Iraq, an American ‘Nakbah’

American Taliban council of war

The Arabic world nakbah, denoting “catastrophe” best describes what George W. Bush and his American-Taliban administration has wrought in Iraq — and, as a result, what it has meant for the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of Bush’s failed attempt to violently reorder the politics of the Middle East; 4 million have been displaced from their homes; more than 4,000 American troops have been killed and some 60,000 maimed in a war that smart estimates suggest will cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion — it currently costs America $12 billion a month to maintain an occupation whose time-frame remains open-ended. The Financial Times reported today that the war has already cost the average American household of four (like mine) $16,000 in taxes.

And this blood-drenched disaster has done absolutely nothing to advance U.S. strategic interests; on the contrary, it has dramatically debilitated U.S. strategic influence by graphically demonstrating not the extent, but the limits of American military power. The “shock and awe” mantra that the U.S. media so dutifully chanted at the war’s commencement sounds like a pretty sick joke now.

The fifth anniversary of the Iraq catastrophe will see the usual endless hemming and hawing in the media over tactical mistakes and over whether or not the “surge” is working (as Chou en-Lai once said of the French revolution, “too soon to tell”; check back 15 years from now… I know, that’s not funny…); over how the U.S. will extract itself. (No matter what the debate in Washington, as argued here previously the reality is that the U.S. will not be in a position to withdraw for the foreseeable future, at least to the extent that it retains its superpower view of its national interests.)

Expect precious little serious discussion on how America got into this mess, not least because so much of the mainstream media was so complicit in enabling it by failing to do its job and challenging the patent nonsense that was being fed to the American people by an Administration whose dissembling was plain to see, even back then.

I recently looked up a couple of pieces I wrote in December 2002 and January 2003, which I used to mail out to a list of a few hundred people before I launched this site. And what those reminded me was just how obvious it was that the case for war being offered the American people was bogus.

This from December 14, 2002:

The Evidence Gap

As things stand, the Bush administration is looking increasingly unlikely to get UN authorization to go to war with Iraq for the simple reason that Baghdad is complying with the new inspection regime, putting the onus on the U.S. and Britain to come up with evidence of prohibited weapons activity that can be verified by the inspectors. And the U.S. has made clear that it doesn’t have such specific nuggets of evidence, and that its case is based on circumstantial evidence derived from putting together tips from defectors with satellite imagery, procurement records etc. That’s why, for now, they’re focusing on the fact that Iraq has again failed to account for Gulf War mustard gas shells etc. that had been left unaccounted for after the last UN mission. Still, a skeptical Security Council is unlikely to be convinced in the absence of forensic evidence, and London and Washington are already preparing the public for the possibility that none may be revealed.

Saddam is well aware of this, of course, basing his strategy on maximizing divisions among his enemies and isolating Washington from potential allies. (Bush operates from the principle, echoing Stalin during his 1928-33 “left turn,” that “Those who are not with us are against us.” Saddam and bin Laden, separately of course, are basing their own strategies on the principle that “Those who are not against us are with us,” i.e. doing everything they can to neutralize potential opponents and keep them out of the American camp. And frankly, the Bush administration is playing into his hands with the way it’s approaching this thing.)

The al-Qaeda Chestnut

Both sides, though, seem to accept that a war is inevitable. And if the inspections won’t create a pretext, other means will be found. Enter the Washington Post, this week (12/11/02), with a lede that might have been culled from a Saturday Night Live skit:

“The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. If the report proves true, the transaction marks two significant milestones. It would be the first known acquisition of a nonconventional weapon other than cyanide by al Qaeda or a member of its network. It also would be the most concrete evidence to support the charge, aired for months by President Bush and his advisers, that al Qaeda terrorists receive material assistance in Iraq. If advanced publicly by the White House, the report could be used to rebut Iraq’s assertion in a 12,000-page declaration Saturday that it had destroyed its entire stock of chemical weapons.”

“If,” indeed. The report is more than a little bizarro, claiming that the group responsible is a tiny al-Qaeda linked (who isn’t, these days, in the world of militant Islam?) group based in a single Palestinian refugee camp Lebanon, Asbat al-Ansar, who had supposedly established themselves in an enclave in Iraqi Kurdistan. Journalists covering Iraqi Kurdistan say this is simply rubbish. The group in Kurdistan is Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist Iraqi Kurdish faction with some links to al Qaeda and unclear relations with Iraq and Iran.

Even if you read to the bottom of the Post story you’ll see that U.S. defense and intelligence officials pooh-pooh the claims, some speculating that the W Post’s source got the wrong end of the stick after reading a hypothetical scenario described in an internal Pentagon communication. “Knowledgeable officials, speaking without White House permission, said information about the transfer came from a sensitive and credible source whom they declined to discuss.” Now that’s a scoop.

Massaging the Media

Reading this stuff reminds me of recent remarks by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld regarding the Office of Strategic Influence. Remember, that was the Pentagon program designed to secretly intervene in the media to influence public opinion in support of whatever the Pentagon was up to at the time – and the idea was dropped after a firestorm of criticism in February. Except, as Rusmfeld said two weeks ago, they’ve dropped the title but have continued the program: “And then there was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that,” he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “And ‘oh my goodness gracious isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny the sky is going to fall.’ I went down that next day and said fine, if you want to savage this thing fine I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.”

Not that the media needs much massaging. They’re ready to run just about anything that maintains the momentum of their “Countdown Iraq” type threads. Because hey, that’s what gets people tuning in.

A Feith-Based Initiative

The Bush administration’s “evidence gap” on Iraqi WMD and the efforts to revive the Iraq-al Qaeda link despite that notion being pooh-poohed by the CIA after extensive investigation, is a reminder of the new intelligence order the Likudniks have built in the Pentagon. Disturbed that the CIA was failing to harmonize with the hawks’ war cries, Wolfowitz’s deputy, Douglas Feith (who, like Richard Perle, also served as a political adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996) set up a parallel intelligence structure in the Pentagon, which quizzed their pals in the Iraqi exile community and combined their tips with raw data gleaned from other U.S. intel sources, reporting straight to the President. But these are the people, remember, who after 9/11 immediately put out the word to their operatives (as reported by CBS) to link it all to Iraq, whether or not there was any evidence of any real connections.

Al Qaeda’s Take

The al-Qaeda game plan, of course, is not a short term one or simply tactical (in the sense of doing as much physical damage as possible). As Paul Rogers notes in a perceptive piece (with some great insights on question of its relations with the Palestinians and with Iraq), “al Qaeda is specifically interested in inciting greater U.S. and western military action anywhere in the Islamic world. It is not expecting to defeat the United States in the short term. Quite the contrary–it positively seeks an increased confrontation as a means of greatly increasing support for both its medium- and longer-term aims.” Right now the U.S. strategy is based almost exclusively on pursuing al-Qaeda’s organizational structures and picking off its operatives. But it’s doing very little to address the political climate in its theaters of operation, which has become even friendlier to Al Qaeda in the year since 9/11 because of the way U.S. actions are perceived.

The Liberal Hawk Fallacy

Never mind the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction, say the self-styled “liberal hawks” – the best reason for invading Saddam Hussein is that he’s a horrible dictator who tortures and butchers his own people. The arguments in this respect are summed up in last Sunday’s Times (12/08/02) magazine by George Packer

He interviews various (current and former) liberals and lefties who’re now backing the war. Most laughable, predictably, is Christopher Hitchens with his Patton swagger and his plans for a Valentine’s Day tipple with Iraqi “comrades” in Baghdad: “So you want to be a martyr? I’m here to help…” Orwell morphs into Flashman and puts to flight the Mohammedan legions…

Packer attributes this swing in the liberal mood to Bosnia, and the idea of military intervention in pursuit of good. Frankly, I think the traumatic impact of 9/11 may have more to do with it, bringing to the surface the inner-Rumsfeld of a lot of (mostly male) liberals – Alan Dershowitz suggesting U.S. judges being empowered to order the fingernails of suspects to be pulled out, that sort of thing…

The idea that the best reason for going to war in Iraq is to overthrow the noxious Saddam and replace him with a democracy is simply wishful thinking. Democracy has never been the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, and to imagine the Bush administration as a kind of Lincoln Brigade of selfless internationalists going out to fight the good fight is simply delusional. These are the same people who helped empower Saddam Hussein in the 80s – Rumsfeld was Reagan’s point man in cutting deals with him.

Washington is suddenly demanding democracy throughout the Arab world and lambasting its own client regimes for their failures on this account. Everything they say about democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc. is true. What they’re not saying, of course, is why they have done everything necessary to keep such regimes in place for decades, and when one fell (in Iran) under the weight of its own corruption and violent authoritarianism, the Bush types regard their failure to quickly restore the despotic Shah as one of Jimmy Carter’s greatest crimes. Democracy in the Arab world is a very good idea, but is the U.S. prepared to tolerate democracy when they don’t like the choices made by electorates? Are they prepared to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as the government of Egypt or Jordan? Are they prepared to accept Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves being in the hands of a government hostile to U.S. interests? Obviously not. And that’s the reason democracy has never been a priority in Washington’s dealings with the Arab world. (No matter how democratic they are at home, empires very rarely reproduce that democracy in their satellites abroad, for obvious reasons.)

Jonathan Raban, in the Guardian, offers a perceptive [we might now add “prescient” — ed.] piece on the history of Western nation-building in Arab lands, and warns that the same mistakes are about to be repeated.

Republic of Fear

All of this, of course, may soon become moot. The forces will be in place in February to mount an invasion, and if Karl Rove approves, the UN may be simply discarded. A tough call for Rove, since polls are still finding some 55 percent of Americans preferring UN authorization – then again, a few Qaeda-Iraq link stories could swing that. Indeed, I think the reason we’re even contemplating this scenario right now is to be found in the central thesis of Michael Moore’s new film “Bowling for Columbine” – that fear is the primary organizing principle of contemporary American political culture. The 10 o’clock news is all about things that could kill you – microbes living in sponges, lysteria in your ground beef, out-of-control young black men or terrorists spreading smallpox… This is not just an episode, but a consistent thread that I’ve noticed throughout the decade that I’ve been here. Domestically its all moral panic; internationally it’s the Threat of the Month Club. It’s lampooned in Saturday Night Live and South Park, but I think it’s deeply rooted. And it allows the likes of Bush not only to scare Americans into wars, but also to distract them from the more immediate and politically-challenging fears induced by the recession.

A month later, I wrote the following:

The weirdest thing about the current moment is just how cartoonish Bush appears, sounding more and more each day like a caricature drawn by some agitprop lefty theatre-troupe. This week it was all this “war can still be avoided” stuff when it’s written all over his face (never mind his actions) that he believes the exact opposite. And his announcement of more than $300 billion in new tax breaks for corporations and the rich, in the name of restarting an economy that has millions of working poor and unemployed Americans gasping for breath – along with the warning that anyone who dared challenge this was engaging in “class warfare.” (He’s not short on chutzpah!) And just in case anybody starts getting any wussie doubts about invading Iraq just now, his office comes out with the estimate that a war would cost the US no more than $60 billion – that’s after his own former economic adviser Larry Lindsey had put the figure at $200 billion last fall, while Congress factored in the inevitability of a long-term occupation and suggested a far higher figure. And then to cap it all, a restatement of his Nixonesque policy on government secrecy – and how about appointing John Poindexter to head up a program to browse your email and your purchases – he mislead Congress? Hell, that’s a virtue in the Bush administration…

I had been reminded, about Brecht’s poem German War Primer. Extracts:

The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out….

That their enemy is marching at their head.
…The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the inspectors have found nothing in Iraq. Of course, they still might – but they have not yet been given any intelligence by the Bush administration that would point them to any place where they might find any. Bush promised two weeks ago that such intelligence would be provided, but sources in the inspection system say they’ve been given nada. Could be, of course, that Bush is simply trying to get all his ducks in a row before pointing them to a killer piece of evidence. More likely, though, is that the cupboard is rather bare.

All of this diminishes the prospects of achieving UN backing for war when the inspectors make their formal report on January 27. As Kofi Annan noted at the new year, Iraq’s cooperation with the inspection program means there is no basis at this time for military action. (And, as one reader who trawls the corridors of the UN notes, Kofi’s interventions probably carry some backing from the Powell camp in Washington.)

That doesn’t mean there won’t be a war, of course. This is not about weapons of mass destruction, nor has it ever been. I don’t really believe it’s simply about oil or Sharon, either, by the way, although oil certainly plays a key role in shaping the long-term strategic agenda of which it forms part. As the BBC notes, Cheney’s energy report warned that the US would have to double its oil imports by 2020 (no wonder Kyoto was given short shrift) and would have to secure the necessary supplies in the Mideast, Central Asia and Africa (all of which goals are currently being pursued).

But Iraq is not simply an oil-grab as some on the left would have it. As Nicholas Lemann explained in the New Yorker last fall, Iraq is the launching pad of a new imperial strategy designed to impose a Pax Americana on the increasingly unruly Middle East.

(For a great piece of real audio on this, click on the “This American Life” segment Why We Fight in which the arguments for and against going to war are well summarized by eloquent advocates of both positions, and a summation from Lemann.

While such a Pax Americana would certainly ease the oil flow, it’s also based on the much broader (Orientalist) idea of pacifying the region through force, impressing the Arabs (according to the theories of the White House’s favorite scholar of the Arab world, Bernard Lewis) with a massive show of force that renders any challenge to Washington’s writ folly in the eyes of the would-be mujahedeen. [That old crank Lewis is still briefing the White House today despite the disaster he helped spur them into. – ed.]

For a tart Arab critique of Lewis and his role in shaping the Bush agenda, try Lamis Andoni’s piece from Al Ahram last month.

But all of this is academic, I think, because once there are 100,000 US troops, complete with hospital ships, in the Gulf (by some time in February) Bush may find it politically impossible to bring them home without Saddam’s head in a bag. Not that this is his intention.

The point about these long extracts is to emphasize how clear it was before the war that the case being made for invading was flimsy, spurious even. Cheney and Rice were spinning patent falsehoods suggesting that Iraq represented a nuclear weapons threat to the U.S. But much of the media simply allowed it all to pass, enabling a climate of absurd fear to prevail that made war inevitable.

But as I wrote last year in reference to the media making the same mistakes on Iran (link temporarily unavailable due to server migration), the problem is that the media failed to question the basic assumption of the case that was being made, i.e. that if Iraq did, indeed, possess some unconventional weapons, then an invasion was a necessary and prudent response. More sober heads, in Europe for example, suspected that Saddam might have some battlefield chemical and biological capability left over from his war with Iran, but they could see that the consequences of invading Iraq were far more dangerous than any threat represented by Saddam.

As I wrote, last year:

Imagine, for a moment, that U.S. troops invading Iraq had, as they neared Baghdad, been fired on by an artillery unit using shells filled VX nerve gas — an attack that would have lasted minutes before a U.S. aircrew had taken out the battery, and may have brought a horrible death to a handful of American soldiers. Imagine, further, that the conquering troops had later discovered two warehouses full of VX and mustard gas shells. And later, that inspectors in a science lab had discovered a refrigerator full of Botulinum toxin or even anthrax.

The Administration and its allies in the punditocracy would have “proved” their case for war, and the media would have hailed President Bush as the kind of Churchillian visionary that he imagines himself to be. And goodness knows what new adventures the Pentagon ideologues would have immediately begun planning.

Now, ask yourself, had the above scenario unfolded and the “case for war” (on the terms accepted by the media and the Democrats) been proven, would Iraq look any different today? Would it be any less of a bloodbath; any less of a quagmire for U.S. troops; any less of a geopolitical disaster; any less of a drain on U.S. blood and treasure? Would the U.S. mainland or U.S. interests and allies worldwide be any safer today? In short, would the Iraq invasion seem any less of a catastrophic strategic blunder had the U.S. discovered some caches of unconventional weapons in Iraq?

The answer to all of those questions is obviously no.

And it’s from that point that we must begin our discussion on Iran, and the media’s role in preparing the American public for another disastrous war of choice. The “necessity” in the American public mind to go to war in Iraq was established through the mass media — a failure for which there has been precious little accounting. But that failure runs far deeper than is typically acknowledged even by critics: It was not simply a case of the media failing to properly and critically interrogate the spurious claims by the Administration of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction capability. Sure, even the likes of France and Germany suspected that Saddam may, in fact, have still had a few piles of chemical munitions left over from the Iran-Iraq war. The point, however, is that they did not see these as justifying a war. They recognized from the outset that invading Iraq would cause more problems than it would solve.

The more important failure of the U.S. media, then, is its failure to question the basic proposition that if Iraq had, indeed, had unconventional weapons, then an invasion and occupation of that country was a wise and prudent course of action.

Of course many of the decision-makers in the U.S. media in the wake of 9/11 were scared and confused, and looking for John Wayne-style authority figures for comfort — read back now and you’ll find some astounding toadying up to the self-styled tough guys of the Administration: Bill Keller’s wet-kiss profile of Paul Wolfowitz in the New York Times suggested to me a man playing out Robert Mitchum’s epiphany in The Green Berets, the jaded liberal recognizing the harsh truths of John Wayne’s approach to making the world safe for freedom. And Donald Rumsfeld’s loquacious buffoonery created a comforting sense of certainty among a liberal media intelligentsia suddenly desperate to embrace an imperial mythology, and in the case of the George Packers and Peter Beinarts, to render it profound as a narrative of global liberation. Others simply preferred to avoid anything that might have demagogues branding them “un-American,” for fear of losing ad dollars.

That may help explain the failure, but it does not excuse it.

The fact that carnival barkers like Kristol and Beinart continue to be touted as having opinions worth heeding on these matters is ample evidence that the media has either learned little, or else is more dedicated to a kind of edutainment vaudeville than in empowering the American people to make informed foreign policy choices.

Beinart, in a mawkish attempt to account for himself in the excellent Bill Moyers documentary Buying the War, offers up this little gem: “The argument in the fall of 2002 was not mostly about the facts, it was about a whole series of ideas about what would happen if we invaded.”

Exactly. The fact that Beinart and company were wrong on the facts was only part of the problem. More importantly, it was their ideas about the use of force and its consequences that proved so disastrously flawed. And most of the decision-makers in the mainstream media did not bother to challenge the basic proposition that if Saddam had certain categories of weapons, then an invasion was necessary and beneficial.

The very idea that there are certain categories of weapons that draw down a red mist over rational discussion of geopolitical options is an exceedingly dangerous one — that should be one of the key lessons drawn from Iraq. And that’s exactly what’s being cooked up over Iran, too.

The deeper problem, of course, is the Administration’s belief — and the media’s willingness to indulge it — in revolutionary violence as a means to an end. But that’s a theme we’ll have to explore further in a separate post.

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9 Responses to Iraq, an American ‘Nakbah’

  1. Patrick says:

    Tony writes “Not only was it patently obvious that there was no evidence to back up the case for war …”

    Yes indeed, and interestingly I heard former Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chretien on television today speaking about the decision of his government not to support the Iraq war. At the time he called it ‘unjustified’ and left it at that, without elaborating. In today’s remarks he explained that it was evident to him that there were no WMDs in Iraq.

    Aren’t the Bush people fond of saying that all other governments also thought that Iraq had WMDs. Well apparently this is not the case for the gov’t of Canada, one of the closest allies of the US.

  2. morris says:

    What a fitting excerpt, Brecht’s poem!
    At least re our leaders.
    Should the other side speak of our western leaders as enemies, I couldn’t help but be understanding.
    The Naqbah is for everyone, with no sign of our direction lessening.
    And all that trumpeting of Iraq being a training ground for terrorists, ‘talk about fears becoming reality’,
    Word ‘on the street’ is: ‘so people are going to die, so what’.
    And the world watches ….

  3. elkern says:

    All right on, but I would quibble with one part:

    “In short, would the Iraq invasion seem any less of a catastrophic strategic blunder had the U.S. discovered some caches of unconventional weapons in Iraq?

    The answer to all of those questions is obviously no.”

    Not so obvious to me.

    The only way I see to get US out of Iraq is to turn the mess over to someone else… anyone. But who would bother? Cheyney & Bush lied us into the mess, and we – the US public – actually re-elected them! If I lived anywhere else, I would never support helping the US out of Iraq until we dealt openly, through public congressional hearings, with the lies which got us in there – until we impeached and arrested the war criminals who caused this.

    Unfortunately, the Democrats don’t have the guts for this. Worse, they seem to fear open discussion of their complicity: they could have prevented the invasion, but did not. Why?

    1. Political ambition – Hillary, Kerry, etc.
    2. Cowardice & stupidity – afraid of being out-witted by Rove, they allowed themselves to get, well, outwitted by Rove.
    3. Israel – The D’s get $Millions from pro-Israel supporters, and the destruction of Iraq eliminated it as a strategic competitor of Israel for a few generations at least.

    So now the Democrats have “plans” to get us out which will just leave Iraq in an even worse hole. Not that McCain’s “plan” is any better…

    Bah, we’re screwed. But poor Iraq, they’re even screweder.

  4. doug kellam says:

    Tony, wasn’t that David Janssen who had the “epiphany” in Green Berets?

  5. Wow this is great pic tony Where you find this?

  6. Julia Rabbe says:

    Not long ago i came across your posting and have really been browsing along. I was thinking I will leave my 1st comment given it genuinely captured my attention. I most certainly will check back here quite often to check for new articles.

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