“Good News,” Iraq and Beyond
Not long before the presidential campaign of 2008, it was taken for granted that the Iraq war would be the central issue, as it was in the midterm election of 2006. But it virtually disappeared, eliciting some puzzlement. There should have been none.
Iraq remained a significant concern for the population, but that is a matter of little moment in a modern democracy. The important work of the world is the domain of the “responsible men,” who must “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” the general public, “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose “function” is to be “spectators,” not “participants.” And spectators are not supposed to bother their heads with issues. The Wall Street Journal came close to the point in a major front-page article on “Super Tuesday” (February 5, 2008, the day of many primaries), under the heading “Issues Recede in ’08 Contest as Voters Focus on Character.” To put it more accurately, issues recede as candidates, party managers, and their PR agencies focus on character (qualities, etc.). For sound reasons. The population can be dangerous if they come too close to the political arena. The “participants in action” are surely aware that, on a host of major issues, both political parties are well to the right of the general population and that their positions are quite consistent over time, a matter reviewed in a useful recent study on foreign policy by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton; the same is true on domestic policy. It is important, then, for the attention of the herd to be diverted elsewhere.1
The quoted admonitions, taken from highly regarded “progressive essays on democracy” by the leading American public intellectual of the twentieth century (Walter Lippmann), capture well the perceptions of intellectual opinion, largely shared across the narrow elite spectrum. The common understanding is revealed more in practice than in words, though some, like Lippmann, do articulate it: President Wilson, for example, who held that an elite of gentlemen with “elevated ideals” must be empowered to preserve “stability and righteousness,”2 essentially the perspective of the Founding Fathers. In more recent years the gentlemen are transmuted into the “technocratic elite” and “action intellectuals” of Camelot, “Straussian” neocons, or other configurations. But throughout, one or another variant of the doctrine prevails, with its Leninist overtones.
For the vanguard who uphold the elevated ideals and are charged with managing the society and the world, the reasons for Iraq’s drift off the radar screen should not be obscure. They were cogently explained by the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger forty years earlier (Bitter Heritage, 1966), articulating the position of the doves when the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam was in its fourth year and Washington was preparing to add another 100,000 troops to the 175,000 already tearing South Vietnam to shreds—though as Schlesinger and others paying attention surely knew, “what changed the character of the Vietnam war was…not the decision to use American ground troops in South Vietnam” in 1965 or to bomb the North, “but the decision to wage unlimited aerial warfare inside [South Vietnam] at the price of literally pounding the place to bits,” facts reported prominently by the highly respected and bitterly anticommunist military historian and Indochina specialist Bernard Fall, who was soon to warn that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity…is threatened with extinction…[as]…the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”
By the time Schlesinger wrote, the invasion launched by Kennedy was facing difficulties and imposing serious costs on the United States, so he and other Kennedy liberals were reluctantly beginning to question their hawkish stance. That even included Robert Kennedy, who a year earlier, when Fall published his bitter account of the war in the South, had condemned withdrawal as “a repudiation of commitments undertaken and confirmed by three administrations” which would “gravely—perhaps irreparably—weaken the democratic position in Asia.” But by 1966, RFK, Schlesinger, and some other Camelot hawks began to call for a negotiated settlement—though not withdrawal, never an option, just as withdrawal without victory was never an option for JFK, contrary to many illusions.3
While reconsidering his earlier stance, Schlesinger wrote that of course “we all pray” that the hawks are right in thinking that the surge of the day will be able to “suppress the resistance,” and if it does, “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” in winning victory while leaving “the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck,” with its “political and institutional fabric” pulverized. But escalation probably won’t succeed, and will prove to be too costly for ourselves, so perhaps strategy should be rethought.
Attitudes toward the war at the liberal extreme were well illustrated by the concerns of the Massachusetts branch of Americans for Democratic Action. In late 1967, when opposition to the war was finally becoming a mass popular movement, the ADA leadership undertook considerable (and quite comical) efforts to prevent applications for membership from people they feared would speak in favor of an antiwar resolution sponsored by a local chapter that had fallen out of control (Howard Zinn and I were the terrifying applicants). A few months later came the Tet offensive, leading the business world to turn against the war because of its costs to us, while the more perceptive were coming to realize that Washington had already achieved its major war aims: destroying the “virus” of successful independent development that might “spread contagion” throughout the region, to borrow Kissingerian rhetoric, and inoculating the potential victims by imposing vicious dictatorships.4
It soon turned out that everyone had always been a strong opponent of the war (in deep silence). The Kennedy memoirists sharply revised their accounts to fit the new requirement that JFK was a secret dove, consigning the rich documentary record (including their own earlier version of events) to the dustbin of history, where the wrong facts wither away in blessed peace and oblivion.5 Others preferred silence, assuming correctly that the truth would disappear. The preferred version soon took hold: the radical and self-indulgent antiwar movement had disrupted the sober efforts of the responsible “early opponents of the war” to bring it to an end. By the new millennium, even terminology had reversed. In the 1960s, historical “revisionists” were lambasted for raising the outrageous idea that intervention in Vietnam was less than pure and noble in intent, and even going so far as to suggest that perhaps U.S. actions played some role in instigating and sustaining the Cold War. Forty years later, “revisionism” refers to the doctrine that the United States was on the verge of victory in Vietnam when it was sabotaged from within, challenging the mainstream view that the noble cause was unwinnable, an error in judgment. And so the debate rages in scholarship and intellectual discourse. The terminological shift reflects a shift in the ideological spectrum, a considerable victory for the guardians of the imperial culture, among educated elites at least.
At the war’s end, in 1975, the position of the extreme doves was expressed by Anthony Lewis, the most critical voice in the newspaper of record, and the media rather generally. He observed that the war began with “blundering efforts to do good”—the phrase “efforts to do good” is close to tautology within the doctrinal system; “blundering” because of costs and failures—though by 1969 it had become “clear to most of the world—and most Americans— that the intervention had been a disastrous mistake.” The argument against the war, Lewis explained, “was that the United States had misunderstood the cultural and political forces at work in Indochina—that it was in a position where it could not impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself.”6
By 1975, when Lewis wrote, “most Americans” had a radically different view. Some 70 percent regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not as “a mistake.” But they are just “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose voices can be dismissed—or on the rare occasions when they are noticed, explained away without evidence by attributing to them self-serving motives lacking any moral basis.7
Elite reasoning, and the accompanying attitudes, carry over with little change to critical commentary on the U.S. invasion of Iraq today. And although criticism of the Iraq war is far greater and more far-reaching than in the case of Vietnam at any comparable stage, nevertheless the principles that Schlesinger articulated decades ago remain in force in media and commentary.
It is of some interest that Schlesinger himself took a very different and much more honorable position on the Iraq invasion, virtually alone in his circles. When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad, he wrote that Bush’s policies are “alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy.” It would be instructive to determine how Schlesinger’s principled objection to U.S. war crimes fared in the tributes to him that appeared when he died, and in the many reviews of his Journals (which do not mention Vietnam until the Johnson years, consistent with the early version of his memoirs of Camelot). It is hardly necessary to investigate.8
That Iraq is “a land of ruin and wreck” is not in question. There should no longer be any need to review the facts in any detail. The British polling agency Opinion Research Business recently updated its estimate of extra deaths resulting from the war to 1.03 million—that’s excluding Karbala and Anbar provinces, two of the worst regions.9 Whether that is correct, or the true numbers are much lower as some claim, there is no doubt that the toll is horrendous. There are several million internally displaced. Thanks to the generosity of Jordan and Syria, the millions of refugees fleeing the wreckage of Iraq, including most of the professional classes (those who were not assassinated, that is), have not been simply wiped out. But that welcome is fading, for one reason because Jordan and Syria receive no meaningful support from the perpetrators of the crimes in Washington and London; the idea that they themselves might admit their victims, beyond a trickle, is too outlandish to consider. Previously dormant sectarian conflicts that erupted after the invasion, surprising Iraqis who were convinced that it could not happen, have devastated the country. Baghdad and other areas have been subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing and left in the hands of warlords and militias, the primary thrust of the current counterinsurgency strategy developed by General Petraeus, who won his fame by pacifying Mosul, soon to become the scene of some of the most extreme violence.
The truth of the matter does not escape the most knowledgeable and respected observers. David Gardner, Middle East correspondent of the Financial Times, describes the wreckage left by Petraeus in Mosul. He also reviews the reasons for the decline of violence at the time of the “surge” and the dramatic contrast between the Pentagon-media version and the “house of cards” exposed by the General Accountability Office (Congress’s independent research bureau). He goes on to review as well the post-surge strategic “catastrophe,” not only for Iraq but for the region: the sectarian rivalries that have been unleashed along with other threatening forces as “this latest, malign intervention,” which the Arab and Muslim worlds perceive as “a modern version of the Crusades,” has “buried the idea of democracy in the rubble of Iraq” while “hugely enhancing the influence of Shia Islamist Iran.”10
We may usefully recall other occasions when enthusiastic partisans of violence were euphoric about the wonders that war would bring; August 1914, for a classic illustration, on all sides, soon followed by misery and despair over the terrible consequences of their patriotic enthusiasm. Not a unique example.
One of the most dedicated and informed journalists who has been immersed in the shocking tragedy, Nir Rosen, recently published an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq.” He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century”—a common perception of Iraqis as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now. There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”11
After Rosen wrote his epitaph, conditions declined further. By August 2009, the New York Times reported that the once-rich agricultural system had been so devastated “during the past few years” (that is, during the U.S. occupation) that “there are increasing doubts about whether it makes much sense to grow dates—or much of anything for that matter.” “As recently as the 1980s,” the report continues, “Iraq was self-sufficient in producing wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sheep and poultry products. Its industrial sector exported textiles and leather goods, including purses and shoes, as well as steel and cement. But wars, sanctions, poor management, international competition and disinvestment have left each industry a shadow of its former self. Slowly, Iraq’s economy has become based almost entirely on imports and a single commodity,” oil, now providing 95 percent of the government’s revenues, leading to dependence on markets that are highly volatile, in large measure because of speculation in financial markets. The grim situation is “perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the country’s once bountiful date orchards…Iraq, which once produced three-quarters of the world’s dates and grew 629 different varieties, is now an also-ran, falling behind Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Last year, the country produced 281,000 tons, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, about half the level of the mid-1980s.… Likewise, the number of date processing factories is down to six today, from 150 before the American-led invasion in 2003. Iraqi dates are now packaged in the United Arab Emirates—865 miles away.”12
The U.S.-led sanctions also took a brutal toll, as did Washington’s strong support for Saddam Hussein through the period of his worst atrocities in the 1980s, when he was so admired in Washington that his most shocking crimes—the murderous slaughter of Kurds—were denied by the Reagan administration and congressional protests were blocked. The excuse offered is that Iran was more dangerous, but apart from the cynicism, such apologetics cannot be taken seriously. Well after Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States continued to support Saddam, even to expedite his development of weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons specialist Gary Milhollin testified to Congress in 1992 that “if you look at the nuclear weapon program, you can see that if Saddam Hussein had not invaded Kuwait [in August 1990], Iraq would be very close to making a bomb today with American machine tools, American instruments for controlling the quality of nuclear weapon material, American computers for nuclear design, and Iraqi scientists trained in America in the techniques of nuclear detonation [in 1989, well after the end of the Iraq-Iran war]. Also the UN found American equipment at chemical and ballistic missile sites. The UN early this year sent the U.S. State Department a confidential list of American equipment that had turned up in chemical and ballistic missile programs.” In April 1990, President Bush I even sent a high-level congressional delegation, led by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (later the Republican presidential candidate), to convey his personal greetings to his good friend and to assure him that he should disregard criticisms by “the haughty and pampered press,” who are out of control.13
A few months later Saddam defied or misunderstood orders, and shifted from admired friend to the embodiment of evil. All such matters have been consigned to the usual repository of unwelcome fact.
Though the wreckage of Iraq today is too visible to try to conceal, the assault of the new barbarians is carefully circumscribed in the doctrinal system, often with the agency delicately obscured, and almost always excluding the horrendous effects of the Clinton sanctions, one of the great crimes of the last decade of the millennium—including their crucial role in preventing the threat that Iraqis might gain control of their own country, sending Saddam to the same fate as Ceausescu, Marcos, Suharto, Chun, and many other monsters supported by the United States and UK until they could no longer be maintained. Information about the effect of the sanctions is hardly lacking, in particular about the humanitarian phase of the sanctions regime, the oil-for-peace program initiated when the early impact became so shocking that UN ambassador Madeleine Albright had to mumble on TV that the price was right whatever the parents of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi children might think. The humanitarian program, which graciously permitted Iraq to use some of its oil revenues for the devastated population, was administered by highly respected and experienced UN diplomats, who had teams of investigators all over the country and surely knew more about the situation in Iraq than any other Westerners.
The first administrator, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest because he found the policies to be “genocidal.” His assessment of the sanctions he administered is that they “were intended, designed and sustained to kill civilians, particularly children” and that “over 1 million people were allowed to die directly due to the impact of UN sanctions.”14 Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, resigned two years later when he concluded that the sanctions violated the Genocide Convention. The Clinton administration barred him from providing information about the impact to the Security Council, which was technically responsible. As Albright’s spokesperson James Rubin explained, “this man in Baghdad is paid to work, not to speak.”
Von Sponeck does, however, speak; in extensive detail, particularly in his muted but horrifying review of the sanctions regime.15 But the State Department ruling prevails. One will have to search diligently to find even a mention of these revelations or what they imply. Knowing too much, Halliday and von Sponeck were also barred from the U.S. media during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, and to my knowledge since.
None of this can ever be mentioned, even in passing, by those who strike heroic poses about the alleged “genocides” perpetrated by official enemies, while scrupulously avoiding or denying our own crimes, a form of depravity that is not unusual among sectors of educated opinion.16
The assessments by Halliday and von Sponeck add considerable weight to the judgment by the very knowledgeable correspondent Jonathan Steele, referring to the invasion and its aftermath, on “the appalling horror of what has become the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world, undertaken primarily “to secure access to the country’s oil reserves and to send a message of dominance across the region.”17
Returning to the 2008 presidential campaign, it is true that Iraq was a marginal issue. That is natural, given the spectrum of hawk-dove elite opinion. The liberal doves adhere to their traditional reasoning and attitudes, praying that the hawks will be proven right and that the United States will win a victory in the land of ruin and wreck, establishing “stability,” a code word for subordination to Washington’s will. By and large hawks are encouraged, and doves silenced, by the good news about Iraq.
And there is good news. The U.S. occupying army in Iraq (euphemistically called the Multi-National Force-Iraq) carries out regular studies of popular attitudes, a crucial component of population control measures—or COIN, in the currently favored term for age-old counterinsurgency doctrine. In December 2007, the Pentagon released a study of focus groups, which was uncharacteristically upbeat. The survey “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to prevailing voices of hopelessness and despair, Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post. The survey, she continues, found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups…and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis.” This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results.”18
The “shared beliefs” were identified in the report. To quote DeYoung, “Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So according to Iraqis, there is hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence, withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis.
The conclusions are credible, consistent with earlier polls, and also with the apparent reduction in violence when the British finally withdrew from Basra, having “decisively lost the south—which produces over 90 percent of government revenues and 70 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves” by 2005, according to Anthony Cordesman, the most prominent (and respectably hawkish) U.S. specialist on military affairs in the Middle East.19
The December 2007 report did not mention other good news: Iraqis appear to accept the highest values of Americans, which should be very gratifying. Specifically, they accept the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal that sentenced Nazi war criminals to hanging for such crimes as supporting aggression and preemptive war—the main charge against Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, whose position in the Nazi regime corresponded to that of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also strong supporters of aggression and preemptive war (more accurately, in their case, preventive war, a doctrine that does not even have the limited legitimacy of preemptive war). The tribunal defined aggression clearly enough: “invasion by its armed forces” of one state “of the territory of another state.” The invasion of Iraq is a textbook example, if words have meaning; we need not tarry on the pretexts, thoroughly exploded even before the aggression was launched, and decisively shortly after. The tribunal went on to define aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”: in the case of Iraq, containing within itself the murderous sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing, the destruction of the national culture and the irreplaceable treasures of the origins of Western civilization under the eyes of “stuff happens” Rumsfeld and his associates, and every other crime and atrocity as the inheritors of the Mongols have followed the path of imperial Japan.
Since Iraqis attribute the accumulated evil of the whole primarily to the invasion, it follows that they accept the core principle of Nuremberg. Presumably, they were not asked whether their acceptance of American values extended to the conclusion of the chief prosecutor for the United States, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who forcefully insisted that the Tribunal would be mere farce if we do not apply its principles to ourselves.
Needless to say, U.S. elite opinion, shared with Western counterparts generally, rejects with virtual unanimity the lofty American values professed at Nuremberg and adopted by Iraqis, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene. All of this provides an instructive illustration of some of the reality that lies behind the famous “clash of civilizations.”
A January 2008 poll by World Learning/Aspen Institute found that “75 percent of Americans believe U.S. foreign policy is driving dissatisfaction with America abroad and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values (39 percent) and of the American people (26 percent) is also to blame.” The perception is inaccurate, fed by propaganda. There is little dislike of Americans, and dissatisfaction abroad does not derive from “dislike of American values.” Rather, from acceptance of these values and recognition that they are rejected by the U.S. government and elite opinion.20
Other “good news” had been reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during the extravaganza staged on September 11, 2007, to drum up support for the administration and its impressive achievements. Perhaps we should call the commander “Lord Petraeus,” in light of the reverence displayed by the media and commentators on this occasion. Parenthetically, only a cynic might imagine that the date was chosen to insinuate the Bush-Cheney claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, so that by committing the “supreme international crime” they were defending the world against terror—which increased sharply as a result of the invasion as anticipated, sevenfold according to an analysis by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, using data of the government-linked RAND Corporation.21
Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to show that the Iraqi government had greatly accelerated spending on reconstruction, reaching a quarter of the funding set aside for that purpose. Good news indeed—until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the actual figure was one-sixth what Petraeus and Crocker reported, a 50 percent decline from the preceding year.22
More good news is the decline in sectarian violence, attributable in part to the success of the ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion; there are simply fewer people to kill in the cleansed areas. But it is also attributable to Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had previously organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in U.S. troops, and to the decision of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army to stand down and consolidate its gains23—what the press calls “halting aggression.” By definition, only Iraqis can commit aggression in Iraq (or Iranians, of course).
Though there are few signs of it several years later, it is not impossible that Petraeus’s strategy might some day approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya, where fighting is now “limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack, C. J. Chivers reports, also on September 11, as Petraeus provided the “good news.” Perhaps some day Baghdad and Falluja too will enjoy “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in the light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence, adding to the “accumulated evil” of the aggression.24
If Russians rise to the moral level of liberal intellectuals in the West, they must be saluting Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in his murderous campaign in Chechnya.
A few weeks after the Pentagon’s “good news” from Iraq, New York Times military-Iraq expert Michael Gordon wrote a reasoned and comprehensive review of the options on Iraq policy facing the candidates for the presidential election. One voice is missing: Iraqis. Their preference is not rejected. Rather, it is not worthy of mention. And it seems that there was no notice of the fact. That makes sense on the usual tacit assumption of most discourse on international affairs: we own the world, so what does it matter what others think? They are “unpeople,” to borrow the term used by British diplomatic historian Mark Curtis in his work on Britain’s crimes of empire—very illuminating work, accordingly deeply hidden. Routinely, Americans join Iraqis in unpeople-hood. Their preferences too provide no options.25
To cite another instructive example, consider Gerald Seib’s reflections in the Wall Street Journal on “Time to Look Ahead in Iraq.” Seib is impressed that debate over Iraq is finally beginning to go beyond the “cartoon-like characteristics” of what has come before and is now beginning to confront “the right issue,” the “more profound questions”:
The more profound questions are the long-term ones. Regardless of how things evolve in a new president’s first year, the U.S. needs to decide what its lasting role should be in Iraq. Is Iraq to be a permanent American military outpost, and will American troops need to be on hand in some fashion to help defend Iraq’s borders for a decade or more, as some Iraqi officials themselves have suggested? Will the U.S. see Iraq more broadly as a base for exerting American political and diplomatic influence in the broader Middle East, or is that a mistake? Is it better to have American troops just over the horizon, in Kuwait or ships in the Persian Gulf? Driving these military considerations is the political question of what kind of government the U.S. can accept in Iraq.26
No soft-headed nonsense here about Iraqis having a voice on the lasting role of the United States in Iraq or on the kind of government they would prefer.
Seib should not be confused with the columnists in the Journal’s opinion pages. He is a rational centrist analyst, who could easily be writing in the liberal media or journals of the Democratic Party like The New Republic. And he grasps quite accurately the fundamental principles guiding the political class.
Such reflections of the imperial mentality are deeply rooted. To pick examples almost at random, shortly after the Petraeus celebration, in December 2007, Panama declared a Day of Mourning to commemorate the U.S. invasion of 1989, which killed thousands of poor people, so Panamanian human rights groups concluded, when Bush I bombed the El Chorillo slums and other civilian targets. The Day of Mourning of the unpeople scarcely merited a flicker of an eyelid here. It is also of no interest that Bush’s invasion of Panama, another textbook example of aggression, appears to have been more deadly than Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait a few months later. Similarly unworthy of note is the fact that Washington’s greatest fear was that Saddam would imitate its behavior in Panama, installing a client government and then leaving, the main reason Washington blocked diplomacy with almost complete media cooperation; the sole serious exception I know of before the war commenced was Knut Royce in Long Island Newsday. Though the December Day of Mourning passed with little notice, there was a lead story when the Panamanian National Assembly was opened by President Pedro González, who is charged by Washington with killing American soldiers during a protest against President Bush’s visit two years after his invasion, charges dismissed by Panamanian courts but still upheld by the owner of the world.27
To take another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, correspondent Elaine Sciolino writes that “Iran’s intransigence [about nuclear enrichment] appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.” The phrase “the rest of the world,” conventional terminology, happens to exclude the large majority of the world: the Non-Aligned Movement, which forcefully endorses Iran’s right to enrich uranium as a signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But they are not part of the world in conventional discourse, since they do not reflexively accept U.S. government orders.28
We might tarry for a moment to ask whether there is any solution to the U.S.-Iran confrontation over nuclear weapons. Here is one idea: (1) Iran should have the right to develop nuclear energy, but not weapons, in accord with the NPT. (2) A nuclear weapons–free zone should be established in the region, including Iran, Israel, and U.S. forces deployed there. (3) The United States should accept the NPT. (4) The United States should end threats against Iran and turn to serious diplomacy.
The proposals are not original. These are the preferences of the large majority of Americans, and also Iranians, in polls by World Public Opinion, which found that Americans and Iranians agree on basic issues. At a forum at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies when the polls were released, Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, said the polls showed “the common sense of both the American people and the Iranian people, [who] seem to be able to rise above the rhetoric of their own leaders to find common sense solutions to some of the most crucial questions” facing the two nations, favoring pragmatic, diplomatic solutions to their differences. The results suggest that if the U.S. and Iran were functioning democratic societies, this very dangerous confrontation could probably be resolved peaceably.29
The opinions of Americans on this issue too are not regarded as worthy of consideration; they are not options for candidates or commentators. They were apparently not even reported, perhaps considered too dangerous because of what they reveal about the “democratic deficit” in the United States, and about the extremism of the political class across the spectrum. If public opinion were to be mentioned as an option, it would be ridiculed as “politically impossible”; or perhaps offered as another reason why “the public must be put in its place,” as Lippmann sternly admonished.
There is more to say about the preference of Americans on Iran. On point (1) above, as noted, American opinion happens to accord with the stand of the large majority of the world. Hence Americans too are not part of “the world,” as conventionally defined. With regard to point (2), the U.S. and its allies have accepted it, formally at least. UN Security Council Resolution 687 of April 1991 commits them to “the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons” (Article 14). The United States and UK have a particularly strong commitment to this principle, since it was this resolution that they appealed to in their efforts to provide a thin legal cover for their invasion of Iraq, claiming that Iraq had not lived up to the conditions in 687 on disarmament. As for point (3), 80 percent of Americans feel that Washington should live up to its commitment under the NPT to undertake “good faith” efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, a legal commitment as the World Court determined, explicitly rejected by the Bush administration. Turning to point (4), Americans are calling on the government to adhere to international law, under which the threats of violence that are voiced by all current candidates are a crime, in violation of the UN Charter. The call for negotiations and diplomacy on the part of the American unpeople extends to Cuba, and has for decades, but is again dismissed by both political parties.30
The possibility that functioning democracy might alleviate severe dangers is regularly illustrated. To take another current example, of great importance, there is now justified concern about Russian reactions to U.S. aggressive militarism. That includes the extension of NATO to the East by Clinton in violation of pledges to Mikhail Gorbachev, but particularly the vast expansion of offensive military capacity under Bush, and more recently, the plans to place “missile defense” installations in Eastern Europe. Putin is ridiculed for claiming that they are a threat to Russia. But U.S. strategic analysts recognize that he has a point. The programs, they argue, are designed in a way that Russian planners would have to regard as a threat to the Russian deterrent, hence calling for more advanced and lethal offensive military capacity to neutralize them. A new arms race is feared.31
Recent polls under the direction of strategic analysts John Steinbruner and Nancy Gallagher “reveal a striking disparity between what U.S. and Russian leaders are doing and what their publics desire,” again indicating that if these countries were functioning democracies, in which the population had a voice, the increasingly fragile U.S.-Russian strategic relationship could be repaired, a matter of species survival in this case.32
In a free press, all these matters, and many more like them, would merit regular prominent headlines and in-depth analysis.
Having brought up Iran, we might as well turn briefly to the third member of the famous Axis of Evil, North Korea. The official story is that after having been forced to accept an agreement on dismantling its nuclear weapons facilities, North Korea is again trying to evade its commitments in its usual devious way—“good news” for superhawks like John Bolton, who have held all along that North Korea understands only the mailed fist and will exploit negotiations only to trick us. A New York Times headline reads: “U.S. Sees Stalling by North Korea on Nuclear Pact”; the article by Helene Cooper details the charges. In the last paragraph we discover that the U.S. has not fulfilled its pledges. North Korea has received only 15 percent of the fuel that was promised by the United States and others, and the United States has not undertaken steps to improve diplomatic relations, as promised. Several weeks later, McClatchy Newspapers’ Kevin Hall reported that the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, confirmed in Senate hearings that “North Korea has slowed the dismantling of its nuclear reactor because it hasn’t received the amount of fuel oil it was promised.”33
From the specialist literature, and asides here and there, we learn that this is a consistent pattern. North Korea may well have the worst government in the world, but they have been pursuing a pragmatic tit-for-tat policy on negotiations with the United States. When the United States takes an aggressive and threatening stance, they react accordingly. When the United States moves toward some form of accommodation, so do they. When Bush II came into office, both North Korea and the United States were bound by the Framework Agreement of 1994. Neither was fully in accord with its commitments, but the agreement was largely being observed. North Korea had stopped testing long-range missiles. It had perhaps one or two bombs’ worth of plutonium, and was verifiably not making more. After seven Bush years of confrontation, North Korea has eight to ten bombs and long-range missiles, and it is developing plutonium. The Clinton administration, Korea specialist Bruce Cumings reports, “had also worked out a plan to buy out, indirectly, the North’s medium and long-range missiles; it was ready to be signed in 2000 but Bush let it fall by the wayside and today the North retains all its formidable missile capability.”34
What lies behind Bush’s achievements is well understood. His Axis of Evil speech, a serious blow to Iranian democrats and reformers as they have stressed, also put North Korea on notice that the United States was returning to its threatening stance. Washington released intelligence reports about North Korea’s clandestine program; these were conceded to be dubious or baseless when the latest negotiations began in 2007, probably, commentators speculated, because it was feared that weapons inspectors might enter North Korea and the Iraq story would be repeated. North Korea responded by ratcheting up missile and weapons development.35
In September 2005, under international pressure, Washington agreed to turn to negotiations, within the six-power framework. They achieved substantial success. North Korea agreed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs” and allow international inspections, in return for international aid and a non-aggression pledge from the United States, with an agreement that the two sides would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations.” The ink was barely dry on the agreement when the Bush administration renewed the threat of force, also freezing North Korean funds in foreign banks and disbanding the consortium that was to provide North Korea with a light-water reactor. Cumings alleges that “the sanctions were specifically designed to destroy the September pledges [and] to head off an accommodation between Washington and Pyongyang.”
After Washington scuttled the promising September 2005 agreements, North Korea returned to weapons and missile development and carried out a test of a nuclear weapon. Again under international pressure, and with its policy in tatters, Washington returned to negotiations, leading to an agreement, though it is now dragging its feet on fulfilling its commitments.
Cumings concludes that “Bush had presided over the most asinine Korea policy in history. These last years, relations between Washington and Seoul have deteriorated drastically. By commission and omission, Bush trampled on the norms of the historic U.S. relationship with Seoul while creating a dangerous situation with Pyongyang.”
Charges against North Korea escalated in September 2007, when Israel bombed an obscure site in northern Syria, an “act of war,” as at least one prominent American correspondent recognized.36 Charges at once surfaced that Israel attacked a nuclear installation being developed with the help of North Korea, an attack compared with Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981—which, according to available evidence, convinced Saddam Hussein to initiate his nuclear weapons program.37 Seymour Hersh’s tentative conclusion after investigation was that the Israeli actions may have been intended as another threat against Iran: the U.S.-Israel have you in their bombsights. However this may be, there is some important background that should be recalled.
In 1993, Israel and North Korea were on the verge of an agreement: Israel would recognize North Korea, and in return, North Korea would end any weapons-related involvement in the Middle East. The significance for Israeli security is clear. Clinton ordered the deal terminated, and Israel had no choice but to obey.38 Ever since its fateful decision in 1971 to reject peace and security in favor of expansion, maintained since, Israel has been compelled to rely on the United States for protection, hence to obey Washington’s commands.
Whether or not there is any truth to current charges about North Korea and Syria, it appears that the threat to the security of Israel, and the region, might have been avoided by peaceful means, had security been a high priority.
Let us return to the first member of the Axis of Evil, Iraq. Washington’s war aims were clearly outlined in a U.S.-proposed Declaration of Principles for the U.S. and Iraqi governments, in November 2007. The declaration allows U.S. forces to remain indefinitely to “deter foreign aggression” and for internal security. The only aggression in sight is from the United States, but that is not aggression, by definition. And only the most naïve will entertain the thought that the United States would sustain the government by force if it moved toward independence; going too far in strengthening relations with Iran, for example. The declaration also committed Iraq to facilitate and encourage “the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments.”39
The unusually brazen expression of imperial will was underscored when Bush quietly issued yet another signing statement, expanding his historical record, declaring that he would reject crucial provisions of congressional legislation that he had just signed, including the provision that forbids spending taxpayer money “to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq” or “to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.” Shortly before, the New York Times had reported that Washington “insists that the Baghdad government give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations,” a demand that “faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with its…deep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state.”40
More third-world irrationality.
In brief, Iraq was to agree to allow permanent U.S. military installations (called “enduring” in the preferred Orwellism), grant the United States the right to conduct combat operations freely and indefinitely, and ensure U.S. control over oil resources of Iraq while privileging U.S. investors. It is of some interest that these official statements and actions did not influence discussion about the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. These had never been obscure, but any effort to spell them out was dismissed with ridicule. Now the reasons are openly conceded, eliciting no retraction or even reflection. Or perhaps even report.
Not long after, Bush was compelled to withdraw these demands, the latest step in a record of backtracking that began not long after the invasion, as the U.S. invaders had to abandon their war aims, step by step, in the face of determined nonviolent Iraqi resistance, an impressive achievement that should be better known. Obama has indicated that he will abide by the concessions forced on Bush. We return to the matter.
Iraqis are not alone in lacking proper respect for the invaders, so it appears from polls in Afghanistan and other considerations to which we turn below.
Recent polls in Pakistan also provide “good news” for Washington. Fully 5 percent favor allowing U.S. or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan “to pursue or capture al Qaeda fighters.” Nine percent favor allowing U.S. forces “to pursue and capture Taliban insurgents who have crossed over from Afghanistan.” Almost half favor allowing Pakistani troops to do so. And only a little over 80 percent regard the U.S. military presence in Asia and Afghanistan as a threat to Pakistan, while an overwhelming majority believe that the United States is trying to harm the Islamic world.41
The good news is that these results are a considerable improvement over October 2001, when a Newsweek poll found that “eighty-three percent of Pakistanis surveyed say they side with the Taliban, with a mere 3 percent expressing support for the United States,” while over 80 percent described Osama bin Laden as a guerrilla and 6 percent as a terrorist.42
Turning elsewhere, major polls are not such good news for conventional Western doctrines. Few are upheld with such passion and unanimity as the thesis that Hugo Chávez is a tyrant bent on destroying freedom and democracy in Venezuela and beyond. The annual polls on Latin American opinion by the respected Chilean polling agency Latinobarómetro, already discussed, are therefore “bad news” that gave the wrong answers, and were accordingly suppressed, very efficiently. As noted, editorial offices are well aware of the polls, as selective citation reveals, but evidently understand what may pass through doctrinal filters.
Also receiving scant notice was a declaration of President Chávez at the year’s end granting amnesty to leaders of the U.S.-backed military coup that kidnapped the president, disbanded parliament and the Supreme Court and all other democratic institutions, but was soon overturned by a popular uprising.43 That the West would have followed Chávez’s model in a comparable case is, to put it mildly, rather unlikely.
Perhaps all of this too provides some further insight into the “clash of civilizations”—a question that should be prominent in our minds, I think.