of the chief prosecutor for the United States, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who forcefully insisted that the Tribunal would be mere farce if we do not apply its principles to ourselves. 

Needless to say, U.S. elite opinion, shared with the West generally, flatly rejects the lofty American values professed at Nuremberg, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene. All of this provides an instructive illustration of some of the reality that lies behind the famous “clash of civilizations.” 

A January poll by World Learning/Aspen Institute found that “75 percent of Americans believe U.S. foreign policy is driving dissatisfaction with America abroad and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values (39 percent) and of the American people (26 percent) is also to blame.” The perception is inaccurate, fed by propaganda. There is little dislike of Americans, and dissatisfaction abroad does not derive from “dislike of American values,” but rather from acceptance of these values and recognition that they are rejected by the U.S. government and elite opinion. 

Other “good news” had been reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during the extravaganza staged on 9/11/07. Perhaps we should call the commander “Lord Petraeus,” in the light of the reverence displayed by the media and commentators on this occasion. Parenthetically, only a cynic might imagine that the timing was intended to insinuate the Bush-Cheney claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, so that by committing the “supreme international crime” they were defending the world against terror, which increased sevenfold as a result of the invasion, according to an analysis by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, using data of the government-linked Rand Corporation. 

Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to show that the Iraqi government had greatly accelerated spending on reconstruction, reaching a quarter of the funding set aside for that purpose. Good news indeed—until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the actual figure was one-sixth what Petraeus and Crocker reported, a 50 percent decline from the preceding year. 

More good news is the decline in sectarian violence, attributable in part to the success of the ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion; there are simply fewer people to kill in the cleansed areas. But it is also attributable to Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in U.S. troops, and to the decision of the Mahdi army to stand down and consolidate its gains—what the press calls “halting aggression.” By definition, only Iraqis can commit aggression in Iraq (or Iranians, of course). 

It is possible that Petraeus’s strategy might approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya where fighting is now “limited and sporadic and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack, C.J. Chivers reports in the New York Times, also on September 11. Perhaps some day Baghdad and Falluja too will enjoy “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence, adding to the “accumulated evil” of the aggression. 

If Russians rise to the moral level of liberal intellectuals in the West, they must be saluting Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in Chechnya. 

A few weeks after the Pentagon’s “good news” from Iraq, New York Times military-Iraq expert Michael Gordon wrote a reasoned and comprehensive review of the options on Iraq policy facing the candidates for the presidential election. One voice is missing: Iraqis. Their preference is not rejected. Rather, it is not worthy of mention. And it seems that there was no notice of the fact. That makes sense on the usual tacit assumption of almost all discourse on international affairs: we own the world, so what does it matter what others think? They are “unpeople,” to borrow the term used by British diplomatic historian Mark Curtis in his work on Britain’s crimes of empire—very illuminating work, therefore deeply hidden. Routinely, Americans join Iraqis in un-peoplehood. Their preferences too provide no options.

To cite another instructive example, consider Gerald Seib’s reflections in the Wall Street Journal on “Time to Look Ahead in Iraq.” Seib is impressed that debate over Iraq is finally beginning to go beyond the “cartoon-like characteristics” of what has come before and is now beginning to confront “the right issue.” “The more profound questions are the long-term ones. Regardless of how things evolve in a new president’s first year, the U.S. needs to decide what its lasting role should be in Iraq. Is Iraq to be a permanent American military outpost and will American troops need to be on hand in some fashion to help defend Iraq’s borders for a decade or more, as some Iraqi officials themselves have suggested? Will the U.S. see Iraq more broadly as a base for exerting American political and diplomatic influence in the broader Middle East, or is that a mistake? Is it better to have American troops just over the horizon, in Kuwait or ships in the Persian Gulf? Driving these military considerations is the political question of what kind of government the U.S. can accept in Iraq….” 

No soft-headed nonsense here about Iraqis having a voice on the lasting role of the U.S. in Iraq or on the kind of government they would prefer. Seib should not be confused with the columnists in the Journal‘s “opinion pages.” He is a rational centrist analyst, who could easily be writing in the liberal media or journals of the Democratic Party like the New Republic. And he grasps quite accurately the fundamental principles guiding the political class.

Such reflections of the imperial mentality are deeply rooted. To pick examples almost at random, in December 2007 Panama declared a Day of Mourning to commemorate the U.S. invasion of 1989, which killed thousands of poor people—so Panamanian human rights groups concluded—when Bush I bombed the El Chorillo slums and other civilian targets. The Day of Mourning of the unpeople scarcely merited a flicker of an eyelid here. It is also of no interest that Bush’s invasion of Panama, another textbook example of aggression, appears to have been more deadly than Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait a few months later. An unfair comparison of course; after all, we own the world, and he didn’t. It is also of no interest that Washington’s greatest fear was that Saddam would imitate its behavior in Panama, installing a client government and then leaving, the main reason why Washington blocked diplomacy with almost complete media cooperation; the sole serious exception I know of was Knut Royce in Long Island Newsday. Though the December Day of Mourning passed with little notice, there was a lead story when the Panamanian National Assembly was opened by president Pedro Gonzalez, who is charged by Washington with killing U.S. soldiers during a protest against President Bush’s visit two years after his invasion, charges dismissed by Panamanian courts, but still upheld by the owner of the world. 

To take another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino writes that “Iran’s intransigence [about nuclear enrichment] appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.” The rest of the world happens to exclude the large majority of the world: the non-aligned movement, which forcefully endorses Iran’s right to enrich uranium, in accord with the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But they are not part of the world, since they do not reflexively accept U.S. orders. 

We might tarry for a moment to ask whether there is any solution to the U.S.-Iran confrontation over nuclear weapons. Here are some ideas: (1) Iran should have the right to develop nuclear energy, but not weapons, in accord with the NPT; (2) a nuclear weapons-free zone should be established in the region, including Iran, Israel, and U.S. forces deployed there; (3) the U.S. should accept the NPT; (4) the U.S. should end threats against Iran, and turn to diplomacy. 

The proposals are not original. These are the preferences of the overwhelming majority of Americans and also Iranians in polls by World Public Opinion, which found that Americans and Iranians agree on basic issues. At a forum at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies when the polls were released a year ago, Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, said the polls showed “the common sense of both the American people and the Iranian people, [who] seem to be able to rise above the rhetoric of their own leaders to find common sense solutions to some of the most crucial questions” facing the two nations, favoring pragmatic, diplomatic solutions to their differences. The results suggest that if the U.S. and Iran were functioning democratic societies, this very dangerous confrontation could probably be resolved peaceably.

The opinions of Americans on this issue too are not regarded as worthy of consideration; they are not options for candidates or commentators. They were apparently not even reported, perhaps considered too dangerous because of what they reveal about the “democratic deficit” in the United States and about the extremism of the political class across the spectrum. If public opinion were to be mentioned as an option, it would be ridiculed as “politically impossible”; or perhaps offered as another reason why “The public must be put in its place,” as Lippmann sternly admonished. 

There is more to say about the preference of Americans on Iran. Point one above, as noted, happens to accord with the stand of the large majority of the world. With regard to point two, the U.S. and its allies have accepted it, formally at least. UN Security Council Resolution 687 commits them to “the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons” (Article 14). The U.S. and UK have a particularly strong commitment to this principle, since it was this Resolution that they appealed to in their efforts to provide a thin legal cover for their invasion of Iraq, claiming that Iraq had not lived up to the conditions in 687 on disarmament. As for point three, 80 percent of Americans feel that Washington should live up to its commitment under the NPT to undertake “good faith” efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, a legal commitment as the World Court determined, explictly rejected by the Bush administration. Turning to point four, Americans are calling on the government to adhere to international law, under which the threats of violence that are voiced by all current candidates are a crime, in violation of the UN Charter. The call for negotiations and diplomacy on the part of the American unpeople extends to Cuba and has for decades, but is again dismissed by both political parties. 

The likelihood that a functioning democracy might alleviate severe dangers is regularly illustrated. To take another current example, of great importance, there is now justified concern about Russian reactions to U.S. aggressive militarism. That includes the extension of NATO to the East by Clinton in violation of solemn pledges to Gorbachev, but particularly the vast expansion of offensive military capacity under Bush, and more recently, the plans to place “missile defense” installations in Eastern Europe. Putin is ridiculed for claiming that they are a threat to Russia. But U.S. strategic analysts recognize that he has a point. The programs are designed in a way that Russian planners would have to regard as a threat to the Russian deterrent, hence calling for more advanced and lethal offensive military capacity to neutralize them (see George Lewis and Theodore Postol, “European Missile Defense: The Technological Basis of Russian Concerns,” Arms Control Today, October 2007). A new arms race is feared. 

Recent polls under the direction of strategic analysts John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher “reveal a striking disparity between what U.S. and Russian leaders are doing and what their publics desire,” and again indicate that if these countries were functioning democracies, in which the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders had a voice, the increasingly fragile U.S.-Russian strategic relationship could be repaired, a matter of species survival in this case. 

In a free press, all of these matters, and many more like them, would merit regular prominent headlines and in-depth analysis. 


Noam Chomsky is a linguist, speaker, social critic, and author of numerous books and articles. Part II covers elite policy regarding North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and the Palestinians.