Revenge of Reality

| Mon Sep. 22, 2003 12:00 AM PDT


How the White House thinks today: "Administration officials have circulated a draft [UN resolution] that would keep American control over military forces and the transition to self-rule but they are incorporating some suggestions of other nations... A diplomat familiar with administration thinking summarized the American policy as 'talk to the Germans, buy off the Russians and isolate the French.' Another was less polite, saying Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, had characterized the approach as 'ignore, reward and punish'... In comments in recent days, Mr. Powell showed increasing exasperation with the French position, especially over what American officials consider a condescending French view that the United States is in love with being an occupying power."

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-- From Steven R. Weisman's piece, 'U.S. Is Working to Isolate France in U.N. Council on Iraq Approach' in The New York Times)

Dept. of predictions: "A friend representing a French company in Washington recently went with some trepidation to Paris with the unwelcome news that he had been told by the Pentagon that there was absolutely no chance of his employers getting a contract in Iraq

He was not looking forward to report total failure of his well-paid efforts but to his relief the chairman greeted the dire news with prolonged laughter saying: 'Don't worry. Let's just wait a year or two and then it will be American companies which won't be able to do business with the Iraqis.'"

-- From Patrick Cockburn's column, 'The Iraq Wreck, A Failure of Historic Proportions', in Counterpunch

The polls, the polls, the polls: In the last week, Zogby released its most recent poll on presidential job performance, and Bush's numbers had plummeted from August's 52-48% approval to 45%-54% -- startling, however crude the measurement may be. On the "ghost" candidate question, "a majority (52%) said it's time for someone new in the White House, while just two in five (40%) said the president deserves to be re-elected. Last month, 45% said re-election was in order, and 48% said it was time for someone new."

Zogby's figures offer at least a measure of movement, of directionality, seconded by many other recent polls, but Bush seems to have officially gotten his first straightforward sub-50% approval rating, according to the Emerging Democratic Majority site, from "a Republican poll.

    "(DR doesn't count the recent Zogby sub-50 reading, because they ask the approval question differently.) In the just-released Winston Group/New Models poll for the House GOP conference, W's approval rating clocks in at 49 percent, with 46 percent disapproval... The poll also gives the Democrats a 5 point lead (45 percent to 40 percent) in a generic Congressional ballot question. If Karl Rove wasn't nervous before, he might be starting to break a sweat."

The Democrats.com website also has a good rundown of recent polls.

In a CBS news poll largely focused on the President's handling of Iraq, released Wednesday, Bush's approval ratings also fell into negative territory for the first time, though in this poll his overall job approval rating, which dropped, remains at 52%. 47% of Americans now disapprove and 46% approve of his handling of Iraq. On the question, should the United States spend $87 billion on rebuilding Iraq, however, a staggering 66% say no, only 20% yes.

This is a reminder that the public doesn't necessarily accept the Congressional and media wisdom of the moment. Here are a few typical sentences from "Saying When It's Over," a week-old David E. Sanger piece in the New York Times' Week in Review, which seemed to me to encapsulate the contradictory nature of such wisdom:

    "Two years ago, Mr. Bush dreamed of devising exit strategies for American forces from Bosnia and Kosovo. He had to give that up, and he knows that in Iraq, even more so, there is no turning back. A year ago, a top State Department official, Richard Haass, who left the administration two months ago, warned that the war on terrorism offers no easy exit. 'What we need,' he said, 'is an endurance strategy.'"

Another version of this there-is-no-turning-back is more-of-the-same - more money, more advisers, more troops, more equipment. Such comments and commentary could be multiplied many times over along with a constant drumbeat of reassurance in the media that Congress will indeed give the President his $87 billion deposit on the next deposit on the next deposit on an Iraqi (and Afghan) occupation.

But, in fact, all this gut-level, near primordial wisdom of the ages is anything but obvious - in this case, evidently, to many if not most Americans, once the price tag is revealed. Boston Globe columnist Jim Carroll made this clear in a stunning column this week, in which he says that our troops in Iraq have functionally been "taken hostage" by the small clique of men running our government and he calls for a new kind of resistance not just to the war in Iraq, but implicitly to the kind of knee-jerk thought that passes for "wisdom" in our world. He writes in part:

    "Hope shifts away from the Democratic politicians vying to replace Bush. By timidly giving the vague appearance of opposition while assuming the broad necessity of America's ongoing military presence in Iraq, the candidates are Bush's effective collaborators. 'Supporting the troops' gets redefined. Instead of muting criticism out of fear of undermining military morale, declare that US soldiers have been conscripted into an unnecessary and therefore immoral war. The troops must simply be removed from Iraq.

    The cutting edge of the political debate becomes money. All funding for the American occupation, including the $87 billion Bush requested last week, must be opposed. Military appropriations must be cut off."

On this more to come in a moment. But let me just mention another kind of poll that may be an omen of things to come. Think of England, which in oppositional terms, has long been months ahead of us, as the trans-Atlantic equivalent of the Iowa Caucus in our presidential elections. The British Guardianreported yesterday:

    "The Liberal Democrats staged a sensational byelection victory early today when they came from third place to win the Brent East byelection with a 29% swing that will shake Tony Blair's confidence on the eve of Labour's Bournemouth conference."

This was the Labor Party's "first byelection defeat in 15 years" (with the Tories pushed into third place). Iraq anyone?

There's nothing idle about attending to the polls these days. You can be sure that those in power are -- and, perhaps more importantly, those in Congress and the media who are finally, after all these months beginning to notice reality and speak up about it. Someday someone will chart elite "opposition" and the polls and, I suspect, discover how closely the two coincide. After all, you wouldn't want to look the obvious in the face and open your mouth too early, would you?

Strains, strains, strains: I don't have to be in Washington to know that the mood there is already feral. Remember when this was the most "disciplined" administration in history and not a word slipped out that wasn't planned? That might as well have been in another lifetime. Under the pressure of Iraq, thanks in part to tax policies which make the concept of "crony capitalism" look like the something invented by the Salvation Army, rifts are appearing in the administration itself. Jim Lobe of Inter Press News Service reports (The Hawks Fall Out, Asia Times):

    "Faced with the rising costs and complications of occupying Iraq, the hardline coalition around US President George W Bush that led the drive to war with Iraq appears to be suffering serious internal strains... On the one hand, neo-conservatives, who were the most optimistic about postwar Iraq before the US-led invasion, are insisting that Washington cannot afford either to pull out or to surrender the slightest control over the occupation to the United Nations or anyone else.... Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is dead-set against deploying yet more troops... And while he, like the neo-cons, opposes conceding any substantial political role for the UN or anyone else, his preferred option is to transfer power directly to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, even at the risk that reconstituted security forces would be insufficiently cleansed of elements of the former regime's Ba'ath Party."

Under the strain of what increasingly looks like impending disaster and smashed dreams of domination, Lobe adds, the hunt for scapegoats within the administration is heating up - after all, sooner or later someone has to take the fall (as is already happening in England) - with Rumsfeld's name right up there on the list along with Wolfowitz and Feith.

Paul Rogers, global geopolitical analyst for the openDemocracy website, has been tracing some of the unexpected strains, large and small, in Iraq that contributed to that $87 billion price tag which itself is only a down-payment on who knows what. For instance, he writes (The neo-conservative lens):

    "Because of the persistent threat from snipers and roadside explosive devices, US troops are making huge use of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a tracked armoured vehicle that would normally drive about 1,200 kilometres a year and would have its tracks, costing about $22,000, replaced annually. There are about 600 of these vehicles in Iraq and their use averages the equivalent of over 22,000 kilometres a year, with their tracks having to be replaced every two months. Replacement and support costs will run to about $230 million in 2003. Just to keep up with the demand, Goodyear is currently running three shifts a day, seven days a week, at the Red River Army Depot in Texas."

He then traces such Iraqi pressures large and small back to Washington and, like Lobe, points out the widening divisions between the "neocons" and the "White House":

    "What has become really significant in Washington in recent weeks has been the divergence between a White House, under pressure from the military, seeking a way out of the Iraq morass through an international sharing of the burden, and the persistent views of the neo-conservative security community. This group sees the problems in Iraq in a markedly different light, and is deeply suspicious of any sharing of control of Iraq, especially with the UN.

    "Current neo-conservative thinking may best be summarised as 'more of the same', and is strangely reminiscent of the early days of the Vietnam war, when the answer to increasing insurgency by Vietnamese nationalist-communist forces was to call for rapid increases in US troop levels, based on the confidence that enough forces could ensure that the war could be fought and won on American terms."

So we now have the beginning of a Washington spectacle - of the formerly "disciplined" administration lurching forward, backtracking, making claims, denying claims, and doing "damage control" which does damage and controls nothing. It's a spectacle that may not, however, be fully in view yet for most Americans. For instance, Seth Porges of Editor & Publisher online reports (Bush 9/11 admission gets little play) that when the President finally contradicted most recently his own Vice-president and of course everything he's said implicitly or explicitly since September 11, 2001 admitting there was "no evidence that Hussein was involved with the September 11th" attacks:

    "Of America's 12 highest-circulation daily papers, only the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News ran anything about it on the front page. In The New York Times, the story was relegated to page 22. USA Today: page 16. The Houston Chronicle: page 3. The San Francisco Chronicle: page 14. The Washington Post: page 18. Newsday: page 41. The New York Daily News: page 14. The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal didn't mention it at all."

Blowback (the return of the repressed, part 1): Beyond the American casualties of the week and those increasingly common pictures of burning trucks and humvees on highways in the "Sunni Triangle," the round-up of casualties includes a fourteen year-old boy killed when nervous American troops fired on a wedding (whose members were shooting into the air to celebrate); the Iraqi translator for Pietro Cordone, the senior adviser for cultural affairs of the U.S. provisional authority and the top Italian diplomat in the country, whose car was fired on at a roadblock. ("The official said it appeared the car's driver did not understand the signals that the American troops were giving, and that the American's didn't understand what the car was trying to do. The Foreign Ministry said U.S. officials had expressed regret over the incident."); and today Aquila al-Hashimi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council - more ominously, one of three female members - who was badly wounded, possibly murdered, today by unknown assassins undoubtedly from a still largely faceless opposition.

But here's the irony, under all this may be a bizarre kind of blowback, a strange version of the return of the repressed. Who in this country now even remembers the fierce UN sanctions on Saddam's Iraq that we spearheaded and then kept in place for perhaps a decade? Now those sanctions are evidently coming back to bite us. The Guardian's Rory McCarthy explains that nothing more puzzles Iraqis than the inability of the world's superpower to turn on the lights in their country. Of course, our secretary of defense simply insisted they were on in a recent visit to Baghdad: "'For a city that's not supposed to have power, there's lights all over the place. It's like Chicago,' Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, said earlier this month after a night-time Blackhawk helicopter tour over Baghdad. Unfortunately, Chicago it is not."

As McCarthy writes, those lights - and many other services in fact - would do more for peace in Iraq than anything else, but thanks to those sanctions, "there is no quick fix."

    "'Now you need to completely rehabilitate the power system,' says al-Azzawi [a respected power engineer]. This means that it will not be weeks or months but several years before a consistent power supply is established - and before other vital services, like healthcare and water purification, can be restored to their pre-1991 condition. Washington is at last experiencing for itself the impact of a decade of sanctions... In the end, there is no better alternative than simply to repair and strengthen the existing power grid, however long it takes (at least three years) and however much it costs (at least $10bn)... Regardless of Rumsfeld's bravado, it will be years before the lights stay on in Iraq."

Perhaps in the end those years of sanctions that devastated the Iraqi people (rather than Saddam's regime) are now haunting the Bush administration in the way al Qaeda, largely a creature of our efforts to destroy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, has done. Of course, we weren't alone in creating the Mujahedeen, of which al Qaeda was a part, as a fierce anti-Soviet fundamentalist force. We had plenty of help from Pakistan's intelligence services and from the Saudis, who now, speaking of, if not blowback, at least ricochet, are evidently considering building their own atomic bomb, or more likely, given all that oil money (and nothing competitive coming out of Iraq), buying it from - gulp, the Pakistanis. So reports the Guardian anyway. There's proof of the success of Bush administration nuclear proliferation policies. (Wasn't it Marie Antoinette who said, let them eat bombs? Or am I misquoting? Perhaps it was let them proliferate?)

Blowin' in the wind (or what analogy am I in anyway?): Vietnam, it's enough to drive you nuts... "We ought to stop with these rather bizarre historical illusions," Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, told CNN. "Let's deal with the facts on the ground and where we are now."

Some, however, continue to note certain eerie parallels. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, for instance, recently told his colleagues: "This may not be Vietnam, but, boy, it sure smells like it."

For instance, take these two sentences separated by a mere four decades (Ron Hutcheson, Knight-Ridder, Some See Troubling Parallels Between Iraq and Vietnam):

    "'If we quit Vietnam,' President Lyndon Johnson warned, 'tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week we'll have to fight in San Francisco.'

    "'We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today,' Bush said in his televised speech Sept. 7, 'so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.'"

Numerous, increasingly upset columnists, some of whom supported the war, think that even if Iraq itself isn't Vietnam, the Bush administration at least is fulfilling its part of the bargain by acting as familiarly Vietnam-ish as possible. Take Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, the title of whose recent column, People Seeing the Truth Suddenly, applies to his own writings and much else written until recently:

    "President Bush's most egregious misstatement about the situation in Iraq is that he is asking Congress for $87 billion to stabilize it. That is baloney. He is in fact asking Congress for a second installment... on a war that has no geographical, time, or force limitations beyond the capacity of the brains of the ideologues who are making up what some of them like to call World War IV as they go -- in secret, of course....

    "This is where the real analogy with America's Vietnam disaster lies. The analogy is false on most fronts... The analogy most popular at the Pentagon -- France's failed war with pro-independence revolutionaries in Algeria -- is probably just as false.

    "The real analogy is with the lengths to which the administration is willing to go to avoid telling the truth about the nature of its commitment, the true cost, and the lengths to which Congress is willing to go to accommodate it."

The Pentagon, already screening The Battle of Algiers, and flailing around for helpful analogies on its own, has now evidently landed in the West Bank. For me, by the way, this qualified as the most quietly depressing story of the week. According to AP reporter Matthew Rosenberg (U.S. May Study Israel Occupation Tactics):

    "In an apparent search for pointers on how to police a hostile population, the U.S. military that's trying to bring security to Iraq is showing interest in Israeli software instructing soldiers on how to behave in the West Bank and Gaza, an Israeli military official said Thursday. Using animated graphics and clips from movies like 'Apocalypse Now,' the software outlines a 'code of conduct' for avoiding abuse of civilians while manning roadblocks, searching homes and conducting other activities, said Lt. Col. Amos Guiora, head of the School of Military Law... Guiora told The Associated Press that U.S. military officials had recently seen the software, which was developed this year, and expressed interest. As a result, he said, the military is now working on an English version for them."

And don't think this administration isn't doing its best to recreate Vietnam in Iraq itself. The Los Angeles Times reported this week (Barbara Demick, South Korea May Send Troops to Iraq) that we were requesting thousands of South Korean troops, especially special forces "well-trained in riot control, civil disturbances and guerrilla infiltration techniques - in keeping with South Korea's often turbulent history - and that they would likely be sent to relieve U.S. troops somewhere in northern Iraq between Baghdad and Mosul." There was, of course, a huge contingent of American-funded South Korean troops (with a brutal record) on the ground in Vietnam.

Gee, South Korean troops in the Sunni Triangle and Israeli West Bank manners at checkpoints -- that should really win the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

The return of the repressed (part 2): In recent weeks, angry, critical voices continue to emerge from the intelligence bureaucracy, from soldiers in Iraq and family back home, from the military (check out Andrew Gumbel, White House is ambushed by criticism from America's military community, the Independent) and from the media.

Now, for instance, Christiane Amanpour of CNN, usually an admirable reporter, can say publicly: ""I think the press was muzzled, and I think the press self-muzzled. I'm sorry to say, but certainly television and, perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News. And it did, in fact, put a climate of fear and self-censorship, in my view, in terms of the kind of broadcast work we did."

Along with the latest column from Carroll, I would recommend two voices that have led the way out of the bureaucracy. There's a piece by ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson (who checked out the Niger uranium story for the administration and whose wife was outed as a CIA agent by someone in it) outlining how he feels "our own government has dragged the country down a rabbit hole." And a fierce column from the Lew Rockwell website by Karen Kwiatkowski, former Pentagon official, on why critics shouldn't now hold their fire. ("We were promised an oil-funded rebuilding of a free Iraq and a bunch of dangerous WMDs off the street. We got a United Fruit Company modeled oil monopoly in a serf-filled Iraq that, ENRON-like, exhibits only grandiose futuristic and imaginary accounts and assets.") It's a particularly interesting piece because it comes from the anti-imperial right.

Even the ghost of "retired" weapons inspector Hans Blix is back with us, giving interviews around the world decrying American prewar spin on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and saying things like, "In the middle ages when people were convinced there were witches, when they looked for them, they certainly found them. We were more judicious, we wanted to have the evidence."

More important, in the media and in Congress, voices that were previously missing in action are finally being raised. Though no one would admit it, this is, of course, poll driven. It's proof that, for the first time, many in the mainstream are sensing what has been evident for a long time to some of us - that under all the macho posturing and "discipline" of this administration lies a weakness and vulnerability, now evidently beginning to be noticeable to all. Not long after the Afghan war, New Yorker Reporter Seymour Hersh commented that the first mainstream Democrat of stature to grab the antiwar banner would take the presidency. Imagine if one of them had paid the slightest attention. Howard Dean, who doesn't even fit the category, has made the point nonetheless.

And of course, some voices have been there all the time. Generally ignored until recently by the mainstream, Senator Robert Byrd, for whom the nakedness of the emperor has long seemed self-evident, continues to speak simple sense in his Senate speeches ("Remember that that $87 billion is just for 2004 alone. Does anyone really believe that it will be the last request for Iraq?"). He is now calling for a genuine debate on the path we've embarked upon and the "quagmire" we find ourselves in:

    "I urge my colleagues to think long and hard about the growing quagmire in Iraq. I urge members of the President's own party to warn him about the quicksand he asks America to wade in. We need a long and thorough debate about the future of this country. We need a serious discussion about the kind of America we will leave to our children."

This week Teddy Kennedy denounced the war as a "fraud," concocted in Crawford, Texas, and Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and the strongest Democratic supporter of the invasion of Iraq, claimed the president "misled" him, and called for the firing of his full "defense leadership team" ("You can't fire the president unless you're in California... But somebody recommended this policy to him, and he took the recommendation. Somebody has to be held responsible, and he's got to make the decision who it was.")

Leading Democrats are now also calling for an investigation of the Vice-president's financial interests in and ties to... gee, here's a tough one... you fill in the blank. Hint: a large corporation of which he was CEO, from which he still gets annual financial compensation, and which has miraculously, by merit alone, managed to win the uncontested prize for Iraqi reconstruction contracts. (David Firestone, Democratic Hawk Urges Firing of Bush Iraq Aides, the New York Times)

And so we take our leave of this episode of the Bush administration's plan to dominate the world, with our own nervous, hostaged adolescents in body armor in Iraq increasingly shooting at whatever moves, while at home voices in the mainstream are suddenly being raised and this administration begins to frazzle.

Folks, hang on to your hats. This is only September. The ride's just beginning. I think it's likely to be bumpy indeed.

Additional contributions from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a weblog of The Nation Institute.

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