SINCE 1759

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The Tuesday Column
Bush at the Joystick, World on the Line

Remember “Comical Ali,” the ex-Iraqi minister of information lesser-known as Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf and best-known for his must-see television briefings during the American-led sprint to Baghdad? He was Saddam Hussein’s wonderful PR man who could claim total victory for the Iraqi army even as American tanks were beginning to pretend to control Baghdad’s streets behind him. “They’re not in control of anything,” he famously said that day to a world of laughs and hopes for more stand-up from what was fast becoming the world’s greatest improv stage.

President Bush called him “great,” tongue in cheek, naturally. He could afford to. His own army of Comical Alis - the contingent of American reporters embedded, without protection against serially transmitted disinformation, in the ministry of Bushspeak - was beginning to weave its own triumphal fictions out of Scheherazade’s old digs.

A thousand and one lies later, Comical Ali looks like a prophet and Bush his most faithful disciple. The difference is this. Ali was slapstick in the service of a curdled tin-pot - Castro-on-the-Tigris, if you like. President Bush is tragedy with the world’s fate for a joystick. Whatever reality he invents to prove his infallibility becomes his followers’ indispensable reality, and his reelection campaign’s only chance.

”Today the Iraqi and Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom,” Bush told the United Nations a few weeks ago in a particularly pungent tribute to Ali. The alternative is an admission of failure, a confession that the blood of dozens of American soldiers wasted as cannon fodder every week is just so much lubricant to the hawks’ self-esteem Nov. 2. And who wants to let Dr. Phil have that much fun?

The president’s media mercenaries cheerfully ambush his critics by asking them point blank whether they’d rather have Saddam still in power, then watch them squirm in their rhetorical spider holes. I’ve yet to hear someone answer just as pointedly that the Pentagon’s own briefings, body counts and limbless returns from that “path to democracy” answer the question every day. That Iraq has become more dangerous to the United States with Saddam in prison than Saddam in power. That President Bush has caused more damage to the United States, in lives, dollars, credibility and moral leadership wasted, than Saddam and al-Qaida combined. Not to mention the damage to Iraq, which has exchanged tyranny for anarchy.

Disinformation in Iraq is no longer necessary as it is in the United States. The reporters still working out of Iraq (there aren’t many) no longer venture into the cities and the country to do their job. They can’t. More than 40 reporters have been killed, the roads aren’t safe for Iraqis, let alone foreigners, and the thrill is gone from military embeds. The real story of the devastation of Iraq can only be deduced from the vaults of overflowing morgues, from the tallies of casualties not even the military’s euphemists can wrap in the flag, from the occasional story of soldiers refusing to pull suicide duty (because it has come to this) and, of course, from President Bush’s fair and balanced judgments on the campaign trail.

But the Iraqi voice is probably as unchanging as the Tigris’ gray mud banks, given oppression’s ambient familiarity. The novelist John Dos Passos heard that voice in 1921 during a three-week trip to Baghdad, when a local Arab spoke to him of his admiration for George Washington and Woodrow Wilson even as he described the English as the latest betrayers of Arab trust. Locals had helped the British drive out the Ottomans in exchange for promises of freedom, only to fall victim to the usual colonial deceptions - fake autonomy, fake elections, fake timetables. Not much has changed.

”The allies,” the old Arab told Dos Passos then as his grandson might be saying today, in colloquial language Dos Passos preserved, “had not acted according to the words of Meester Veelson [Mr. Wilson] nor according to the principles of Sheikh Jurij Washiton [George Washington]. This was not good. Arab patriots had been driven out and imprisoned . . . and now the Inglizi [the English], breaking their plighted word, were trying to make slaves of the people of Iraq.” Still, “the Americai must tell his countrymen that the people of Iraq would continue to struggle for their freedom and for the principles announced by Sheikh Washiton and Meester Veelson. The last revolt had failed because it had been ill prepared. Next time . . .”

Dos Passos asked about an impending vote, supposedly about Iraqi autonomy. The old man laughed. “Oh, yes, they had given out papers in the bazaars, but they were already printed with the vote for the mandate, so that the ignorant should vote for the government without knowing it.”

Maybe Meester Bush is onto something when he compares Iraqi democracy to the American democracy of his calculated dreams.


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