Once again last week, the President and his men surged into the headlines, announcing that we had just zipped past yet another of those Iraqi "turning points." Or, as George W. Bush put it while speaking at the Pentagon (and perhaps dreaming of the days back in 2005 when he could still happily mention "victory" 15 times and "progress" 28 times in a speech about Iraq): "The surge is working. And as a return on our success in Iraq, we’ve begun bringing some of our troops home. The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around — it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror."
A few years ago, of course, the Bush administration was still "turning corners" (around which, invariably, would be an unexpected group of insurgents armed with RPGs and IEDs). Now, in a change of linguistic pace, the corners have vanished (perhaps because we haven’t liked who’s lurking there) and we’re opening doors instead. If history is any guide, behind the President’s "door" will prove to be not the lady but the tiger.
In the meantime, our surly Vice President has just surged past the American people. In an interview in Oman with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, there was this pungent exchange:
"Q: …Two-thirds of Americans say [the Iraq War]’s not worth fighting, and they’re looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives.
"THE VICE PRESIDENT: So?"
Perhaps the most revealing imagery of the week, however, came from the President’s candidate for the Oval Office in January 2009. On completing a visit to "Iraq," Senator John McCain issued a ringing statement on the war that began this way: "Today in Iraq, America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism." The "precipice of victory" and, next perhaps, the "abyss of victory"?
Go back two years and that word "precipice" was a commonplace in Washington as a rattled Bush administration faced a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Now, as any independent or foreign journalist would tell you (though the American press has generally been more upbeat), the Iraqis are living in that abyss, down which Sen. McCain evidently stares and sees victory. They are living in a hell, a country so thoroughly dismantled that the brave British journalist Patrick Cockburn recently claimed "Iraq" was now little more than a "geographical expression."
Outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, much of Baghdad is a nightmare. Just consider a walk that Nir Rosen took for Rolling Stone magazine in the Dora district of Baghdad ("…now a ghost town. This is what ‘victory’ looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily…"); or watch a video shot by Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the British Guardian portraying the massive walls that now encase so many Iraqi neighborhoods, or the cemeteries he visited that hold some of Iraq’s recently slaughtered citizens.
Soon, General David Petraeus will report to the President and Congress on "progress" in Iraq. In the meantime, Senator McCain’s website just "re-released" "Fighting Islamic Extremists: Progress in Iraq," which "features a four year timeline of John McCain’s unrelenting call for a new strategy for victory in Iraq."
Knowing that this may be their future, Iraqis must finally be on the verge of erupting with joy in the streets of their capital, just as our Vice President predicted they would before this horror ever began. If, however, you want to grasp the real nature of what’s taken place in Baghdad these last years, check out the latest monumental piece by Tomdispatch regular Michael Schwartz, author of the upcoming book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context. It’s surely the first history of the full "battle of Baghdad" from April 2003 to this moment and begins:
"Over the course of five years, Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, has been transformed from a metropolis into an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications. The most prominent of these ghettos is the heavily fortified city-inside-a-city dubbed the Green Zone, where Iraq’s most fearsome militia, the United States military, is headquartered. It is governed by the Americans and by the American-sponsored Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki."