When George H.W. Bush invaded Panama back in 1989 (no threat to the United States, its leader a longtime CIA asset, thousands of civilian casualties: ring a bell?), Administration flacks dubbed the exercise Operation Just Cause. However, irreverent Pentagon apparatchiks assigned to plan the invasion mulled the lack of any rational justification for the attack and took to calling it Operation Just Because.
Iraq got lumbered with Operation Iraqi Freedom, which for Iraqis has turned out to mean freedom to have your head chopped off on TV, be blown to bits by “precisely targeted” American bombs and tank shells, “abused” with electrodes attached to your genitals, never stirring outdoors (if female) without an all-encompassing veil, or staying at home and sitting in the dark because there’s no electricity. Since there is no conceivable justification for inflicting these miseries, we might as well tell them it’s Just Because.
At least by this date we should not have to trouble ourselves with the possibility that Saddam posed a threat to anyone either with WMDs or links to Osama–save that even today, deep in the recesses of the terrorology business, the fantasies that once charmed the nation’s journalists survive undiminished. Yossef Bodansky, the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, has them all: secret shipments of Iraqi WMDs to Syria before the war, secret Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian plans to invade Israel, secret Iranian and Syrian long-range missiles in Lebanon (complete with detailed descriptions of their calibers and range), not to mention a secret and especially fiendish Syrian plot to contaminate Israel’s water resources.
This torrent of drivel flows remorselessly through more than 500 pages. Sinister Arab plots, such as an Egyptian plan to invade Israel, loom as specters, only to disappear from the story as Bodansky scurries on breathlessly to newer and taller tales, usually garnished with attribution to one or another intelligence agency. Hence verbatim quotations from GRU (Russian military intelligence) reports march impressively through his narrative of the actual war. A quick Google check reveals these as lifted from a notorious wartime website touting GRU connections replete with wholly fictional reports of developments in the fighting. “Iraqwar.ru” was subsequently revealed as the concoction, according to one authoritative Russian military commentator, of “some guys kicked out of the [Russian] secret services for incompetence.”
However, while consigning Bodansky’s Secret History of the Iraq War to the UFO-abduction shelf, it is worth remembering that, not so long ago, most of the nation’s national security intelligentsia were peddling material almost as self-evidently worthless. Brookings Institution experts, for example, endorsed the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam’s nuclear weapons program posed a significant threat to the national security of the United States. These weighty conclusions turned out to be based on the word of Khidhir Hamza, self-styled as “Saddam’s Bombmaker,” the bulk of whose testimony was quite clearly fraudulent long before the war, and definitively exposed once the invasion troops found Saddam’s nuclear cupboard to be entirely bare.
The Brookings savants have long since backpedaled from their martial stance, but other highly respectable authorities are still loath to abandon last year’s self-evident truths. Concluding his slightly superficial narrative of the war and its background, John Keegan wistfully raises the possibility that there may be some WMDs in Iraq after all, quoting some CYA hedging on the topic by weapons sleuth David Kay, along with Kay’s Bodansky-esque proposition that Saddam may have shipped weapons to Syria.
While Keegan’s book is all dressed up in the traditional trappings of a broad-sweep military history–he even includes the “order of battle” of the little British fleet in the Arabian Gulf; so nostalgic, these Brits!–Jon Lee Anderson’s account of the conflict (which draws on his reports for The New Yorker) amounts to less of a sweep and more of the toothbrush treatment, taking us down the narrow path of his personal experiences in Baghdad during the period immediately before, during and after the 2003 invasion. Anderson has much of interest to tell, but large parts of the narrative reminded me of a little jeu d’esprit once published by John Lennon consisting of a pocket diary filled in for every workday of the year with the words “Got up. Went to work. Came home. Watched telly. Went to bed.” Thus we learn a lot about Anderson’s daily life in Baghdad and relations with his driver, information ministry drivers and fellow members of the foreign press corps, as well as the restaurants he ate in, the barber he patronized and so on. Buried in the earnest verbiage is a great deal of arresting material, ranging from the intriguing report that Ronald Reagan sent Saddam a pair of spurs as a present in 1986, to rich descriptions of visits to the war cemeteries left behind by the British, not to mention Anderson’s relationship with the morally dubious figure of Ala Bashir, an artist-surgeon who enjoyed Saddam’s confidence and esteem before passing effortlessly to the embrace of the CIA.
Unfortunately, the tone mandated by the flat-footed New Yorker style drains his story of any emotional connection to events unfolding in the narrative. Sometimes the scenes speak for themselves, as when he encounters child victims of American bombing, but all too often his prose leaves the extraordinary drama of those days in a waterlogged state. For example, in recording the killing by a US tank unit of two TV journalists in the Palestine Hotel, Anderson says, “Most of the reporters I spoke to believed it had been an Iraqi attack and worried what it might mean for our safety.” This is odd, since every other account of the incident I have heard makes it clear that the US tank that fired was clearly visible on the nearby Jumhuriyah bridge. In a parenthetical paragraph, Anderson concedes, “I was wrong” and correctly attributes the shelling to the US tank, adding, however, that “the Americans thought they were receiving sniper fire from the hotel…. No one in the Palestine believed this to be true.” Yes, but what do you think, Jon Lee?
One of the few characters for whom Anderson has a harsh or even emotional word is the veteran British correspondent Robert Fisk–“fidgety, taciturn…with a blotchy red face.” I have the feeling that at some point in some war-zone hotel lobby Anderson may have been on the receiving end of an acerbic Fisk commentary regarding American media complicity with US Middle East policy. Certainly his epithets appear to have been selected with some care, guaranteed to alert a politically correct US readership about Fisk: “Saddam’s people positively adored him…ardent Arabist…wildly popular throughout the Muslim world.” As I.F. Stone once remarked of Theodore White, a man who writes like that need never lunch alone–at least not in New York.
Christian Parenti’s briefer but brilliantly vivid take on Iraq since the war is welcome relief indeed. Nation readers have already had the benefit of most of his incisive dispatches from the front, but for those who have been subsisting on more dreary fare, The Freedom should provide a refreshing, robust corrective. Judging by my own limited experiences of occupied Iraq, he gets it absolutely right, including the surreal mismatch between the air-conditioned Green Zone enclave housing the occupation headquarters/US Embassy, whose “real function…seems to be the intentional mismanagement of reconstruction contracts,” and the hot, stinking, dangerous and exciting real world inhabited by Iraqis beyond the fortifications. He is especially good on the “stretched thin, lied to, and mistreated” cannon fodder of the occupation army, who despise what they call the “occupodians” inside the Green Zone. Parenti gets his title from an encounter in a Ramadi children’s hospital, which, despite the billions appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction, had exhausted a meager grant from the Coalition Provisional Authority and had no money left for medical supplies. Aid agencies had provided only cookies. A nervous hospital director dodges a question on whether he sees many child patients with symptoms of radiation sickness because of American use of depleted-uranium ammunition. Pressed for a direct answer, “Dr. Hussein’s tough composure softens and he offers something of a coded apology: ‘This is the freedom.'” Quite so.
My only quibble with the book concerns a passage where Parenti delves into wonkery and suggests that the war was about “positioning US military might as the sole security arbiter upon which all advanced economies are dependent…. Securing the Middle East and its oil reserves would give America important political leverage over the EU and East Asia.” I’m always dubious of the notion that nations act for reasons of “foreign policy.” History indicates that almost any government’s international actions are usually motivated by exigencies of domestic politics and/or squalid personal greed. Thus Parenti’s succinct description of the care and feeding of the Halliburton Corporation, which receives $1 billion a month for work in Iraq (hardly any of which benefits Iraqis) and meanwhile pays $13,000 a month to former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, goes a long way toward explaining why we went into Iraq. Without the Iraq contracts, Halliburton would probably be bankrupt because Cheney, as CEO, bought Dresser Industries without noticing that Dresser had billions in asbestos liabilities (whoever said this guy was smart?).
At least Parenti does not insult our intelligence by asserting that we were manipulated into invading Iraq because a bunch of devious neocons, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, cherished a utopian vision of imposing democracy in the Middle East–a ludicrous notion predictably popular among the punditocracy. John Keegan takes the idea at face value, although he does think it a little odd that the neocons, while eager to transport democracy, simultaneously “supported extremist politicians in Israel” who didn’t seem too interested in a fair deal for Palestinians.
Actually, the record indicates that the neocons were hardly more interested in a fair deal for the Iraqis than their chums in Jerusalem are for their conquered subjects. This becomes very clear from Noah Feldman’s valuable little treatise What We Owe Iraq, which lays out clearly just how we avoided delivering whatever we owed Iraq in the way of democracy.
A law professor and scholar of Islamic thought hired as a constitutional adviser to the occupation government, Feldman noted with alarm on his first flight into Baghdad that his fellow passengers, like him recruited to advise and guide the occupation, all had their noses buried in books about the US occupations of Japan and Germany. “Not one seemed to need a refresher on Iraq or the Gulf Region,” he writes.
An honorable exception to the general run of occupodians, Feldman thinks it is actually in our own interests to foster a legitimate democratic government in Iraq in order to combat terrorism effectively, as well as being the right thing to do. Thus, interspersed with some deeper notes on the theory and practice of nation-building are his pithy reminiscences about his tour of duty in what had once been Saddam’s Republican Palace, now transformed into the seat of colonial rule.
When Feldman first arrived, the largest conference room in use still had a Koranic verse inscribed across one wall: “Consult the people regarding the matter,” it advised, “and when you have reached a decision, then put your trust in God.” Generally considered as a Koranic endorsement of democratic institutions, the verse rapidly disappeared after occupation viceroy Paul Bremer arrived and began using the room for his fantasy-laden press conferences. “Elections,” explains Feldman, “were off the table.” Instead, the United States instituted a “Governing Council” that was granted neither power nor respect by the colonial power (I remember council members complaining of being punched by US military guards when arriving for meetings with Bremer). Whereas Feldman doesn’t have much good to say about his employers, he has a hero in the form of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who repeatedly challenged the Americans to live up to their rhetoric–“if this is to be a democracy, where are the elections?”–and refused to endorse the various excuses and shabby substitutes offered by Bremer.
On paper at least, Sistani has got his way. Elections are due to take place in January 2005, offering a faint hope that Iraq, if endowed with a legitimate government, will arrest its decline into a Hobbesian state of nature. Presumably that is what Washington wants too; at least that is what we are led to believe. Yet I have my doubts, especially as the so-called “government” of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is doing its best behind the scenes to put off the elections yet again, while the US occupation army seems to be working hard to escalate the level of violence and chaos in the country.
An Iraq splintered into fragments and powerless for the foreseeable future might be considered good for, well, quite a lot of people. Israel has always been nervous about Iraq’s potential as a rich, educated, nationalistic regional power. The oil companies, which have never cared for Iraq’s forty-year tradition of prickly independence in oil matters, cannot be too displeased that present conditions are helping to maintain prices at profitable heights. Shocking though it may be to suggest that reducing Iraq to its present state was the ultimate object of the exercise, one has to accept that US policy-makers have done everything in their power to bring it about. Feldman reminds us that the looting during the first month of the occupation “led to the disappearance of the apparatus of the government” as well as the collapse of the basic services on which Iraq as a modern society depended, followed by the imposition of Ambassador Bremer’s authoritarian rule. Interestingly, in describing the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s fall, Jon Lee Anderson notes matter-of-factly that initially the looting was entirely confined to east Baghdad, because the Americans stationed tanks on the Tigris bridges and thus prevented the mayhem from crossing to west Baghdad. Then, two days later, as he records, those tanks were withdrawn and west Baghdad was plundered too.