The Clock Ticks for Thee (in Baghdad and Washington)
It had taken much thought and planning that wartime May Day four years ago when George W. Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer, had “embedded” himself on that aircraft carrier days before the President landed. Along with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman and lighting specialist, and Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer, he had planned out every detail of the President’s arrival — as Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times put it then — “even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the u2018Mission Accomplished’ banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ‘magic hour light,’ which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.”
Before the President could descend jauntily from that plane into the perfect light of a late spring afternoon, and onto what was essentially a movie set, the Abraham Lincoln, which had only recently hit Iraq with 1.6 million pounds of ordnance, had to be stopped just miles short of its home base in San Diego. No one wanted George W. Bush simply to clamber aboard.
Who could forget his Tom-Cruise-style “Top Gun swagger” across that deck — so much commented on in the media in the following days — to the carefully positioned podium where he gave his speech? It was to be the exclamation point on his invasion of choice and provide the first fabulous photos for his presidential campaign to come. Only two things about that moment, that speech, are remembered today — that White House-produced “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him and his announcement, with a flourish, that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
If his landing and speech are today remembered as a woeful moment, an embarrassment, if those fabulous photos never made it into campaign 2004, that was, in part, because of another event — a minor headline — that very same May day: Halfway around the world, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, occupying an elementary school in Fallujah, fired on a crowd of angry Iraqi demonstrators. Perhaps 15 Iraqis died and more were wounded. Two days later, in a second clash, two more Iraqis would die.
On CNN’s website the day after the President’s landing, the main headline read: “Bush calls end to u2018major combat.'” But there was that smaller, secondary headline as well: “U.S. Central Command: Seven hurt in Fallujah grenade attack.” Two grenades had been tossed into a U.S. military compound, leaving seven American soldiers slightly injured.
In the months to follow, those two headlines would jostle for dominance, a struggle now long over. Before May 1, 2004 ever rolled around, “mission accomplished” would be a scarlet phrase of shame, useful only to critics of the administration. By that one-year anniversary, Fallujah had morphed into a resistant city that had withstood an assault by the Marines. In November 2004, it would be largely destroyed by American firepower without ever being subdued. Now, the already failed American method of turning largely destroyed Fallujah into a giant “gated” prison camp for its residents is being applied to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where huge walls are slated to rise around 10 or more recalcitrant neighborhoods as part of the President’s Baghdad Security Plan, or “surge.”
Four years later, casualty figures are so terrible in Iraq that the government, locked inside the Green Zone in the capital, has, for the first time, refused to reveal the monthly figures to the United Nations, though figures do show a continuing epidemic of assassinations of Iraqi academics and of torture of prisoners, a steep rise in deaths among policemen, and a rise in “honor killings” of women by their own families. Four years later, those few “slightly injured” men of the 82nd Airborne Division have morphed into last week’s 9 dead and 20 wounded from a double-truck-bomb suicide attack on one of that division’s outposts in Diyala Province; over 100 Americans were killed in the month of April alone; 3,350 Americans in all (not including hundreds of “private security contractors”).
Four years later, the American military has claimed dramatic success in reducing a wave of sectarian killings in the capital — but only by leaving out of its count the dead from Sunni car/truck/motorcycle-bomb and other suicide-bomb attacks; with over 100 car bombings last month, and similar figures for this one, Sunni militants are outsurging the U.S. surge in Baghdad, making “a mockery of the US and Iraqi security plan,” according to BBC reporter Andrew North.
Four years later, not only has the Bush administration’s “reconstruction” of the country been a record of endless uncompleted or ill-completed projects and massive overpayments, not to speak of financial thievery, but even the projects once proclaimed “successes” turn out, according to inspectors from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, to be disasters “no longer operating as planned”; the biggest business boom in a country in which unemployment is sky-high may be “a run on concrete barriers” for security, which are so in demand that sometimes they “are not fully dry when military engineering units pick them up”; electricity availability and potable water supplies are worse than ever; childhood malnutrition is on the rise; no one even mentions Iraqi oil production which remains well below the worst days of Saddam Hussein and billions of dollars of which are being siphoned off onto the black market.
Four years later, U.S. prisons, one of the few reconstruction success stories in Iraq, are chock-a-block full, holding 18,000 or more Iraqis in what are essentially terrorist-producing factories; Iraq has the worst refugee problem (internal and external) on the planet with perhaps 4 million people in a population of 25 million already displaced from their homes (202 of whom were admitted to the United States in 2006); the Iraqi government inside the Green Zone does not fully control a single province of the country, while its legislators are planning to take a two-month summer “vacation”; a State Department report on terrorism just released shows a rise of 25% in terrorist attacks globally, and 45% of these attacks were in Iraq; 80% of Iraqis oppose the U.S. presence in their country; 64% of Americans now want a timetable for a 2008 withdrawal; and the President’s approval rating fell to its lowest point, 28%, in the most recent Harris poll, which had the Vice President at a similarly record-setting 25%.
During this grueling, destructive downward spiral through the very gates of hell, whose end is not faintly in sight, the administration’s war words and imagery have, unsurprisingly, undergone continual change as well. In the course of these last years, the “turning points,” “tipping points,” “milestones,” and “landmarks” on the road to Iraqi democracy and freedom have turned into modest marks on surveyor’s yardsticks (“benchmarks”), not one of which can be met by the woeful Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The “magic hour light” of May 2003 has disappeared, along with those glorious photos from the deck of the carrier. The sort of descriptions you see today, as in a recent David Ignatius column in the Washington Post, sound more like this: “Republicans voice the bitterness and frustration of people chained to the hull of a sinking ship.” (The USS George W. Bush, undoubtedly.) Oh, and the President and what’s left of his tattered administration have stopped filming on a Top Gun-style movie set and seem now to be intent on remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This White House has plunged Iraq and the world into the geopolitical equivalent of a blood-and-gore exploitation film that simply won’t end. Call that “Mission Accomplished”!
The Mission Continues (2003)
Just the other day, with the fourth anniversary of the Top Gun speech looming, Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino was questioned at a press briefing yet again about that infamous banner and “major combat operations” being at an end. Here is part of the exchange:
“MS. PERINO: …I think that if you only take the one line, that the end of combat operations — major combat operations, that’s true, but the President also —
“Q: Yes, but the banner is [a] consideration, as well.
“MS. PERINO: Okay, well… And we have explained it many times. And you know what? I have a feeling I’m just on the losing end of this battle because the left has decided to believe what they want to believe, which is that the President was saying that the war was over and the troops were coming home. That’s not what he said, and I just told you specifically what he said, and I encourage people to read the whole speech. And that ship… USS America [sic] Lincoln had been deployed for well over its stated period… they were coming home. And it was the ship that — that[‘s] mission was accomplished. And the President never said, u2018mission accomplished’ in the speech…”
Actually, Perino isn’t wrong on “mission accomplished” — and not just in the literal sense either. It’s well worth taking up her suggestion, in fact, and rereading that speech, though in order to do so you have to travel a vast distance, as if through some Star-Trekian wormhole into an alternate universe.
You have to reach across the chasm of Bush administration disasters — from Kabul and Baghdad to New Orleans and Walter Read Medical Center — to another moment, another mood in the United States. If you do, perhaps the first thing you’ll note about that magic-hour speech is its globally messianic and militarized nature. The President, for instance, congratulated the returning sailors and airmen in this over-the-top way: “All of you — all in this generation of our military — have taken up the highest calling of history.” It’s the sort of line that brings to mind one of the President’s favorite hymns, “A Charge to Keep”: “To serve the present age,/ My calling to fulfill:/ O may it all my powers engage/ To do my master’s will!” It also brings to mind Bush’s post-9/11 slip of the tongue when he spoke of his beloved “war” as: “this crusade, this war on terrorism.”
And what exactly was that calling, the highest in history, for which they were fighting? A President, just off the plane ride of his dreams, was perfectly willing to spell it out. It was nothing less — he announced from the deck of a ship whose planes had just pummeled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — than “the peace of the world.” And the “peace” the President had in mind wouldn’t be some namby-pamby cooperative endeavor. It would be an armed demand of the rest of the world. After all, the invasion Bush had launched just weeks before, hadn’t been an ordinary military operation, a simple superpower “cakewalk” over a pathetic force hollowed out by years of war and fierce economic sanctions. Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it was called, was something “the world had not seen before.” Talk about awesome! “You have shown the world,” the President assured the Abraham Lincoln crew, “the skill and the might of the American Armed Forces” — the likes of which, the power of which, it was clear, had never been witnessed on the face of this planet in all of history from all the empires that ever were.
Invoking the American-manufactured image of Saddam’s falling statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, Bush waxed enthusiastic, perhaps imagining Biblical idols dropping before the one true God: “In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era.” A new era! You can feel that messianic exclamation point embedded in the spirit of the claim. And it wouldn’t for a second be an era in which the lion lay down with the lamb; it would be a U.S. military-enforced era of “freedom.” In the American military’s ability to crush enemies without harming civilians, the kind of war being fought, he swore, was nothing less than “a great moral advance.”
The highest calling in history! The peace of the world! Something the world had not seen before! A new era! A great moral advance!
Given all this, Perino was absolutely on the mark. The President didn’t consider his mission accomplished — not by a long shot. That’s why he never used the two words together in a speech otherwise filled to the brim with “victory,” flushed with success, high on winning. Yes, “major combat” was over in Iraq, but that represented only “one victory in a war on terror.” The “mission” — and it was indeed a mission he was talking about — was nothing as small as a world historic success against one brutal dictator. No indeed.
True, the regime of the monster in Baghdad had been felled or, as the term of tradecraft of that moment went, “decapitated”; Saddam’s program of weapons of mass destruction had been thwarted (“We’ve begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated…”); and Saddam’s (implied) links to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks handsomely repaid. Naturally, as well, American military personnel wanted to return home after such a successful venture, but that was not yet possible.
The planet must first be set right and the President’s speech that May Day four years ago was nothing less than a trumpet call to the troops — and a warning to planet Earth. “[A]ll can know,” the President intoned, “friend and foe alike, that our nation has a mission: We will answer threats to our security, and we will defend the peace… We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.” The mission, despite that fatal banner, was not “accomplished.” Not in the least. As the President said ringingly, quoting the Bible and thanking God, “Our mission continues.”
Looking back across the vast expanse of disaster that is Bush policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, “the Greater Middle East” (aka the oil heartlands of the planet), and elsewhere (including our own country), his was, in fact, a particularly chilling speech — a ringing reaffirmation that one war was so many too few; a resounding endorsement of what would later be dubbed by Centcom Commander John Abizaid, “The Long War.” Our President was already imagining an Orwellian future in which military power beyond compare was to actively remake the planet, cruise missile by cruise missile, under the banner of “peace.” Above all else, his speech was a reaffirmation of an American “mission” in which time, maybe even all eternity, was on our side.
As it happens, those Pax Americana pipedreams would never make it out of Iraq. That speech, suffused with George W. Bush’s personal sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and all-American war play (“When I look at the members of the United States military, I see the best of our country, and I’m honored to be your Commander-in-Chief…”), would be destroyed by “all the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country.” Put more precisely, it would be done in by a ragtag minority Sunni insurgency and a ragtag Shiite government that shared hardly a shred of his particular vision. Perhaps the moral here, if there is one, might be: Beware the man who praises himself and his nation too highly.
“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. “…[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Unfortunately, our President was, four years ago, already a man on an island, or the deck of an aircraft carrier doubling as a movie set, separated from the mainland of this world. He already had his military outfits to dress up in and his cowboy language (“bring ‘em on”) straight from the films of his childhood to wield. Back in those days, he was already favoring appearing in specially tailored military jackets in front of military crowds that would hoo-ah him enthusiastically — and his handlers and enablers were already making ever so sure that no challenging human ever made it onto that island of his.
When he moved globally, he did so only on his bubble-island, surrounded by specially flown-in protection and entourage. To offer but a partial list from one such trip: armored escort vehicles, the presidential car (known to insiders as “the beast”), 200 Secret Service agents, 15 sniffer dogs, a Blackhawk helicopter, 5 cooks, and 50 White House aides. From London to Manila, his arrival automatically emptied whole central cities of life.
Not surprisingly, then, when the bell first began to toll for him, when those first signs of trouble began to appear in Iraq, he and his aides, officials, and advisors simply dismissed reality. As former CIA Director George Tenet’s new memoir evidently makes clear, the island looked so much more appealing. According to New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, for instance: “Mr. Tenet writes that the C.I.A.’s senior officer in Iraq was dismissed as a u2018defeatist’ for warning in 2003 of the dangers of a growing Iraqi insurgency, though it was already clear then that United States political and economic strategies were failing. Although the trends were clear, he adds, those in charge of policy u2018operated within a closed loop.’ In that atmosphere, he says, bad news was ignored: the agency’s subsequent reporting, which would prove u2018spot-on,’ was dismissed.”
As a senior advisor to the President told journalist Ron Suskind back in 2002:
“[G]uys like me were u2018in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who u2018believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. u2018We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality… We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
Four years after the President’s smooth landing, it’s hard even to express just how unaccomplished their non-reality-based “mission” remains. New Centcom Commander Adm. William J. Fallon is complaining about the use of “the Long War” (“unhelpful”) to describe our world and even the President seems less focused on planting the stars and stripes on the heights of eternity. In fact, when it comes to Iraq, administration officials are now reportedly trying to “scale back talk of Iraq progress” — talk that could not be scaled back much further without ceasing to exist.
No longer is there a landscape of freedom with its milestones and turning points; no longer is the timescale in generations. Now, administration officials are begging, wheedling, or bullying for months, thinking in weeks, worrying in days. They no longer demand several lifetimes’ worth of time, but plead for just a little extra bit of it — a modest suspension of disbelief until September — to give the President’s “new” plan a “chance.”
Today, only one image seems to be on official lips in Washington and Baghdad and it’s an ominous one: the ticking clock. It combines a complaint, a whine, a weapon against the war’s critics, an explanation, a plea, and a mantra of sorts (all we are saying, is give time a chance). It is also a covert acknowledgement of the pressure reality turns out to be all-too-capable of exerting on the non-reality-based community. Time, it says, is no longer on our side; the sand in the proverbial hourglass may be running out. In its present incarnation, the image has been most vigorously championed by Gen. David Petraeus, the man chosen to lead the President’s surge in Baghdad. Certainly, in recent weeks, both in Baghdad and Washington, he’s been wielding a two-clocks-ticking image for all it’s been worth, saying things like:
“…[T]he Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we’re obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.”
Dana Perino seconded him last week:
“Granted… this is very tough going; it is slow going. But we have to have slow, focused, persistent work, and encouraging patience on behalf of the American people. As you said, there’s a — there’s this talk about an American clock versus an Iraqi clock, and sometimes the two don’t tick at the same time.”
As if to speed up the pace of time, she even threw in this twist:
“Q: …What is a reasonable period of time for the American people to expect the Iraqi government to work out these critical measures of political accomplishment?
“MS. PERINO: I’m not going to start the stop watch on the Iraqi government.”
And the two of them have had plenty of company. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fox, communications director for the Multinational Force Iraq, upped the number of ticking clocks to three: “It’s clear that the Washington clock and the London clock [are] ticking faster than the Baghdad clock.”
White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow, on the other hand, reduced the clocks to one, but it was clearly the clock of clocks he was talking about: “The other thing the President wants to make clear is, right now what Democrats are doing is they’re wasting time at a time when the clock is ticking.”
Vice President Cheney, as he is wont to do, spelled the image out in extreme terms, making a single clock stand in as a symbol of surrender, not to say the ultimate victory of terrorism: “When members of Congress pursue an anti-war strategy that’s been called u2018slow bleed,’ they’re not supporting the troops, they’re undermining them. And when members of Congress speak not of victory but of time limits, deadlines or other arbitrary measures, they’re telling the enemy simply to run out the clock and wait us out.”
But no one has evidently heard the clock ticking louder than the President himself. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mention it:
March 28th: “Yet Congress continues to pursue these bills, and as they do, the clock is ticking for our troops in the field.”
April 4th: “In the meantime, the clock is ticking for our military.”
April 7th: “For our troops, the clock is ticking. If the Democrats continue to insist on making a political statement, they should send me their bill as soon as possible.”
April 10th: “Now, the Democrats who pass these bills know that I’ll veto them, and they know that this veto will be sustained. Yet they continue to pursue the legislation. And as they do, the clock is ticking for our troops in the field.”
April 16: “As Congress delays, the clock is ticking for our troops.”
Who knows, of course, what a man who cannot admit to, or perhaps even conceive of, doubt or error, or imagine “significant discussion,” no less “serious debate,” actually makes of all this. Is anyone there who could say to him: The clock ticks for thee? I doubt it. No man is an island; but, for our boy President, the alarm going off may always be for Groundhog Day.
Whether he knows whom the clock ticks for (other than the Democrats or the troops), we, at least, know that the clock is ticking down on his second term. Unfortunately, by my count, 31,536,000 ticks will only get us to this time next year. That’s an awful lot of seconds to pass, given what we know we can expect from our President, Vice President, and their supporters — more of the same. They’ve always had a knack, but only for destruction.
In Baghdad, can there be a question that any ticking clocks are attached to bombs? In Washington, they seem to be attached to mouths that never stop talking.
Thought of another way, from the moment those two towers came down on September 11, 2001, our President and Vice President have themselves been ticking clocks. Before their terms are done, before the clock runs out on them, they may turn out to be the true suicide bombers of this era. Already, they have managed to leave Iraq — a modest-sized country with an immodest pool of oil underneath it — in a state which we have no adequate word to describe, though when coined it will undoubtedly have a “-cide” at its end.
The clock continues to tick. By January 20, 2009, who knows what destruction they will have wrought; what chaos they will have brought to our world?
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion.