Mon, 01 Nov 2004

Browsing through my Plutarch the other day, I came across an anecdote in the life of Flamininus, the Roman consul who drove King Philip and the Macedonian army out of Greece. After Philip’s army had gone, Flamininus attended the Isthmian Games, in the Greek city of Corinth, and issued a proclamation that the Greek cities were to be restored “to their own lands, laws, and liberties.” At first the crowd couldn’t make out the crier’s words, and after a little confused murmuring they settled down so that the decree could be repeated. But when the crowd understood that the Romans, whom they assumed had come to replace the Macedonians as conquerors, had in fact given Greece back her freedom, they raised “a shout of joy…so loud that it could be heard as far as the sea.” As Plutarch tells it, the shout was so great that birds flying above the crowd were struck dead by the shockwave, and fell to the ground.

In April of last year, Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad as the American army entered. It would probably be too much to ask for bird-killing shouts of joy from the citizens of Baghdad, but we did get to see Iraqis ululating in celebration, whacking Saddam’s toppled statue with their slippers.

No doubt, their feelings were mixed. At the time, perhaps six thousand civilians had died in airstrikes. Something like ten thousand Iraqi soldiers – most of them pressed into service against their will – had been killed in the fighting, even though Americans dropped pamphlets behind enemy lines urging fighters to sit out the war for their own safety. The rest of the Iraqi army had melted away, eliminating the need for destructive street fighting in most cities…or so it seemed. The country’s infrastructure – such as it was, after twelve years of sanctions – was largely intact. By May, President Bush was striding across an aircraft carrier in his flight suit, talking about democratic elections in Iraq, a bright future, all that stuff.

Now, let’s suppose you accept the Chomskyan narrative that this was a war entirely about oil. It’s an oversimplification, but there is truth to it. Certainly, the Bush administration has shown no inclination to dispatch troops to Sudan, for instance, even to stop ongoing genocide; let alone other, more obscure parts of the world, to secure human rights and democracy. The reason America gives particular attention to the medieval fiefdoms of the Middle East is primarily because of oil, and secondarily because those fiefdoms keep coughing up long-bearded fanatics to blow up discotheques in Bali, and synagogues in Istanbul, and every decade or so, with varying degrees of success, Manhattan’s financial district.

But, okay, it was a war about oil. Americans were there to “steal” the oil which Iraq’s government had formerly been using to enrich an elite sliver of Ba’athists, Sunni Muslims, and members of Saddam’s own clan. The Bush administration’s optimistic post-war plan involved selling Iraqi oil to the west in order to finance the reconstruction of the country. This would seem like a rather better use of the money than, say, building yet another ostentatious palace for Saddam Hussein and his sons, or buying weaponry to intimidate and occasionally massacre Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities. The no-bid contract for Halliburton may have been inappropriate, but it was far more transparent than the suitcase-full-of-cash approach that had defined Iraq’s oil industry for the previous decade.

Still, one can understand the suspicions of the Iraqi people. With the Arab media broadcasting rants about Jews and Crusaders coming to steal Iraqi oil, with imams babbling that western values were tantamount to blasphemy and pornography, and with even the western media speculating loudly about Bush’s cynical motives for the invasion, Iraqis can be forgiven for mistrusting the conqueror who was now guaranteeing them their “lands, laws, and liberties”. Iraqis exercised their new liberty to gather in the streets by the thousands, shouting anti-American slogans, disbelieving the assurances of their new overlords. “American occupiers out now,” shouted the Iraqis, when the administration floated plans to bring home a hundred thousand troops by autumn 2003. “Democratic elections now,” shouted the Iraqis, when Bush promised free elections by January 2005. It was sort of comical. I mean, sure, there was some dispute about the timeframe. But nothing, you’d think, that couldn’t be settled without resorting to random decapitations.

Instead of grumbling and waiting for the American forces to leave, insurgents took to sabotaging convoys with roadside bombs. When the Americans installed a provisional government to prepare the country for democratic elections, insurgents called them collaborators and gunned them down in the street. When the Americans tried to recruit a police force to secure order, insurgents drove cars full of explosives into the recruiting stations. And then Iraqis wondered why the Americans persisted in sticking around. Meanwhile, civilian casualties multiplied, and now the figure is at least sixteen thousand. If you browse the database at iraqbodycount.net, you can read exactly how all these people died. In the first few months, almost all the civilian deaths were caused by American missiles. As the war goes along, increasingly, they’re being killed by car bombs and drive-by Kalashnikov-sprayings. The number of Iraqis killed by other Iraqis is beginning to outpace the number killed by Americans.

I’m not trying to put the blame on the Iraqi people. They’re pinned between jittery American forces on one side, and a posse of bomb-worshipping nihilists on the other. I’m trying to draw an analogy between the self-destructive paranoia of Iraqis, and the self-destructive paranoia of George Bush’s opponents back home.

Look at this administration’s dubious achievements in Iraq. They began the war with just enough troops to scatter the feeble Iraqi army, and did, with alacrity. But when that army was defeated, overstretched American soldiers could only stand by while government buildings were sacked and looted. They were unable to protect the moderate clerics Ayatollah al-Khoei and Ayatollah al-Hakim from being assassinated by fundamentalist thugs. Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld claimed it was a good thing that foreign jihadists were pouring across Iraq’s borders unimpeded, because now America could fight and kill them all in one place.

The administration disbanded the Iraqi army, creating a pool of armed, unemployed young men with a grudge against the United States. They sent out vaguely-worded directives that seemed to sanction the use of torture against Iraqi prisoners, and when it turned out that prisoners were in fact being tortured, no-one bothered to do anything about it until pictures of naked Iraqis showed up on the evening news. The military could have targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the war, when he was running a terrorist training camp in the American-protected no-fly zone of Iraqi Kurdistan; but that would’ve weakened the administration’s justification for invading, so Zarqawi was left unmolested. Now he glorifies Allah by personally cutting off the heads of western aid workers.

What’s exasperating about the Noam Chomsky – Michael Moore – Linda McQuaig school of interpreting foreign policy is that they rustle around in the curtains, pointing their flashlights up into the riggings and down into the orchestra pit, piecing together complicated conspiracy theories on the basis of sawdust, sandbags, and the angle of the lighting fixtures; while onstage, in plain view of everybody, a tragedy unfolds whose meaning should be perfectly clear to every spectator. Even if you believed every single claim George Bush made before the war – about the weapons of mass destruction, about the connections between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda, about the urgency of pre-emptively toppling dangerous regimes – (and I should say that I believed a good deal of it, and that I still believe some of it) – what’s amazing about Iraq is that, even on Bush’s terms, the war has been conducted with such head-smacking, heartbreaking incompetence. Yet not one member of the administration has been fired for his failures. Not one member of the administration has even seen fit to publicly acknowledge that things aren’t going so well.

This incompetence is far more damning than the cartoonish supervillainies sketched by Michael Moore et al. Bush isn’t a devious puppet manipulated into power by an oil-thirsty corporate cabal. In some ways, it’s worse. He’s the democratically elected President of the United States. His intentions are noble. He wants to use his power to improve the world. He’s just really fucking bad at it.

In Iraq, nothing much will change if John Kerry wins the election Tuesday. There are no extra troops that Kerry could send there even if he wanted to. On the other hand, pulling out troops, with no-one to replace them, would lead only to more chaos. All a hypothetical President Kerry could do is wait while an Iraqi security force, of dubious loyalty, is painstakingly trained, and then hope that the Iraqis can keep the country from tearing apart as U.S. troops trickle out. This is exactly President Bush’s policy, except that Bush pretends (and possibly even believes) that things are going smoothly, and that this has been his plan from the beginning. The only improvement Kerry would offer is a slightly more honest rhetoric.

I think Kerry’s going to lose, though. And the reason comes down to Michael Moore. (I use Moore as a stand-in for the legion of left-wing talking heads just like him.) If I have a sensation not unlike acid reflux when I see Michael Moore on television – bearing in mind that many of my friends are hippies, and I’m generally sympathetic to liberal causes – then imagine how off-putting his pronouncements must appear to your average construction worker in Columbus, Ohio, or housewife in Tampa Bay, or any of the two or three percent of the American electorate who still can’t decide between the two candidates. When John Kerry goes on TV and says, “Bush has a problem confronting reality, he’s grossly mishandled the war, and he needs to be replaced,” voters are sympathetic. When Michael Moore goes on TV and says, “Bush is a corporate puppet, he’s killing Iraqi children to impress his daddy, and by the way, he isn’t really the president in the first place,” they wince and change the channel. I would too.

The only hope for Kerry is that Bush’s cro-magnon reelection campaign will turn off as many voters as Michael Moore’s conspiracy theories. Then, with luck, it will come down to a contest between the candidates’ platforms and personalities, and on that basis, maybe, Kerry can win. Though he’s a pompous windbag, I’m convinced that, in every single respect besides Iraq (where there’s little he can do), Kerry would make a better president than Bush.

So that’s what I’m hoping for, though I confess I won’t join in the bird-killing shout that the hippies will raise if Bush loses. I’m about as tired of the smug self-congratulation of the left as I am of the reflexive tub-thumping of the right. But I’m hoping a few years of President Kerry – competent, cautious, diplomatic, and deeply boring – will put a damper on all the sneering and conspiracy-mongering from either side. Best of all, Michael Moore will have no further reason to go on television until 2008.

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