A recent Washington Post piece by Thomas E. Ricks and Robin Wright declares, “From troops on the ground to members of Congress, Americans increasingly blame the continuing violence and destruction in Iraq on the people most affected by it: the Iraqis.” The authors depict a November 15 meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee “a festival of bipartisan Iraqi-bashing,” quoting the following senators:
Carl Levin (D-Michigan, next chairman of the committee: “We should put the responsibility for Iraq’s future squarely where it belongs -- on the Iraqis. We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves.”
Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): “People in South Carolina come up to me in increasing numbers and suggest that no matter what we do in Iraq, the Iraqis are incapable of solving their own problems through the political process and will resort to violence, and we need to get the hell out of there.”
Evan Bayh (D-Indiana): “We all want them to succeed. We all want them to be able to stabilize their country with the assistance that we’ve provided them. [But] too often they seem unable or unwilling to do that.”
The authors add that members of the House Armed Services Committee joined the chorus later on November 15. “If the Iraqis are determined and decide to destroy themselves and their country, I don’t know how in the world we're going to stop them,” declared Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.).
Now if this isn’t a case of blaming the victim I don’t know what is. Iraq was not in a state of civil war in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded it, insisting to a skeptical world and a gullible domestic audience that Baghdad threatened New York with nuclear weapons and that Saddam Hussein was a close associate of al-Qaeda. The country was bleeding from cruel sanctions imposed by the UN at US insistence, and humiliated by incessant US bombing attacks. Even so, relations between Shiites and Sunnis were peaceable enough; Christians went about their lives without fear of attack; women could go to and from their jobs or schools with their heads uncovered; academics did not need to fear assassination. The state was highly repressive (as is not unusual with the 200 plus states on this planet); but the ruling Baathist party was committed to secularism, and hostile to Islamic (especially Shiite) fundamentalism. Saddam kept a tight lid on the Pandora’s Box of possible sectarian conflict, but the US invasion lifted the lid. First came the inevitable nationalistic resistance to invasion, mounted by a mix of secular and religious forces in the “Sunni Triangle” as well as militant Shiites in the south. The former opted for armed struggle, the latter (for the most part) initially for peaceful protest although Shiite patience with the occupation soon wore thin. Unable to defeat the insurgency or restore order, the occupiers looked on (perhaps in dismay) as power at the street level fell into the hands of militias inclined towards sectarian strife.
The project to subjugate Iraq, and to convert it into a compliant US client-state, has failed. There is no “Mission Accomplished” but rather a hellish mix of anti-occupation resistance (the “insurgency”) and civil war. These were predictable ramifications of the decision to invade, a decision which has never been objectively examined by the mainstream press to say nothing of the Congress supposedly representing the American people. Many war critics are expecting that the newly empowered Democrats are going to investigate the prewar manufacture of pro-war “intelligence” manufactured by Douglas Feith’s Lie Factory (the “Office of Special Plans” in the Defense Department), and to thus clarify -- to any still confused -- the fact that the chaos in today’s Iraq is the fruit of an illegal, immoral invasion rejected by the Iraqi people. They’re hoping that that historical information will provide the basis for an expeditious pull-out. After all, if the invasion was a crime based on lies, how can one support the continuance of the criminality?
The Democrats do apparently aim to conduct some investigations that could drag Feith’s ass over the coals. And maybe the embarrassing exposures will so weaken the warmongering administration that it will be obliged to cut and run and avoid further wars of aggression in the next couple years. But notice how the war that began with racism looks as though it will end with racism too. Bipartisan racism. The Bush administration, with Democratic Party support, responded to a terrorist attack by Saudi nationals by targeting Iraq. The implicit logic was: Saudi Arabian nationals had attacked the US; both Saudis and Iraqis are Arabs; Arabs live in a region serving as a breeding-ground for Islamist terrorism; and so Iraqis deserve to have their country invaded (liberated) by American forces.
“Go massive. Sweep it all. Things related and not,” wrote Donald Rumsfeld the day after the 9-11 attacks. Translation: “Let’s use this opportunity to conquer all of Southwest Asia -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and beyond. Countries very different from one another, countries unrelated to al-Qaeda.” But how do you do that in a democracy? You sow confusion, of course, and fear. You exploit that reliable old standby: American racism. You notice that polls right after the attacks show that an amazingly high percentage of Americans would favor placing Muslims (who can of course be of any ethnicity but who tend to be of non-European background and thus fairly easily be singled out as “other”) in detention camps. You work with that, and get the people to back an Iraq attack as an action of self-defense versus the whole Muslim world. You have your fascist columnist attack-dogs on the pages of the Weekly Standard, National Review and Wall Street Journal bark that, “We’ve coddled these people too long.” You say you’ll make no distinction between terrorists and countries that sponsor them, knowing that will set up Iran and Syria for attack, because they have ties to Hizbollah, Hamas and other groups deemed “terrorist” by the State Department even if they had no connection to al-Qaeda. You proclaim to the world “You’re either for us or against us,” posturing as God’s anointed versus the forces of Evil rampant in the world, especially the Muslim Middle East. You know that you could attack Oman or Yemen or Jordan or Malaysia for that matter with scarcely a whimper of protest from the political establishment. Such was the wonderful promising aftermath of 9-11, when the neocons seize their moment.
Any activist involved in the movement to protest the invasion of Iraq in 2002 met with the indignant charge, “They attacked us!” On more than one occasion during antiwar vigils I heard passing motorists bellow, “Nuke ‘em all!” All of them. Who’s the “them”? Arabs? Muslims? Those bigot-warriors would probably be hard-pressed to explain the difference. It was an “us vs. them” thing, the “good vs. evil” crusade declared by a president enjoying 90% popularity. It was a thoroughly racist thing, a clever appeal subtly encouraged by the neocon-led administration to ignorance and bigotry.
Now we’re back there again, even as the timid war-critics in Congress, critics not by anti-imperialist inclination but by political opportunism, articulate their reasons for advocating a graduated withdrawal. In essence, this is what Democrat and Republican alike are now saying. “We tried to help these people. We overthrew their dictator. But what in response have they given to us? A complete lack of appreciation! We handed them democracy, and they responded by fighting us because of some weird Islamic fixation on violence. And they started fighting among themselves, Shiites and Sunnis. Looks like those problems -- their problems -- go way, way back. We didn’t start them and they’re none of our business. If the government of Iraq can’t get the situation under control, we’ll just have to say, ‘We tried, but you folks screwed up, so sorry we’re going to leave.’”
That actually looks like the argument that will be deployed to explain the coming ignominious departure of US troops from Iraq. It’s understandable, of course. How can the US political establishment admit that the war was based on lies and on the exploitation of traditional American racism? How can the new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shift from “asking questions” about what she still terms “intelligence shortcomings” to actively exposing deliberate disinformation designed to play on anti-Arab prejudices? A huge groundswell of antiwar organizing might just force the Democrats to really call the administration to task over its crimes. If not, I expect, the US will withdraw from Iraq, forced out principally by the efforts of the invaded people. The US might retain some unwelcome bases and some lucrative corporate contracts, the minimal spoils of war. But even if it does, its political elite will disparage the Iraqi people for their ingratitude. The people, who have lost hundreds of thousands of lives in violence since the US invasion, will be blamed -- to the invaders’ home audience -- for the invader’s departure.
They were just too Muslim, too Arab, and too different to accept our shock-and-awe kindness. We couldn’t, as Sen. Levin says, “save them from themselves.” We couldn’t, as Sen. Bayh says, “stabilize their country with the assistance that we’ve provided them.” If such Democrats have their way, the US will indeed withdraw from Iraq -- partially at least, leaving tens of thousands of troops in a dozen bases. It will leave without apology, with contempt for the people, blaming the victims.
There is another possible scenario. It involves exposure of official criminality, impeachment of top officials, complete withdrawal and support for a regional conference to help end the Iraqi civil war. Only a mass movement could force the Democrats into pursuing such a course. It might also involve an official apology, cooperation with an international war crimes tribunal, and payment of reparations. But being imperialist means never having to say you’re sorry, so the country would have to change fundamentally for real justice to be done. Once upon a time there was a revolution in Russia, after which the new regime exposed the duplicity of the toppled Czar’s government and set the country’s foreign policy on an entirely new course. But that only occurred after the Russian people became so fed up with an immoral war, and with the liberal politicians who supported it, that they stormed the citadels of power. That’s what it took to withdraw Russia from World War I.
The US system works the way it’s supposed to. One party’s out, the other one is in, as a result of an electoral process shaped by corporate campaign funds and corporate press reporting and commentary. It’s what Marxists call bourgeois democracy. It’s a real form of democracy, but so was Athenian democracy conditioned by slavery. Both have their limits. The best this system can do is wind down a criminal war with a sullen unapologetic all-too-gradual retreat leaving a nation in ruins. Surely the American people can do better.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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