Two Faces of America

By Tom Engelhardt The turnout of Iraqis on Sunday was thoroughly inspiring. But what exactly were they turning out for?


By Tom Engelhardt

There is something thoroughly inspiring when people, under the threat of death, turn out to vote in a country that has become an armed camp. The urge of a long oppressed people to take back their lives, to act, is always moving and powerful. Certainly, the Iraq vote, as presented in the media here in the U.S., has also provided a boost to the Bush administration at home at a useful moment. “It ought to give heart to the American people that the effort we’ve made to help the Iraqi people get to this day was well worth it — that the Iraqi people have justified the faith we put in them,” commented National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley. (As in Vietnam, though, such boosts in the midst of a disastrous war are unlikely to be long lasting.)

The meaning of the vote in Iraq is another question entirely. It’s not just a matter of the actual turnout — how high in Shiite and Kurdish Iraq, how low in Sunni areas of the country, or what the irregularities were — but of what exactly Iraqis were turning out for. Were they, for instance, voting not for George Bush’s version of freedom, but to end the American occupation itself, as unembedded reporter Dahr Jamail suggests at his blog? Was it to grasp that will o’ the wisp, a land that will not be a “republic of fear” in a place where “the only institutions… with real power are the US and UK military,” as BBC reporter Rageth Omaar recently suggested in the British Guardian? Was it to end centuries of Sunni dominance and establish Shiite dominance (and so possibly cause a civil war); or, in Kurdish areas of the north, to establish the basis for future independence (and a possible Turkish intervention)?

And then there’s that other question: Whatever Iraqis thought they were voting for at polling places where, due to security concerns, most didn’t even know the names of the candidates, what exactly are they going to get from this election? Was it even possible, as Brian Whitaker asked in the Guardian, to achieve anything like a genuine democracy when the Bush administration has paid so little “attention to the slow and laborious business of creating the civil institutions that make elections meaningful”? Or was it, as Pepe Escobar suggested in the Asia Times, a means of further embedding American power in the country? (“[O]nly the naïve may believe that an imperial power would voluntarily abandon the dream scenario of a cluster of military bases planted over virtually unlimited reserves of oil.”) Or might the Bush administration not even mind a post-election descent into something approaching civil war, as James Carroll of the Boston Globe suggested in a devastating column on the election and George Bush?

And what will be possible for a future Iraqi government in a land still occupied by a foreign army and a foreign power whose “advisers” are now emplaced in every important ministry, whose bases or “enduring camps” are now gargantuan, permanent structures, whose officials control much of the money that will be available to any new administration which will also face a fierce home-grown insurgency not about to go away any time soon? Still, Iraqis at the polls represented at least one modestly hopeful face of Iraq.

Over a week ago, President Bush offered an official American face to the world when, in his inaugural speech, he plunked for the messianic global spread of “freedom” (as defined by his administration), essentially by force of (or the threat of) arms. But how different the face of America we see and the faces we turn to the rest of the world.

Two Faces of America

Just the other day, on the front page of the New York Times, reporters David Johnston, Neil A. Lewis, and Douglas Jehl revealed that federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff, the Bush administration’s designee for head of the Homeland Security Department, spent parts of 2002-03 — he was then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division — advising the Central Intelligence Agency “on the legality of coercive interrogation methods on terror suspects under the federal anti-torture statute.” More specifically, among the techniques he evidently green-lighted because they did not involve “the infliction of pain” (as narrowly defined in pretzled torture memos developed in the office of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales), he indicated that one technique “C.I.A. officers could use under certain circumstances without fear of prosecution was strapping a subject down and making him experience a feeling of drowning.” Water torture is, of course, an ancient interrogation technique and was used by numerous oppressive regimes in the last century. It now goes under the rubric of “waterboarding” (which sounds much like the harmless daredevil sport of surfboarding).

To “experience a feeling of drowning” — no pain there, of course. If you want to check out what “waterboarding” looks like, rent Gillo Pontocorvo’s old film The Battle of Algiers (screened, assumedly for tips, by the Pentagon’s special operations chiefs in the fall of 2003). It vividly shows how the French military used torture to break tightly organized urban cells of the Algerian revolutionary movement (but still lost the struggle). Watch Pontocorvo’s recreated scenes of an earlier version of “waterboarding” and see whether you think it involves the infliction of “pain,” whether it qualifies as torture or not.

What’s remarkable here is that so many officials in the Bush administration (including — Seymour Hersh recently hinted — the President himself) thought it was more than worth their while to spend significant amounts of time parsing the details of specific torture techniques and their possible uses by our interrogators in our offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice. There, after all, was Alberto Gonzales, White House Legal Counsel and close buddy of the President, and his men (in conjunction with lawyers from the Justice Department) turning out endless definitional memos on ways in which obvious torture techniques could be reclassified as non-torture techniques, and various ways in which American torturers under orders from the “commander-in-chief” might escape any possible future prosecution for war crimes.

There, after all, was Donald Rumsfeld, approving a memo from William J. Haynes (then Pentagon Legal Counsel, now a Bush judge) on the use of various categories of “counter-resistance techniques to aid in the interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay,” but scribbling at the bottom of the page: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” In other words, the Don was urging that interrogators use an even fiercer method of interrogation than was being suggested as part of an effort to break prisoners at Guantanamo.

Okay, it’s true that off in the imperium, at small holding stations or in foreign jails, CIA interrogators were doing the actual waterboarding, while in Guantanamo, we now know, women interrogators were smearing fake menstrual blood on the faces of humiliated Muslim prisoners, and off in Iraq and Afghanistan prisoners were being shackled, hooded, locked in contorted positions, sleep-deprived, electro-shocked, sexually humiliated, or just plain beaten to death. But all of this began — or rather was loosed — by those men at the top so eagerly fiddling with definitions and considering just how extreme extreme acts of pain and humiliation could be.

And now, representing the security face of the second-term Bush administration (assuming Senate approval of two of them) will be Gonzales at Justice, Rumsfeld at Defense, and Chertoff at Homeland Security. In other words, the face with which we face the world will quite literally be the face of torture.

Our Secretary of Defense, for instance, evidently can’t tell the difference between working at his “stand-up desk” in the Pentagon at the pinnacle of power, with endless aides at his beck and call, and a humiliated prisoner standing in an interrogation cell, helpless and without hope, sleepless, possibly naked, in an endless twilight of detention, with that board and that tub of water down the hall, with threatening dogs nearby, with the strobe lights going and the music blaring. This is moral obtuseness on a global scale worthy of an ancient Mongol khan.

In this week of election news, it’s worth remembering that another American face than that of “freedom” has been on display in Iraq since our invasion of that country began — just not to Americans. Dahr writes today on what that “face” looks like from the perspective of Iraqis looking up. I’m talking here about the loosing of our Air Force on Iraq’s densely populated cities — a subject that, to this day, remains almost uncovered by American reporters in Iraq. Not surprisingly then, it has had almost no impact here.

Back in early December I wrote a piece, Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq, on the subject. Since then, with the exception of a single, bland report by the Washington Post’s Bradley Graham (“At any given time, the skies over Iraq contain, in the words of one senior officer here, ‘a cocktail of weapons’ — from 2,000-pound bombs to 100-pound Hellfire missiles — waiting to be let loose should the need arise. But the biggest recent advance in the air arsenal came in September, officers said, with the debut of a satellite-guided, 500-pound bomb designated the GBU-38.”) — and despite the destruction of the city of Fallujah, in part from the air — the subject remains almost untouched.

However, I was glad to see that, in a recent interview Amy Goodman conducted with Seymour Hersh on her Democracy Now! Radio show, Hersh acknowledged this shameful lack of coverage in the strongest way possible. Ranging over many subjects (“Another salvation [from Bush administration depredations] may be the economy. It’s going to go very bad, folks. You know, if you have not sold your stocks and bought property in Italy, you better do it quick.”) and startlingly blunt, Hersh is well worth reading beginning to end, but on the air war in Iraq he said in part:

“Here’s the other horrifying, sort of spectacular fact that we don’t really appreciate. Since we installed our puppet government, this man, Allawi, who was a member of the Mukabarat, the secret police of Saddam, long before he became a critic, and is basically Saddam-lite…since we have installed him on June 28, July, August, September, October, November, every month, one thing happened: the number of sorties, bombing raids by one plane, and the number of tonnage dropped has grown exponentially each month. We are systematically bombing that country. There are no embedded journalists at Doha, the Air Force base I think we’re operating out of. No embedded journalists at the aircraft carrier, Harry Truman. That’s the aircraft carrier that I think is doing many of the operational fights. There’s no air defense. It’s simply a turkey shoot. They come and hit what they want. We know nothing. We don’t ask. We’re not told… [E]ssentially Iraq — some of you remember Vietnam — Iraq is being turn into a “free-fire zone” right in front of us.”

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.