The Corpse on the Gurney – The “Success” Mantra in Iraq

by on January 17, 2008 · 0 comments

in War and Peace

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch.com, posted Jan. 17, 2008
The other day, as we reached the first anniversary of the President’s announcement of his “surge” strategy, his “new way forward” in Iraq, I found myself thinking about the earliest paid book-editing work I ever did. An editor at a San Francisco textbook publisher hired me to “doctor” god-awful texts designed for audiences of captive kids. Each of these “books” was not only in a woeful state of disrepair, but essentially D.O.A. I was nonetheless supposed to do a lively rewrite of the mess and add seductive “sidebars”; another technician was then simplified the language to “grade level” and a designer provided a flashy layout and look. Zap! Pow! Kebang!

During the years that I freelanced for that company in the early 1970s, an image of what I was doing formed in my mind — and it suddenly came back to me this week. I used to describe it this way:

The little group of us — rewriter, grade-level reducer, designer — would be summoned to the publisher’s office. There, our brave band of technicians would be ushered into a room in which there would be nothing but a gurney with a corpse on it in a state of advanced decomposition. The publisher’s representative would then issue a simple request: Make it look like it can get up and walk away.

And the truth was: that corpse of a book would be almost lifelike when we were done with it, but one thing was guaranteed — it would never actually get up and walk away.

That was in another century and a minor matter of bad books that no one wanted to call by their rightful name. But that image came to mind again more than three decades later because it’s hard not to think of America’s Iraq in similar terms. Only this week, Abdul Qadir, the Iraqi defense minister, announced that “his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018.” Pentagon officials, reported Thom Shanker of the New York Times, expressed no surprise at these dismal post-surge projections, although they were “even less optimistic than those [Qadir] made last year.”

According to this guesstimate then, the U.S. military occupation of Iraq won’t end for, minimally, another ten years. President Bush confirmed this on his recent Mideast jaunt when, in response to a journalist’s question, he said that the U.S. stay in Iraq “could easily be” another decade or more.

Folks, our media may be filled with discussions about just how “successful” the President’s surge plan has been, but really, Iraq is the corpse in the room.

“Success” as a Mantra

Last January, after announcing his “surge strategy,” the President called in his technicians. As it turned out, Gen. David Petraeus, surge commander in Iraq, has been quite impressive, as has new U.S. ambassador to that country, Ryan Crocker. Think of them as “the undertakers,” since they’ve been the ones who, applying their skills, have managed to give that Iraqi corpse the faint glow of life. The President asked them to make Iraq look like it could get up and walk away — and the last year of “success,” widely trumpeted in the media, has been the result. But just think about what the defense minister and President Bush are promising: By 2018, the country will — supposedly — be able to control its own borders, one of the more basic acts of a sovereign state. That, by itself, tells you much of what you need to be know.

In order to achieve an image of lifelike quiescence in Iraq, involving a radical lowering of “violence” in that country, the general and ambassador did have to give up the ghost on a number of previous Bush administration passions. Rebellious al-Anbar Province was, for instance, essentially turned over to members of the community (many of whom had, even according to the Department of Defense, been fighting Americans until recently). They were then armed and paid by the U.S. not to make too much trouble. In the Iraqi capital, on the other hand, the surging American military looked the other way as, in the first half of 2007, the Shiite “cleansing” of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods reached new heights, transforming it into a largely Shiite city. This may have been the real “surge” in Iraq and, if you look at new maps of the ethnic make-up of the capital, you can see the startling results — from which a certain quiescence followed. Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a longtime opponent of the Bush administration, called a “truce” during the surge months and went about purging and reorganizing his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. In exchange, the U.S. has given up, at least temporarily, its goal of wresting control of some of those neighborhoods from the Sadrists.

Despite hailing the recent passage of what might be called a modest re-Baathification law in the Iraqi Parliament (that may have little effect on actual government employment), the administration has also reportedly given up in large part on pushing its highly touted “benchmarks” for the Iraqis to accomplish. This was to be a crucial part of Iraqi political “reconciliation” (once described as the key to the success of the whole surge strategy). It has now been dumped for so-called Iraqi solutions. All of this, including the lack of U.S. patrolling in al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, plus the addition of almost 30,000 troops in Baghdad and environs, has indeed given Iraq a quieter look — especially in the United States, where Iraqi news has largely disappeared from front pages and slipped deep into prime-time TV news coverage just as the presidential campaign of 2008 heats up.

[for the remainder of this article, go here for TomDispatch.com.]

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