What Are We To Do About Iraq?
Genesis of a Fatal War
Operation Iraqi Freedom is the clockwork-orange name of a 21st century crime against humanity exceeding by far the tallies of 9/11—in lives lost, but also in the dismemberment of two societies: the literal dismemberment of Iraq, the constitutional dismemberment of the United States. This is the tally today, on the fourth anniversary of the launching of the war: 3,475 “coalition” dead in Iraq, 3,218 of them American or would-be American (the number of immigrants fighting to win citizenship, and dying before they do, is one of the many untold stories of this war), and between 59,000 and 65,000 Iraqi civilians. No need to go with the Lancet study that puts the tally closer to 650,000. This isn’t to discredit it necessarily, but to point out that even the 59,000 deaths documented by Iraq Body Count’s extremely conservative method is crime and catastrophe enough. That lowest estimate is more than the United States lost in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975. For a nation of 26 million, it’s the equivalent of 680,000 killed in a nation as populous as the United States , or more deaths than all the dead and missing of the American Civil War.
The notion that Osama bin laden could have possibly disrupted life as we knew it in the United States or the west was only as preposterous as we would allow it to be. Which, of course, we have. Life in the United States has been disrupted. It’s become less free, more selfish, less knowledgeable, more simplistic about the world, less accommodating of foreigners and immigrants, less lawful from the highest levels, more violent—in crime but more especially and criminally in police conduct—less democratic, more fearful, more cowardly, and much more stupid, too: sizeable minorities still buy the Bush administration’s old storyline about Iraq and 9/11, about al-Qaeda and Iraq, about radical Islam out to “get” America. All those disruptions aren’t Osama’s. They’re almost exclusively President Bush’s doing, with the abetting of a Congress, even now, and a nation that would not dream of laying off the “war on terror” mentality of fearful self-aggrandizement no matter how colossal the icebergs of our America’s own creation. To quote Bernard Chazelle writing here a few days ago, “the divide in Washington is between people who want to rearrange the chairs of the Titanic and those who argue that our highest priority should be to change the wallpaper.”
It’s not that proofs of acts meriting impeachment and life in prison (capital punishment being a barbaric act too far) by George Bush and members of his administration won’t eventually be produced. They will. In Bush’s own words and the words of his connivers. But what’s cause for impeachment one day is relegated to an unsigned, inside-page brief the next. This is how irrefutable indictments of war’s criminal conductors finally trickles out years after the fact: On February 15, 1997, the New York Times ran an unsigned brief (less than 300 words long) on an inside page, reporting on two telephone conversations on May 27, 1964, in which Lyndon Johnson admits to McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, then to a Richard Russell, his friend and Democratic senator from Georgia, that the Vietnam War was lost — but he wouldn’t stop fighting it for fear of being impeached. Six months earlier he’d won the presidency by a landslide by calling Barry Goldwater a warmonger. Less than a year later Johnson would launch own troop surge that, under the guidance and lies of Gen. William Westmorland among others, would eventually reach more than half a million soldiers. In the conversations, Johnson called the war “the biggest damn mess I ever saw […] I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out.” Why not? He worried about his own skin: “They’d impeach a President, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?” A preposterous, if face-saving claim: In the 88 th Congress between 1963 and 1965 Democrats controlled 66 Senate seats to Republicans’ 34. In the House the Democratic majority was just as crushing (259-176). They’d have had to impeach him had they found out that he thought what he did yet did nothing about it.
It’s just as astonishing that once the Johnson Presidential Library released the tapes, the Times didn’t think the revelation remarkable enough to give it its own front-page treatment. What was on Page One that day? “Clinton and Gore Received Warnings on Asian Donors,” a 2,000-word story; “New York Delays Sewage Release at EPA and Whitman’s Urging.” Two stories about Clinton ordering striking American Airlines pilots back to work. And a 1,200-word opus on the entirely forgotten Alexis Herman, a Labor Secretary nominee whose lucrative real estate investments were raising questions. The Lyndon Johnson revelation? Page 12. Leave it to Russell Baker a month later to say the obvious in a column: “Sometimes the most startling stories barely make it into the papers,” although he gives credence to LBJ’s fears of impeachment: “In 1964 he had good reasons to think so. These lay in the long, savage political wars of the 1950’s. Starting with their investigations of Communist influences on the Roosevelt and Truman Governments, Republicans found it politically rewarding to accuse Democrats of being ‘soft on Communism.’ Richard Nixon was famous for his pioneering toil in this vein, and Democrats hated him for it forevermore. By the 1950’s anti-Communism had become the glue binding an otherwise divided Republican Party in brotherhood. And, oh, how powerful were its juices!”
No sense retelling the untold stories of the Vietnam War. But that glue now doesn’t just bind Republicans, but Democrats, too, to Republicans. Here we are on the fourth anniversary of the war, and something as clearly unrelated to the war on terror as Iraq manages to give both parties the same kinds of felonious shivers withdrawing from Vietnam did LBJ, even though withdrawal is only viable political, military and, not least but always last, humane solution. Of course, the “war on terror” is no longer related to the war on terror, either. What began in late 2001 as a barely legitimate response to the attacks of 9/11 (it should never have been a “war,” but the concerted and relentless operation of two hundred nations policing every cave, every back-alley, every gutter every day for every al-Qaeda operative who’d dare show so much as a whisker) has metastasized into the cancerous parody of a war with no more legitimacy than the war in Iraq.
The two wars are in that regard related, twins of mendacity and exaggerations. They’re creations of bloodletting “over there” for political gains over here. To shed the Bush warmongers’ famous phraseology of its false airs, “We fight the ‘terrorists’ over there so we don’t have to fight the liberals over here.” It works, too, and will continue to work well past the 2008 election, a milestone encrusting with much too much meaning. We’ll be disappointed. The war in Iraq remains the daily murder and corrosion that it is for Iraqis. But it is no longer a great loss for Americans, most of whom, one has to assume (if one assumes that most Americans aren’t dolts) have known since 2004 what LBJ knew about Vietnam in 1964: the war was lost long ago. What remains as far as America is concerned are the two obsessions with face-saving choreography and whatever workable compromise will keep at least some American paws on Iraq ’s oil wells. Beyond that, Americans really don’t give a pig’s tail what happens to Iraq anymore than they give a pig’s tail what happens in Darfur or Lapland.
The indifference, of course, is what enabled the war to start with four years ago, and what enables the war’s consequences — and its enabler-in-chief — to reap the grim harvest ahead. The American death tally in Iraq may not be that high, relatively speaking and as Iraq war lovers are so fond of pointing out every time bloody milestones are reached. It’s still nowhere near the tallies of Vietnam or Korea , let alone World War II. The same can’t be said of the Iraqi death tally. Nor can be it said of the tally at home in the United States , which has very little to do with the dead, and everything to do with an idea that should have never been allowed to die. The heart went out of Rome ’s Republic, too, many years before the Caesars ripped it out for decoration along with their laurels. What heart beats still in the American republic is as diseased as, appropriately, the hearts that make the disease the number one killer in the United States . The dismemberment of America ’s constitutional system of checks and balances, of effective congressional dissents and independent judges, may be Bush’s creation. Its undoing may not precede America ’s own. What wasted vitality. What wasted promise.
The fourth anniversary of the Iraq war isn’t a joke-ridden occasion, although I’m not of the opinion that just because something has been a catastrophic tragedy that has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed a nation and now risks precipitating a regional war, it shouldn’t be made fun of. If that was the case we’d never have had “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H” and “Slaughterhouse Five,” the great satirical novels of military absurdity in World War II and the Korean War, or even “La vita è Bella,” “Life Is Beautiful,” the great movie by the Italian Roberto Benigni, which won four Oscars 10 years ago and managed to turn the horror of the Holocaust on its head not by denying it, but by denying it (with the kind of slapstick humor you might have expected of John Belushi or Bill Murray) the ability to conquer a child’s innocence and sense of joy (see an excerpt here). You can’t laugh away an executioner. But humor stands up to brutality by demolishing its rationale, by showing it up for the perversion of humanity that it is. Laughing in the face of the executioner is a more powerful last rite than anything a priest could dish out. In that sense humor is powerfully redeeming, but I think only if humor is on the side of the good: Humor is the weapon of the powerless or the virtuous. In the hands of the powerful it’s not humor but cruelty.
When nations go to war you invariably hear this business about “God is on our side.” The more easily proven and therefore useful question should be: “Is humor on your side?” In the Iraq invasion, it wasn't on America's side. If you’re the invader and the jokes are at your expense rather than at the expense of those you’re trying to defeat, you’ve already lost one of the most important battles of the war, and will likely lose the rest.
Looking back a little at the jokes that accompanied the early days of the invasion and the occupation, we can see the sickness behind the jokes, the kind of sickness at the heart of the justifications for the war: the arrogance, the presumption, the ignorance that led the Bush fraternity boys to launch a war of choice any college freshman who’s taken a survey course in Middle East history could have told them they could not possibly win. I went on The Internets, as our Lord and Savior president likes to put it, and looked up a few military jokes from the period. Here’s one: Question: Who is an Iraqi Hero? Answer: He’s the one that waited thirty seconds before he surrendered. Well, no one puts Iraqis and surrender in the same sentence anymore. Question: What should Iraq get for its air defense system? Answer: A refund. I can tell you now that none of the soldiers involved in the five recent helicopter crashes in Iraq are telling that sort of joke anymore.
Here’s one from Dennis Miller on the Tonight Show one month before the invasion: “I would call the French scumbags, but that, of course, would be a disservice to bags filled with scum. I say we invade Iraq, then invade Chirac.” These jokes of course were all told with the assumption that fighting the war and victory were never in question. They’re the essence of imperial humor. We joke, therefore we conquer. The triumphalists were telling them like it was their due. The jokes weren’t just a projection of wishful thinking or presumed victories. They defined the Bush doctrine by other means.
You can see now how far off the mark the jokes were, how stupid they were really. You can just as clearly see that the jokes that have the most bite now are the jokes made at the time by those who weren’t nearly so sure all the French-bashing and hilarious warmongering on Iraqi surrender monkeys was particularly wise. Here’s Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, one week before the invasion: “In protest to France's opposition to a U.S. war in Iraq, the U.S. Congress' cafeteria has changed French fries and French toast to freedom fries and freedom toast. Afterwards, the congressmen were so pleased with themselves, they all started Freedom kissing each other. In a related story, in France, American cheese is now referred to as Idiot cheese.” It probably still is. She wasn’t finished: “And don't think that by eating Freedom fries that you're being patriotic and helping the war effort. Use less gasoline, read a newspaper. You know what? How about we cool it with the Freedom fries anyway, you fat asses! We are the fattest country in the world. Have you ever walked around an American mall? It's nothing but Chick-fil-As and Lane Bryant track suits busting at the seams!”
Leave it to David Letterman though to sum up the entire Iraq war, past, present and future, in one line. Here’s how he joked right about the time of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was a joke in itself: “We have defeated Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The good news is, Iraq is ours. And the bad news is, Iraq is ours.”
Only wars have the capacity to frame our lives in entirely national, collective memories and conversations. They contaminate most aspects of our lives, not always for the better, and they tend to set us on radically different courses, because more than any other single event, they get us to thinking about who we are, and about redefining what we ought to be. It’s a strange psychology, this business of collective fixations in wartime, but I think it has a lot of relevance for the way we think about our role in the world, and in this case, what we think we ought to have done, and what we ought to do now, about Iraq . In both cases, we’re wrong even to ask the question, and perhaps better advised to wonder why we ask the question to begin with. If this sounds like a reversal of the old Budweiser commercial—Why Ask Why—so much the better: We’ve been drunk on not asking the why of things for so long that now that we’re in the hang-over period, we don’t know what hit us. We might as well find out who put the roofies in our drinks to make raping Iraq such an affair to remember. It’s not just the usual suspects.
I spent my first 14-odd years in Lebanon , long enough in that brief span to live through parts or all of a couple of wars on Lebanese soil and a couple more above it. The ones with Israel were strictly spectatorships for Lebanon . But before the big one erupted in 1975, there was the brief one of May 1973, the last time a Lebanese president showed evidence of testicular ordnance, when Palestinian guerillas were pounded about in their alleged refugee camps. My memories are filled with both wars (I can still see and hear those old 1950s Hunter jets rising from the horizon after dropping their bombs, and my mother taking pots of coffee to the soldiers quartered in the streets below: we were on 24-hour curfew). But in Lebanon the question we all asked ourselves was the exact opposite of what Americans ask themselves in wars. Americans say: what are we going to do about Vietnam? What are we going to do about Nicaragua, Salvador, Panama. What are we going to do about Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Florida. In Lebanon, the question always was: Who is going to do what for Lebanon? When is America going to intervene? When is Syria going to get the hell out? When is Israel going to make up its mind about being an ally, an invader, a miracle or a rolling homage to barbarians? It’s a telling difference. We don’t think about it much in the United States. The Lebanese ask themselves those questions because they’ve never been masters of their fate. The questions they pose themselves are an indictment of the weakest part of their character, their inability to know unity and national consensus from Sophia Loren’s boobs—a flaw as vulgar as the imagery it evokes.
The United States has never not been master of its own fate. Even in the eighteenth century when the British still controlled the colonies, the American really was his own man, which is why the American Revolution was more of a confirmation of American independence than a revolution that created it. Beginning with the earliest European landings here the United States and its white-shaded ancestors have always decided other people’s fates. As a result Americans don’t merely take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for self-evident truth. They also consider other people’s lives, if not quite their liberty and pursuit of happiness, as self-evidently ours to do with what we will. (They? We? I should be honest and concede the possessive. I took the oath too.) So when we ask: what are we to do about Iraq, we don’t realize to what extent just about every other nation on earth wonders what guile we have to be asking the question to start with — let alone what guile we have as we go about answering it. It’s true that for the first century of our history Europeans and the rest of the world didn’t feel the effects of those answers much. Our self-evident truths were restricted to Indians and blacks, and then Mexicans’ ancestors south of the border.
But right around the time of the corpulently imperial trinity of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, we started asking questions similar to the one today about Iraq : what are we to do about Cuba ? What are we to do about the Philippines ? What are we to do about all those delicious Pacific islands? The answer was usually bloody and imperial. It was only with Woodrow Wilson that the idea of spreading democracy by example instead of by Gatling gun started winning a few converts, and even then it took the massacres of World War I to do it. With all this tradition behind us, it’s no wonder that within the United States , most Americans don’t stop to think whether the question, what should we do about Iraq , is a legitimate one to ask. Neocons asked it out of imperial presumption. Liberals asked it out of humanist concern. Neither reason cuts it, because both reasons take their root from the same impulse—from that assumption that somehow the United States has the right to go fix other people’s nations, whatever the motives. Consciously or not for those who told them, that’s what those Iraqi war jokes referred to in the second part of this series were doing. The humor was as reckless as the hubris.
It’s not by coincidence that a lot of the national debate about what to do about Iraq happened at the same time that the country went through those strange, slightly nauseating years of nostalgia for the so-called Greatest Generation. It’s as if the United States longed for a time when it was engaged in a world war just so its young men could prove themselves, or so young men who’d survive the slaughter they’d been ordered to contribute limbs and wrecked families to could prove themselves, and the country could be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world again. President Bush even said as much to Bob Woodward: “[S]hortly after the [9/11] attacks,” Woodward wrote in “Bush At War,”, “Rove was in the Oval Office and Bush had told him, just like my father’s generation was called in World War II, now our generation is being called. […] ‘I’m here for a reason,’ Bush said, ‘and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged.’” It’s as if he was glad the country had been attacked so it gave his damn generation a chance to prove itself.
He was right about one thing. We’re certainly being judged, but not the way he imagined. The University of Maryland and Zogby International just released the findings from their annual survey of Arab opinion. Almost 4,000 individuals in six Arab countries were interviewed. The survey demolishes the assumption that Osama bin laden is a big GI-Joe-like hero among the masses. He garners little to no admiration higher than two or one percent, except in Egypt where he has five percent. He gets zero percent approval in Lebanon and two percent in his native Saudi Arabia . Asked in those same countries which leader people disliked most, Bush was the outright winner at 38 percent, followed by the dead or dying Ariel Sharon at 11 percent, and Blair at 3 percent. Simon Cowell, surprisingly, doesn’t rate. Oddly, it's Jordanians who despise Bush most among those Arab countries: 57 percent of Jordanians rank Bush atop their “dislike” list — still less than the proportion of Americans who do so, incidentally, since the latest Gallup poll has 63 percent disapproving of Bush. (Yes, as a friend wisely pointed out, the comparison is slightly misleading, but it’s a difference of degrees, not sentiment.) . So when I hear Bush say “I’m here for a reason,” I think about a Top Ten list by David Letterman from March 2000: “Top Ten Headlines from a Bush Presidency.” At number two? “President fails in shoe-tying bid.”
What’s nutty about Bush making that remark to Rove about being here for a reason is what’s nutty about his world view regarding all his wars. He thinks the war on terror or the war in Iraq can be put on the same footing as the war on fascism, or even, for that matter, on the same footing as the Cold War. Obviously it gives his wars a good ring, a good selling point. The reality has been disastrously different. Not only is the nostalgia dissonant. It’s flat wrong. But that’s what you get from anachronistic nostalgia and amnesiac history: not only did Bush think he was master of America ’s and the world’s fates. He thought he had über-Hegelian powers to control history, too, to shape it past and future in his, god help us, image.
Obnoxious and largely inaccurate nostalgia over the “Greatest Generation” aside, World War II established the United States as the superpower it hasn’t stopped being since, economically and militarily. The Korean War was the true beginning of the Cold War, which created in this country what we now know as the national security state and the twin dominance of the military establishment, the us-and-them mentality that keeps the United States on a war footing so corrosively, but without which there would be no military establishment. We took a break from the madness in the 1990s, but the same idea returned in 2001. Instead of the war on Communism, we have the war on terror. In both cases, the nation’s leaders positioned themselves and the national discussion in this frame of mind: You’re for freedom and for America if you’re against Communism. No gray areas. Therefore everything that opposed some American value, whether opposition to segregation or opposition to inequality, was opposition to the American mission, making you a disloyal American. It was a neat, powerful way to ward off change. That’s what the conservatism of the 1950s was all about. It’s also what conservatism today is all about. By conflating everything liberal as anti-American or America-hating, it attempts to discredit opposition whether or not it has anything to do, say, with the war in Iraq .
But World War II had also started something that the polite conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and the rabidity of Joe McCarthy couldn’t stop. World War II sped up the great black migration north, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. The GI Bill started that great experiment in mass higher education as millions of returning soldiers went to college. So those progressive forces moved not necessarily in concert but together against the reactionary forces of the Cold War establishment, the Red Scare types, the supposedly benevolent imperialism of Vietnam. We got the 1960s as a result.
Thanks to the conservative resurgence that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1960s took a severe and mostly undeserved beating. It was supposedly the decade when the country began “slouching toward Gomorrah,” in the words of Robert Bork, the former federal appeals court judge who tends to slouch toward anything suppressive and autocratic. But the conservative story-line about the 1960s is bankrupt. Iraq and the Bush years have exposed conservatism for the duplicitous opportunism that it’s been. Ronald Reagan is crying on the cover of Time because he sees what’s coming. It’s a matter of time before the 60s experience a resurgence of their own — as a model of constructive self-doubt and social renewal.
The 1960s are the last time the nation really questioned itself about its role in the world and its purpose as a nation. The wars in Vietnam and on America’s streets were unhealthy symptoms of a nation in trouble. But they provoked healthy soul-searching. Who of that angriest generation doesn’t remember distinctly the kind of traumas that reverberated here because of what was going on over there—the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s “We Are Mired in Stalemate” declaration on CBS in February 1968, the My Lai massacre exposed in November 1969, the killings at Kent State in May 1970, the “hard hats riots” in New York City a few weeks later, the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam, the escalation into Cambodia. All of those things did something to the country even as the country was trying to do something about Vietnam.
Martin Luther King anticipated that national soul-searching as far back as 1967 when he had this to say about the Vietnamese in his famous Beyond Vietnam speech: “They must see Americans as strange liberators. […] For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam . […] The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. […] What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe ? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?”
Replace the word Vietnam with the word Iraq, and you get a picture that has hardly changed. It’s not about land reform this time. It’s about democracy. It’s not even about democracy anymore. It’s about security. And in fact it’s never been about security, WMDs, terrorism or even regional stability. It’s always been about oil, otherwise we’d be invading places like the Congo and the Sudan, where literally millions of people have been killed in civil war and ethnic cleansing. Why isn’t the national conscience so eager to go over there and create free and democratic republics? Well, first off they’re black. Second, there’s no oil, or not much anyway. The Sudan has some, but the oil conveniently flows where the blood doesn’t. So Martin Luther King was onto something when he referred to “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
It would be another six years after King’s speech before Richard Nixon removed ground troops from Vietnam, and eight years until that last helicopter flew off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. The war provoked a rethinking of America’s role in the world and of the American presidency. But then came Gulf War I, which essentially rehabilitated the United States as the world’s policeman, and then came the second Bush, and then came that 9/11. For a moment there, we did have the glimmer of a nation stopping to wonder: who are we, what are we becoming, who could possibly want us such harm that we don’t quite understand? And for a moment, the world’s solidarity, Iran and China and the entire club of dictatorships and tyrannies among them, was with the United States.
But just as Bush was to squander a world of good will in the aftermath of the attacks, he also squandered a chance at redefining American purpose in the world. He reduced absolutely everything to that Manichaean view of the world as good and evil, us versus them, us being the virtuous saviors of the world, them being the evil ones out to destroy us and the world. That’s not to say that the acts that had targeted the United States weren’t evil, and that there wasn’t a world of good to defend against them. But all of a sudden we were caught in the juvenile world of comic-book and superhero babble at a time that evoked something closer to Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost. There was no national discussion, no questioning. Can any of us think of a single great speech delivered in the last six years that comes anywhere close to the kind of self-reflective themes Martin Luther King tackled in his Beyond Vietnam speech?
Instead, we had the House of Representatives passing the Iraq War Resolution by a vote of 296 to 133, the Senate by a vote of 77 to 23. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, the majority leader at the time, John Edwards, John Kerry, Bill Nelson, Jay Rockefeller, Joe Biden, Max Cleland, who would later go around in his wheelchair campaigning for Kerry and bashing Bush over the Iraq war, Harry Reid, the current Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer—they all voted for the war. Only one Republican Senator voted against it. That was Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and ironically he was defeated by a Democrat in the last election. Yes, there were a few Democrats voting against the war, and even some of them trying to make an impression from the floor of the Senate: Barbara Boxer, Robert Byrd, Russ Feingold, Florida’s Bob Graham and the late Paul Wellstone. But they weren’t even voices in the wilderness. They were treated like curiosities, like radicals, and in some cases called disloyal, anti-American, part of that liberal left that just wants the worst for America. Where were the debates? Where were the discussions?
Subversion doesn’t happen only against governments. The most effective purveyors of subversion are governments. They subvert the truth. They subvert history. They subvert the healthy will to doubt, to question, to oppose. The Bush administration did all those things in the last six years. The country may be slouching as a result — back to the healthy subversions of the 1960s. It’s about time, although the malfeasance of the Reagan-Bush-Bush axis over Iraq remains the overriding subversion of any attempt to return the nation to a healthier, more humble, more questioning self.
The last of five parts marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War retraces the steps of the fatal question that started it all—not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and against Iran because Manufacturing monsters is an American foreign-policy specialty with a long and bloody tradition behind it . The answer to the question, of course, is no mystery.
It’s well known that for eight years before the first Gulf War, the Reagan administration never had a problem with Saddam Hussein. It saw in him a buffer against Iran , if not a way to defeat the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the way it saw in al-Qaeda’s founders a way to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the way it sees the current regime in Iraq as a mean of countering the insurgency. Manufacturing monsters is an American foreign-policy specialty with a long and bloody tradition behind it. The Reagan administration not only enabled Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime and gave him military and intelligence support in his war against Iran . Less well known is that Reagan’s men did so even after Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. Even less well known is the depth of the administration’s alliance with Saddam Hussein despite, and probably because of, his use of chemical weapons against Iranians.
There’s an area at the southernmost tip of Iraq called the Fao Peninsula . It’s an extremely valuable piece of real estate that enables Iraq to have access to the Persian Gulf through which it exports a good deal of its oil. The Iranians took over the peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. The United States was doing what it could to help Iraq reclaim it, and in late 1987, Iraq did. In August 2002, the New York Times’ lead story reported this: “Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, [several] American military officers said President Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq. […] In early 1988, after the Iraqi Army, with American planning assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in an attack that reopened Iraq 's access to the Persian Gulf , a defense intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, now retired, was sent to tour the battlefield with Iraqi officers […]. He reported that Iraq had used chemical weapons to cinch its victory […]. Colonel Francona saw zones marked off for chemical contamination, and containers for the drug atropine scattered around, indicating that Iraqi soldiers had taken injections to protect themselves from the effects of gas that might blow back over their positions.”
Francona now appears regularly on NBC News’ various franchises as a big fan of the Iraq war, and writes a blog that’s a warmonger’s dream. This guy flew missions with the Iraqi Air Force of Saddam Hussein. Now he’s lecturing us about taking the fight to the Iraqis. That’s the sort of irony and double-talk that pollutes just about everything the Bush administration touched in the run-up to the Iraq war and since.
The founding problem of that run-up wasn’t those deceptions though. The deceptions were just the tactics, the enactment of something bigger, although it took the shape of that simple something we keep coming back to, that question, What are we to do about Iraq ?
here’s no question that every nation big and small must have a foreign policy. The more powerful the nation, the heavier the burden of influence and responsibility. I’m not suggesting that the United States , being the only superpower on the planet, should just sit back and let all other nations be no matter what. But the presumption behind the question the Bush administration posed about Iraq was different from the presumption behind the question, say, Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman or Richard Nixon posed about the Soviet Union . Back then we were engaged in a war against an ideology that, like radical Islam, was supposedly out to destroy us. (I don’t buy the preposterous idea that radical Islam is out to destroy the West or that it gives a hoot about the West’s decadence. But play along for a moment). The difference then was that the Soviets had about, oh, 6,000 to 12,000 nuclear warheads pointing in the direction of the United States . It’s not as if any of the presidents during the Cold War could fancy “regime change” in Moscow, no matter how many millions were dying in Stalin’s Gulag, no matter how many millions were denied their freedom and their democracy subsequently, no matter how many kinds of weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical included, we knew the Soviets to have stockpiled—as the United States had them stockpiled, and has them still. That’s why we had containment based on mutually assured destruction. The United States would do what it could to contain the Soviets within their sphere, and both sides scared the hell out of each other with the knowledge that if either dared fire a missile, it would be the end for everyone. That may not have been the wisest policy in the world. But we’re still here. So in that regard it worked.
When the question started getting asked about Iraq , by the Bush administration anyway, containment was passé. So was the Soviet Union . And Gulf War I had proved that this old Rambo may just have a sequel or two in his belt. Ironically, the policy of “rollback” favored by conservatives of the 1950s against the Soviet Union , and justly discredited then as reckless—“rollback” proponents believed in taking the fight to the Soviets rather than containing them—is what really made a come-back in neo-con clothing in 2001. In other works there was nothing neo about the cons. They were rolling back to their Neolithic roots of the 1950s. The idea was: how can we go in, remove Saddam, and install a régime friendly to the United States in the heart of the Arab world, and maybe cause a domino effect throughout the Middle East that would bring about some democratic change. In fairness to the Bush version of the story, there’s no question that some destabilization of Arab regimes was warranted. This is a region of autocrats and tyrants, all of it, from Pakistan on the Asian subcontinent to the tip of northwest Africa , where the sunny despotism of Tunisia and Morocco reigns on. But most of these countries are also American allies. We even outsource our prisoners to their prisons where they can be tortured in peace. So that kind of discredits Bush’s claim that he’s out to free the Middle East . The truth is that he’s bothered a couple of countries aren’t in the American camp yet where they can be predictably controlled.
But invasions and occupations of any Arab or Islamic land cannot work. The French and the British found out the hard way in the first half of the 20 th century in places like Algeria and Iraq . In fact, Woodrow Wilson knew it before the French and the British found out, way back in 1919 when, at Versailles , the victorious European powers offered the United States a share of the spoils from the Ottoman Empire . The United States could have had a mandate even then over places like Syria or Jordan or Iraq . Woodrow Wilson’s answer was simple: We don’t do colonialism, no matter how you disguise it. The lessons of the 20 th century are a distant memory and Americans have never been good at history that doesn’t entail a love story, a fabulous shoot-out and the saving of the planet by a cast of People Magazine’s best-dressed and most-eligible sexpots. That’s why Gore Vidal calls us the United States of Amnesia. Still, without a shred of history, a majority of Americans would have known that something was too rotten in the Kingdom of Iraq to bother fishing after it had the Bush administration not been dishonest about Iraq’s bogus links to 9/11 or its bogus links to al-Qaeda or its bogus nuclear weapons program or its bogus chemical and biological weapons program.
It’s not that the stories of dishonesty and scheming weren’t there for the public to read. A minority of Americans and a majority of the world knew that the Bush administration was on a collision course with catastrophe in 2002 and 2003. But the presidency still carries enormous credibility. People, and for good reason, don’t want to assume that their president is lying to them. They don’t want to imagine that what the president represents could amount to nothing more than a clever pack of lies. But that’s not enough of an excuse. There was also a collective willingness to ignore the doubts and the skepticism because the seduction of America as the all-knowing savior, as those eligible bachelor sexpots saving the world, is too powerful an impulse. What are we to do about Iraq was and remains the founding problem. The rest was the fulfillment of a prophesy.
This being a Holy Land time zone, prophesy had been fulfilled already once before. The United States had had its own recent taste of playing nation-building in the Arab world when it sent the Marines to Beirut in 1982 and 1983, supposedly to help Lebanon get back on its feet. Lebanon has a lot of similarities with Iraq. About a third of the population is Shiite. About a quarter is Christian, a quarter or so is Sunni Muslim. There’s even a good minority of Kurds. Unlike Iraq, Lebanon has at least a small tradition of democracy. But it has a long tradition of civil war, too. No need to bore you with details. Let’s just say that at first the Americans were received with rice and open arms. They set up shop in the heart of Shiite country in the southern slums of Beirut. The Marines drove around Beirut, made friends with the locals, exchanged goodies and snapshots and souvenirs, Shiite kids played near their compound. It looked like a miracle of hope. It didn’t last. The Lebanese Christian president saw an opportunity. Why not use the Americans to solidify the Christians’ power base, supposedly under the guise of rebuilding Lebanon as a good, strong American ally and even a peace-maker with Israel? Ronald Reagan may have had his moments. This was not one of them. He fell into the trap. He sided with the Christians, and things started going downhill from there. That’s when the Shiites started taking pot-shots at the Americans, then sniper-shots, then laying ambushes, and then, in April 1983, there was that car bombing of the American Embassy that killed 63 people, taking out most of the CIA contingent working in the Middle East by the way. No one knew it then but Hezbollah was born that year. The bombing was its coming out. Six months later, two suicide bombers rammed into the Marines’ barracks and the French barracks within minutes of each other. Two hundred and forty one Marines were killed, so were fifty-three French soldiers. Not long after that the Marines “redeployed,” as Reagan called it, to their ships in the Mediterranean sea. They’d failed in Beirut because they made the mistake of thinking that they could take sides, that they could negotiate an Arab country’s war by being part of the war, something very different from negotiating a war as a mediator, the way Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David accord in 1978.
The week the American invasion of Iraq started, I wrote a column called “Icarus on Crack. I told this story about the Lebanese mess, and I concluded my column with these three paragraphs: “It is into that mayhem, that Lebanon writ large, that President Bush is sending his army. American soldiers will probably get the rice treatment in Iraq. They'll get the hugs and the roses. The pictures will be grist for a month of Bush-pumping propaganda back in the ‘homeland.’ But the gratefulness of liberation doesn’t outlast the afternoon nap. Those trigger-happy Shiites the Marines last knew in Lebanon, incidentally, form Iraq’s majority, and the country is crawling with Balkan-tempered minorities. Planning the California-scale creation of a pro-American nation out of a Washington Beltway blueprint in the Arab heartland is science fiction with a death wish. It is colossal hubris. It is Icarus on crack. With Afghanistan still smoldering from chaos, the Anglo-American country-hoppers don't know what gothic nightmare they're getting into in Iraq , what they're getting us all into. And it won't end well, no matter the bushels of rice riddling Americans’ welcome along Mesopotamia’s shimmering, shifty sands.”
I take no pride in those words being proven right. But I do take pride in the fact that we live in a country where open discussion and soul-searching, even when it happens late, does happen. If the last election and what Congress is doing now are any sign, the realization is such that it was all a mistake. Unfortunately for this story made in Texas, it’s not like an episode of “ Dallas” where J.R. or Bobby or whoever it was in that shower pops out from the dead because whatever had happened the previous year was all a dream. The nightmare continues, and the question remains: what are we to do about Iraq, or to put it more accurately, what are we to do with the ungodly mess we have created in Iraq?
To some extent I think even that question should not be asked, because it masks the answer we should be giving regardless of the questions being posed: get out of Iraq now, phase it, stagger it, bench-mark it, do whatever you like to mitigate whatever catastrophe that might trigger, but set a deadline that goes no further than the next election—because this must happen on Bush’s broken watch—and get the hell out. As we wrote at the News-Journal recently, “There isn’t a neat solution Americans can embrace—no conditional occupation that Iraqis will accommodate, no withdrawal with honor, not even a peace negotiated under American aegis. The objective, in any case, can no longer afford to be illusory. Democracy won’t work for now. American policing isn’t working. But the killing must stop. The American presence is contributing to the killing. Would withdrawal make it worse? No one knows the answer to that question as much as we know what is happening as long as Americans remain.”
What is happening is not just the continued dismemberment of Iraq, but the regrouping of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the complicity of the Pakistani regime, which pretends to be an ally of the United States with one hand while sitting on a nuclear stockpile with the other. If you think Iraq’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction were a problem in the wrong hands—namely, Bush’s—just wait and see what Pakistan’s very real nuclear weapons will be like in the wrong hands—namely, a Taliban-like regime that overthrows Pakistan’s president and dares what’s left of Bush to do something about it. Forget Iran. The threat is in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In other words, nothing has changed since 2001. So back in Iraq, Americans should withdraw and let Arabs and Iranians deal with the next step. There are precedents for Arab involvement to end wars. The 15-year Lebanese civil war was as sectarian and bloody as Iraq’s. It ended in 1991 thanks to an accord negotiated in Saudi Arabia. “The objective,” we wrote, “wasn’t to create a new Lebanon, but to end the killing. It worked, even if Lebanon isn’t close to being a functioning democracy. Last month, the so-called Mecca Agreement ended the burgeoning civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank. For Iraq, a regional conference involving all of Iraq’s warring factions and Iraq’s neighbors is the best hope to end the killing—even if it relegates American influence to distant bleachers. The nation that wrecked Iraq deserves nothing more. The nations paying the greatest price of Iraq’s wreckage should now decide its fate.”
Maybe all this sounds like a bad joke to American ears. But the entire story of the Iraq war has been a lot worse than a bad joke to the world’s ears, and primarily to the ears of Iraqis. It’s about time the tables were reversed, because the only laughter anyone should hear is the silenced laughter of 70,000 Iraqi and American dead since March 20 th, 2003.