State of Denial

George W. Bush tries to shift blame for our torture regime at Abu Ghraib to the building itself.


By Tom Engelhardt

Quote of the day:At a meeting I attended with European diplomats to discuss reconstruction, a Rumsfeld protégé asserted that ‘Ahmed Chalabi is like the prophet Muhammad. At first, people doubted him but they came to realize the wisdom of his ways.’” (From a piece written for the Christian Science Monitor by David Phillips, “architect and facilitator” of the “democratic principles working group” from the State Department’s The Future of Iraq project, which was shoved aside by the Pentagon during the war. Pentagon’s postwar fiasco coming full-circle?)

Abugrabbed

There has already been much analysis of the President’s lackluster Iraq speech, the first in a promised set of six. Okay, okay, Elisabeth Bumiller on the front page of the New York Times did refer to him as “confident and calm throughout,” but if this had been the pilot show for anyone else’s six-part miniseries, the TV execs would have pulled the plug on the spot. (As it is, by speech six, he may be lucky to get a midnight slot on CSPAN.) The speech itself was largely boilerplate Iraq-yak from this President, all of whose talks are unidirectional and so filled with “progress” toward the “future.” (If this were the Vietnam era, his tunnel would have a blazing sun at its end.)

The triumphant aspect of his speech, as Dan Froomkin, columnist for the Washington Post, pointed out was certainly the makeup job — given his chin-first meeting not with a head of state but with the good earth of Crawford, Texas. (Check out the dramatic before and after shots.)

The dramatic highpoint of the speech, however, was certainly the President’s strange offer to raze Abu Ghraib (however pronounced). He said in full:

“A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values. America will fund the construction of a modern maximum security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib Prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning.”

This is actually something we could do. After all, building maximum-security prisons has been something of a boom industry in this country for a while. In fact, I think I smell a “reconstruction” contract heading down the pike toward Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, which already has much experience under its belt working on our previous offshore maximum-security prison in Guantanamo. Note, by the way, that last August, Robert Fisk of the British Independent was taken on a tour of Saddam’s former hell-hole by the now disgraced General Janis Karpinski to view our million-dollar upgrade. (“Squeaky clean cells and toothpaste tubes and fresh pairs of pants for the ‘terrorist’ inmates.”) Now, we’re going to tear it down — in just a few years, if all goes well, sorta. (Don Rumsfeld evidently has a cheaper, more practical way to solve our Abu Ghraib problem; he has reportedly prohibited all “digital cameras, camcorders and cellphones with cameras… in military compounds in Iraq.”)

A joke recounted by Dahr Jamail of the New Standard, who recently spent time outside of Abu Ghraib with the relatives of detainees, catches something of the realities of our occupation on the other side of the globe from “progress” toward Democracy and Freedom. “In the dark humor that has become so popular in Baghdad these days,” he writes, “one recently released detainee said, ‘The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house!'”

In terms of the President’s speech, the strangest thing about his prison offer is that he’s so ready to shuck blame for our torture regime (though not Saddam’s) off on the building itself. I’m curious to know how a new modern, maximum-security prison with the same prisoners and the same guards, the same interrogators and the same atmosphere, the same regime in Washington and the same high-level desires re: the war against terrorism would change a thing.

The essence of whatever was “new” in his speech lay in odd lines that popped up every now and then and were clearly meant to pass for a reckoning with Iraqi reality. In half an hour of otherwise forward-thrusting turns of phrase, all few of these swipes at reality were cast in the passive tense as if, out of a blue sky, something — call it history, call it chance — had done George in. Our own President, it seemed, had been Abugrabbed.

Here are more or less all of those lines:

“There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic….In the last 32 months, history has placed great demands on our country and events have come quickly… History is moving and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy.”

In other words, if it goes wrong, history’s what done me in. In an earlier, better moment months ago, the President was far more upbeat about history’s effect on him: In an interview, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, curious about how George thought history might judge his war on Iraq, quoted a neo-con adviser “to the effect that ‘all history gets measured by outcomes…’ Bush smiled. ‘History,’ he said, shrugging, taking his hands out of his pockets, extending his arms out and suggesting with his body language that it was so far off. ‘We won’t know. We’ll all be dead.'”

When the President didn’t shift the blame for events to Abu Ghraib or history in the speech, he unerringly found someplace else for it to lie. On troop levels in Iraq, for instance, he had this curious comment:

“Our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict. Given the recent increase in violence, we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary.”

Here he repays history for its indignities with a good, stiff jab to the jaw. At the Army War College, in front of an audience of military men some of whom must have been squirming with anger, he managed to wipe out his administration’s rejection of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s prewar suggestion that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. Now, it’s the “[military] commanders” themselves who made the only real mistake he manages to acknowledge, however indirectly — not Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz who laughed Shinseki out of the service. As it turned out, I guess, history (division of rewriting) had its uses after all.

And here’s one other odd little shift I happened to notice, a point no one commented on. According to the President, “The eventual goal is an Iraqi army of 35,000 soldiers in 27 battalions fully prepared to defend their country.”

Since just after the war, 40,000 has been the nearly iconic figure — the only one I’ve seen used — for the Iraqi Army meant to replace Saddam’s destroyed or demobilized military of 400,000 men. Now, it seems, 5,000 ghost soldiers have been demobilized from the country’s tiny future army. (Maybe this reflects discouragement that, when it came to Falluja, some of its first trained units refused to fight with us.) As I’ve said for almost a year, if you want just one indicator of the real path the Bush administration still means to take, ignore all the discussions of democracy, elections, constitutions, caretaker governments, transfers of sovereignty and the like. Focus instead on this figure.

After all, we’re talking about Iraq here, not Costa Rica. A 35,000 man military with, by the way, no air force and, as far as I can tell, few heavy weapons just doesn’t qualify as protection from neighbors or near-neighbors like Iran, Turkey, Syria and Israel. The math here isn’t complicated. Someone else is obviously supposed to protect the country for the foreseeable future. I wonder who that might be? I’m also curious to know — though next to no American newspapers have bothered to cover the issue for the last year — whether our reconstructors and the Army Corps of Engineers are still building and/or upgrading those permanent military bases that were always integral to the Bush administration plan to occupy Iraq. Whoops, sorry for that. The President made perfectly clear: “I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power.”

Just recently, the President and Paul Wolfowitz both spoke about “taking the training wheels off” the bike and letting the little Iraqi nation peddle on its own for the first time toward maturity and “democracy.” Then, of course, the President fell off his mountain bike and that image was dropped for the time being. Instead, we got a “5-step plan” for Iraq’s future, which had the ring of an AA 12-step program (though who exactly the drunk was might be open to question). The first five steps were included in this speech. I assume there will be one more step in each of the next five speeches, leaving only steps eleven and twelve, which must involve true withdrawal, to go.

By the way, the best nub of analysis I’ve seen of the Presidential moment came from Judy Keen of USA Today: “Bush said Iraq is at a critical moment. So is his presidency. Of the predictions he made before the war, only his warning that things wouldn’t necessarily go smoothly has been fulfilled.” The best extended riff on the speech itself came from William Saleten, Slate’s political correspondent, who wrote in part (Magical History Tour):

“In press conferences, TV ads, and interviews this year, President Bush has manifested a series of psychopathologies: an abstract notion of reality, confidence unhinged from facts and circumstances, and a conception of credibility that requires no correspondence to the external world. Tonight, as he vowed to stay the course in Iraq, Bush demonstrated another mental defect: incomprehension of his role in history as a fallible human agent. Absent such comprehension, Bush can’t fix his mistakes in Iraq because he can’t see how-or even that-he screwed up…

“Bush, being Bush, thinks abstractions and good intentions will conquer such unpleasant facts. To Bush, they aren’t even facts; they’re illusions. The reality is the great narrative of the war on terror, whose infallible course is set by a higher power. ‘The way forward may sometimes appear chaotic; yet our coalition is strong, and our efforts are focused and unrelenting, and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq’s progress,’ Bush insisted tonight. Close your eyes, and you can almost see it.”

And it’s true. This speech did seem to be fedexed in from la-la land, from inside the presidential bubble. It had the quality of a Disney cartoon of more recent, and lackluster, vintage. (I do wonder, given this retread performance what the next five speeches could possibly say. With “reality” shows hijacking prime-time TV and so many panicked sitcom writers at loose ends, the Bush administration might consider bringing in a team of them just to add a touch of humor. After all, as was true last night, these speeches are going to be Letterman/Leno fodder anyway.) More important for the president’s fortunes, it was distinctly a lock-in speech. “We must,” he insisted, “do our duty.” And our duty, it turned out, is to stay, send more troops if necessary, persevere etc. etc.

There’s something familiar in this attempt to use a series of speeches, as the Washington Post put it, “to shore up public support” of a war. For those who remember the Vietnam era, Presidents Johnson and Nixon both used speeches like this to give themselves brief opinion-poll bumps as the pressures on them grew.

Rick Shenkman, editor of the always interesting History News Network, had this in mind in an email he sent me yesterday:

“I was expecting a lot more from Bush’s speech yesterday. At the least I thought we’d get something on the order of Nixon’s Silent Majority/Vietnamization speech. The president is in the same position as Nixon in many ways. People are sick of the war. Opposition is building. And the president is promising not to cut and run. Two differences. In Nov. 1969 when Nixon gave his speech, the antiwar movement was still in an inchoate stage: Despite the 2 nationwide moratoriums, which involved 2 million people in 200 cities, 68% of the public still supported Nixon’s policy in Vietnam. Today, of course, far fewer Americans support Bush’s policy (whatever it is). The second difference is that Nixon was at the beginning of his administration, Bush is at the end. Bush, worrying about an election, needs victory (however defined) fast.”

State of denial

The first presidential Iraq speech was distinctly in a state of denial. Mistakes? We deny it all. We’re not to blame. We didn’t do it. That simple message lay at the heart of whatever was new in what the President said (and then, as Saletan points out, there was denial of reality itself to consider…)

But this, in fact, has been an essential everyday aspect of the Bush administration from scratch. Anything that goes wrong and might in any way land in its lap is instantly, automatically denied. I wrote about this re: the raid on Chalabi’s office in my last dispatch (Washington ludicrously denied all prior knowledge of the raid) and the slaughter of 41 Iraqis including children in a wedding party in the Iraqi desert near the Syrian border. Since then, a three-hour video of the wedding has surfaced (“The singing and dancing seems to go on forever…”) with people filmed in it identified by reporters who interviewed them after the U.S. raid. Justin Huggler of the British Independent reports that “crucially, the new video shows an Iraqi musician playing the electric organ at the wedding. The same man is recognisable as one of the corpses shown in the footage of the burials: his face is clearly shown in both tapes and he is wearing the same beige T-shirt.”

But no matter, our spokesman in Baghdad, Gen. Kimmett, still denying any children died in the attack, barely backed off his initial denial: “‘There are still some inconsistencies,” he said. “We still remain open-minded about this. We will continue to look into everything that is provided to us in the way of evidence.” He also claimed that “US forces, which scoured the area of the combined ground and air attack in the western Iraqi desert had found ‘no evidence of a wedding,’ but did not rule out some other kind of social gathering. ‘Bad people have parties too and it may have … just been a meeting in the middle of the desert by some people that were conducting either criminal or terrorist activities.'”

Par for the course. By yesterday, Kimmett had something else to deny — “One of Shiite Islam’s most sacred sites, the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, sustained minor damage today when it was hit by rockets or mortars from an unknown source. The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq denied that U.S. forces were responsible.” And then there was the matter of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who, the Washington Post reported, might have been present at Abu Ghraib when some of the torture was taking place. This was promptly denied, but a day later it was suddenly announced that the general is to leave his post this summer for nowhere in particular. According to Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times, “Pentagon officials said that replacing General Sanchez [in Iraq] with the Army vice chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., in no way reflected on General Sanchez’s handling of the widening prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, outside of Baghdad, which was under his authority.” (For you Vietnam fans, the same thing happened to General William Westmorland, commander of American forces in Vietnam in the wake of the Tet Offensive. He, too, made a “scheduled rotation” into military oblivion.)

I could go on, but why bother. It’s just the law of averages, of pure luck, that one or more of these denials will prove, if not true, then at least a reasonable stopping spot for the administration. In the meantime, my question is this: Why would anyone believe a thing officials of this administration said about anything whatsoever based only on their own statements? After all, they’ve just finished the loop-de-loop of whacking their own guy, Ahmed Chalabi, the former “George Washington of Iraq,” the man who was (as the initial quote above indicated) “Muhammad” himself to the top figures in this administration. Now he’s cheese toast, along with every explanation or claim launched before, during, or after the war.

Put another way, here’s part of what the President had to say about the aftermath of the battle for Falluja: “So we have pursued a different approach. We’re making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah. Coalition commanders have worked with local leaders to create an all-Iraqi security force, which is now patrolling the city.” So what if we’ve left that city in the hands of the insurgents and former members of Saddam’s Republican Guards; so what if two American soldiers have just been killed in an ambush outside the city. Reality? It’s been Abugrabbed. Tom

[Note: In my last dispatch, considering criticism of the administration’s reliance on Chalabi in a New York Times editorial, I wrote: “This is about as close as the imperial paper of record is ever likely to come to a mea culpa about its own (mis)use of Chalabi — who, as a source, slipped crucial misinformation to reporter Judith Miller which was front-paged by the Times, then picked up and used by the administration as part of its propaganda campaign. A paper like the Times has its own form of deniability and… has never reconsidered its prewar moment in the desert sun.”

Well, mea culpa. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. They reconsidered today, though they only managed to hang out about half the dirty laundry. Part of the piece they printed up is essentially written in code, mainly for insiders who have been following this story for the last year.

First of all, The Times and Iraq, was neither front-paged, nor made a lead editorial, but folded somewhat inconspicuously onto the bottom of p. 10. Then no reportorial names were mentioned, though one certainly leaps to mind. “Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters,” the editors wrote. “Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated.” So complicated, in fact, that you have to go to Howard Kurtz’s press column in the Washington Post to see the name of Times reporter Judith Miller, though most of the articles cited were in whole or part her reporting (N.Y. Times Cites Defects in Its Reports on Iraq).

In turn, to find out something about how the Post‘s editorial and op-ed pages built up Chalabi, you need to leap to Harry Jaffe at the Washingtonian (Did the Washington Post Create Ahmed Chalabi?) — “When Iraqi and US agents sift through documents and computer files from Thursday’s raid of Ahmed Chalabi’s home and Iraqi National Congress office in Baghdad, it’s likely that they will find plenty of communications with the Washington Post and New York Times.”

Of course, you could have been following this scandal as it evolved, if only you had been reading Jack Schaeffer’s Judith Miller Watch at Slate which he recapitulates in what he hopes will be his final article on the subject (Judy’s Turn to Cry).

The real question is: Did the Bush administration really have to whack Chalabi before the Times was capable of reconsidering Miller’s (and other reporters) sad record on the man? I thought the Buzzflash website summed it all up quite neatly in a headline today: “New York Times ‘Apology’ For Being Dupes on Iraq. How Many Billions of Dollars is the New York Times Empire Worth, And They Couldn’t Figure Out That They Were Saps on Iraq? Give Us a Break. We Work for Peanuts and Saw It. What Gives?”]

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