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Iraq as Prelude
The Making of an Anti-American Century

by William H. Thornton
October 22, 2004

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Whatever else one may think of him, G. W. Bush must be credited with extraordinary sales skills. Like a real estate agent who manages to sell inaccessible lots in a swamp, G. W. has managed to keep his ratings up while selling America a quagmire. Even as his administration ignored the real perils of Saudi Wahhabism (or actively camouflaged them, as Michael Moore would have it), it miscast Saddam as the mother of global terrorism. The decision to invade Iraq was put beyond debate by Saddam’s mythic stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thomas Powers dubs this “the least ambiguous case of misreading of secret intelligence information in American history.” [1]

“Misreading” is too generous a word for it, given the pressure the White House applied to the intelligence community to extract desired results. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 1, 2002 more than met those desires, and a week later Congress voted for war. [2] The question is how much the administration’s slant on Iraq was inspired by ideological prepossessions as opposed to economic calculation. It is no secret that Bush II was in thrall from the first to Reagan-era power-brokers [3], but neither Reagan nor Bush I allowed neoconservatives to utterly dictate foreign policy. [4] In the wake of 9/11, these pseudo-Reaganites threw out the ideal of global community in favor of “shock and awe” unilateralism. [5] Indeed, according to a real Reaganite, Clyde Prestowitz, they threw out conservatism as well. [6]

The neocons had in Bush II a president who knew very little of foreign affairs and even less about the Middle East. On the verge of the invasion, Iraqi advisers who met Bush in the Oval Office were struck by his vast ignorance of the problems facing the coming occupation. The president was unaware, for example, that Iraqi Muslims were grievously divided along sectarian lines. Patently he had not been engaged in any serious planning concerning the war’s aftermath. [7] We now know that he summarily dismissed two crucial intelligence reports of January 2003 from the National Intelligence Council. These predicted that an invasion would not only ignite a firestorm in Iraq, but would fuel Islamist terrorism throughout the world. [8] The administration centered its case around Iraq’s acquisition of aluminum tubes that according to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor, were only suitable for nuclear weapons development. She gave that statement in an interview of September 2002, yet in 2001 she had been informed by the Energy Department that these tubes were suitable only for conventional, small artillery purposes. [9]

What is even more disturbing is how the major media bought the White House script. Few hard questions were put to the Bush Doctrine or its test run in Iraq. [10] Nor was much attention given to how a president who had campaigned on a pledge of foreign policy humility and a rejection of nation building could saddle the U.S. with the total reconstruction of Iraq as well as Afghanistan. [11] Instead of pursuing the question of whether the invasion was necessary, the media had been “full of quite detailed discussions of the merits of a preliminary bombing campaign, versus a big tank operation through the desert, versus an ‘inside-out’ approach of parachuting troops right into Baghdad. . . .” [12]  The war itself was never much of an issue.

One reason for this journalistic hiatus was the advance “intelligence” barrage of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), much of which was paid for by U.S. taxpayers via operations such as the Information Collection Program. Funds provided by the Iraq Liberation Act purchased the services of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to promote the INC agenda. Dozens of INC-inspired stories ran in major American media after 9/11, validating the president’s prior determination to raise Saddam over Osama as the global terrorist-in-chief. Since the post-Gulf War era the State Department and the CIA—which favored the Iraqi National Accord (INA) of Iyad Allawi, a former Baathist and CIA minion [13] — had expressed grave doubts about the INC spin factory; but the neocons focused their doubts on the CIA and State. The White House fatefully sided with the neocons, funneling $33 million into INC coffers between March 2000 and May 2003.

On 9/12 Jim Hoagland, chief foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, led the charge under the title “What About Iraq?” Blame was laid on the CIA for not giving credence to the INC’s insistence that Iraq had a hand in 9/11. And on December 20 Judith Miller of the New York Times put the INC version of Saddam’s WMD threat on the paper’s front page under the headline “Iraqi tells of Renovations at Sites for Chemical and Nuclear Arms.” Not one of these alleged sites, which were said to lie under hospitals or within palace walls, was ever located. [14]

Nevertheless Vice President Cheney stuck to his double-barreled mantra concerning Saddam’s WMD and his ties to al Qaeda. [15] When none of these claims found empirical support, the official reason for the invasion shifted to the civilizational task—consistent with Bernard Lewis’s diagnosis of modern Islamic culture as morally and politically moribund—of removing a genocidal tyrant and establishing a showcase democracy in the Middle East. [16] 9/11 united Lewis and Bush in the neocon determination to set Muslims straight. [17] Neoglobalism (the art and practice of armed globalization) was now on the march.

But why start with Iraq? Some wayward progressives advanced humanitarian justifications from the first [18], but Bush found it more arresting to build his case around the imaginary smoking gun of WMD. Oil was hardly mentioned, nor was the geopolitical utility that Iraq could have as a U.S. forward base, comparable to Germany after World War II. For Gabriel Kolko that was the clincher: the invasion was essentially a Cold War rerun. Much as the establishment of NATO in 1949 had been aimed at Europe as well as the U.S.S.R., America’s preemptive strike on Iraq had more to do with residual Cold War ambitions than with post-9/11 security needs. [19] Iraq, in effect, was NATO II. [20]

To sell this geopolitical atavism would require a credible global foe. Neocons such as Richard Perle found that perfect adversary in jihadic Islam. What Perle did not mention is that Islam has harbored this jihadic ambition since the seventh century. Nor was it mentioned that Saddam Hussein, as an arch-secularist, was the natural enemy of Perle’s chosen enemy. These were trifling details for the personal disciple of a leader who answers directly to God, and therefore does not “nuance.” What mattered for Bush and his neocon planners was their strategic Trinity: getting to Jerusalem by way of Baghdad [21], paying for the trip with Iraqi oil, and doing it all in the name of democratization.

Even the Bush team must have known that Iraq was grossly unfit as a democratic base camp. Accordingly, massive and protracted U.S. military involvement would be necessary, and this very presence would discredit any democratic project. It is common knowledge that Sunnis by and large detest Shiites as much as they do Israelis. [22] And the feeling is certainly mutual. Both groups, moreover, share a deep and fully reciprocated antipathy toward the Kurds. The paradox is that these entrenched animosities only enhance Iraq’s geopolitical appeal, just as they did for the British in the 1920s. [23] What better place could there be for divide and conquer tactics?

For the neocons, then, negatives became positives, and the perfect man to reap them was Perle’s friend Chalabi. It was no secret in the intelligence community that Chalabi and his INC cohorts were in the misinformation business, but from a neocolonial vantage this character defect was just another positive: Chalabi, like his arch-rival Allawi, was reliable insofar as he could be bought. Many journalists were aware of his weakness as an intelligence source, but few broke silence on the matter. [24] Little concern was voiced over known facts such as the 1989 collapse of Chalabi’s Middle East banking empire or his sentence in absentia by Jordan to twenty years in prison on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, and illegal speculation. [25] Throughout the Middle East the mere mention of his name evoked contempt, but at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) he was hailed as nothing less than the “George Washington of Iraq.” [26]

That was far more important for Chalabi’s career development than what the Iraqis thought. He was wheeled in as the chief power broker on the Iraqi Governing Council, especially in the areas of finance and appointments. Not surprisingly his relatives and cronies began raking in the best contracts and positions. Since 1998 the Pentagon had paid him and the INC $340,000 per month to be lied to about Iraq. [27] Under Bush this “intelligence” was evaluated almost exclusively by the Pentagon’s neoconservative think tank, the Office of Special Plans, whose findings were passed directly to the White House. [28] The CIA was not even allowed to interview INC informants without special permission from the Pentagon. [29]

Chalabi had every reason to expect his personal power to mushroom after the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) relinquished its authority. [30] Seen in this light, Sistani’s case for a directly elected provisional government took on a democratic aura [31], while Chalabi looked more and more like America’s erstwhile proxy, the Shah of Iran, complete with his 440,000-strong military and Savak terror police. The Bush administration’s concern was that the Iraqis might reject this Karzai-like implant in favor of their own brand of democracy. [32]  It did not intend to give him that opportunity.

Washington’s dread of Shia empowerment came wrapped in the Orientalist notion that democracy is a distinctly Western institution which has little chance of emerging elsewhere. In 1992 Colin Powell spelled out the standard assumption that there was no chance of a homegrown “Jeffersonian” democrat stepping forth in Iraq. Removing Saddam, he argued, would simply make room for somebody else of the same ilk, though putting up new statues and wall portraits might take some time. [33] It is certainly true that thirty years of Baath Party rule allowed no individual or group to gain experience in democratic leadership, but what Powell missed was the democratic propensity of civil Islam.

Many in the president’s inner circle—such as Perle and David Frum, co-authors of the apocalyptic An End to Evil [34]—were even more rabidly anti-Islamic than Powell. In 2002, for example, the Bush administration was willing to bestow $500 million on a bloody but secular dictatorship in Uzbekistan. [35] In all fairness, this orientation did not originate with Bush II ideologues. [36] Muslims have strong historical reason, therefore, to construe U.S. calls for democracy as a cover for imperialistic designs on their world. [37] What distinguishes neocon orientalism is the utter contradiction between its anti-Islamist premises and its “democratic” project. If Islam per se deserves such disdain, the process of imposing democracy on any Muslim country would be so costly and prolonged that the stated American mission would be doomed from the start. In fact, the neocons are not ardent promoters of democratic export to the entire Muslim world, but only that part of it which happens to sit on top of the world’s major oil reserves.

The “Democracy” Game

There is some irony in the fact that the U.S. has been democratically upstaged in both the Kurdish north and Shiite south. U.S. planners, if that is the right word, never expected legitimacy problems after Saddam’s fall. Cheney had convinced his fatuous boss that the invaders would be cheered as liberators by crowds waving homemade American flags and chanting that democracy goes better with Coke. The Bush team intended to introduce its oily version of “democracy” once stability was achieved, and only belatedly learned that this was putting the cart before the horse: Stability itself would depend on democratic legitimacy.

As in Afghanistan, Bush’s self-proclaimed victory turned out to be a mirage, or rather a whole series of them. As in Vietnam, victory was always just around the corner. [38] It was celebrated a second time with the capture of Saddam, which was followed by the April 2004 rising in Fallujah. Again the victory band was cranked up for the sovereignty transfer, which was followed by the August 2004 rising in Najaf. [39] Finally hope was vested in the reconstruction dollars that were expected to draw insurgents away to better paying jobs, but which mainly benefited corporations such as Halliburton.

At first the opposition had a hit and run character that made for anarchy but little concerted resistance. The real thing had its prelude in an unsuccessful but symbolically stunning attack on a convoy carrying the head of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizad. [40] Two days later full rebellion erupted in Fallujah. To the dismay of the Americans, Shiite militants under al-Sadr seized this opportunity to open a second front. Foolishly Allawi had closed Sadr’s newspaper, prompting huge protests in Baghdad. Shiite and Sunni insurgents forged a startling alliance that took the fighting to numerous southern cities as well as to Sunni enclaves such as Ramadi. [41] If the American goal was to construct a single, trans-sectarian Iraq, the project was succeeding brilliantly.

The Coalition was forced to lift its siege on Fallujah, but in August it was again mired in a politically strained battle with Sadr’s Mahdi army in Najaf. To end that battle and avoid an even greater nationalist conflagration, Sistani had to be rushed back from heart surgery in London. Again his intercession spared the Americans a full revolt, but even he could not save them from their real enemy, which was themselves. While Najaf got world headlines, other urban areas were slipping away, leaving much of western Iraq under rebel control. [42] It was becoming obvious that Washington’s strategy had a fatal flaw: The Iraqis America now faced in the street were curiously unlike the ones they had listened to in modeling their occupation strategy. And unlike Chalabi and Allawi, they could not so easily be bought. [43] Hence they were “terrorists.”

Finally the Americans awakened to the fact that some Shiites were worth courting. It was no accident that the Cold War between the Coalition and the Mahdi Army went hot while Sistani was incapacitated. [44] The assumption that social order would follow automatically from Saddam’s fall led Washington to put all its bets on a military solution, not only spurning local allies such as Sistani, but global ones as well. The whole principle of internationalism was jettisoned. [45]

In a desperate attempt to get the spotlight off the WMD issue, Bush declared his mission to be nothing less than the promotion of democracy throughout the Middle East. No doubt this was rather unsettling to the region’s power elites, but it was hardly so radical a departure as American pundits assume. It is common knowledge in policy circles that the tepid democratization on offer from Washington can easily be co-opted by ruling classes. [46] In short, Bush is playing the democracy game with loaded dice: Since all Arab OPEC nations are undemocratic, the president can gain political or commercial concessions simply by invoking the code word “democracy.” This is a bargaining chip, not a mission, as Arab oil states well know. And of course they can always fire back with the threat of price hikes. [47] Their cooperation in keeping prices low has to be won by reducing reform pressure. Both sides understand that “democracy” is a negotiable commodity.

In Iraq, however, the democracy game is complicated by spreading anarchy. Democracy can be negotiated away only when someone is in charge. No less a geopolitician than Robert McNamara avers that there is no way to topple a dictator like Saddam without taking on an obligation to fill his organizational shoes. Like it or not, filling that void is called nation building. The prime issue is whether it should be U.S. or U.N.-directed. [48] Since preemptive action was beyond the bounds of the U.N. Charter, the U.S. had to act alone; and having done so, it was not about to surrender the crown jewels—the oil and the bases—to U.N. oversight. Nor could Washington itself sell its action back home without the appearance of some stupendous provocation. Just as Vietnam was justified on the basis of a bogus story about torpedo attacks, Iraq had to be justified on the basis of imminent WMD peril. [49]

In fact, the only such WMD crisis in Iraq was planted there by the Americans themselves. Their “shock and awe” tactics involved weapons known to cause radiation illness and the host of maladies associated with the Gulf War syndrome. By mid-April 2003 the U.S. Air Force had fired more than 311,000 rounds of uranium A10 shells and 19,000 guided weapons of similar content in Iraq. Iraqi children now play on destroyed tanks which British survey teams felt safe to inspect only when wearing full-body radiation suits. [50]

This is reminiscent of the “rational irrationality” of the Vietnam War, whereby villages were “saved” by their literal destruction. [51] Since Americans in Iraq reside in heavily fortified compounds and avoid “no go” zones, they are difficult targets. Much of the insurgency, therefore, is aimed at Iraqis who assist the occupation: police and security workers, local politicians and the judiciary. The result is the very unrest that the American presence was supposed to quell. [52] Even Baghdad’s “Green Zone”—the site of the Iraqi interim government and the U.S. central headquarters—is within reach of mortar attacks from the surrounding “Red Zone” that is coming to typify the whole country. [53]

The government, moreover, is caught in a no-man’s-land between Shiite resurgence and Sunni reaction [54], not to mention the ethnic divide between the Kurds and both. [55] The U.S. would be wise not just to limit its exposure here, but to abbreviate its stay. With protests igniting all across Iraq over unemployment, petrol shortages, and chronic insecurity, and with militant resistance becoming more organized after Saddam’s capture in December 2003, President Bush has had difficulty maintaining his election-year pose as the man who brought democratic hope to Iraq and the whole Middle East. [56]  One of his biggest problems has been the self-defeating nature of his ends and means. Counterinsurgency tactics that seem necessary for securing minimal order enrage the general population whose support is essential. [57] Democratization in Iraq is synonymous with Shiite power, but Washington fears that more than it ever feared Saddam, and Sunni neighbors fear it more than Osama.

What makes the present Iraqi meltdown all the more tragic is that many opportunities for a better outcome have been squandered. Unbeknownst to Washington, the main shield against an anti-American cataclysm has been the civil Shiism that Sistani marshals. He is a protégé of the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoei, whose quietism stood in stark contrast to the flaming extremism of Khomeini. [58] In that spirit, Sistani is reputed to have advised the new government that in choosing the next leader, make sure he is not wearing a turban.

Had he wished to make serious trouble for the Americans, Sistani could have done so with a single fatwa, or simply by uttering the word jihad. [59] Clearly he has no wish to imitate Iranian theocracy. By training and temperament he is an apolitical moderate who favors a substantial separation of religion and state. [60] Another supporter of mosque/state dissociation is none other than Ayatollah Seyed Hussan Khomeini, the grandson of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The junior Khomeini’s return to Iraq from Iran is emblematic of the more tempered Shia politics that Washington has tragically ignored.

With Najaf and Karala once again attracting thousands of pilgrims from across Asia and the Middle East [61], the Shiite wing of civil Islam could become an export commodity. Saddam did his best to crush all Islamism, but it was the senior Khomeini who came closest to snuffing out its civil component. The junior Khomeini is determined to reclaim that lost heritage. [62] Turi Munthe points out the irony that Saddam’s main political legacy, by way of reaction, is the very Islamism he tried to expunge. [63]

Unfortunately, many American “experts” view Islamism with equal suspicion. Daniel Pipes is not unusual in seeing it as the antithesis of democracy. [64] This view fails to register a cardinal reality of the Iraqi “street”: that, apart from Iraqi Kurdistan, the alternative to Islamist democracy will be anarchy or civil war. Hard economic and demographic realities (with 50 to 60 percent unemployment and half the population twenty or under) [65] militate against Washington’s secular development formula. What is urgently needed is the social cohesion that only Islamism can provide, and which only Sistani can generate in the post-Saddamist south. Sistani’s moderation is reflected in the fact that the TAL (the interim constitution, or Transitional Administration Law) took Islam only as “a source,” not “the source,” of future legislation. Even Pipes, who deplores any constitutional role for Islamic law, could imagine a far worse outcome than this. [66]

Sistani, then, is somewhere near the middle on a Shiite political spectrum ranging from the elder Khomeini to Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian ex-theocrat who now mixes Koranic religious principles with generous portions of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. Sistani’s reason for promoting a healthy distinction (though not a Western-style barricade) between religion and the state is not so much to protect government from religious influence as to save religion from government corruption. [67] It should be stressed that the standards of freedom and tolerance that crept into the TAL were as much a product of Islamic tradition as of Western influence. [68]

The Anti-American Century

Washington glibly assumes that any democratic progress in the Middle East must be America’s unilateral gift, yet the most promising democratic advocates in today’s Iraq are the products of an East/West dialogue that is far older than American democracy. For Soroush these reformist roots reach back to the Hellenic-inspired rationalism of the Mu’tazilites in the Baghdad caliphate of the eighth and ninth centuries. [69] The problem in most Islamic countries is not that the engineers and Western-educated specialists who increasingly manage society are too steeped in Islamic culture. As was pointed out by Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, the problem is that Muslim technocrats have at best a superficial grasp of Islam. They are prone to a literal and reductive religiosity that can be worse than none at all. [70]

A similar reductionism contributes to the common Western assumption that Islam and modernity are strictly antithetical. Along with corporate greed and imperialist hubris, blanket anti-Islamism dooms U.S. policies in the Middle East. To no avail, the CIA and other U.S. agencies predicted the problems that surfaced after the “victory” in Iraq. [71] Cultural myopia acts as an empirical screen, making for the bad intelligence that dominated neocon war plans of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith.

The invasion invited descriptions of the U.S. as a new Rome in its prime; but within six months that invincible image had given way to one of Rome in decline. [72] Already the Bush Doctrine was showing signs of imperial overstretch, having spawned an anti-American rebound of global proportions. Walden Bello notes that the drubbing taken by the U.S. and other northern powers at the September 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun owed much to the Iraq quagmire. Likewise the growing confidence of the G20 draws upon the global climate of resistance that was seeded by the anti-war movement of early 2003. [73]

One year after the invasion, U.S. supporters such as Spain and Poland painfully recognized that they had been duped: Iraq’s weapons threat had been fabricated. [74] A former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, issued a shocking report verifying that Saddam had destroyed most if not all of his WMD stockpile long before. Evidently he withheld evidence of this compliance in an effort to maintain an aura of international stature. [75] This put him at ground zero of the Bush administration’s guilty-until-proven-innocent hit list.

Ordinary Iraqis would pay the price for this curious blend of compliance and pugnacity. Civic, an NGO, conservatively estimated that 5,000 Iraqi civilians were killed between the outbreak of the war on March 20 and the end of major combat operations on May 1. But the death toll on innocent Iraqis continued to mount. Many died in non-combat “accidents” involving trigger-happy troops, as when a driver’s bad muffler was mistaken for gunfire at a checkpoint. Amnesty International put the death count for the first year after hostilities commenced at over 10,000. [76] The standard army response was that civilians had been shot in accord with the proper “Rules of Engagement.” But even this formality was often skipped. In one typical case a taxi was given the O.K. to pass an American convoy, but a machine gunner toward the front failed to get the message, and opened fire. The taxi driver was badly injured and his passengers, a mother and her six-year-old child, were killed. In violation of Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the convoy continued without bothering to check if anyone was still alive. No report was filed, and later it proved impossible even to ascertain which convoy had been involved. [77]

It was obvious by 2004 that Iraq was a soft power disaster packaged as a hard power triumph. After $900 million had been spent looking for WMDs [78], none were found. Terrorist attacks were routine, electricity was an evanescent luxury, sectarian violence was on the rise, and humanitarian aid was so lacking that it would have been an international scandal had it been properly reported. With sewage backed up and drinking water contaminated, blood was in such short supply that doctors often had to donate their own blood to keep patients alive. [79] Even President Bush finally granted that he had “miscalculated” the post-victory trauma in Iraq. [80]

He declined to mention his regional miscalculation. For Arabs already seething over Washington’s favoritism toward Israel, there was now a solid consensus that American hegemony was real and intolerable. Nor could it have been more popular with Americans themselves had they comprehended the scope of its brutality, its duplicity, and (most especially) its costs. With the U.S. economy straining under the operation’s $125 billion bill for the first year alone [81], the real war on terrorism is bound to suffer. Indeed, as an editorial in India’s Hindustan Times notes, a new breeding ground for terrorism has been created in Iraq by ripping apart the country’s social fabric and leaving dire problems to fester. This putative “war on terror” has given al Qaeda a new home. [82]

Meanwhile the major media have joined the military in whitewashing the human toll of the war. [83] There has been a self-enforced ban on coverage of the largely nocturnal return of 14,000 medically evacuated soldiers [84], not to mention hundreds of returning coffins; and the only sustained coverage of Iraqi suffering has come from Arab sources such as al Jazeera. With good reason these alter-media depict the occupation and its proxies as agents of raw conquest. [85] The final insult, however, is that this flagrantly imperialist operation is re-scripted as an exercise in democratization.

By no accident the CPA cut local ties that could have given particular constituencies a voice in Iraq’s future, thus affording a degree of protection for minorities:

So keen were the Americans to wash their hands of the awkward mosaic of Iraq’s tribal, regional, and religious interests, that they couldn’t even face drawing up constituency boundaries. As a result, Iraq is one seat, with 275 members of parliament to be elected by proportional representation. Iraqis will be asked to vote for national party lists, rather than to pick a local person representing the interests of their town. . . . [This] guarantees power will lie with big, organized, well-funded party machines that decide who tops the lists. The overall effect will be to polarize the debate, penalizing moderates or well-regarded local candidates or those without wealthy Iranian and Saudi backers. [86]

The Americans, of course, think they rather than the Iranians or Saudis will be the ones pulling the strings. With that in mind, Sunnis and Kurds are understandably reluctant to lay down their arms. It is telling that the Americans are willing to accept this hazard rather than relinquish central control of Iraqi politics (and oil). In effect they prefer the risk of mass insurrection to that of genuine democracy.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the Arab world feared what would come of American unipolarity, and for its part the U.S. quickly replaced the ideological tilt of its anti-Soviet fixation with an anti-Islamic focus on civilizational clash. The original advice of the foremost “clash” theorists, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, was aimed primarily at conflict avoidance. But after 9/11 Lewis joined the neocon clamor for preemptive war and democratic imperialism. [87] Perhaps he now regrets this reversal, for the mess in Iraq provides ample support for his more cautious original position. Comparisons of America’s Iraq and Vietnam debacles are inevitable. Jonathan Schell observes, for example, that when the U.S.

arrived in Bagdad, there was no pre-existing popular resistance movement (or movements) in place. . . , as there had been when the Amercan military arrived in force in Vietnam. Neither was there any . . . imperial puppet government at hand like Ngo Dinh Diem’s in Vietnam. Instead there was a double political vacuum. The consequence was anarchy. . . . Now that vacuum is being filled on one side. Movements of national resistance have arisen in both the Sunni north and the Shiite south. . . . On the American side, . . . Allawi . . . does the bidding of the United States without benefit of popular support. The contest has assumed a form distressingly familiar from other anti-imperial movements. The local resistors are weak militarily but strong politically, the imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helpless politically. [88]

Schell’s analysis is correct so far as it goes. There is indeed a proto-nationalist current flowing through “liberated” Iraq, but it is hardly the secular, Kemalist variety. Fortunately for the occupiers, the same sectarian and ethnic divisions that have plagued reconstruction efforts have also precluded the kind of cohesive resistance that upended U.S. strategy in Vietnam. Being as much a product of Islamism as of nationalism, Iraqi insurgency is a house divided—split not only along Sunni versus Shiite lines, but within the Shiite camp itself. Amidst this chaos, the occupation cuts both ways: spawning broad resistance but also forestalling civil war by providing the cardinal blessing of a common enemy. For that inadvertent gift, at least, President Bush deserves full credit. His policies have produced the miracle of cooperation between Sunni and Shiite adversaries.

On the world stage, likewise, Bush deserves credit for galvanizing the global revulsion that is putting a definitive end the mythic “end of history.” His neocons set out, by force of arms if necessary, to make this the American century. Instead they have inaugurated what could well be an anti-American century. For a world starved for oppositional direction [89], Bush has been a veritable guiding light, but toward what end? In the Muslim world—the only place where revulsion has so far been converted into effective resistance—no direction at all would have been a big improvement. Here the Bush Doctrine has given impetus to the worst kind of uncivil Islam. Not in his wildest dreams could Osama have hoped for more.

William H. Thornton is Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan. He is the author of Cultural Prosaics: The Second Postmodern Turn (1998); Fire on the Rim: The Cultural Dynamics of East/West Power Politics (2002); and  New World Empire: Islamism, Terrorism and the Making of Neoglobalism (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in early 2005), from which this article is drawn.  He can be reached at:  songokt.hornton@msa. Copyright (C) 2004 William H. Thornton.

Other Articles by William H. Thornton

* The Democratic Art of Listening
* Apartheid Without Borders: The New Globalism and Its Enemies


1) Thomas Powers, “The Vanishing Case for War,” New York Review of Books 50/19 (December 4, 2003), online:

2) Thomas Powers, “How Bush Got It Wrong,” New York Review of Books 51/14 (September 23, 2004), online: NIEs are prepared by an independent inter-agency group, the National Intelligence Council, which is highly regarded by the CIA. Its members later complained of administrative pressure on their WMD assessment, and of suppression of its important qualifiers. See Douglas Jehl and David E. Sangler, “Prewar Assessment on Iraq Saw Chance of Strong Division,” New York Times (September 28, 2004), online:

3) Richard Cohen, “Bush the Believer,” Washington Post (July 22, 2003), A17.

4) The “great communicator” himself habitually dozed off in cabinet meetings, and even slept through his historic meeting with the pope, yet he resisted the efforts of neocons like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to ossify his Soviet policy. Appalled by Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, these “B team” hawks wanted to transpose economic and military force into unilateral dictates. Reagan, however, simply wanted to negotiate with his enemies from a position of strength. See John Patrick Diggins, “How Reagan Beat the Neocons,” New York Times (June 11, 2004), online:

5) See Diggins, “How Reagan Beat the Neocons,” op cit.

6) See Clyde Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

7) Andrew Cockburn, “The Mess in Mesopotamia,” The Nation (September 1, 2003), online:

8) Jehl and Sanger, “Prewar Assessment.”

9) David Barston, William J. Broad, and Jeff Gerth, “Skewed Intelligence Data in March to War in Iraq,” New York Times (October 3, 2004), online:   

10) The New York Times finally apologized for its failure to seriously interrogate the stated grounds for this preemptive war. See “A Pause for Hindsight,” New York Times (July 16, 2004), online:   

11) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “The Making of a Mess,” New York Review of Books (September 23, 2004), online:

12) James Fallows, “Proceed with Caution,” The Atlantic Unbound (October 10, 2002), online: Fallows also notes the strange dearth of criticism concerning the the grounds for war from the Democrats, the supposed opposition party. Oddly, the only serious on that level took place within the Republican Party.

13) Peter W. Galbraith, “Iraq: The Bungled Transition,” New York Review of Books (September 23, 2004), online:

14) Douglas McCollam, “How Chalabi Played the Press,” Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 2004), online:

15) Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas, “Cheney’s Long Path to War,” Newsweek (November 17, 2003):

16) At the time of the invasion the Bush administration had added this humanitarian rationale as a mere afterthought. See John Tirman, “The New Humanitarianism: How military intervention came to be the norm,” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum (December 2003/January 2004), online: The credibility of this motive is flatly denied by Human Rights Watch. See Ken Roth, “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention,” Human Rights Watch World Report 2004 (January 2004). The final nail in the coffin of Cheney’s credibility was hammered by David Kay, on his January 2003 departure from his position as the head of the search effort for banned weapons in Iraq. Kay reached the conclusion that Iraq had no stockpiles of chemical and biographical weapons, and indeed had probably “got rid of” such weapons at the end of the Gulf War. See Richard W. Stevenson, “Iraq Illicit Arms Gone Before War, Departing Inspector States,” New York Times (January 24, 2004), online: By early 2004 even Secretary of State Powell admitted that such evidence was lacking. See Christopher Marquis, “Powell Admits No Hard Proof in Linking Iraq to Al Qaeda,” New York Times (January 9, 2004), online:   

17) Lewis is not, however, an unqualified “orientalist,” for he believes Arabs capable of implementing democracy and other modern institutions. True orientalists deny their aptitude for these tasks. Lewis views Iraqis as the heirs of a great civilization, but thinks they need “some guidance” at this stage. That is the connecting link between the Bush Doctrine and the Lewis Doctrine, for Bush sees himself as the perfect man to provide such guidance. See Peter Waldman, “A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight,” The Wall Street Journal (February 3, 2004).

18) See Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, et. al., “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War,” Slate (January 12, 2004).

19) Moisés Naim, “Casualties of War,” Foreign Policy (September/Octoble 2004), online:

20) Gabriel Kolko, “Iraq, the United States, and the End of the European Coalition,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 33/3 (2003), 294 (291-98). 

21) Kenneth M. Pollack, “Weapons of Misperception,” The Atlantic Online (January 13, 2004), online:

22) Michael S. Doran, “Intimate Enemies,” Washington Post (February 18, 2004), A19.

23) See William H. Thornton, “Proxy Power: Iraq and the Roots of Arab Resistance.” Forthcoming in EJOS: The Electronic Journal of Oriental Studies. 7/5 (2004); and Haifa Zangana, “Iraqis have lived this lie before,” The Guardian (June 29, 2004), online:,3604,1249508,00.html

24) Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review of Books 51/3 (February 26, 2004), online:

25) Arnaud de Borchgrave, “Iraq power grab,” The Washington Times (March 8, 2004):

26) Brendan O’Neill, “Terrifying Iraq,” Spiked (October 28, 2003), online:

27) Matthew Rothschild, “Chalabi’s Boondoggle,” The Progressive (March 11, 2004), online:

28) Karen Kwiatkowski, “The New Pentagon Papers,” Truthout, from Salon (March 10, 2004), online: So it was that the Bush administration, as the former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix charges, was able to convince itself that the invasion was necessary in WMD terms. See Warren Hoge, “Blix Says White House Had ‘Set Mind’ on Iraqi Weapons,” New York Times (March 15, 2004), online:  

29) “Pentagon pays Chalabi group for dubious data,” (March 11, 2004), online:

30) Borchgrave, “Iraq power grab.”

31) “Iraq’s Governing Council: A dangerous place between B and C,” The Economist (February 19, 2004). 

32) Janine Zacharia, “Exiled,” The New Republic (February 17, 2003), online:

33) Powell cited in Tariq Ali, “Re-Colonizing Iraq,” New Left Review (May/June 2003), 9 (5-19).

34) David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2003).

35) Paul Krugman, “A Willful Ignorance,” New York Times (October 28, 2003), online:  

36) For over a decade the U.S. ignored, for example, the ruthless efficiency of Tunisia’s police state under President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, who would be praised by Secretary of State Powell for his “leadership” skills (defined as cracking down on Islamism, consistently supporting Israeli “peace plans,” and backing the U.S. “war on terrorism”). It was conveniently overlooked that Ali’s anti-terrorist efforts were aimed as much at human rights advocates and legitimate political opponents as at actual terrorists See Kamel Labidi, “The Wrong Man to Promote Democracy,” New York Times (February 21, 2004), online:  

37) H. D. S. Greenway, “America in the world: A nation’s narcissism,” International Herald Tribune, (February 2, 2004).

38) Larry Diamond, “What Went Wrong in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2004):

39) See Paul Krugman, “A No-Win Situation,” New York Times (August 31, 2004), online:   

40) Paul Rogers, “Triangulation,” openDemocracy (February 19, 2004), online:

41) Dan Murphy, “In Iraq, a ‘perfect storm,’” The Christian Science Monitor (April 9, 2004), online:

42) Krugman, “No-Win.”

43) See Becky Tinsley, “America’s own goal in Iraq,” New Statesman (August 16, 2004)

44) Johann Hari, “Could Iraq’s democratic future depend on an old man lying in a London hospital bed?,” Independent (August 18, 2004).

45) Fareed Zakaria, “An Absence of Legitimacy,” Washington Post (January 20, 2004), A19; also published in Newsweek as “Bowing to the Mighty Ayatollah” (January 26, 2004), online:

46) Thomas Carothers, “Is Gradualism Possible? Choosing a Strategy for Promoting Democracy in the Middle East,” Carnegie Working Papers: Democracy and Rule of Law Project/Middle East Series 39 (June 2003), 6 (3-15).

47) “The Other War,” Investor’s Business Daily (February 18, 2004), online: www.investor’

48) Doug Saunders, “It’s just wrong what we’re doing,” Globe and Mail (January 24, 2004),

49) Ellen Goodman, “Echoes of McNamara and ‘Nam,” Washington Post (January 31, 2004), A21.

50) John Pilger, “American Terrorist,” (January 9, 2004), online:   

51) Brendan O’Neill, “Mentioning the V-Word,” Spiked (November 14, 2003), online:; Jeet Heer, “Revisionists argue that counterinsurgency won....,” Counterpunch (January 4, 2004), online:  

52) “Fight to the death,” (December 20, 2003), online:

53) Howard LaFranchi, “Baghdad’s Green Zone ‘island’ prepares for rough seas,” Christian Science Monitor (September 29, 2004), online:

54) “Freedom in Iraq” (interview by Eric Felton with Akbar Ahmed, Haydar Hamdani, and Alireza Nourizadeh) Global (August 6, 2003), online:

55) See Nicholas Blanford, “Ethnic divide deepens in new Iraq,” The Christian Science Monitor (March 8, 2004), online:

56) Jonathan Steele, “Why the U. S. is running scared,” Guardian (Janurary 19, 2004), online:,2763,1126178,00.html

57) Christian Parenti, “Two Sides,” The Nation (February 23, 2004), online:  

58) Edward Wong, “Iraq’s Path Hinges on Words of Enigmatic Cleric,” New York Times (January 25, 2004):

59) Scott Peterson, “Iraqi cleric’s pivotal clout,” Christian Science Monitor (January 20, 2004), online:

60) Magdi Abdelhadi, “The rising voice of Iraq’s Shia,” BBC News (January 16, 2004).

61) Nichalas Blanford, “Iran, Iraq, and two Shiite Visions,” The Christian Science Monitor (February 20, 2004), online:

62) See “Freedom in Iraq.”

63) Turi Munthe, “Saddam’s Islamist legacy,” openDemocracy (October 6, 2003), online:

64) See, for example, Daniel Pipes, “Iraq council throws hope for democracy out the window,” Chicago Sun-Times (March 3, 2004), online:

65) Will Dunham, “U.S. Officers Wary of Potential Iraqi Civil War,” Reuters (January 28, 2004). 

66) Pipes, “Iraq council.”

67) Laura Secor, “The Democrat,” (March 14, 2004), online:

68) See Jim Hoagland, “Islam’s Civil War,” Washington Post (March 3, 2004), A27.

69) Secor, “The Democrat.”

70) Abdurrahman Wahid, “How to Counter Islamic Extremism,” Diogenes 50/4 (2003), 124 (123-25).

71) James Fallows, “Blind Into Bagdad,” The Atlantic (January/February 2004), online:  

72) See Walden Bello, “Global Civil Society Meets amidst Crisis of Empire,” Focus on the Global South (January 17, 2004), online:

73) Ibid.

74) “After Year After,” New York Times (March 19, 2004), online:

75) Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank, “Kay Cites Evidence of Iraq Disarming,” Washington Post (January 28, 2004), A01.

76) On Civic see Jeffrey Gettleman, “For Iraqis in Harm’s Way, $5,000 and ‘I’m Sorry,’New York Times (March 17, 2004); and on Amnesty International see “10,000 civils tués en Irak depuis un an,” Nouvel Observateur (March 19, 2004).

77) Brian Cloughley, “Iron Hammers in Iraq: How to Destroy Democracy,” Counterpunch (January 17/18 2004), online:

78) Robert Scheer, “Baghdad is Bush’s Blue Dress,” Los Angeles Times (January 27, 2004):,0,4694769.column

79) Jeffrey Gettleman, “Chaos and War Leave Iraq’s Hospitals in Ruins,New York Times (February 14, 2004).

80) Rupert Cornwell, “Bush admits he may have misjudged post-war state of Iraq,” Independent (August 28, 2004). 

81) Jonathan Schell, “The Empire Backfires,” a Public Interest Journal, from The Nation (March 12, 2004), online:

82) Tom Regan, “Global opinion: World is not a safer place,” The Christian Science Monitor (September 13, 2004), online:

83) Concerning the Pentagon whitewash of U.S. human rights violations see “Abu Ghraib, Whitewashed,” New York Times (July 24, 2004), online:

84) Leuren Moret, “Depleted Uranium: Dirty bombs, dirty missiles, dirty bullets,” San Francisco Bay View (August 18, 2004), online:

85) See Jonathan Steele, “It feels like 1967 all over again,” Guardian (April 9, 2003), online:,3858,4643941,00.html

86) Becky Tinsley, "America's own goal in Iraq," New Statesman (August 16, 2004)

87) Charles Glass, “Lewis of Arabia,” The Nation (September 13, 2004), online:

88) Tom Englehart and Jonathan Schell, “The Empire that Fell as it Rose,” Mother Jones (August 26, 2004), online:

89) On this global activation see Fareed Zakaria, “Hating America,” Foreign Policy (September/October 2004).