Just when you think that President Bush couldn’t out-Saddam Saddam any more, he goes and does something that proves you wrong. If any Iraqis caught the hilarious video conference Thursday between Bush at the White House and troops from the 42nd Infantry Division in Tikrit, it may have seemed like a high-tech version of a familiar scene from the old days when Saddam used to travel to Tikrit to feel (and more importantly to have others feel) his greatness.
The video conference was a display of just how far the propaganda system has come since Bush took over from Saddam. Instead of visiting Tikrit, which the president lightly acknowledged he could not safely do, Bush addressed via satellite an adoring bunch of U.S. soldiers who had apparently been given a heavy dose of Kool-Aid before the telecast began. Oh, there was one Iraqi there Sgt. Maj. Akeel from the 5th Iraqi Army Division, whose role in the affair was limited to smiling like a good Iraqi and saying to Bush, “I like you.”
Under Saddam, Iraqis were bombarded via their TVs with video of the Iraqi leader meeting his generals in Tikrit, overseeing military parades, listening intently to his commanders, examining their weapons, firing a rifle here, swinging a sword there. For Iraqis, Tikrit represented the mother of all locations for the regime’s propaganda commercial shoots. Few were those Iraqis chosen to be in Saddam’s midst for these staged commercials, but at least Saddam actually went there.
Two and a half years after the U.S. occupation began, there stood President Bush at his podium in the White House in front of a massive plasma screen TV, holding an earpiece to his head (out in the open this time). Before him, beamed in by satellite, were the 10 handpicked soldiers. They sat in three rows, fawning over Bush and delivering glowing assessments of the situation on the ground. At one point, it seemed as if one of the soldiers, Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo, was lifting from one of Bush’s “major addresses” on Iraq when she told the president, “We began our fight against terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and we’re proud to continue it here.”
It turns out that the soldiers had actually been coached by Pentagon official Allison Barber before the event and were given Bush’s questions in advance. At one point during the coaching, which was caught on videotape, Barber asked, “Who are we going to give that [question] to?” At another point, she suggested the phrase, “Sir, together we are working on ” for a response to a question on cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi troops.
For much of the video conference, Bush played Fox’s Brit Hume as he “interviewed” the soldiers. A telling moment came when Bush asked the troops, “As you move around, I presume you have a chance to interface with the civilians there in that part of the world. And a lot of Americans are wondering whether or not people appreciate your presence or whether or not the people are anxious to be part of the democratic process. Can you give us a sense for the reception of the people there in Tikrit toward coalition forces, as well as the Iraqi units that they encounter?”
It seems that Bush’s presumption about his troops “interfacing” with “civilians in that part of the world” about their anxiousness to “be part of the democratic process” was a pipe dream. Capt. David Williams responded by telling Bush, “Sir, I was with my Iraqi counterpart in Tikrit, the city Tikrit last week, and he was going around, talking to the locals. And from what he told me that the locals told him, the Iraqi people are ready and eager to vote in this referendum.”
Those sentiments, relayed secondhand from Williams’ “Iraqi counterpart,” are contradicted by most independent assessments, to which the White House would never dare listen. Furthermore, it provides yet another example of how detached from reality Bush and his minions in Iraq truly are. There is a simple reason most U.S. soldiers aren’t just out there chewing the fat with Iraqi “civilians,” chatting about how great democracy is: Iraqis overwhelmingly do not want U.S. troops there. “[Iraqis] aren’t sitting in their front rooms discussing the referendum on the constitution,” veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk recently said. “The reality now in Iraq is the project is finished. Most of Iraq, except Kurdistan, is in a state of anarchy.” Furthermore, Sunni Arab Tikrit, where the soldiers sat during the video conference, is almost certain to vote a resounding “No” on the U.S.-backed constitution.
And herein lies one of the big farces of Bush’s video conference and the broader narrative the president needs so desperately to be true. The fact is that Washington will never be able to manufacture a multi-ethnic Iraqi military that is somehow going to deliver or enforce “democracy American style” in time for the U.S. to withdraw from the bloody, sinking ship that is the Iraq occupation. The “declare victory and run” option has been gaining steam in Washington as the popularity of the occupation plummets, with key U.S. elections on the horizon. The point of the video conference appears to have been part of a major White House PR blitz to convince Americans that the Iraqi forces are really taking control of the situation on the ground. Here are just a few of the remarks from the video conference:
First Lt. Gregg Murphy: “But the important thing here is that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces, they’re ready, and they’re committed. They’re going to make this thing happen.”
Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo: “I can tell you over the past 10 months we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners. We’ve been working side-by-side, training and equipping 18 Iraqi army battalions. Since we began our partnership, they have improved greatly, and they continue to develop and grow into sustainable forces. Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations.”
President Bush: “The American people have got to know and I appreciate you bringing that up, Sgt. Major, about how what the progress is like. In other words, we’ve got a measurement system.”
Capt. Steven Pratt: “The Iraqi army and police services, along with coalition support, have conducted many and multiple exercises and rehearsals. Along with the coalition’s backing them, we’ll have a very successful and effective referendum vote.”
Capt. Dave Smith: “Sir, our Iraqi partners have been conducting battalion- and brigade-size operations since April. They have been planning and coordinating with other Iraqi security forces, such as the Iraqi police and local government agencies, preparing for this referendum. Sir, we as coalition forces, we have taken a supporting role only as they prepare to execute this referendum.”
At no point during the teleconference did Bush or the soldiers mention that U.S. troop levels in Iraq have been significantly increasing, not decreasing, in recent weeks. There are now more than 156,000 U.S. troops in country. Nor did Bush mention that, according to his own top commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, there is just one Iraqi battalion capable of fighting on its own. Moreover, Bush’s portrayal of the readiness of this new, multi-ethnic dream army is proved false by simply reading accounts from major news organizations.
Tom Lasseter of the Knight Ridder news agency recently spent a week on patrol with “a crack unit of the Iraqi army the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division.” He reports that, “Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that’s tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shi’ite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population.” That unit is responsible for security in Sunni areas of Baghdad, and Lasseter reports “they’re seeking revenge against the Sunnis who oppressed them during Saddam Hussein’s rule.” He quotes Shi’ite army Maj. Swadi Ghilan saying he wants to kill most Sunnis in Iraq. “There are two Iraqs; it’s something that we can no longer deny,” Ghilan said. “The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson.”
While Bush needs this referendum to find something positive to say about the miserable occupation, according to Lasseter’s report, “Many of the Shi’ite officers and soldiers said they look forward to the constitution and December elections for a different reason. They want a permanent, Shi’ite-dominated government that will finally allow them to steamroll much of the Sunni minority, some 20 percent of the nation and the backbone of the insurgency.” Lasseter describes the 1st Brigade, which is held up by U.S. commanders as a template for the future of Iraq’s military, like this: “They look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shi’ite militia.”
This, however, is of little concern to Bush. What is unfolding in Iraq now is a push to give the appearance of a visionary plan, of U.S. soldiers simply advising, training, and instructing the commanders of the new democratic, human-rights-loving, multi-ethnic Iraqi army. It is what Noam Chomsky calls a “necessary illusion.” The video conference in Tikrit was a crude evolution in the kind of propaganda Iraqis have lived with for years. But this time, the target audience was in the U.S.