The Morning After
The Morning After
"When told yesterday that [German Chancellor] Schroeder believed Mr. Bush's contract decision might violate international law, the president responded with a sarcastic gibe: 'International law? I better call my lawyer.' " ("Boomerang Diplomacy,"
George Bush, statement upon Saddam Hussein's capture linking him once again to the "war on terror": "We've come to this moment through patience and resolve and focused action. And that is our strategy moving forward. The war on terror is a different kind of war, waged capture by capture, cell by cell and victory by victory. Our security is assured by our perseverance and by our sheer belief in the success of liberty. And the
George Bush, "Last News Conference of the Year," Monday December 15: "One of the things I think you've seen about our foreign policy is that I'm reluctant to use military power. It's the last choice; it's not our first choice." (
Sometimes doesn't it feel as if we here in the
Now, we are "triumphant." Here are typical comments from the field in
"'The capture of Saddam Hussein will have a tremendous negative impact on the Baathist insurgency, and it is all good news for us and the future of Iraq,' Lt. Col. Henry Arnold, a battalion commander in the 101st Airborne Division who is based near the Syrian border, said Sunday. 'The Wicked Witch is deadâ€¦'
"Without Saddam,' [another
(An Iraqi comment from
Two New York Times headlines more or less sum up this American moment: "Bush's Cautious Demeanor Masks White House Elation" and "After 12 Years, Sweet Victory: The Bushes' Pursuit of Hussein." Ah, how sweet the nectar. Of course, the Bush men weren't about to make that "mission accomplished" mistake again and so they did quietly warn of an ongoing struggle. But the general view was -- it's morning in
We're living in breathless, airless America, whose media suffers from constant memory impairment and whose major oppositional candidates, on seeing the video of Saddam, rushed to nail Howard Dean's feet to the ground for his antiwar stance, and whose pundits hurried to assure us that the President now had it made in 2004, and all the while the White House could hardly stop grinning. I hate to say, hold on, even for a minute. After all, we now seem to live by the second. A longer view, one that extends at least several hours, if not days or months, into the past and the prospective future just isn't in the cards in moments like this.
Though you would think that the capture of a tyrant might largely be a moment of significance for the people he oppressed, this was distinctly an American event. As history professor Juan Cole, whose "Informed Consent" website on
Certainly, for many Iraqis there was relief and joy on Sunday. Given the grisly history of Saddam's rule that's hardly surprising. But here's the thing, for them there's a hell of a morning hangover to follow -- and the hangover is us. Yes, Iraqis fired guns in the street (I always wonder how many people are hurt from that. Those bullets must come down somewhere...) and, as Danny Schecter at his News Dissector weblog pointed out, Fox TV repetitively carried some of the celebrations, such as they were:
"FOXNEWS.com sounded as usual like the Administration it serves. Their headline: 'SADDAM HUSSEIN CAPTURED.' The stories: 'Bush Knew of Capture Saturday. President was at
"What is odd is that Fox was showing all these Iraqis dancing around and waving red flags with Arabic slogans, which I (and they) could not read. Later, a shot from another angle showed that on the other side of the flags was the hammer and sickle! These cheering Iraqis, portrayed as backers of the Coalition, were actually Communists."
The same communists (check your chronology below) Saddam crushed and slaughtered back in the 1970s.
When the news of Saddam's capture broke in Baghdad, Robert Fisk, reporter for the British Independent, was "amid Iraqis with no love for the Americans" in the slums of Sadr City visiting the place of a Shiite cleric who had recently been run over and killed by a U.S. tank. As he observed ("The tyrant is now a prisoner," 12/15)
"A boy walked from the room and ran back with news that Iraqi radio was announcing the capture of Saddam. And faces that had been dark with mourning - that had not smiled for a week - beamed with pleasure.
"The gunfire grew louder, until clusters of bullets swarmed into the air amid grenade bursts. In the main street, cars crashed into each other in the chaos. But this was momentary joy, not jubilation. There were no massive crowds on the boulevards of
"For Saddam has bequeathed to his country and to its would-be 'liberators' something uniquely terrible: continued war. And there was one conclusion upon which every Iraqi I spoke to yesterday agreed.
"This bedraggled, pathetic manâ€¦ was not leading the Iraqi insurgency against the Americans. Indeed, more and more Iraqis were saying before Saddam's capture that the one reason they would not join the resistance to
Of dreams and reality
Our present delusionary state had its proximate origin in
The right used to claim that the problem with Marxists was that they were utopian dreamers who insisted on imposing their dreams on a recalcitrant reality. Isn't that the perfect description of the men now in power? Not surprisingly, as tends to happen with dreams, none of them worked out as imagined or as advertised. "Progress" was constantly being made, but somehow the term "occupation" quickly replaced "liberation"; an insurgency began; the oil didn't come out of the ground in the expected quantities; Shiite clerics had strange ideas about voting; our Iraqi exile allies proved weak reeds indeed; the newly trained police were infiltrated; half of the first trained army unit "resigned." I could go on. Who was to blame? Saddam, of course. Saddam and al Qaeda. (I have a feeling we're about to hear a lot more about al Qaeda.)
Here we are in December, just eight months after "liberation," and by now every explanation offered to justify the war has fled the premises. One by one they hitched rides out of town. The last of them, "democracy," usually defined as somehow involving a popular vote, is halfway out the door too, because the Bush administration can count heads just as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and 60% of Shiites is going to be more than whatever percentage of Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens and other Iraqis split their votes at future polling booths.
(Of the game of "chicken" the Americans are playing with Sistani over elections, the veteran Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright observes (12/14), "[T]he United States, still smarting from its encounter with Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran's 1979 revolution, has a bad case of ayatollah-itis. Policy-think is shaped by an unspoken fear: Beware Shia-istan. So the administration is balking at popular elections." In the same way, a previous Bush administration balked at supporting a popular Shia uprising after the Gulf War, leading to those mass graves we now know so much about.)
So, when it came to explanations for the fix we found ourselves in, what was left? Saddam, of course. It all came down to him. If you think about it, even in captivity, he has an unnaturally heavy weight to bear. From the administration's point of view, he's now got to be everything to everybody, here and in
Once, with his own propaganda machine at hand, he could have presented himself, locally at least, as Superman. But now it's a big job for a man whose curriculum vitae doesn't exactly inspire confidence. The question is: After eight months in which that "noose" kept tightening, does the Bush administration have a Super-prisoner or a spent man?
Perhaps with a future public trial looming, a death sentence on the table, and assumedly little to lose, Saddam may still prove a Super-defendant, quite able to fill in all sorts of embarrassing moments from those years when Don Rumsfeld and he were shaking hands. He might even add a word or two on those missing WMDs. (See Robert Dreyfuss, The Problem Prisoner, Tompaine.com.)
Perhaps the President and his advisors should sip that sweet nectar of triumph to the full now and enjoy themselves thoroughly at Howard Dean's expense, because they have no answer for that morning-after hangover and no way to ration Saddam out over the next ten months. They've got a longer way to go than most people imagine right now and the bump in the polls from Saddam's capture seems to have been modest indeed.
In some ways, I suspect, they've fallen for their own line. Manipulators often end up manipulating themselves as well as others. Well before the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam's grim, mustachioed face had come to personify the essence of evil. That face, and that alone, had stood in for Iraqis in particular and global badness in general. After we declared the war ended last April and the insurgency began, it was his face again -- remember those Baathist "bitter enders" -- which stood in for and explained the resistance.
For eight months, the resources of the globe's only superpower were focused on his capture. It was, the administration insisted (and likely believed), his shadow falling on Iraqis that stopped them from accepting us more wholeheartedly as their saviors, the fear of his return that held back their enthusiasm for our version of Iraq. In a sense, the Bush administration fed not only on its own propaganda but on Saddam's. His face has been their inspiration, and their personalization of the struggle was the obverse side of Saddam's attempt to make his image and his person the sole presiding deity in
For over a decade, his image -- heroic as presented in
Looking at the chronology here's what I see: Saddam took full power in 1979 -- the CIA was instrumental in his rise -- and promptly launched a purge of his own party. Then he turned on neighboring
But what was he good at? Until April 2003 at least, his sole talent seems to have been clinging to power by any means, including drenching his people in blood. Yes, this is the record of a monster, but an all-too-human and ridiculously fallible one. He deserved to end up first in that hole and then on trial for crimes against humanity. But the question is: Can this man take George Bush and his friends to the political promised land?
Changing the tiger's stripes
Let me return for a moment to the Sunday news conference in
Despite the scripting, there was still something spontaneous about the actual press conference (other than the cheering Iraqi journalists) -- and that was the visible euphoria of the Americans. As Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani wrote in the British Guardian (12/15), of watching the news as he remembered friends who had disappeared or died at Saddam's hands: "But here it was, at last: Saddam's surrender in ignominy. However, this delightful moment -- enjoyed by all the Iraqis I spoke to as the news of his capture was breaking -- was soured by the fact that it was Iraq's newly appointed tyrant, Paul Bremer, doing the boasting: 'Ladies and gentlemen... we got him!'"
Honestly, even after months of planning, the Bush administration has no clue how we look through other eyes. But their planning does give us a glimpse into the deeper nature of the President and his advisors, especially since -- as news story after news story reported -- they were desperate to put an "Iraqi stamp" or an "Iraqi face" on events. (That, of course, is a strange image in itself, implying as it does the degree to which we imagine the turning over of power in
"A decision was made early on that the capture of Mr. Hussein would need an Iraqi face, said [Gary Thatcher, an author of the media strategy and the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority], a stipulation that Mr. Bush felt strongly about, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Sunday at a briefing.
"'Iraqis were going to be making the announcement no matter what,' Mr. Thatcher said. 'This was overall an Iraqi victory. It was obviously going to mean a great deal to the Iraqis.'"
These are men who know that first impressions matter and initial moments can be crucial, and this was their best shot. So let's look at the production they actually put together because what they can't see about themselves or really do anything about -- those tiger's stripes that they will never change -- tell us much about the longer term reality that lies just behind the euphoria of the moment and will actually determine our future in
Here was the striking thing -- for me -- about the "got him!" news conference (NYT, 12/14): It started with L. Paul Bremer, CPA head, striding through a portal, up to the podium, and leading off with that exuberant, quite euphoric exclamation about Saddam. After offering a few details on the capture, he added:
"Before Dr. Pachachi, who is the acting president of the Governing Council, and Lieutenant General Sanchez speak, I want to say a few words to the people of
The sort of words it might have been more appropriate for an Iraqi to speak. Only then did he turn to the aging exile Adnan Pachachi. "Dr. Pachachi?"
Pachachi offered a bare paragraph of comment. ("I am pleased to announce to you on behalf of the Governing Council that we are moving on the way with our efforts to achieve sovereignty and authority in the proper allotted timeâ€¦") and then Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, allied military commander, took over the podium and gave a long statement punctuated by those dramatic film clips of Saddam. Questions followed with all three answering, but with General Sanchez controlling the process, and the event ended with the general pronouncing the last words, "And God bless
Pachachi in other words was sandwiched between the two exuberant Americans, between, that is, "Got him!" and "God bless
Keep that in mind over the coming days and weeks. When they wake up from this end-game of inside-the-Beltway-and-Green-Zone dreaming, that will be the bedrock reality of our Iraqi occupation, one likely to present endless problems for them. They simply have no idea how to put an "Iraqi face" on anything but a deck of cards. This is not an approach likely to have much appeal when set against Iraqi nationalism which is still largely "faceless." It's not just a matter of the insurgency. Think of the Shiites in the south or the trade unionists now being arrested in
The essential nature of this administration is set. They can't kick it. And that's why they're going to be left with the
The only face that might successfully take Saddam's place down the line would be Osama bin Laden's. In the meantime, Americans, I suspect, have largely accepted the deeper promise of Saddam's capture. And that is:
Already the first post-capture American soldier has died and others have been wounded. What happens when the first plane goes down over Baghdad International, or the first suicide bomber actually makes it through the gates of an American base, or a significant bombardment of the Green Zone proves accurate -- or simply American troops traveling hither and yon continue to get knocked off, day after day, week after week in modest numbers, while L. Paul Bremer and his cohorts in Washington struggle to figure out a way to put an Iraqi face on Iraq. If they couldn't do it for a simple press conference after months of planning, how will they do it for a whole roiling, embroiled country?
The aircraft carrier, the airport turkey, the capture of Saddamâ€¦ these photo op moments of triumph are already becoming a pattern, just in case no one noticed. There is the euphoria; there are the declarations of November election success by the pundits; there is the glow; there is the nectar; there is victory in the air; and then the media torrent (to use Todd Gitlin's wonderful phrase) sweeps on to another moment, the banners droop, and in Iraq, where an under-armed group of insurgents continue somehow to drive events, where an oppositional mood is deeply embedded, where in this century as in the last nationalism and occupation are a combustible brewâ€¦ well, you finish this sentence.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]