The great lesson of the fiasco in Iraq is this: it is much easier to destroy a nation than to build one. To destroy a country requires doing things that government does well: blowing up buildings, killing people, and generally creating chaos. To build a nation requires what government cannot provide: time and liberty. Unable to provide those things, government chooses another of its ancient methods: the lie.
In the Middle Ages, kings didn’t smash countries they conquered because to conquer meant to take possession for themselves and their heirs, and hence there was an incentive to preserve anything of value (buildings, people, and networks of associations). But modern governments that conquer merely become “administrators” of the country, which is to say they have every incentive to take what they can and no incentive to clean up the mess.
But that doesn’t sell well with the public. A new poll shows that only 3 in 20 Americans are “very confident” that the US can create a stable, democratic government in Iraq, while more Americans favor withdrawing troops than adding to them. Declining polls numbers on the Iraq mess are nothing compared to Bush’s troubles in the domestic arena, where unemployment is rising amidst the unprecedented efforts by the Federal Reserve to spur economic growth.
It’s hardly a wonder that polls are beginning to respond. US troops are being shot and killed every day, even as the entire rationale for the war — the idea that Saddam was building WMDs — has come unraveled. “This revisionist notion that somehow this is now the core of why we went to war,” said Bush’s spokesman, “is a bunch of bull.”
But that was the whole basis of the war as it was sold to the American public. Polls showed that after Bush’s speech, 75 percent of Americans thought Saddam was building nuclear weapons. Of course that was baloney. But the reason people believed it was that Bush claimed it to be so. It seemed excessively cynical to think the president of the United States would pass on a lie on such an important matter. This is precisely why the Big Lie often works.
The other plausible rationale was the idea that there was a tie between Iraq and al-Qaida. But now, former administration officials have gone on record in saying that there was no tie between the two. “There was no significant pattern of cooperation between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist operation,” former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann told the Washington Post.
What’s at stake in the WMD debate and the point about al-Qaida are not just empirical questions about 9-11 or about who recommended that Bush use forged documents as the core of his case for war in the State of the Union address. It has to do with the legitimacy, moral and legal, of the entire invasion and occupation. If the rationale for the war is not there, neither are there grounds for the continuing occupation, to say nothing of establishing a new puppet government.
When Clinton hedged in a civil trial, he was accused of perjury and impeached by a Republican House. The Republicans repeatedly demanded to know: Where’s the outrage? Well, if lying about private matters in a civil trial is an impeachable offense, what about lying to the nation in a catastrophic war and driving the economy further into recession to pay for it? The founders imagined that most presidents would constantly face the prospect of impeachment. Rarely has it been more justified than today.
The daily deaths of US troops, leading to widespread demoralization among soldiers who thought they would be home by now, are troubling enough. But what can be said about the Iraqis that US soldiers are killing every day? Over the weekend, an Iraqi car approached a checkpoint in Baqouba north of Iraq and US soldiers sensed it was trying to run through. Soldiers opened fire. It turns out that this was a family on the way to the hospital, which explains why the car seemed resistant to the soldiers’ demands to stop. One of the dead was a child. Five others were wounded. This type of thing is grisly under any circumstances, but in a war that has no justification in the first place, when even the official rationale turns out to be a hoax, it is nothing short of murder.
Then there is the ominous fact that any Iraqi who cooperates with the US can assume that his life is in danger. Policemen who help the Americans are risking getting their cars blown up and their homes shot at. Many Iraqis face the choice between resisting the occupiers and being killed, or going along with the occupiers and being killed. This impossible situation is not abating; indeed, it is getting worse by the day.
The new Iraqi Governing Council met only in an area of central Baghdad that is heavily secured by US troops with guns. A cleric got up to announce that “the establishment of this council is an expression of the national Iraqi will,” but this is sheer fantasy. As the New York Times pointed out, “a majority of the new Council members are drawn from the ranks of Iraqi opposition leaders in exile and Kurdish leaders from northern Iraq.” In short, these were people who cheered the very invasion — and the preceding deadly sanctions — that has led to the existing wreckage. Their only point of unity is their willingness to take a check signed by the US government.
Imagine what US citizens would think about being governed by a handful of stooges appointed by an invading foreign army that destroyed life as we knew it, and currently maintained a rule of martial law!
One might think that the US would try to disguise all this. Instead, it had the Governing Council act first to ban (not just abolish but ban!) six national holidays that were associated with Saddam’s rule. It imposed a new one, April 9, the day Baghdad fell to the invader, and Saddam’s statue was pulled down by a Humvee. Now, if the US were so confident that it had liberated this country, why would it need to outlaw former holidays? Why do US administrators believe that Iraqis would desire to celebrate them anyway?
So far, all the Bush administration has done, besides put in place a puppet council and attempt to kill off political competition, is issue propaganda about the glorious Iraqi utopia to come. Here, for example, is Paul Bremer’s economic plan for Iraq:
The coalition recognizes the urgency of marrying economic well-being to political freedom…. We are pouring resources into re-establishing basic services and creating jobs. Our economic reform plan will entail a major shift of capital from the value-destroying state sector to private firms. We are also creating a social safety net for any resulting disruptions. And we believe that a method should be found to assure that every citizen benefits from Iraq’s oil wealth. One possibility would be to pay social benefits from a trust financed by oil revenues. Another could be to pay an annual cash dividend directly to each citizen from that trust.
Now, it would be possible to undertake privatization, and this would certainly be the best course of action, but that would require relinquishing US control of the most valuable resources in the country. That is not going to happen. As for the “social safety net,” most people don’t have electricity or clean water to drink. The idea of a national pension plan isn’t really the first concern. As for the proposal to use oil revenues to fund utopia, it is, again, sheer fantasy. Revenues don’t build civilization; only capital investment and private ownership does that.
And while we await the Manna from Heaven of oil revenues, never forget that it is the American people who are paying the bills right now. The cost of the occupation is running at twice the estimate from April — $4 billion per month instead of $2 billion per month. And that is what we know about now. The full damage caused by the biggest-spending administration since LBJ is far from being reported. The American people will be paying the bills for decades.
Even on this point, the administration can’t stop lying. When Donald Rumsfeld appeared on Meet the Press, he claimed that the former $2 billion figure was just an estimate by the New York Times. Caught in his false claim, he reversed himself 30 minutes later when appearing on This Week. Nowadays, everything said by the administration concerning Iraq — from the top down — is being parsed by the press, which can no longer assume that anything they say resembles the truth.
Whenever Rumsfeld is confronted with a line of questioning he doesn’t like, he declares: “End of Story.” But one can’t make reality go away just be announcing that it is gone. The Iraqi mess is not going away. It may be on the verge of bringing down the Bush administration. The outrage against what these people have done, both to Iraq and to the United States, will become part of the history books. Contrary to what the Bush administration thinks, it is not possible for government to invent its own reality.