News and Features
On the second day of the invasion of Iraq, US commandos seized two Iraqi
offshore oil terminals in the Persian Gulf, capturing their defenders
without a fight.
Even before US troops arrived in Baghdad, looting broke out--in
Now that the war has been won, is it permissible to suggest that our emperor has no clothes?
Paul Wolfowitz is busy turning history on its head.
A well-trained army can depose a dictator. But changing a regime is another matter.
At the center of our moral life are the great stories of those who have said no.
One of the many maddening feats of this Administration is that in
choosing to fight the war on terror by going to war with Iraq, George W.
Bush has inspired new terrorist threats to the United States--according
to the official testimony of his own CIA--where none existed. At the
same time, he purposely starves those localities and institutions on
which the complex and expensive task of terrorist protection ultimately
The Economist compares New York City to Atlas, bearing the weight of the
world on its shoulders. Already reeling from a massive deficit,
declining income and the economic aftershocks of 9/11, the city must pay
$1 billion a year for emergency and counterterrorism costs. Bush could
care less. After attempting to stiff New York entirely, Congress has
finally agreed to kick in about $200 million, far more than Bush
proposed. My shaken city can ill afford to make up the difference. It
already has 4,000 fewer cops than it did two years ago but must assign
more than a thousand of those remaining to the terrorist beat. It may
shutter forty fire companies. Massive layoffs, tax hikes and cutbacks in
every kind of social service are in the offing. And Gotham is hardly
alone. Enhanced security measures cost the nation's cities an estimated
$2.6 billion in the fifteen months after 9/11.
But as with Vietnam, "W" is AWOL and Cheney has "other priorities." They
have not merely ignored "homeland" protection, they have sabotaged it.
Shocking, yes. But don't take my word for it. A January Brookings
Institution report explains, "President Bush vetoed several specific
(and relatively cost-effective) measures proposed by Congress that would
have addressed critical national vulnerabilities. As a result, the
country remains more vulnerable than it should be today." A Council on
Foreign Relations task force chaired by Gary Hart and Warren Rudman
concurs: "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond
to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil," it warns.
Power plants constitute obvious terrorist targets but are frequently
operated by private or semiprivate corporations unwilling to pay to
protect them. According to Brookings, the Administration has done
nothing--repeat, nothing--to help or encourage "private-sector
firms--even ones that handle dangerous materials--toward improving their
own security." Last year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discovered a
frightening series of security lapses at three separate chemical plants
in Houston and Chicago, which, if attacked, could endanger 1 million
people each. The New York Daily News found one plant in East Rutherford,
New Jersey, where an attack could threaten the lives of more than 7
million people (including, um, mine). And it employed virtually no
security at all. Spencer Abraham, Bush's Energy Secretary, worried in a
March 2002 letter to OMB director Mitch Daniels that firms "are storing
vast amounts of materials that remain highly volatile and subject to
unthinkable consequences if placed in the wrong hands." However, he
added, due to insufficient funding, "the Department now is unable to
meet the next round of critical security mission requirements....
Failure to support these urgent security requirements," he concluded,
"is a risk that would be unwise." Nevertheless, The New Republic's
Jonathan Chait reports, Bush agreed to propose a mere 7 percent of what
Abraham said would be needed just to get started.
Chait has more: Bush refused to compensate healthcare workers injured or
killed by the smallpox inoculation program. His budget is squeezing the
Coast Guard, in charge of port security. He is starving "first
responders"--the very heroes of 9/11 to whom he dishonestly promised so
much. And the Customs Service got not a single penny in new funding in
the Administration's budget. With everyone losing sleep over "loose
nukes" falling into terrorist hands, Bush even tried to cut overseas
nuclear security funding by 5 percent.
How does he get away with it? Quite easily, apparently. In the Orwellian
universe of the "liberal media," Bush can inspire new terrorist threats,
ignore the ones we already face and evade responsibility for both
because he is "tough" enough to spit in the face of world opinion.
In a sensible media universe, Chait's cover story, "The 9/10 President,"
would have set off a journalistic firestorm. But the only place I've
seen it picked up is in Paul Krugman's invaluable New York Times column.
Using the Homeland Security Department's original spending figures,
Krugman took Chait one step further on April 1, arguing that Bush's plan
to spend seven times as much per capita on protection for Wyoming as for
New York--where, need I point out, a few more obvious terrorist targets
are located--"was adopted precisely because it caters to that same
constituency" that enabled Bush's "election." Krugman puts the Rove/Bush
strategy thus: "Even in a time of war--a war that seems oddly unrelated
to the terrorist threat--the Bush administration isn't serious about
protecting the homeland. Instead, it continues to subordinate U.S.
security needs to its unchanged political agenda."
This is an eerie moment in American political history. George W. Bush
was defeated in the popular vote by his more liberal opponent but rules
from the most extreme wing of his party. He campaigned as a fiscal
conservative but has pushed tax cuts that will create a deficit larger
than any in US history. As a candidate, he articulated the need for a
"humble" foreign policy but now conducts it with a degree of hubris that
makes Lyndon Johnson look like the Dalai Lama. His hypocrisy, in other
words, is so great as to be almost unfathomable, and yet he has somehow
managed to convince the media to admire him for his "moral clarity."
Thanks to Bush & Co., America is hated the world over as never
before. Deficits are exploding, unemployment remains high, the stock
market is still in the tank and interest rates are poised to take off.
The country is headed to hell in a handbasket from so many directions
one can barely keep track. And yet the increasingly Foxified media tell
a story only of heroism: of the US military, of the American people and
of the President of the United States, who has so far managed to avoid
service to either one.
A lot of folks die.
At last the war ends.
The world is made safe
For Dick Cheney's friends.
In the past 200 years, all of the earth's great territorial empires,
whether dynastic or colonial, or both, have been destroyed. The list
includes the Russian empire of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the Habsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns, the Ottoman
Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the overseas empires of Holland, England,
France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" and the
Soviet empire. They were brought down by a force that, to the
indignation and astonishment of the imperialists, turned out to be
irresistible: the resolve of peoples, no matter how few they were or how
poor, to govern themselves.
With its takeover of Iraq, the United States is attempting to reverse
this universal historical verdict. It is seeking to reinvent the
imperial tradition and reintroduce imperial rule--and on a global
scale--for the twenty-first century. Some elements, like the danger of
weapons of mass destruction, are new. Yet any student of imperialism
will be struck by the similarities between the old style of imperialism
and the new: the gigantic disparity between the technical and military
might of the conquerors and the conquered; the inextricable combination
of rapacious commercial interest and geopolitical ambition and design;
the distortion and erosion of domestic constitutions by the immense
military establishments, overt and covert, required for foreign
domination; the use of one colony as a stepping stone to seize others or
pressure them into compliance with the imperial agenda; the appeal to
jingoism on the home front. True, American officials state at every
opportunity that they do not intend to "occupy" Iraq. But then the
British in the nineteenth century said the same thing. Two years before
the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the conquest of
Egypt he declared that his heart's desire was an "Egypt for the
Egyptians." The liberal imperialist Lord Palmerston said in 1842 in
defense of his gunboat diplomacy, "It is, that commerce may go freely
forth, leading civilization with one hand, and peace with the other, to
render mankind happier, wiser, better." When it came to rule, the
British preferred, wherever possible, not "direct rule" but a sort of
covert domination called "influence"or "indirect rule" or "paramountcy"
(the British were as richly inventive of euphemisms as the United States
is today). Then as now, imperialism, in the words of the great
anti-imperialist Ernest Hobson, was "floated on a sea of vague, shifty,
well-sounding phrases which are seldom tested by close contact with
It was one thing, however, for Europeans, in newfound possession of
modern tools of technical and organizational superiority, to subjugate
"backward" foreign peoples in 1700 or 1800 or 1900. But can it be done
again, in our century, in the wake of that project's universal rejection
by the peoples of the earth? So far, the outlook is unpromising. The
United States vowed to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. The phrase
has rightly been criticized as an outrageously mild euphemism--a vague,
well-sounding, shifty phrase if there ever was one--for an extremely
violent act; but now it turns out that the expression defined a deeper
problem. If I am going to change the oil in my car, I must, before I
remove the old oil in the crankcase, have new oil ready to put in.
Otherwise, my car will quickly overheat and break down on the road. This
is roughly the condition of Iraq two weeks after the destruction of its
former government. The United States, it turns out, forgot to bring a
new government with it when it set out from Kuwait to Baghdad. The
troops brought plenty of MREs (meals ready to eat) but no GRR
(government ready to rule). American forces had no intention of becoming
a police force, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told the press. Did the
Administration perhaps take its own slippery rhetoric about not
occupying Iraq too seriously? The result was a vacuum of authority soon
filled by nearly universal looting. Many Iraqis made clear their hatred
of the old regime and their joy at its disappearance; but it appears
that they had little more confidence in the invader. Finding themselves
caught between local misrule and foreign rule, did they perhaps decide
that they had a momentary opportunity to grab something for themselves
and set about sacking their own country? A journalist, upon arriving in
an Iraqi city, described it as "prelooted." Did the Iraqis, in
anticipation of foreign exploitation, "preloot" their whole country?
The United States thus achieved Regime Removal but not the promised
Regime Change. There were, we can now see, no plans even to keep order
in Iraq, much less to administer it, or organize a government there. The
famous war plan was much discussed; the peace plan, it appears, did not
This became clear when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the
raging anarchy in Iraq as "untidy," and America's new viceroy in Iraq,
retired Gen. Jay Garner, newly arrived in the city of Nasiriyah from the
Hilton hotel in Kuwait, likened events to the American constitutional
convention of 1787, remarking rhetorically, "I don't think they had a
love-in when they had Philadelphia." Does he really think that mayhem in
Iraq, including the extinction of the better part of the country's
cultural treasures, has any resemblance to the deliberations by which
Washington, Franklin and Madison framed the Constitution of the United
States? Is such a man fit to run a country?
So far, the American military giant has proved to be a political pygmy.
The Shiite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was imported into Iraq from
London by the "coalition" forces, was promptly hacked to death by local
people. The gathering of Iraqis invited by the United States to meet at
a US military base has been boycotted by the country's most important
political groups. In Mosul, American troops have fired upon an angry
mob, killing seven. "It's a show of force, but people don't understand
it," a soldier in Mosul told the Times. "They're not grateful."
Before the war began, it was often said that winning the war would be
easy and winning the peace hard. And it was surely always clear even to
the war's opponents that the United States could drive its tanks from
Kuwait to Baghdad, whereupon the regime of Saddam Hussein would
dissolve. Yet was it ever certain that what followed the conventional
engagements would be a peace? With every day that passes, "the peace"
looks more like another war.
By 9 am on April 10, the day Kirkuk fell, columns of Iraqi troops who
were supposed to be defending the city fled to the Baghdad Garage, the
main transportation terminal, and stripped off their uniforms and boots.
Barefoot, they fled south to the capital. By noon, the looting in Kirkuk
had begun. In the multiethnic Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish city, it was
primarily the Kurds who smashed the windows of the state-owned
supermarket and hurled bolts of pink fabric, carpets, cooking oil, desk
chairs and rice over the fence. The more ambitious went to the airport,
hijacked Iraqi tanks and careered around the liberated town.
"I used to drive a tank in the Iraqi Army," Nawzan Barzilini, 32,
shouted down from his new acquisition. "I came this morning to fight for
Kirkuk, but the soldiers ran away." Barzilini is one of the thousands of
Kurdish fighters, peshmerga, who unexpectedly poured into Kirkuk that
morning long before the Americans arrived. Many, like Barzilini, were
not following orders. He said he simply picked up a Kalashnikov and
followed his comrades as they rushed in. He argued that liberating the
city was his duty as a Kurd and that he was entitled to the spoils of
the Baathist regime.
In the early hours, the stunned locals didn't realize the Iraqis were
gone until truck after gun-mounted truck of peshmerga in yellow and
green bandannas rattled into the city, accompanied by a handful of
journalists. I watched the faces of dazed Kirkukis change from shock to
jubilation to frenzy as they surrounded our cars, clamoring onto the
hood. One man, Jabar, thrust his head in a car window and said in
English long out of use, "I love the USA." Children held up bunches of
yellow flowers and Kurdish flags as the adults covered their mouths with
their hands and ululated.
At first, it was easy to laud Kirkuk's liberation as a model for the
peaceful transition of power in Iraq. The city's walls are scrawled with
"Thank you Mr. Bousch." The city's frightened Arabs made their way into
the streets. One Arab man driving a truck from an oil refinery was
pulled from his car and shot in the street, but it was an isolated
incident. A Kurdish passerby stopped to cover him with a blanket. For
the most part, Kirkuk seemed to have avoided the sudden violence of
Mosul. Yet as the days passed, the presence in Kirkuk of men like
Barzilini--part fighter, part looter--threatened the calm. Kirkuk's
Arabs and Turkmen have become furious at all the looting by lawless men
claiming to be peshmerga, and they're beginning to fight back. Turkey's
anxiety over the Kurds is also rising, and the transition of control
over Kirkuk's oilfields promises additional complications.
Turkey's refusal to let the United States use it as a staging area for
the war produced some unintended consequences. The slow arrival of US
forces in Kirkuk gave the Iraqi Army there time to watch events unfold
in the south and to surrender without much bloodshed. But it also left
the United States dependent on a Kurdish fighting force. The day the
city fell, the Americans were nowhere to be seen. Protecting the
oilfields fell to a force of 700 Kurdish fighters, who could do little
as Northern Oil, an Iraqi-owned company, was looted and the smoke from a
series of fires lit the horizon. Only at nightfall did the 173rd
Airborne arrive. "It was like the Los Angeles riots," said one American
soldier as he patrolled the burning fields the next morning.
For now, Kirkuk's oil is in US hands. Though Turkish observers have yet
to arrive, the peshmerga have begun pulling out of the city without
incident. After their unscheduled invasion, even the Kurdish fighters
are trying to sound diplomatic.
"We are happy to let America control the oil," says Brigadier Rostum, a
senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's military force.
"Even if they keep most of it and we benefit only a little bit, it will
be the first time that Kurds receive anything from oil. Besides, this is
not about oil, it's about freedom." But this is still the first week,
and, even so, ripples are beginning to disturb Kirkuk's surface.
As the peshmerga claim to pull out, the Arabs are calling for blood.
They feel that they were victims of Saddam, too, so why, they ask,
should they now be victims of Kurdish looting? In Mosul, angry vigilante
groups have set stones in the road to check cars against incoming Kurds.
It is not yet clear whether street fighting here will be next. Soon,
120,000 Kurdish families, displaced since 1991, will start to return
home, and political assertions by Turkmen groups, supported by Turkey,
will begin to emerge--and what good will gratitude be then? Rebuilding
Kirkuk in this brittle political climate will show whether a coalition
between hostile ethnic groups is at all possible in Iraq.
The battle for Kirkuk raises questions about Syria as well. While the
city fell easily, there were some fierce pockets of resistance by
fedayeen loyalists and foreign mercenaries. As Kurds in the north of the
city spent the afternoon tugging down statues of Saddam, near the former
secret police headquarters a cluster of fighters refused to surrender.
Finally, after a gun battle lasting several hours, the peshmerga
advanced to find several dead bodies of the fedayeen. One was still
alive, though badly beaten, his black tunic covered in blood. As he sat
on the curb, several peshmerga discussed whether to kill him. The man
held his head in his hands as this conversation went on, saying only
that he had come from Syria fifteen days earlier to fight for Saddam.
The Bush Administration's claims about the presence of chemical weapons
in Syria smack of propaganda, but the presence of these Syrian fighters
in Kirkuk may be spun by Washington as evidence of a relationship
between Syria and Saddam.
In the short term, Kirkuk has descended into a stunned sense of order,
but these quiet days are likely to give way to explosions of older,
deep-seated resentments. Already Arabs are accusing the incoming Kurds
of brutality reminiscent of fascism. The United States in its limited
role as policeman can maintain order for now, and helped set up a
governing committee of six Kurds, six Arabs and six Turkmen that will
soon begin to meet, offering at least a fig leaf of transethnic
cooperation. But whether, in the long term, any occupying force can
mediate the longstanding ethnic divisions is an open question. The
challenge before Washington is whether it has the will and the way to
establish the presence necessary to truly rebuild the city and not just
keep an uneasy peace.