Virtual Reality


The suicide bombings that killed dozens of people in Iraq in the past few days have given plenty of credence to the view that the situation there is not exactly going the U.S.’s way.

President Bush, however, is sticking to his story that the violence is the work of fringe malcontents, namely Baathists and, especially, foreign jihadis, and that the vast majority of the Iraqi people are, on balance, glad to have the U.S. running the place. Inconveniently, the word coming out of Iraq suggests a quite different version of reality, with a broad swathe of Iraqis actively hostile to the U.S. occupation.

Following the attacks, Bush worked political damage control at a Tuesday press conference. His one concession to the Iraqi reality was to acknowledge that it’s a “dangerous place.” But the violence, in Bush’s version, is actually a sign that things going well in Iraq.

“It is dangerous in Iraq because there are some who believe that we are soft, that the will of the United States can be shaken by suiciders. […] The more progress we make on the ground […] the more desperate these killers become.”

Pollster and Arab-American leader James Zogby scoffs at this reasoning:

“Bush pledged Monday that the U.S. would “stay the course” in Iraq. But his claim that the more progress the U.S. makes, the more desperate the killers become, is far-fetched. U.S. progress in turning lights back on, purifying water and opening schools will win support from most Iraqis and turn them against guerrillas who jeopardize the gains.”

While Bush is emphasizing “foreign” and Baathist involvement in the attacks, reports out of Iraq aren’t so clear. What is clear is that many in Iraq are losing patience with the U.S. presence. A recent Iraqi poll shows that while 43 percent of Iraqis saw the U.S. as “liberators” six months ago, only 14.8 percent feeling the same way now. More than 60 percent of those questioned do not think coalition forces improve their safety, and 33 percent want them gone.

Zogby, too, in his own polling, has found ambivalence toward the U.S among Iraqis:

“What we found is that Iraqis, like people all around the world, hold nuanced views. They are glad to see Saddam Hussein gone, as shown by their desire to punish members of the old regime, but they don’t really trust the Americans who drove him out.

They are intrigued by democracy but worry that it may not be compatible with their culture. They object to being occupied and are eager to take the reins of government themselves. But those in the minority are a little more nervous at the prospect of democracy than those in the majority. …

One thing is clear: The predicted euphoria of Iraqis has not materialized.

Iraqis, like their fellow Arabs, feel victimized by a history of betrayal and humiliation at the hands of Western powers. It appears that U.S. policymakers overlooked or misread this sentiment.”

Given all that, Bush’s upbeat assessment seems weird, not to say culpable. Times columnist Paul Krugman sees a “willful ignorance, driven by moral concerns but actually reflecting domestic politics.”

“Surely it’s important to understand how others see us, but a new, post 9/11 version of political correctness has made it difficult even to discuss their points of view. Any American who tries to go beyond “America good, terrorists evil,” who tries to understand — not condone — the growing world backlash against the United States, faces furious attacks delivered in a tone of high moral indignation. The attackers claim to be standing up for moral clarity, and some of them may even believe it. But they are really being used in a domestic political struggle.

As Bush struggles against declining U.S. and Iraqi perception, he is holding tight to the mantra that things are going fine in Iraq, its just those freedom hating terrorists that are ruining everything. During his press conference, he said that coalition forces would be stepping up patrols on the borders of Iraq, to help ensure that foreign terrorists couldn’t get in.”

According to a BBC story, the chief British representative in the U.S.-led administration, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, said the style of the attacks on Monday indicated non-Iraqi fighters were involved. Greenstock said, “There were suicide attackers in most – probably all – the bomb explosions… and that is a sign of foreign terrorist tactics, rather than the Saddam loyalist elements that we’re still trying to chase down.”

Other reports tell a different story. Some say it’s possible the bombings may be the work of groups within Iraq that are simply angry with U.S. rule:

“The reality is much more complex. The resistance includes, as the US and British governments claim, former officials in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party but there are also: former Iraqi army fighters, members of the security organisations and the fedayeen, all with military training; Sunni Salafits, a small group of fundamentalists, who are among the likeliest to link up with foreign fighters; and a huge swath of people seeking revenge in response to heavy-handed policing by US forces.”

Patrick Cockburn in the Independent writes of the increasing hostility in Iraq:

“One wealthy Shiite businessman said: ‘It used to be the Sunni who opposed the occupation but now I notice that my Shiite friends are also becoming hostile to it.’ This is a significant development since Shiites are at least 55 percent of the population. […] The rejection of the occupation by most Iraqis has not yet turned to armed resistance except in Sunni districts north and west of Baghdad. But guerrillas are likely to find an increasingly sympathetic environment in which to make attacks.”

The neocon apologists insist that it’s all just biased reporting. Here’s Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times:

“[A]s awful as the car bombings and mortar attacks and roadside ambushes are, it’s important to keep things in perspective.” …

Clearly the amount of violence in Iraq is unacceptable, and more needs to be done to curtail it. The point is simply that the myopic media are focusing far too much on counting casualties and not enough on assessing the larger state of the campaign.

The frenzy reminds me of the way local TV newscasts cover major American cities: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In general, the news is a catalog of horrors Ñ child abuse, murder, celebrity rapes and other transgressions. No one bothers to announce: Oh, and by the way, millions of people went to work yesterday, ate lunch, came home, watched TV and went to sleep. That’s not considered news, and rightly so when covering L.A. or New York.”

And Steven Vincent, writing for the National Review argues that Iraqis are anti-U.S. out of a sense of humiliation.

“Underneath the joy these people feel upon their liberation from Saddam runs a countercurrent of shame over the fact that they couldn’t do the job themselves. This sense of impotence explains, in part, the ungracious gratitude expressed by many Iraqis toward the U.S. — otherwise known as the “thanks America, now go home” syndrome. It also underscores how naive we were to think that our invading troops would be wholeheartedly welcomed as liberators.”

Bush’s comments on Tuesday show that he realizes what these attacks against the U.S. really indicate — more and more dissatisfaction with the occupation. And unless the media begins focusing on stories of progress in Iraq, his hopes for 2004 will begin looking grim. His continual theme that attacks against the U.S. have been perpetrated by opponents of his “fight against terror” betrays his concern. But as an article in the Guardian put it, there’s little he can do: “The problem is that the resistance keeps undermining any good news.”

The fact is, Bush has hitched his future to Iraq’s, and the White House political team appears to have decided they can’t afford to be seen to back down. but the stonewalling doesn’t seem to be working too well. not only are Democrats getting more nervy, but even GOP stars who aren’t undere the White House thumb like McCain are taking their shots.

“Democratic presidential candidates, their onetime reluctance to criticize Bush on Iraq long since set aside, were in full cry. “Does the president really believe that suicide bombers are willing to strap explosives to their bodies because we’re restoring electricity and creating jobs for Iraqis?” asked Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

They were joined – in a sense – by a prominent Republican: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, no fan of Bush but a strong supporter of his decision to wage war in Iraq. In an interview with Newsweek, McCain said he saw “a parallel to Vietnam” in the gap between the administration’s optimistic statements and the harsh reality on the ground. A McCain aide said the senator was not suggesting Iraq had become a Vietnam-like quagmire and favored deploying more U.S. troops, not fewer. But the aide added McCain believes the administration “needs to level with the American people.”