George Bush is selling out Iraq. Gone are his hard-liners’ dreams of setting up a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic republic, a light unto the Middle Eastern nations. The decision makers in the administration now realize these goals are unreachable. So they’ve set a new goal: to end the occupation by July 1, whether that occupation has accomplished anything valuable and lasting or not. Just declare victory and go home. The tyranny of Saddam Hussein will be over. But a new tyranny will likely take its place: the tyranny of civil war, as rival factions rush into the void. Such is the mess this president seems willing to leave behind in order to save his campaign.
“The Bush game plan is to have pictures of some U.S. troops leaving and the Iraqis opening their own government, the U.S. having presided over the birth of this new embryonic democracy,” observes former Clinton White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal. The problem is, there will be no Iraqi democracy. There might not even be a viable Iraqi government. Instead, Baghdad will become Beirut: Iraq’s three major religious and ethnic groups, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, will consolidate their respective positions in the center, south, and north of the country, recruit their militias, and get down to fighting for control of the power vacuum that is the post-war “peace.”
Once again, as so often in these last few months, an analogy is Vietnam. And, as so often in the last three years, the analogous president is Nixon.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford, setting out to bind up the wounds of a nation divided by Vietnam, read these words drafted by a speechwriter for an address to Congress:
“And after years of effort, we negotiated a settlement which made it possible for us to remove our military forces with honor.” Then he crossed out “with honor.” There was nothing honorable about the way his predecessor had ended the Vietnam War, Gerald Ford knew. Instead, Richard Nixon had negotiated a settlement that made two things a near certainty. The first was his own landslide re-election. The second was the imminent collapse, through civil war, of the very Saigon government we were supposedly at war to save.
Why were we in Vietnam? To hold off the Communists in their march to take over the world, they said. But that became less tenable as it grew evident that the two great Communist powers were more interested in fighting each other than conquering anyone else. To save an ally, South Vietnam, from invasion by a Communist enemy, North Vietnam, they said—but that explanation wore thin as it grew evident that the South Vietnamese were not working particularly hard to save themselves.
The war was already very unpopular, its prospects none too promising, when Nixon became president in 1969. It had only gotten worse by 1971, when Nixon began thinking hard about re-election. As with Bush recently, his approval rating in the middle of that year was around 50 percent; without at least appearing to quell the bloodshed, he couldn’t get re-elected. But failure—a North Vietnamese takeover—could only be held off by continuing to kill. And failure would render Nixon the first American president to lose a war.
The solution he hit upon was to change the definition of “failure,” to move the goal line.
The word victory was banned from all White House discussion, in favor of the bland substitute “peace with honor”—repeated more and more mellifluously, with each passing month systematically emptied of actual meaning. By late 1971, the phrase signified nothing more than an absence of U.S. troops on the ground and the freeing of American prisoners of war. “Following the President’s lead,” Nixon’s shrewdest historian, Jonathan Schell, has written, “people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.”
Secretly, and behind the back of the South Vietnamese government, Nixon’s emissary, Henry Kissinger, negotiated a face-saving exit with the enemy, one that let the enemy keep troops in South Vietnam—guaranteeing South Vietnamese collapse. Publicly we proclaimed the fiction that our allies were strong enough to get along without us. Actually, Nixon and Kissinger knew they could only hold on long enough for the American people to forget about them. On October 26, 1972, Henry Kissinger announced that negotiations had succeeded, that “peace is at hand.” On November 7, Richard Nixon won his 49 states against the Democrat, George McGovern. A weary nation had proved perfectly willing to acquiesce in a political swindle. Nixon had moved the goalpost to the 50-yard line, then awarded himself a touchdown.
Things move quicker in Iraq—”Vietnam on crack,” as one columnist has described it. With breathtaking speed, the liberators have been tarred as home-invading thugs.
In one mid-December briefing, the Coalition Provisional Authority boasted that 24 hours of raids on 1,620 suspected rebel hideouts yielded 107 arrests—a success rate, 7 percent, of the sort that once turned South Vietnamese peasants into Vietcong insurgents.
The insurgent war of attrition against American soldiers has gotten very desperate, very fast, the latest sign being a number of downed helicopters; eyewitnesses say Thursday’s crash south of Fallujah, killing nine, was the result of a missile strike—as was the crash in November that killed 16. A mortar strike on a base Wednesday killed one and wounded 30. The American death toll in Iraq approaches 500; the number of medical evacuations, as of mid December, is 10,854, most not reflected on the Pentagon’s website.
Once again a war has gone wrong, and the denouement still must be leveraged for maximum political advantage—or at least to minimum disadvantage. A scary story must be capped off with a happy ending. And for that reason, the Bush administration must make sure certain things are forgotten: namely, the aims it said we were going to war for in the first place. George Bush must keep on moving the goal line, as he has ever since this war’s beginning.
Why are we in Iraq? The notion of an imminent threat from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction washed out with the tide. We hear less, too, about making Americans safer from terrorism; the threat level as of this writing has only lately been lowered from orange, a degree of warning that, the Department of Homeland Security informs us, calls for “taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation.” (Have fun at the Super Bowl.) And no one in power wants to talk about all the Middle Eastern nations that would start democratizing just as soon as Iraq’s newly liberated people showed them the way.
That brings us to the latest war aims fallen by the wayside, the ones put in place last spring, after the end of “major hostilities” was declared. As it happens, Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer laid these out in June with a clarity and sweep the administration is certainly coming to regret. Goal No. 1 was the creation of a capitalist and transparent economy. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” And the idea was to do it fast. Said one of his advisers in July, citing Eastern Europe as a template, “Experience shows us that the faster you do it, the more beneficial it is for the economy.” The other aim was the establishment of a constitutional government. For the Iraqi people to get back their sovereignty before a constitution was written under American supervision, Bremer insisted, “invites confusion and chaos.”
There they are: two straight-ahead, clear benchmarks of success—giving Iraq a functioning private economy and giving it a constitution—right from the administration’s mouth. But we’ve gotten nowhere on either one. The drive for economic reform “just disappeared from the agenda,” one occupation official told The Washington Post last month. “It was just too risky.” As for the constitution, by November, negotiations between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the interested Iraqi factions bogged down, and America announced a new plan: The American occupation would end July 1, 2004, and there wouldn’t be any constitution, just a bare-bones, nonspecific “basic law.” The original timetable for self-rule in Iraq was late 2004 or early 2005. It’s not that things are ahead of schedule. It is that we have lopped off half the game clock, and moved the end zone to our present stalemate point, the 50-yard line. Touchdown! Game over! Everyone into the locker room!
There is only one problem, says Sidney Blumenthal: “It could be that by setting these artificial deadlines and abdicating a good deal of responsibility that the Bush administration simply accelerates the centrifugal forces within Iraq.” Just as in Vietnam, we leave a nation behind to its own civil war. Only this time, we leave it even more unstable than we found it.
Violent factions across the country appear to be gearing up for . . . something. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, a call from clerics to their followers to refrain from attacking one another held for a few days; then assailants in a passing car opened fire on a Sunni mosque in Baghdad—drive-by sectarian warfare. Now Sunnis are arming themselves in militias, a counterbalance, they say, to the “Mahdi Army” of Shiite cleric and occupation critic Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr. They promise to turn their new forces, part of a “Clear Victory Movement,” against the Americans unless Sunnis get sufficient power in the post-war settlement.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has bowed to pressure to keep the Kurdish region semi-autonomous—for fear that any other decision would set off a Kurdish uprising—and Kurds now talk of annexing oil-rich Kirkuk. That angers the Turks—raising the possibility of a regional conflict—and sets a precedent for dividing Iraq into Yugoslavia-style ethnic enclaves. Which paves the way for possible Yugoslavia-style ethnic cleansing, considering that the greatest population of Kurds lives not in the protected north but in Baghdad. Will Sunni militia leaders start demanding these Kurds return to “their” homeland?
As in Vietnam, the allies we plan to leave behind in our stead inspire little confidence. Here is one friendly faction of Sunnis: The Iraqi National Accord, former Baathists whose favor with us stems from their early-’90s collaboration with the CIA (a level of trustworthiness Orwell might call “doubleplusungood”). They assert their intention to do business with Syria, call for a new Iraqi secret police, and proclaim that “elections right now are impossible.” Another of our allies, a member of our handpicked governing council, has a grasp of democracy so rudimentary he called the notion of a freshly elected leader replacing the incumbent’s staff “this idiotic American system.”
You don’t read much about Basra, in the southern part of the country, because it is under British, not American, occupation: Shiite territory, where unemployment approaches 70 percent, and where religious gangs with names like “Revenge of God” and “The Organization of Islamic Rules” firebomb Christian-owned liquor stores and shoot their proprietors.
Welcome to the new Iraq. Recently Lloyds of London has begun selling insurance to U.K. firms with reconstruction contracts, to pay off if America quits the scene before reconstruction is complete. An American insurer, Marsh & McLennan, has chosen not to offer its usual line of insurance for political risk, expropriation, and terrorism. The smart money in Iraq, it appears, is betting on a bugout.
“This is a plan that is entirely geared to create political peace in the United States from June to November,” Blumenthal observes. “Whether it has any relations to the facts on the ground is another question.”
War opponents might be tempted to take heart: If President Bush wants to end an ugly and wasteful war in order to get elected, let him.
They might want to heed the example of Richard Nixon. Little more than one month after he won his 1972 re-election, he initiated the most savage bombing campaign in the history of the war—in the history of warfare. It was a little shock and awe at Christmastime. He was still convinced America could prevail militarily: No peace, no honor. Here’s to hoping George W. Bush is a little less cynical.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 6, 2004