Jessica Lynch’s Children
Fake Calm in Iraq
Still common finds in Iraq ( from Goya's “The Disaster of War,” 1810-1820)
When Kuwait was liberated in 1991 — a strange concept, Kuwait having been free neither before being invaded by Iraq nor since — its citizens lined up the streets of their capital and waved thousands of American flags as troops drove by. “Did you ever stop to wonder,” a man called John Rendon proudly asked during a speech to a government agency, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” He answered his own question: “That was one of my jobs then.”
The first Bush administration hired Rendon to produce the television show known as the first Gulf War. With the Rendon Group, his public relations firm, Rendon won multi-million dollar contracts to make the American occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan look good, and do the same on behalf of the Afghan and Iraqi governments. Propaganda has been a lucrative business in these wars. It gave us such classics as the fabricated toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad early in the war, the taxpayer-supported Pentagon effort to plant positive stories in the Iraqi press, and the more recent mini-series about the successes of the American “surge.”
The propaganda controls are clearly in effective hands today. There’s been no need, as there is in more discriminating Iraq, to plant positive stories in the domestic press. For the most part the mainstream news media here seem as willing as they were in 2003 to buy the Bush administration’s latest recasting of the Iraqi catastrophe as a country on the mend. But caveats grow as lush as date palm in Iraq. Here’s this season’s crop.
Al-Qaida was routed. Not exactly. The semi-mythical invention of “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” was never a force as potent as its Iraqi enemies. One thing Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis agree on is rejection of foreign meddling, be it bin Laden’s or Bush’s. Iraqis reviled al-Qaida before the invasion and had no connection to 9/11. They revile al-Qaida more today, now that Bush’s invasion made its brand of terrorism possible on Iraqi soil. Absent American troops, ironically, al-Qaida would have faced an unrestrained assault from Shiite and Sunni militants, to whom tribe comes before religion, and religion before caliphate.
That’s just as true in the rest of the Arab world. A Brookings Institution survey of Arab opinion in six countries last year showed bin Laden’s popularity never breaking 5 percent. Bin Laden’s popularity in the Middle East is itself an invention, convenient to the Bush administration’s offensive posture there, inconvenient to Arabs who must pay its price. Bin Laden is the Arab world’s Timothy McVeigh, a fringe loon, but one lucky enough to be constantly re-validated by Bush’s monomaniacal war on Islamowhatever.
Refugees are coming back: The return of 25,000 refugees from abroad, out of a total of 2 million, is deceptive. News reports have generally neglected to mention that Syria, where most of Iraq’s refugees have gone, shut its door to them two months ago and is now requiring refugees already there to apply for visas — through the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. In other words, Syria is booting them out.
Our friends the Sunnis. The Bush administration says the new alliance with former Sunni insurgents is a benefit of the surge’s supposed rout of al-Qaida. But those Sunni insurgents had themselves began routing al-Qaida before their alliances with American troops, and well before the “surge” peaked. The Pentagon reversed the chronology to make itself appear as the new strategy’s broker — and to obscure the deeper reason the Bush administration is aligning itself with Sunnis anew. Osama or a free Iraq are not it.
Our former friends the Shiites: Southern Iraq is already a fiefdom under the control of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite who got rid of most of the British presence, and is biding his time before being rid of the American. Sunnis dread a Shiite take-over unrestrained by American occupation. So does Bush, because so do oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates, where militant, resentful Islam is the shifty sands under those authoritarian, unelected, lavishly corrupt and American-backed sheikhdoms. In Iraq, the Bush administration is rediscovering that a Sunni-dominated authoritarian regime wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Lacking that, Sunnis as a proxy force against Shiite hegemony will have to do.
Peace isn’t breaking out in Iraq. A colder, longer war is. It’s further miring the United States in the shards of the Sunni-Shiite divide. And it’s confirming once again in Arab eyes that America’s end game is control of the Middle East’s authoritarian houses of cards. If Enron was an emirate, Bush would be its principal shareholder right now, with America’s foreign policy as collateral.