Creating Our Own Dream Enemy

Soon after the President declared Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism"—Poof! It was so.

| Fri Sep. 24, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

On Monday at New York University, Senator John Kerry launched his first strong attack on George Bush's Iraq War policy. ("By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded. His two main rationales, weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaida-September 11th connection, have both been proved false by the president's own weapons inspectors and by the 9/11 Commission. And just last week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged those facts. Only Vice President Cheney still insists that the Earth is flat…") On Tuesday, the exceedingly cautious UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who only the other day managed to term our war and occupation in Iraq "illegal" for the first time, stood at the podium of the General Assembly, called on the assembled UN delegates to uphold "the rule of law… at risk around the world," and symbolically denounced the tortures of Abu Ghraib ("we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused").

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Then President Bush stepped to the same podium and made the following curious observation -- "We know that dictators are quick to choose aggression, while free nations strive to resolve differences in peace" -- as part of a speech ostensibly aimed at the audience of stony-faced delegates. Like almost all Bush speeches, however, his was in fact a rousing, hectoring propaganda moment, a nationalist speech geared to the election and largely aimed at his own fundamentalist base. It was full of red-meat lines not meant for the delegates from France or Bangladesh, but for the conservative, assumedly UN-loathing voter from the American heartland.

Among other things, there were the invocations of "human dignity," part of the President's endlessly coded reaffirmations of his stances on abortion, cloning, and (by implication) stem-cell research. "No human life," he said, "should ever be produced or destroyed for the benefit of another." There was the ringing denunciation of "the evil of trafficking in human beings," a mobilizing issue for his evangelical base; and there was that reddest of all red meat lines, "Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them within our own borders." Within our own borders… this is the line with which the Bush administration hopes to win the election. War in Iraq, however terrible, is better than fighting in the streets of Toledo.

But in the real Iraq quite a different process is underway. In Superpower Syndrome, America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, an insightful little paperback published last year, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote of how the Bush administration "responded apocalyptically to an apocalyptic challenge"; of how in the wake of 9/11 and facing Islamist fanaticism, it offered its own version of a fundamentalist "world war without end"; of how, perversely, it then partnered up with al-Qaeda in a strange global dance of animosity.

If indeed at the highest levels we are seeing two versions of fundamentalism locked in a strange embrace, then it's hardly surprising that something similar should be replicated "on the ground," as has happened in Iraq. To me, the most striking aspect of the Iraqi situation is that this administration's fundamentalist occupation of Iraq emboldened, even (you might say) created, its own dream enemy. Soon after the insurgency there gained modest strength, the President declared Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism" -- and as with one of those genies in some old Arabian tale, Poof! It was so.

In Iraq, everything we've done from not attempting to stop the initial pulse of looting to dismantling Saddam's army, police, and state, from instituting American right-wing fundamentalist economic policies to our deep belief in the unimportance of Iraqis in the occupation of their country -- we didn't even arrive with translators, no less experts -- not to speak of our heavy-handed use of military power and torture power in the "liberated" country at the earliest signs of resistance -- all have essentially favored the growth of the most extreme elements in Iraqi society and in the region more generally. The administration which turned away from the real "war" on terror to Iraq for reasons of its own and whose top officials then melded Saddam, 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaeda into a tasty propaganda stew, have now, not surprisingly, managed to turn fantasy into reality.

Today, according to Time magazine correspondent Michael Ware, who was almost kidnapped by members of Attawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War), a militant group loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "the most wanted terrorist in Iraq":

"The group's black flags flutter from the palm trees and buildings along the Baghdad boulevard where we were stopped, an area known as Haifa Street. It's a no-go zone for U.S. forces. The fact that insurgents tied to al-Zarqawi are patrolling one of Baghdad's major thoroughfares--within mortar range of the U.S. embassy--is an indication of just how much of the country is beyond the control of U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government. It also reflects the extent to which jihadis linked to al-Zarqawi, 37, the Jordanian believed to be al-Qaeda's chief operative in Iraq, have become the driving forces behind the insurgency and are expanding its zone of influence."

This is a remarkable, if dark, achievement for the Bush administration. Iraq may indeed now be "the central front in the war on terrorism." A reader wrote me recently, on the subject of withdrawal from Iraq, asking whether we could possibly consider withdrawing without first "stabilizing" the country. But the point is the opposite: You can't put our fundamentalist administration and its Iraqi plans in the same sentence with the word "stabilization." The longer we remain, the more destabilizing we will prove. Jonathan Schell, whose book The Unconquerable World puts a frame of history around the events of our moment, take on the issue of withdrawal here, in his latest Nation magazine "Letters from Ground Zero" column, which the editors of that magazine have been kind enough to let me share with Tomdispatch readers.

Read dispatches by Tom Engelhardt several times a week at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Instititute.

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