December issue 2006

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

The Republican rout in last month’s US congressional elections prompted celebrations in many parts of the world, and the announcement of Donald Rumsfeld’s impending departure proved to be the icing on the cake for many critics of the Bush administration. It was more or less foreordained that the House of Representatives would fall to the Democrats; the Senate was a more difficult proposition, and seizing control of it was therefore a bigger achievement for the opposition party. However, anyone who assumes that the altered balance of power will rapidly translate into a more coherent and compassionate strategy vis-à-vis the steadily worsening disaster in Iraq, is likely to be disappointed.

This is not to say that there are no changes in store. They are mainly a consequence of two factors.

Since early 2006 — and in particular the deadly attack on an iconic Shia mosque in Samarra last February — it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the mantra that conditions in Iraq are looking up, as White House spokesmen, administration officials and George W. Bush himself have been saying more or less regularly since March 2003. They were never right, but their pronouncements began to sound particularly ridiculous as sectarian violence veered towards a free-for-all that to many American commentators seems more and more like civil war.

At the same time, the realisation has gradually been dawning on a growing number of Americans that they have consistently been lied to over Iraq. One suspects that in many cases the thought wouldn’t have crossed their minds had the conditions in the occupied country not turned so utterly appalling. They are now wishing that their nation hadn’t set out to teach Saddam Hussein a lesson, considering the insinuation that Baghdad was somehow secretly responsible for the September 11 attacks turned out to be as much a fantasy as the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was supposed to possess. Mind you, the WMD’s weren’t talked about as a possibility: a relentless chorus of administration voices, as well as their collaborators in the media, spent months insisting that stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons unquestionably existed, and there may even be a nuclear programme in the works.

iraq-2-dec06Intriguingly, a video has recently surfaced that shows Saddam and his leading henchmen testing weaponry of a somewhat more primitive variety in the run-up to the invasion: catapults, bows and arrows, and Molotov cocktails. As The New York Times’ Scott Shane reported last month: “In the video, Mr Hussein, wearing a double-breasted gray suit, aims a slingshot, shoots an arrow at the door using a crossbow (as aides scamper out of the way) and swings a mock gasoline bomb over his head with a rope. He urges his aides to get such weapons into the hands of Iraqis.” Thus, far from deploying WMDs, it seems Saddam had rather more rudimentary defences in mind. When groups of resistance fighters eventually sprang up, they proved far more resourceful in equipping themselves.

None of that gets mentioned very often these days, but the WMD scare campaign has stayed with ordinary Americans and it helped to stoke their scepticism about the alternative narrative that was accorded primacy by the official propagandists once it became clear that no weapons would be found: namely, that the war was fought in order to thrust upon Iraqis the gift of democracy. This myth continues to be maintained by the dwindling apologists for the conflict, as well as by some of its more recent opponents. One of the more obvious questions it provokes is: why were Iraqis alone picked for this privilege? Could it not simultaneously have been extended to some of its neighbours? Saudi Arabia, perhaps.

But many Americans have been able to see through the democracy pretext without pondering the wider issues of geopolitics: as far as they can tell, the state of Iraq, despite a series of elections, does not resemble that of a democracy, nor does it appear, by any stretch of the imagination, to be headed that way. It is widely suspected that the US played a role in arranging for the death sentence to be pronounced against Saddam two days before the Americans headed for the polling booths. In the event, its influence on voters appears to have been negligible.

This was not a manifestation of the syndrome whereby foreign policy traditionally takes a back seat in congressional polls, with local issues to the fore. Exit polls suggested that a substantial proportion of voters did indeed have Iraq on their minds as they cast their ballots. Aware of the public mood, the Democrats exploited the mess in Iraq to the hilt. That was the easy part. What most of them lacked was an alternative plan.

iraq-3-dec061A number of Democrats favour some form of withdrawal from Iraq — complete or otherwise, immediate or gradual — in the short run, and it is only fair to attach a certain amount of significance to the fact that Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House of Representatives (and the first woman to hold the post, which will put her two heartbeats away from the White House), accepts that the American presence in Iraq is provocative to the insurgents. However, the trouble is that the Congress has little say in such matters. It could cut off funds for the war effort, the billions of dollars that the US spends every month on maintaining a disastrous occupation. But that option isn’t even likely to be considered in the short run. It could launch investigations into the corruption and carpetbaggery that has played a significant role in thwarting the already meagre reconstruction efforts — but whatever the value of such moves, they wouldn’t do anything to ameliorate conditions in Iraq.

Both sides in Washington are eagerly awaiting the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group jointly headed by former Republican secretary of state, James Baker, and Democratic ex-legislator Lee Hamilton. One member of the panel was former CIA director Robert Gates, who resigned upon being nominated as a replacement for Rumsfeld. (Another is former CIA Middle East expert Ray Close, who was based in Lahore for some years during the late 1960s.) The Baker commission, as it is popularly known, is expected to deliver its findings by the middle of December, and a leaked draft report suggests its main recommendations will include negotiations with Iran and Syria as a means of reducing the level of violence in Iraq. A timetable for a phased withdrawal was considered somewhat less likely, as reports suggested competing ideas of what it would mean in practical terms were being hotly disputed among members.

The expectations invested in the study group were always unrealistic. A broadly acceptable solution to the mess that the US has created in Iraq requires nothing short of a miracle, and even James Baker — a long-time friend of the Bush family whose law firm in Houston once employed George W as an office boy, and whose services as consigliere came in extremely handy in Florida six years ago — can’t produce that. He and other panel members have been holding talks with Syrian and Iranian diplomats, and the idea of consultations, as well as full diplomatic relations, with Damascus and Teheran is eminently sensible. But it does not necessarily hold the key to a solution in Iraq.

Even that proposal, however, is unlikely to find favour with elements of the Bush administration, some of whom remain adamantly opposed to any sort of contacts with Iran, particularly unconditional ones. A detailed report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker last month suggests that an attack on Iran in 2007 or 2008 still cannot be ruled out. That is, of course, hard to believe in view of the catastrophe in Iraq. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the bloody-mindedness of Bush and his associates.

A growing chorus of prominent Americans now tends to blame the situation in Iraq more or less exclusively on the Iraqis. But then, blaming the victims isn’t a recent invention. After all, three decades or so ago it was not uncommon to hear that Vietnam wouldn’t have been “lost” had the vast majority of Vietnamese not been so thankless as to actively resist the foreign invaders. The “manifest destiny” attitude goes back a lot further than that of course, and there are times when it’s hard to resist the impression that dominant elements in the US military-industrial complex won’t be completely satisfied until the rest of the world is reduced to the sort of condition in which the Native Americans found themselves towards the end of the 19th century, after decades of subjection to a mixture of mean-spirited deceit and cold-blooded massacres.

The Vietnamese weren’t willing to be corralled in an Indochinese “reservation,” and in a slightly different context Iraq has served to reinforce that same point in the 21st century. But a clear sign that the appropriate lessons still remain to be learned can be found in the mantra, popular mainly among conservative critics of the Bush administration, that the flaws lie in the conduct of the war, rather than the very fact that it was waged without reasonable cause.

iraq-4-dec06With more than 3,700 deaths, October was supposed to have been the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians since the invasion. November turned out to be even worse. It was mostly a case of Iraqis killing one another, apparently on sectarian grounds. But they weren’t doing so in a vacuum: the anarchy has flourished in conditions created by an invasion that is thus far believed to have cost 655,000 Iraqi lives, during a period that now exceeds the extent of American involvement in the Second World War. Plus nearly 3,000 American lives, which means Bush now has almost as much blood on his hands as the 9/11 hijackers. And we haven’t even touched upon Afghanistan.

Thousands of Iraqis are said to be leaving the country every day, slipping into Syria or Jordan — where Bush was holding talks as late as last month with King Abdullah and Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki. The Jordanian monarch had warned a few days earlier that the advent of the new year could find the Middle East embroiled in three civil wars: in addition to Iraq, he had Lebanon and Palestine in mind.

While a conciliatory gesture by Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, raised a few hopes — only a few, mind you, given the nature and background of the conflict in question — of some improvement in the siege conditions that Palestinians face in Gaza and the West Bank, the fraught situation in Lebanon reached crisis point with the exit of all Shia ministers from the cabinet of Fouad Siniora, and then took a turn for the worse with the assassination of the young minister, Pierre Gemayel, a scion of the country’s most prominent Maronite Christian family.

Given their apparent influence over Hezbollah, which has been emboldened by its performance against the might of the Israeli army last summer, any solution to the strife in Lebanon would entail Iranian and Syrian involvement. However, it’s all too easy to err in exaggerating their influence over Hezbollah, although it’s probably substantially greater than the hold Teheran exercises over the most formidable of the Iraqi Shia militias, Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is reported to have expanded eight-fold during the past year. In both forces there are strong undercurrents of nationalism.

Al Maliki has lately encountered considerable criticism over his puppet regime’s dismal progress in restraining the Mahdi Army and other Shia militias and death squads, some of which operate out of various ministries in Baghdad. One can only wonder how the inadequately trained Iraqi security forces can be expected to achieve what the US army has failed to do, particularly in the face of added complications. For one, Al Maliki is beholden to Al Sadr, because his survival as prime minister is contingent on the parliamentary support of Al Sadr loyalists. Secondly, as many American officials privately acknowledge, soldiers and policemen in the new Iraq often moonlight as militiamen. Reports from Iraq about kidnappings and night-time visitations by death squads frequently note that the perpetrators were dressed in army or police uniforms. In most cases, that’s only because they couldn’t be bothered to change out of the clothes they require for their day jobs.

The flurry of diplomatic activity last month included a visit to Baghdad by Syria’s foreign minister, during which the two sides decided to restore relations ruptured in 1982, as well as a trip to Teheran by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani — hinting at a welcome attempt by the Baghdad regime to pre-empt the proposals of the Baker commission. But the least expected — as well as the most significant — journey of all was the one that Dick Cheney undertook to Riyadh. American press reports suggest that it wasn’t a US initiative: the Saudis effectively summoned the vice-president, evidently to inform him that if American forces pulled out of the Iraqi quagmire, Saudi Arabia would feel obliged to step in to protect the Arab Sunnis. If that led to war with Iran, so be it.

Some members of the Bush administration, possibly including Cheney, are likely to view the latter prospect with relish rather than consternation: from their point of view, a proxy war against Iran fought by the Saudis would be preferable to one waged via Israel. Nor would they object to Riyadh using oil as a weapon against Teheran, for instance by doubling its output. The fact that any Saudi-Iranian conflict would be utterly disastrous for the region is unlikely to give them too many sleepless nights.

That such a prospect is even being contemplated shows what a sorry pass has been reached in the Middle East as a consequence of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Attempts by the US to extricate itself from a mess entirely of its own making might even have been amusing but for the horrible toll its actions are exacting. And there is, of course, no coherent exit strategy. Speculation centres on a plan to increase American troop strength in the short run, in a final effort to enforce tranquillity of the graveyard variety, before a drawdown that could see the occupation force reduced by half by the end of 2007.

Such a move will serve to compound the problem rather than resolve it. The clouds over Iraq have no silver lining, but the only serious prospect of dissipating them lies in a complete and unequivocal withdrawal by the US and its allies, in combination with a determined diplomatic push, preferably by the United Nations, to obtain regional consent on non-intervention. The bloodshed won’t, of course, cease immediately. There may even be a spike in sectarian violence, but how much worse can it get. The vast majority of Iraqis are bound to realise sooner or later that they have to coexist with each other, if not as compatriots then at least as neighbours.

It would be sheer folly to attempt any firm predictions about exactly where a total pullout would lead, but it does appear to be the least atrocious option. Which probably means it is also the one least likely to be exercised in the short to medium term, partly out of vanity on the part of the Americans. The embarrassment of failure could scar the American psyche (and, possibly, act as a restraint against further imperialist adventures) for a generation. But then, most Americans — with the exception of Bush and Cheney — are willing to concede that “success” on any terms is no longer an option. And it requires only a modicum of common sense to realise that when it comes to a crime such as aggravated assault, the longer it continues, the worse its consequences.

Once it’s all over and some semblance of peace returns to Mesopotamia, it is likely to take Iraqis at least a generation to recover from the agonies of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which were — predictably — compounded manifold by invaders masquerading as the nation’s saviours. And even that’s an optimistic assumption. As things stand, the only guarantee is that as long as the brutal occupation continues, an epic tragedy will continue to unfold wherein, as Shakespeare might have put it, each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.