Dreaming of George

A faded war, a fading economy -- will George W. Bush share his father's fate?

Mon Apr. 19, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

By Tom Engelhardt

Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, Centcom's second in command in January: "We've watched the number of significant events (against coalition forces) decline considerably... I won't say we've turned the corner or that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but our soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are winning over the Iraqi people. I think we're on track to leave behind a free and fledgling democracy when we depart here."

Air Force General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on April 15: "[The chairman] said yesterday that the deadly insurgency that flared up this month is ‘a symptom of the success that we're having here in Iraq' and an effort to undermine the country's transition to self-government.

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"Asked at a news conference here whether the military had failed to counter insurgents' attacks in Iraq, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers said guerrillas want to undermine several political successes, including the creation of the Iraqi Governing Council, the signing of a bill of rights, and efforts by the United Nations to devise an interim government that would assume power on June 30.

"I think it's that success which is driving the current situation, because there are those extremists that don't want that success," Myers said. "They see this as a test of wills, a test of resolve against those who believe in freedom and self-determination against those who prefer a regime like we saw previously in Afghanistan, or perhaps a regime like we saw previously in Iraq." (Sewell Chan, General Calls Insurgency in Iraq a Sign of U.S. Success, the Washington Post)

Success and ever more success; corners turned; light shining somewhere; progress advancing at an unexpected clip; the enemy visibly desperate; and, our President assures us, Vietnam not (repeat, not) an analogy, not even a thought, not ever to be spoken lest it undermine our troops in Iraq (or at least the generals running the show). So banish that analogy -– and poof! There it goes!

Well, a man, even a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, even a President, can dream, can't he? And so can a blogger. Here's my George Bush dream -- or could I actually be awake?

Our President, son of George, spends three-plus-plus years running as fast as he can from his father's presidency. He plays an endless, oedipal game of opposites, twisting and turning to avoid his father's fate. Red meat to the right. Fundaments to the fundamentals. Sharon to the Jewish vote. Well, you know the story. And in the end, having been named George, he nonetheless finds himself impaled on the spear of George World -- the owner like his father of a one-term presidency, thanks to a faded war, a fading economy, and a sense that the man is simply not in touch with reality.

If only I were Captain Picard on the good ship Enterprise and, as in a dream or on some holodeck, could simply say, "Make it so." I can't, of course, and it seems that the Democratic all-but-nominee is unwilling to take a real shot at doing so either -- or at least that's what I conclude from the dismal op-ed he recently wrote on Iraq in the Washington Post (A Strategy for Iraq).

Excuse my obsession these last weeks, but as I've believed would happen since at least April 2003, Iraq is now in the driver's seat and driving our campaign-bound president quite mad with exasperation, though no more so than our neocon imperial administrators in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent reports:

"Even the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), isolated from the rest of Baghdad in its sprawling and heavily fortified headquarters in Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace complex, has noticed things are going wrong. In a notice to staff on Monday it said the Allied enclave, the so-called ‘Green Zone,' had been fired on four nights in a row. It directed staff to wear helmets and flak jackets at all times, hideously uncomfortable as Baghdad begins to swelter in the summer heat."

Though if asked in polls, voters will say that the economy is the central issue in the election -- in more or less any election -- the inability to close off Iraq, to give the country a suitably pacified "Iraqi" face, is the true crisis of this election year. That's what actually brings the Vietnam era to mind. And underneath it all, lurks a deeper fear, rarely voiced here -– or only voiced indirectly in those classic Vietnam-era phrases (now all the rage in official Washington) "staying the course" and not "cutting and running." Underneath them lies a single fearsome word, "defeat." (By the way, so as to take his own advice and not to undermine the troops, shouldn't the President resolve to cut those Vietnam-era phrases from his speeches? Isn't he the one who constantly brings up the Vietnam analogy?)

Writing just the other day on presidential illusions in Iraq, Warren Stroebel, the fine inside-the-Beltway reporter for the much underrated Knight Ridder news service, commented that the President is now actually "struggling to avoid a costly, humiliating defeat." And then quoted former U.S. ambassador David Mack, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, as saying: ‘It was going to transform the Middle East, remember? Now all we want to do is save our butts."

How many times did Lyndon Johnson go on TV in those Vietnam years, give a speech or hold a press conference, and get a brief bump in the polls -- only to have the reality of Vietnam fight its way back into view. George's "bump" was followed within twenty-four hours by the news that casualty figures in these last two weeks had already proved the highest "month" of the ongoing war. (And Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent offer the startling news that "[a]t least 80 foreign mercenaries -- security guards recruited from the United States, Europe and South Africa and working for American companies -- have been killed in the past eight days in Iraq… [M]ore Western mercenaries lost their lives in the past week than occupation soldiers over the past 14 days.")

Unfortunately, Senator Kerry is staking out a position so perilously close to George's that he's almost guaranteeing himself no stance from which to critique what is, without a doubt, George's war ("Mission accomplished!"). In the upcoming presidential race, George Bush, it seems, will have to beat himself. And as I've been arguing for almost a year, even when my nearest and dearest assured me I was a cockeyed optimist, he's perfectly capable of doing so. As you read, you can be assured that the Bush gang is making a valiant effort to steer America's imperial Titanic directly into several icebergs. (Okay, okay, given that Iraq's heading into the heat of summer, it's a mixed metaphor, but I'm not about to give it up.)

As a friend of mine said to me recently, this is not the crew I'd hire to run my empire. The world at the moment is some kind of vast, malign Rube Goldberg machine, so that if you kick a pet on one side of the globe, a bomb goes off somewhere on the other. Part of the problem is that the Bush men (and woman) are still trying to address local audiences and simply can't get it through their heads that the rest of the world is listening in -- and ready to act in ways not at all pleasing. Take Wednesday's decision -- not exactly surprising for an administration filled with literal Likudniks and Sharonistas -- to cave in more or less down the line to Ariel Sharon's positions on "settling" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No wonder the Israeli Prime Minister "beamed" at the President's side, as the New York Times reported.

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen of the Washington Post at least mentioned in passing that "the action by Bush could further aggravate the situation in Iraq, just as Israel's killing of a prominent Palestinian militant set off rioting in Iraq several weeks ago," but like many others covering the issue quickly passed on either to Israeli/Palestinian situation or to domestic politics. They wrote in part (Move Could Help Bush Among Jewish Voters):

"In declaring that Israel should be able to keep some of the occupied territories and block Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel, Bush followed a familiar pattern of finding common cause with Jews and increasingly pro-Israel Christian conservatives. That Bush's move was good politics was evidenced by Democratic rival John F. Kerry's quick move not to let Bush outflank him among pro-Israel voters…

"Domestically, though, the move could enable Bush to chip away a few more of the Jewish voters who have traditionally been loyal to Democrats. And in a tight election, the small minority of Jewish voters -- who tend to have strong turnout levels -- could give Bush an edge in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania…

"…But with Arab American voters already strongly against Bush, strategists see little political downside for Bush in Wednesday's action, even if he does not win large numbers of Jewish votes."

"No downside" -- that was what cracked me up in the piece. Think Middle East, think Iraq. Consider how Sharon's whacking of Hamas's Sheik Yassin blewback on the Bush administration in Iraq. The fact is that our men in Washington (and in Baghdad) are hard at work creating the sort of extreme, religiously riven world that Osama bin Laden could only dream of. It's really a miracle -– and not a godly one, either. In the Middle East, they seem headed not just for a failed empire, but for a level of extreme sectarianism, a "clash of civilizations," that will make a mockery of anyone's dreams of a better world, no less "democracy." It's as if they took all of Osama bin Laden's complaints and charges and decided to make them come true. I think we may soon have to look on these taped messages from bin Laden as "to do" lists for this administration. And the results can be seen in Iraq.

Here, for instance, is how Sara Daniels of Nouvel Observateur describes this moment in a Baghdad Mosque:

"Friday is the day of prayer and in Baghdad tanks and armed militias take position in front of ‘sensitive' mosques. Ibrahim, 14 years old, is on duty at his neighborhood mosque. He can act as detached as he likes, one nonetheless feels his pride at playing one of the tough guys with his Kalashnikov among his pals whose eyes dart lightning. A few days ago in this neighborhood, the just completed Shi'ite mosque was demolished by a bomb. Concatenation of reprisals: one of the Wahabite notables of the neighborhood was murdered and the Sunni mosque attacked in turn. The tension is so keen that armed bodyguards accompany the sheikh into the mosque's interior, a sacrilege for Muslims. Nonetheless, it's not the conflict between Shi'ites and Sunni that will be the subject of the Sheikh's sermon today. Draped in his ample white tunic over which his long black beard flows, the Sheikh flies into a rage against ‘the invader.' He compares the good smell of martyrs to the pestilential odor that emanates from Americans' corpses. ‘We're all going to die, it's our fate as men,' the Sheikh, in tears, prophesizes. ‘So let's die bravely. Let's imitate the example of Sheikh Yassine (the Palestinian Hamas guide who was murdered March 22 by the Israeli army) and of the martyrs who blow themselves up in booby-trapped cars in Israel!'"

But then again, we tend to forget that our guys are fundamentalists too – religiously, corporately, and nationally -– but since they imagine our land as the nation of nations, anyone else's nationalism passes them by. They quite literally don't get it. And this, it seems, extends right down to our troops and the thousands of "security guards" and private "contractors" who accompany them in Iraq.

Here, for instance, are the comments of one of those American "contractors" writing home to a friend about some of the others:

"Discipline is slipping in the forces and it reminds one of the Viet-Nam pictures of old. Instead of a professional military outfit here we have a bunch of cowboys and vigilantes running wild in the streets. The ugly American has never been so evident. Someone in charge needs to drop the hammer on this lack of discipline, especially that which is being shown by the Special Forces, security contractors, and ‘other government agencies.' We won the war but that doesn't mean we can treat the people of this country with contempt and disregard with no thought to the consequences… I'm angry about how we're treating people here. I know it's not the entire military, in fact it is a very small, select group that believes they are somehow above the law of not only this land but also the law of the military and those laws we hold dear in our own country. If someone were to try to treat our fellow Americans the way some of these people are treating the Iraqis the courts would certainly lock them away."

Or here, from Rahul Mahajan's blog Empire Notes, is part of a description of a U.S. raid on the mosque of Abu Hanifa in Baghdad (previously sacked by the Mongols in 1257) – the sort of story reported endlessly in the foreign press but seldom in this country:

"The mosque was full of people, including 90 down from Kirkuk with the Red Crescent, arranging for further aid to Fallujah. They were all pushed down on the floor, with guns put to the backs of their heads. Another person associated with the mosque, Mr. Alber, who speaks very good English, told us that he repeatedly said, ‘Please, don't break down doors. Please, don't break windows. We can help you. We can have custodians unlock the doors.' (Alber, by the way, was imprisoned by Saddam for running a bakery. As he said, ‘Under the embargo, you could eat flour, you could eat sugar, you could eat eggs, all separately. But mix them together and bake them and you were harming the economy by raising the price of sugar and you could get 15 years in prison.') "The Americans refused to listen to Alber's pleas. We went all around the mosque and the adjacent madrassah, the Imam Aadham Islamic College. We saw dozens of doors broken down, windows broken, ceilings ripped apart, and bullet holes in walls and ceilings. The way the soldiers searched for illicit arms in the ceiling was first to spray the ceiling with gunfire, then break out a panel and go up and search.

"They even went and rifled through students' exam papers. A feeble old man with a limp who is a "guard" at the mosque (actually a poor man with a large family who is given housing by the imam of the mosque) was hit in the head with a rifle butt and then kicked when he was down -- all because he was a little slow in answering the door. He says he never carries a weapon -- the whole mosque has only three Kalashnikovs, for security, kept in the imam's room (the soldiers confiscated their ammunition in the raid). And, of course, they entered the mosque with their boots on."

Another little chapter in General Myer's "success" story in Iraq perhaps, but a "safer world," as our President so often promises, I wouldn't count on it.

Getting out of town

The degree of delamination in Iraq simply cannot be overestimated at this point. "Reconstruction," already a joke, is now a catastrophe -- except perhaps to the giant corporations suctioning money out of the country. (Much attention was paid last April to the Iraqi looters allowed by the occupation forces to sack parts of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities after the war, and little to the corporate looters which have, in effect, been deconstructing Iraq for their own profit ever since.) I've long wanted to see someone pursue the impossible – and discover how much of "our" reconstruction funds actually stay in Iraq. Now, Christian Parenti, who has been writing superb reports from Iraq, offers at least one small estimate at the Alternet website:

"When I visited Ramadi and Fallujah in January, people on both towns were angry about chronic water and electricity shortages. Power plants, telephone exchanges and sewage systems all remain looted and bombed out. According to the NGO CorpWatch, only 10 percent of Halliburton's initial $2.2 billion in contracts has been spent on meeting community needs."

Now, it also turns out that startling chunks of those reconstruction funds are going into "security," not just for the hiring of private "contractors" – ex-military and Special Forces people (or their equivalents from around the world) -- to guard the deconstructors, but for life and "health" insurance (the Pentagon demands it) for all those truck-drivers, pipe-fitters, and other low-level workers brought in at exorbitant salaries from abroad. A week ago T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times estimated that security costs of various sorts were eating up 20% of the contract price for giant combines like Halliburton (double what was previously considered the norm ). More recently, Brinley Bruton of Reuters reports that large foreign firms are now spending at least 50% of their operating costs on security. In other words, Congress -– and so the American people -– are essentially supporting not the well-being of Iraqis but the health and welfare of insurance companies, possibly to the tune of billions.

Of course, this reflects a fast-changing "security" reality. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post wrote a vivid account of American military convoys heading south to support the build-up of American troops around Najaf (Death Lurks in the Groves On the Road Toward Najaf):

"In the biggest Army operation in central Iraq since last spring's invasion, dozens of convoys made up of hundreds of tanks and trucks moved into an area where Shiite Muslim militias had battled with occupation troops several times this month. Along the way, nearly every convoy was fired on, weary soldiers said afterward. Iraqi insurgents blew up bridges on the convoy routes, doubling or tripling the duration of trips scheduled to take six to 12 hours. And the U.S. military operation in Iraq began to feel less like a troubled occupation and more like a small war."

Blowing up bridges ahead of convoys? This has to involve a striking level of coordination among Iraqi insurgent groups. Add to the "small war" in the central part of the country, and the fear of one in the south ("Soldiers here have learned to fear palm groves for the threats that lurk inside them."), the jungle chaos and violence in the major cities where the kidnapping of foreigners has become an essential political statement. Although some kidnapped foreigners have been released, others are being taken constantly. On Wednesday an Italian guard -– for, as it turns out, a "security firm" by the name of DTS that's actually based in the United States -- was murdered by one group and the threats to other foreigners, including the 10,000-18.000 gun-toting "contractors" who make up the second largest armed force in the "coalition," and the thousands and thousands of foreign workers, continue to escalate. Some have begun fleeing the scene.

Many of the rest are locked down at the moment. Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jackie Spinner offer this quote in the Washington Post: "'We can't work. We can't go outside. We live like in a jail,' said Luma Mousawi, director of Nurses-Doctors Care Organization, which is working on the rehabilitation of Iraq's health care system."

Along with this, various NGOs and care-giving groups are pulling out. The Russian government has begun airlifting Russian workers out. The French and German governments have "advised" their citizens to leave. In the wake of the murder of the Italian security guard, the Italian government is offering to fly any citizen wanting to leave out, including employees of the state media. Danish aid workers are being pulled out. According to Rahul Mahajan, "Bridges to Baghdad, an Italian group that has done amazing work for years to help the Iraqi people, is pulling out -- with an Italian military contingent here, they are natural targets for kidnappers. The Christian Peacemaker Teams, who also have a very well-organized operation over here, are thinking of pulling out." The British Foreign Office "is advising Britons against ‘all but the most essential travel' to Iraq as a result of the escalating hostage-takings" and the editors of the British Telegram are considering whether the situation is too dangerous to report on and the paper's reporters should be withdrawn. ("On his last drive outside of Baghdad -- to Najaf – [Telegram reporter] Hider said he and his colleagues had had to run the gauntlet of burning vehicles and shooting on either side of the road. ‘The danger has been being mistaken for a contractor. The number one rule is, don't be driven around in a big white 4x4 like the ones used by contractors, because they are basically bullet magnets.'")

Individual Bulgarian troops are begging to be sent home. Thailand, the Philippines and other "coalition allies" are waffling about their troop commitments and so on and so forth. In Washington and Baghdad they can announce that much of Iraq is "stable" and "progressing," getting ready to have "sovereignty" returned to it via the UN, but it's obvious that "reconstruction" -– even as defined by the Coalition Provisional Authority -– has in fact ground to a halt. The reconstructors are beginning to vote with their feet. This is undoubtedly another definition of democracy.

And these departures include some closer to the heart of the American operation, as the Post's Cha and Spinner report: "In the past week, several USAID contractors and subcontractors, including D.C.-based Creative Associates International and Arlington-based International Relief and Development Inc., which are working on school projects, have moved employees out of Iraq." And some of the folks "leaving town" are Iraqis. As Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald describes it: "By some estimates, as many as 25 per cent of the new Iraqi security forces, on which the US is depending to impose law and order after June 30, has quit or simply melted away. "

Mercenaries

And here's the thing, the "contractors" are starting to leave town too. That very word muffles one's responses, doesn't it? A contractor sounds like somebody you'd hire to put siding on your house or build those bookshelves in the den. And, of course, some of the "contractors" in Iraq are exactly that. This is, after all, where privatization in Iraq meets the Bush privatizing economy back home and men driven out of work here find themselves driving to work there for tantalizing sums under what turn out to be the most dangerous of conditions. But many of the "contractors" over there, the "security guards," are simply out-and-out mercenaries -– a word that seems to have been ripped from American media dictionaries now that being a "mercenary" means being in a $100 billion boom business largely connected to the Pentagon. Maybe you just don't call the "Silicon Valley" economic miracle of the armed early years of the 21st century by a name associated with all manner of evils.

Right now, some of the more or less straightforward "contractors" are beginning to bolt and who would blame them. If you want to check out the account of one man who left, read about 61 year old Jerry Kuhaida, a "contractor helping local governments." ("'I wanted ... out of there. It was getting too nasty,' he said… ‘I started ignoring gunshots. Then, I started ignoring little explosions, and then I began to ignore the big explosions…' Kuhaida said he quickly discovered that there had been no postwar plan by the United States. ‘There was no plan at all after the war,' he said. ‘In spite of what [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld said, there was absolutely no plan. The whole thing was running on a whim, basically. There wasn't even a bad plan out there.' What few accomplishments there were, were ‘fluffed up… We kept getting pressure to make reports look as positive as possible.'")

You remember that old saying: What if they gave a war and no one came? Well, the Iraqi equivalent may be: What if they gave a war and everyone left? After all, in Donald Rumsfeld's leaner, meaner military, in an America where everything is to be privatized (meaning dumped free into the hands of corporate cronies), the Pentagon is now dependent for much in Iraq on those "private contractors." And while the military can't simply leave town of their own accord, our private military and civilian "armies" can. One of them, our vice president's former company Halliburton, actually "suspended some convoys delivering supplies to the military in Iraq due to escalating violence, U.S. Army and company officials said Monday, raising the danger of shortfalls in food, fuel and water supplies if the situation continues."

Though the convoys seem since to have resumed, it's a situation that could make a deteriorating military position in Iraq far worse for the U.S. military in the future. This gives the concept of an "overextended military" (much discussed) or of an "overextended empire" (seldom mentioned), a new twist in our 21st century dreamworld which vast and growing private armies may someday threaten to turn into a mercenary and feudal planet.

Give the Bush administration two terms and, I swear, dystopia creators and scifi writers, however imaginative, won't be able to keep up. But the deeper problems, the problems of our global militarized stance, as Senator Kerry continues to signal, will evidently, like the Pentagon budget, outlive Bush administrations and Kerry administrations alike. Let's hope they don't outlive us all.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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