The U.S. media kept showing feel-good agit-prop as long as they could. We were treated to endless repetitions of that rather corny image of a portly Iraqi and a bunch of kids bouncing up and down with glee as a US soldier ripped down a portrait of Saddam in the border town of Safwan. National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg was quick to jump on it as evidence that he and his fellow laptop bombardiers had been right all along:
“There’s every reason to assume that such stories will be multiplied a hundred, if not a thousand times over as U.S. forces approach the capital of the Republic of Fear.”
Not so fast. By Sunday, reality was breaking through the obscuring mist of war propaganda, and Reuters was reporting the “liberation” of Safwan somewhat differently:
“As the convoy of British tanks and trucks rolled by, the Iraqi boys on the side of the road were all smiles and waves. But once it had passed, leaving a trail of dust and grit in its wake, their smiles turned to scowls. ‘We don’t want them here,’ said 17-years-old Fouad, looking angrily up at the plumes of gray smoke rising from the embattled southern city of Basra, under attack from U.S. and British forces for more than two days. He pulled a piece of paper from the waistband of his trousers. Unfolding it, he held up a picture of Saddam Hussein. ‘Saddam is our leader. Saddam is good,’ he said defiantly, looking again at his well-worn picture showing the Iraqi leader with a benign smile, sitting on a majestic throne.”
This was in southern Iraq, near Basra, the scene of a Shi’ite rebellion that was brutally crushed back in 1991,where the Americans expected to be greeted as heroes: one can only imagine how many Fouads there are in the north, closer to the seat of Saddam’s power.
For the first few days, we saw only sanitized images of a clean, hassle-free war, amid hints of a winged victory beckoning in the near future. But that is fast giving way to the gritty reality of the quagmire we are falling into. The “cakewalk” that Richard Perle and his fellow chickenhawks confidently predicted, is turning into a forced march into Hell.
The dilapidated remnants of the Iraqi armed forces, starved by sanctions for spare parts and calories, consists mostly of conscripts: their televised surrender fueled the War Party’s premature triumphalism. While thousands of Iraqis have thrown down their arms and been taken prisoner, it’s not nearly as many as in Gulf War I, where entire divisions threw down their pathetic vintage rifles and waved the white flag of surrender. Perhaps they remember what happened last time around to tens of thousands of surrendering Iraqis, as reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker.
Refusing to be shocked and awed, the Iraqis are putting up a fight: as I write, Basra, the fall of which was assumed as a foregone conclusion, has yet to surrender. Umm Qasr, reported by Kuwait’s state run KUNA news agency to have fallen, appears to be holding out. American forces are leaving these “pockets of resistance” in the dust, however, as they race toward Baghdad, determined to decapitate the regime.
But the road to Baghdad is not as smooth as we were led to believe in the debate leading up to this war. The President’s recent prophecy that this was going to be a tougher battle than anyone ever imagined now he tells us! came just in time to be fulfilled.
One hundred miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi civilian militia engaged the invaders for more than seven hours, armed only with machineguns mounted on pick-up trucks. “It wasn’t even a fair fight. I don’t know why they don’t just surrender,” said U.S. Army Colonel Mark Hildenbrand.
His bafflement is the reason why the Americans cannot, in the end, win this war. Why do people fight against overwhelming odds, even when they know it’s hopeless? The Colonel can’t figure it out, and neither can his superiors. But any street-smart homie could tell them to expect a fight to the death when attacking some else’s turf.
This war was never a fair fight. Iraq is a fifth-rate power, shrunken in military prowess by at least 30 percent since Gulf War I. But there are millions of Fouads in Iraq, and they are fighting back. Not for Saddam, or for the Baath Party, but due to the most basic of human instincts: hatred of foreign invaders. No amount of “shock and awe” will erase it from their hearts. Even after an American “victory,” it will smolder, and its smoke will rise up and make the very air unbreathable for the occupiers.
In Nassiriyah, the American advance was stopped cold, as the “coalition” (i.e. the Americans) took as many as dozens of casualties – and at least five prisoners, including one woman. The Arabic television network Al-Jazeera showed Iraqi footage of dead and captive Americans. “I was just under orders,” said one soldier, who gave his name only as Miller. “I don’t want to kill anybody.” Another prisoner, who gave his name as Joseph Hudson, and said he is from El Paso, Texas, was asked what he was doing in Iraq. “I follow orders,” he answered. South African television reports that “he was asked repeatedly whether he was greeted by guns or flowers by Iraqis, but appeared not to understand the question.”
At Sunday’s Pentagon briefing, reporters were told that the battle of Nassiriyah was “successful,” as the briefer recounted the losses of the enemy. Yet he also admitted that the Americans had been ambushed by a group of Iraqi “irregulars” who at first greeted the GIs as “liberators” and then opened fire. The losses suffered at Nassiriyah are apparently the result of the Americans falling victim to their own propaganda.
Hubris turns out to be the chief weakness of the Americans, who, since 9/11, have seen events through the prism of a distorting self-righteousness that has blinded them until now to the consequences of this war. But the military setbacks are nothing compared to the geopolitical repercussions.
We were counting on using Turkey as a launching pad for American troops, but it looks like the Turks are launching an invasion of their own: as many as 1,500 Turkish troops have crossed into northern Iraq, which is under the de facto control of the Kurds, and a tense stand-off is building up to an armed confrontation. Turkish troops are striking deep into northern Iraq, as the [UK] Telegraph reports:
“The Turkish government pushed ahead with its troop deployment, deeper into Iraq than at any time since the last Gulf war, despite pleas from Washington to avoid confrontation with the Kurds. Until this war began, Kurdish militia leaders had vowed retaliation if the Turks pressed south. Last week, however, they placed themselves under American command, and have to stand aside as the Turkish military extends a cordon sanitare well beyond its borders.”
The Turks, it appears, have adopted the Bushian doctrine of preemptive attacks, as articulated by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul:
“‘A vacuum was formed in northern Iraq and that vacuum became practically a camp for terrorist activity,’ Gul said. ‘This time we do not want such a vacuum,’ Gul said in reference to the nearly 500,000 refugees who fled across Turkey’s border during the 1991 Gulf War.”
As Timothy Noah points out in his invaluable series, “Kurd Sell-out Watch,” in Slate, a deal of sorts has been struck:
“The United States has threatened to take the Kurds’ side against a Turkish incursion and, at the same time, has promised the Turks to keep the Kurds out of the city of Kirkuk, which lies south of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds claim Kirkuk as their ‘Jerusalem,’ and, more to the point, Kirkuk sits atop an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil.”
Yet the Turks have come anyway, and more are on the way. Robert Novak reports a meeting between the Turks and the Iranians for the purpose of dividing up northern Iraq:
“Turkey has already moved 7,000 troops into that region, with several thousand more on the Turkish side of the border. It also indicates Iranian troops are working with their Kurdish allies. The Turkish-Iranian partnership, though odd on its face, is possible and points up the complexity of dealing with ”post-war” Iraq’s problems.”
The neocons, who once held up the Kurds as the noble victims of Saddam the Tyrant, are now strangely silent about their fate, as Noah dryly observes. The reason, he says, is that
“The Kurds are introducing unwelcome difficulties to a war that’s very dear to the neocon heart. Now conservative hawks have launched a trial balloon affirmatively condemning the Kurds as thugs. Talk about a sellout!”
Noah cites a piece by Melik Kaylan on the editorial page of the March 19 Wall Street Journal, who complains:
“The idyllic statelet-in-waiting we keep reading about is a venue for well-oiled warlordism. Telephone calls are monitored. Armed checkpoints pepper the roads. Property is easily confiscated. Loyalties are bought and sold by the tribeful. Rights don’t exist except when forcibly backed by fellow tribesmen.”
Gee, that sounds awfully familiar. Doesn’t the “USA Patriot” Act authorize telephonic eavesdropping and the easy confiscation of private property? As for rights being nonexistent “except when forcibly backed by fellow tribesmen,” isn’t that what “democracy” is all about? In any case, as Noah points out, the Kurdish elections are at least as legitimate and above-board as the Turkish electoral process: self-governing Kurdistan is a model of democracy in the region, just what the President called for in his famous speech to the American Enterprise Institute and it is being sold out by the War Party within the first week of the conflict.
On the Kurdish question we have yet to hear from Christopher Hitchens, who is to the Kurds what Lord Byron was to the Greeks: Hitchens’ conversion to the cause of neo-imperialism is often linked to his concern for their fate. But there is little doubt that those Turkish troops wouldn’t be in northern Iraq but for the tacit agreement of the Americans, who probably traded the Kurds for overflight rights and who can hardly be expected to take up arms against their NATO allies.
The Turks are determined that their old enemies, the Kurds, will not get their hands on oil-rich Kirkuk, and the Americans are moving quickly to build up their forces in the region and secure the city. At the same time, the city is surrounded by Kurdish peshmergas, ostensibly under U.S. command. But what will happen when the Turks enter the region in force, and the Americans are caught between their Kurdish proxies and their good buddies in Ankara?
As the American casualty count mounts, and the real consequences of this war come home to haunt a war-madden President and his cabal of neoconservative Napoleons, they will be hard put to answer the family of Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall Waters-Bey, one of a group of Marines killed in a helicopter in Kuwait last week. “It’s sad that this war is going on and that we have to lose so many people over nothing,” one of his sisters said. Michael Bey, his father, was even more emphatic in an interview with Baltimore’s WBAL-TV, as he held a picture of his son:
“‘I want President Bush to get a good look at this, really good look here. This is the only son I had, only son.’ He then walked away in tears, with his family behind him. Kenneth, the Marine’s only son, was with the family.”
But this war is going to stay popular in some
quarters, no matter how many American casualties
are counted. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is delighted that Uncle Sam is finally taking on his old enemies, the Iraqis: last Friday,Sharon hailed the war as “the beginning of a new era.” Certainly that is the case as far as Israel is concerned. Sharon and his American amen corner are hoping that the war will force Syria and Iran to end their support for the Palestinians. More importantly, however, the presence of an Iraq ruled over by a fulsomely pro-Israel military viceroy, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, is bound to extend Israel’s influence in the region.
General Garner heads up the Pentagon’s new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that will provide such governance as is necessary in postwar Iraq: in 1998, he traveled to Israel under the auspices of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) in order to absorb, first-hand, the lessons learned by the Israelis in successfully repressing the Palestinians. The General must have come away impressed, because, as the Forward reports:
“In October 2000, shortly after the outbreak of the intifada, Garner was one of 26 American military leaders to sign a staunchly pro-Israel statement released by JINSA condemning the escalating violence. The statement, titled ‘Friends Don’t Leave Friends on the Battlefield,’ lauded the Israeli army for exercising “remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of a Palestinian Authority,” and called into question the Palestinian commitment to peace.”
Sgt. Bey’s sister thinks her brother died for “no good reason,” but the Israelis would not agree. They see this war as the dawn of a new day, and who is she to contradict them? What is she, anyway some kind of paleo-conservative? Does David Frum know about this?
I see my good friend Pat Buchanan, in the name of “supporting the troops” in wartime, has decided to withhold all criticism of this rotten war for the duration. This is nonsense. Sgt. Bey’s sister is right: her brother died for no good reason, and that, my friend, is a crime that cannot be covered up much longer. Patriots have not only the right but the moral obligation to speak out against a war that is not in American interests, and that will sacrifice many more brave American soldiers and Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians before it is over.
The United States, Britain, and Australia must get out of the Iraqi miasma while they still can. A negotiated end to the war is possible if the U.S. will re-open a dialogue with someone in Baghdad using the Vatican as an intermediary. The United Nations sorry, Ron has a key role to play. Now is the time for the French to introduce a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire, and offering to broker negotiations to end the slaughter. Let the Bushies veto it, and the world will be treated to the supreme irony of the UN’s great champion, a nation that went to war in the name of a Security Council resolution, itself rebuked and denounced by that body.
The War Party is whipping up a frenzy of hysteria around the five prisoners, and claiming that the mere act of showing them on Iraqi state television is a violation of the Geneva conventions, which forbids exploitation and “public humiliation” of POWs, but also demands protection against “public curiosity.” Has anybody told Robert Blake‘s lawyers about this provision? But, seriously, if the mere display of prisoners is forbidden, how different is this from Fox News showing all those close-ups of Iraqi prisoners, visually parading them across the screen?
The War Party has no right to howl about Al Jazeera’s broadcasts. This is the war they wanted, and now they have it.
It is a war that cannot be won, even if “victory” is declared: in the long run we will be driven out of the Middle East, just as the Marines were driven out of Beirut, just as the British were driven out, and the Crusaders before them. The quicksands of that volatile region will be the graveyard of America’s imperial ambition. The first week of this war is a bitter preview of what lies in store for us into the indefinite future.
But it isn’t too late to change the course of history. The anti-war movement must organize peaceful, legal, and massive rallies against this war, calling for a negotiated settlement. Catholics and others must appeal to the Holy Father to personally intervene. A campaign to petition the UN is not out of order. Every candidate for office must be pressured, relentlessly, and forced to take a stand one way or the other.
No matter what one’s view of the war, it is not impossible for both sides to come together around a call for a cease-fire. The Bush administration is convinced that the Ba’athist party regime is brittle and ready to break. Why not let it implode with the least amount of civilian casualties by calling a truce, and giving the Iraqis time to think about it? The war, after all, is going disastrously for the U.S., and this might be a good time to pause and let the inevitable occur.
The alternative is a military “victory” that turns into a political defeat, and a burden that American taxpayers will have to bear unto eternity. Drawing in Turkey and Iran, and provoking the break-up of Iraq into at least three parts, this war is turning into a no-winner for the U.S.: its whole history is prefigured in the first few days. We have gone from hubris to near humiliation in less than a week.
Defeatism? This defeat was handed to us by the War Party. In the non-debate leading up to the Anglo-American attack, they reveled in their “risky” and “bold” strategies, and trumpeted our alleged invincibility. This is not going to be a three-week war, unfortunately, as Pat Buchanan opined on Sunday’s edition of The McLaughlin Group. They may declare “victory” in three weeks, but the “mop-up” operations will take decades.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I cant resist pointing my readers to Matt Barganiers hi-larious column, a screamingly funny parody of National Reviews “group blog,” “The Corner.” Tim Cavanaugh did this a while ago, and his was quite clever, but Matt really has produced a classic of the genre and why is it, do you think, that the Corner-ites seem to have inadvertently inspired a whole new sub-category of Grand Guignol?
Yes, we all need laughs, especially these days, and what better source of a few chuckles than the indefatigable Stephen Schwartz? I laughed my ass off while reading Schwartzs latest opus, a classic of unintentional humor entitled “What Raimondo Really Meant”! Yes, folks, now it can be told Im really an agent of the Mikado! The former “Comrade Sandalio“s hebephrenic rant naturally appears on David Horowitzs Frontpage website and if you want to see the sort of twisted ugliness that is typical of the Horowitzian movement, check out the crazed comments from Schwartzs hate-filled fan club. Warning: if you find obscene language and extreme irrationality disturbing, then stay away. If you liked Psychopathia Sexualis, then, by all means, dive right into this mud puddle but be sure to take a shower a.s.a.p.
Speaking of slime, David Frum is busy quoting his fan mail and pretending the whole world agrees with him, but my good friend Tom Fleming, editor of Chronicles magazine, has put him in his place with a few choice words. This line deserves the 2003 Smackdown Award:
“Today, it is France they pretend to hate; tomorrow, it could be Norway. (Say, I can already hear them saying, Didnt Knut Hamsun support the Nazis?) Next week, it will be Iowa.”