Turkish and American officials had just finished toasting the first shipment of oil out of Iraq when the sound of clinking glasses was drowned out by a terrifying explosion. An oil pipeline west of Baghdad had been blown up by saboteurs. The resulting flaming tower was a fitting symbol. The supposed victory of US forces in Iraq has turned from hoax to chaos and, now, to all-round calamity.
Those who have made a science out of studying government know the principle at work: government tends to accomplish the opposite of its stated aims. The advertised aim of this war was to bring the region and world more safety and order. But even ulterior aims have failed: Saddam is loose, oil pipelines are being sabotaged, troops are being killed every day, and the entire region is more resistant to US control than ever before.
Already it is too late for the US to leave in hopes of restoring anything resembling normalcy in the country and region. Islamic fundamentalists have never been as influential and powerful, and terrorists never more bolstered with an ideological rationale for menacing Americans at home and abroad.
Without having found WMDs, the US has lost any rationale that might have existed for the war in the first place, which raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the continuing mission, even among those who supported the war. The Bush administration, which advertised forged documents and has otherwise done nothing to bolster its credibility as a truth teller, expects us to believe that someone made the WMDs vanish just ahead of advancing US troops. Uh huh.
The expense of life and resources that went into war has so far produced only one major political result: it has made a folk hero out of Saddam Hussein, who credible reports describe as still alive, along with his sons. Only the Bush administration could have led millions of Iraqis to reflect on how good they had it when the "brutal dictator" was in charge. Does anyone doubt that he would win a landslide election today — unless the Islamic parties prevail and impose someone worse?
The unwillingness of the Bush administration to face any of this, or at least to admit any problems in public, is an ominous sign. So far its spokesmen have dealt with the massive tide of anti-US hatred in Iraq with absurd denials. US soldiers and civilian administrators wear body armor and travel only under the protection of heavy armor, and yet we are told that the opposition is somehow limited and narrow.
Iraqi militants, Saddam loyalists, resistance fighters, Islamic radicals, guerillas under the control of the remnants of the Ba'ath party, disgruntled former employees of the former regime — these are all phrases invoked by the Bush administration and thus the press to describe the nameless snipers, rock throwers, and chanting mobs who continue to vex the US military during its occupation.
For example, US head occupier Paul Bremer says these are merely "a very small minority still trying to fight us.'' But when reporters have a hard time finding any Iraqi, from any class or religion, to say something nice about the occupation, the prattle about "pockets of resistance" begins to wear thin. At some point in the course of human events, all decent people develop more sympathy with those who seek liberty from occupation than with the occupiers, even if the troops wear the Stars and Stripes.
Almost half as many US troops have died since Bush declared the war over (55) as died during the war (138). That figure is significant enough, but consider that there is a huge difference between deaths in wartime and those killed during the supposed postwar peace. It is the difference between a military conflict, in which killing and dying is the whole point, and a political conflict, in which killing and death suggests despotism, lawlessness, and all-round calamity.
We are encouraged to believe that anyone who would seek to harm US troops is necessarily driven by something other than the desire for the well-being of the Iraqi homeland. They must be radicals! They must be receiving their orders from a shadowy Saddam! They have been indoctrinated by Islam and thereby are prevented from seeing the great blessings being brought to Iraq by the US military! Pure nonsense, as ridiculous as the idea that the US has a just cause for occupying this country.
Rich Bond, the former chairman of the GOP, said in response to questions about Democrats who are becoming increasingly vocal against the war: "Our men and women are under fire and dying to protect freedom." Yes, that is what US political figures always say. That is what the American people are encouraged to believe. If we say it enough, we can then dismiss anyone on the planet who resents American power as an opponent of freedom itself.
In Iraq, the "freedom" brought by the troops has so far meant canceling elections, suppressing opposition newspapers, confiscating weapons from civilians, going house to house to seek out political opponents of the US administrator, smearing and possibly killing anyone who raises questions about the occupation, and generally ruling the country as militaries from ancient times to the present have always ruled: through brutal force in the absence of the rule of law.
No question that the continuing deaths of US personnel now define the Iraqi mission, and the longer this goes on, the more the impossibility of subduing the population will overtake the spring nonsense about the glorious victory in Iraq. In the days following the military victory, those of us who opposed this war were told how wrong we were. Our critics turn out to be correct to this extent: no one would have believed just how awful this would turn out for the people of Iraq, for Americans who hoped for more safety and order, and even for the US government itself.
It is hard to say which aspect of this ghastly tragedy touches the human heart most. Is it the stories of innocent dead, perhaps 10 thousand of them? Is it the stories of life in Iraq without water, electricity, and nourishing food? Is it the terror of daily life in which looters and criminals run free? Is it the sheer lawlessness of martial law? Is it the humiliation and anger Iraqis feel for having their country lorded over by a foreign military power?
Perhaps as Americans, we are most touched by stories of the psychological breakdown experienced by so many young men and women who went there to serve their country only to discover that they have participated in a senseless massacre. Some will return to lifetimes of guilt and broken hearts. Others will come back callous toward human life and ready to do their duty should the government ever decide to turn on domestic opponents of the regime the Iraqis have learned to hate so bitterly.
Of the fire produced by the exploding pipeline, an official told the New York Times: "We couldn't do anything because the fire is bigger than our capabilities." That sums up the entire US experience with this war.
June 23, 2003
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