After the bloodiest week in the American occupation of Iraq, the same tired slogans about “seeing it through” and “staying the course” are about all that our leaders seem able to say. Such a paucity of moral and political imagination does not serve well the citizens of this country or of the world, and seems a recipe for a surefire descent further into the political inferno that Iraq is daily becoming. It is fine to wonder aloud whether 9/11 could have prevented by due diligence at the White House, but it is no excuse for not focusing on the least disastrous endgame for Iraq. Let us recall, as the Pentagon Papers demonstrated, that it took American leaders a decade of bloodshed to acknowledge in public the failure that they privately had come to recognize the Vietnam War to have been. It may be up to the American citizenry to shorten the learning cycle this time around, with so much more at stake.
The steady descent into an American-led foreign policy whirlpool allows us to consider the worst features of the Bush approach to the challenges of world order.
First of all, unilateralism with respect to waging war in flagrant violation of the UN Charter and international law, underscored by the American president’s arrogant assertion in the 2004 State of the Union Address: “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.”
Secondly, the mission impossible associated with imposing democracy on a sovereign state by force of arms in defiance of national aspirations. This undertaking is being daily exposed as a recipe for policy failure in Iraq, a country beset by internal religious, ethnic, regional conflicts and a political tradition with zero receptivity to American-style democracy.
Thirdly, the imperial claim that America embodies the only model for political and economic success. As expressed in the important White House document of September 2002, National Security Strategy of the USA: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom– a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” All other political arrangements are illegitimate in the eyes of Washington, and it is some pathological version of this model that remains the blueprint for Iraq despite the overwhelming evidence that the Iraqis want to decide their future by themselves, and do not accept either prescriptions for their future whether issued as decrees by the occupiers or by their designated Iraqi representatives on the Iraqi Interim Governing Council.
And finally, the obsessive preoccupation with the Middle East as the pivot of the American grand design for world domination. The neocons shaping the Bush presidency view strategic control of the region as vital for their conception of global security, which includes oil, safe havens for American private investment, and a lethal partnership with Israel. This was all made clear in their definitive planning document prepared in the months before George W. Bush came to Washington under the auspices of the Project for a New American Century. It is notable in this latter regard, that Israel’s approach to the Palestinians has inspired the tactics and structure of the American occupation of Iraq, with similar results of deepening indigenous resentments and gradually imposing on an oppressed people the stark choice between abject surrender and violent resistance. Also nightly more in evidence is the American use of tanks, missiles, and bombers against unarmed or lightly armed Iraqi resisters.
As matters stand, there is no favorable endgame for this war. There is not yet in the American political or media mainstream, including the Kerry presidential bid, even a hint of withdrawal. The consensus in Washington is that the stakes are too large to admit failure, and that any hasty departure from Iraq would trigger a vicious civil war with adverse regional effects. At the same time, the much heralded transfer of sovereignty on June 30 seems like a fig leaf designed to disguise the realities of continuing military occupation, and is unlikely either to mean anything substantive about the exercise of authority in Iraq or to fool a single person in Baghdad. To begin with, how can the US Government transfer what it does not possess? Or put another way, if Iraqi sovereignty is a reality, what are American occupying forces doing in the country against the expressed will of the Iraqi people and their authentic representatives? And how are we to explain the current construction of 14 large military bases for US forces designed to accommodate a permanent military presence in the country? This is a terrain of American dreams, Iraqi nightmares!
So far, the American political leadership has not faced up to the failure of its Iraq policy, and so is paralyzed, caught in a cycle of escalating violence that recalls Vietnam. Because of the strategic importance of Iraq, many think the better analogy is the French prolonged inability to acknowledge defeat in Algeria. It took all the prestige and patriotic credibility of Charles DeGaulle to extricate France, and even then France came perilously close to self-destructing in the aftermath. We here in the United States need to be asking ourselves and others, with a sense of urgency, what will it take to bring the Iraqi disaster to closure.
On the broader front, the warnings and opportunities associated with the Madrid train bombings of March 11th are instructive. The Spanish citizenry immediately opted in its general elections three days later for an anti-war opposition party, and responded to their 9/11 with the slogan “No to terrorism! No to war!” If only America had displayed such political wisdom. Although it is late, it is not too late. A change in presidential leadership in November, although unlikely to offer much immediate prospect of change, will create some needed political space for moving in new, more constructive directions, and will at least rid the United States and the world of the current extremist worldviews that have given rise to the tragic ordeal of Iraq.