What is Happening to the United States?
by Edward Said
April 28, 2003
In a scarcely reported speech given on the Senate floor on 19 March, the day the war was launched against Iraq, Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia and the most eloquent speaker in that chamber, asked "what is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomacy when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?" No one bothered to answer him, but as the vast American military machine now planted in Iraq begins to stir restlessly in other directions in the name of the American people, their love of freedom, and their deep-seated values, these questions give urgency to the failure, if not the corruption of democracy that we are living through.
Let's examine first what US Middle East policy has wrought since George W. Bush came to power almost three years ago in an election decided finally by the Supreme Court, not by the popular vote. Even before the atrocities of 11 September, Bush's team had given Ariel Sharon's government a free hand to colonise the West Bank and Gaza, to kill, detain and expel people at will, to demolish their homes, expropriate their land, imprison them by curfew and hundreds of military blockades, make life for them generally speaking impossible; after 9/11, Sharon simply hitched his wagon to "the war on terrorism" and intensified his unilateral depredations against a defenseless civilian population, now under occupation for 36 years, despite literally tens of UN Security Council resolutions enjoining Israel to withdraw and otherwise desist from its war crimes and human rights abuses. Bush called Sharon a man of peace last June, and kept the five billion dollar subsidy coming without even the vaguest hint that it was at risk because of Israel's lawless brutality.
On 7 October, 2001, Bush launched the invasion of Afghanistan, which opened with concentrated high- altitude bombing (increasingly an "anti-terrorist" military tactic, bearing in its effects and structure a strong resemblance to ordinary, garden variety terrorism) and by December had installed in that devastated country a client regime with no effective power beyond a few streets in Kabul. There has been no significant US effort at reconstruction, and it would seem the country has returned to its former abjection, albeit with a noticeable return of elements of the Taliban, as well as a thriving drug-based economy.
Since the summer of 2002, the Bush administration has conducted an all-front campaign against the despotic government of Iraq and, having unsuccessfully tried to push the Security Council into compliance, began its war along with the United Kingdom against the country. I would say that from about last November on, dissent disappeared from a mainstream media swollen with a surfeit of ex-generals and ex- intelligence agents sprinkled with recent terrorism and security experts drawn from the Washington right-wing think tanks. Anyone who spoke up and actually managed to appear was labeled anti-American by failed academics who mounted Web sites to list "enemy" scholars who didn't toe the line. E-mails of the few visible public figures who struggled to say something were swamped, their lives threatened, their ideas trashed and mocked by media news readers who had just become the self-appointed, all-too- embedded sentinels of America's war.
An overwhelming torrent of crude as well as sophisticated material appeared everywhere equating the tyranny of Saddam Hussein not only with evil, but with every known crime: much of this in part was factually correct but it eliminated from mention the extraordinarily important role played by the US and Europe in fostering the man's rise, fuelling his ruinous wars, and maintaining his power. No less a personage than the egregious Donald Rumsfeld visited Saddam in the early 80s as a way of assuring him of US approval for his catastrophic war against Iran. The various US corporations who supplied Iraq with nuclear, chemical and biological material for the weapons that we supposedly went to war for were simply erased from the public record.
But all this and more was deliberately obscured by both government and media in manufacturing the case for the further destruction of Iraq which has been taking place for the past month. The demonisation of the country and its strutting leader turned it into a simulacrum of a formidable quasi-metaphysical threat whereas -- and this bears repeating -- its demoralised and basically useless armed forces were a threat to no one at all. What was formidable about Iraq was its rich culture, its complex society, its long- suffering people: these were all made invisible, the better to smash the country as if it were only a den of thieves and murderers. Either without proof or with fraudulent information Saddam was accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction that were a direct threat to the US 7000 miles away. He was identical with the whole of Iraq, a desert place "out there" (to this day most Americans have no idea where Iraq is, what its history consists of, and what besides Saddam it contains) destined for the exercise of US power unleashed illegally as a way of cowing the entire world in its Captain Ahab like quest for reshaping reality and imparting democracy to everyone. At home the Patriot and Terrorist Acts have given the government an unseemly grip over civil life. A dispiritingly quiescent population for the most part accepts the bilge, passed off as fact, about imminent security threats, with the result that preventive detention, illegal eavesdropping and a menacing sense of a heavily policed public space have made even the university a cold, hard place to be for anyone who tries to think and speak independently.
The appalling consequences of the US and British intervention in Iraq are only just beginning to unfold, first with the coldly calculated destruction of its modern infrastructure, then with the looting and burning of one of the world's richest civilisations, and finally the totally cynical American attempt to engage a band of motley "exiles" plus various large corporations in the supposed rebuilding of the country and the appropriation not only of its oil but also its modern destiny. In response to the dreadful scenes of looting and burning which in the end are the occupying power's responsibility, Rumsfeld managed to put himself in a class beyond even Hulagu. "Freedom is untidy," he said on one occasion, and "stuff happens" on another. Remorse or sorrow were nowhere in evidence.
General Jay Garner, handpicked for the job, seems like a person straight out of the TV-serial "Dallas". The Pentagon's favorite exile, Ahmad Al-Chalabi, for example, has intimated openly that he plans to sign a peace treaty with Israel, hardly an Iraqi idea. Bechtel has already been awarded a huge contract. This too in the name of the American people. The whole business smacks of nothing so much as Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
This is an almost total failure in democracy, ours as Americans, not Iraq's. Seventy per cent of the American people are supposed to be for all this, but nothing is more manipulative and fraudulent than polls of random numbers of Americans who are asked whether they "support our president and troops in time of war". As Senator Byrd said in his speech, "there is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many questions unanswered...A pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq." Who is going to ask questions now that that Middle Western farm boy General Tommy Franks sits triumphantly with his staff around one of Saddam's tables in a Baghdad palace?
I am convinced that in nearly every way, this was a rigged, and neither a necessary nor a popular war. The deeply reactionary Washington "research" institutions that spawned Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams, Feith and the rest provide an unhealthy intellectual and moral atmosphere. Policy papers circulate without real peer review, adopted by a government requiring what seems to be rational (even moral) justification for a dubious, basically illicit policy of global domination. Hence, the doctrine of military preemption, which was never voted on either by the people of this country or their half-asleep representatives. How can citizens stand up against the blandishments offered the government by companies like Halliburton, Boeing, and Lockheed? And as for planning and charting a strategic course for what in effect is by far the most lavishly endowed military establishment in history, one that is fully capable of dragging us into unending conflicts, that task is left to the various ideologically based pressure groups such as the fundamentalist Christian leaders like Franklin Graham who have been unleashed with their Bibles on destitute Iraqis, the wealthy private foundations, and such lobbies as AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, along with its associated think tanks and research centres.
What seems so monumentally criminal is that good, useful words like "democracy" and "freedom" have been hijacked, pressed into service as a mask for pillage, muscling in on territory, and the settling of scores. The American programme for the Arab world is the same as Israel's. Along with Syria, Iraq theoretically represents the only serious long term military threat to Israel, and therefore it had to be put out of commission for decades. What does it mean to liberate and democratise a country when no one asked you to do it, and when in the process you occupy it militarily and, at the same time, fail miserably to preserve public law and order? The mix of resentment and relief at Saddam's cowardly disappearance that most Iraqis feel has brought with it little understanding or compassion either from the US or from the other Arab states, who have stood by idly quarreling over minor points of procedure while Baghdad burned. What a travesty of strategic planning when you assume that "natives" will welcome your presence after you've bombed and quarantined them for 13 years. The truly preposterous mindset about American beneficence, and with it that patronising Puritanism about what is right and wrong, has infiltrated the minutest levels of the media. In a story about a 70-year-old Baghdad widow who ran a cultural centre from her house -- wrecked in the US raids -- and is now beside herself with rage, NY Times reporter Dexter Filkins implicitly chastises her for having had "a comfortable life under Saddam Hussein", and then piously disapproves of her tirade against the Americans, "and this from a graduate of London University".
Adding to the fraudulence of the weapons that weren't there, the Stalingrads that didn't occur, the formidable artillery defenses that never happened, I wouldn't be surprised if Saddam disappeared suddenly because a deal was made in Moscow to let him out with his family and money in return for the country. The war had gone badly for the US in the south, and Bush couldn't risk more of the same in Baghdad. On April 6 a Russian convoy left Baghdad. US National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared in Russia on 7 April. Two days later, Baghdad fell on 9 April. Draw your own conclusions, but isn't it possible that as a result of discussions with the Republican Guard mentioned by Rumsfeld, Saddam bought himself out in return for abandoning the whole thing to the Americans and their British allies, who could then proclaim a brilliant victory.
Americans have been cheated, Iraqis have suffered impossibly, and Bush looks like the moral equivalent of a cowboy sheriff who has just led his righteous posse to a victorious showdown against an evil enemy. On matters of the gravest importance to millions of people constitutional principles have been violated and the electorate lied to unconscionably. We are the ones who must have our democracy back. Enough of smoke and mirrors and smooth talking hustlers.
Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999). This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)