Michael Schwartz paints a picture of what Barack Obama and John McCain have both called the “success” of George W. Bush’s “surge” in Iraq. Indeed, Obama has stated that the “surge” — the euphemism immediately adopted by the entire press and political establishment for what used be known in plain English as an “escalation” — has “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams”: a mighty strong endorsement from a man who way, way back in olden times — the cave-man days of, oh, 2006 or so — was once perceived as “anti-war.”
And the surge is a great success in at least one of its aims: removing the topic of America’s horrific war crime in Iraq from public debate. Ironically, the “anti-war” candidate has been the chief beneficiary of this development. If the war is practically over, and we have practically won, then what’s the big deal now about Obama’s once-controversial plans for a (partial) withdrawal of an unspecified number of troops from Iraq? Especially after he solemnly pledged to send the withdrawn troops into another big ole “surge,” this time in Afghanistan. Bush himself is now negotiating the same kind of partial withdrawal from Iraq, with a (non-binding) timetable, just as Obama has always called for. So the issue has been neutralized. John McCain can make no political hay from attacking Obama for advocating a policy that Bush is already pursuing in “winding down” a war we are constantly told is already won.
But of course, in human terms — which, as we all know, are utterly, laughably meaningless when it comes to the operations of power — the “surge” has been yet another catastrophic failure, an infusion of fresh suffering for a land that has been gang-raped and mutilated by the most honored and respectable members of American society.
In introducing the piece at TomDispatch.com, host Tom Englehardt quotes a passage from Tacitus that we have often referred to here, as have many other people in many other venues, because this view from a victim of brutal imperial invasion rings so apt and true for our times. (The quote below is from a different translation than the one used by Englehardt.):
A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them…. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace.
Below are a few snapshots of the desolation that the next president of the United States — both the likely Obama and the long-shot McCain — calls “success.” From Michael Schwartz:
The Iraq that has emerged from the American invasion and occupation is now a thoroughly wrecked land, housing a largely dysfunctional society. More than a million Iraqis may have died; millions have fled their homes; many millions of others have been scarred by war, insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, extreme sectarian violence, and soaring levels of common criminality. Education and medical systems have essentially collapsed and, even today, with every kind of violence in decline, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous societies on earth.
As its crisis deepened, the various areas of social and technical devastation became ever more entwined, reinforcing one another. The country’s degraded sewage and water systems, for example, have spawned two consecutive years of widespread cholera. It seems likely that this year, the disease will only subside when the cold weather makes further contagion impossible, but this “solution” also guarantees its reoccurrence each year until water purification systems are rebuilt.
In the meantime, cholera victims cannot rely on Iraq’s once vaunted medical system, since two-thirds of the country’s doctors have fled, its hospitals are often in a state of advanced decay and disrepair, drugs remain scarce, and equipment, if available at all, is outdated…
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through the country from the northwest to the southeast, have since time immemorial irrigated the rich farming land that lay between them, nurtured the fish that are a staple of the Iraqi diet, and provided water for animal and human consumption. American-style warfare, with its reliance on tank, artillery, and air power, often resulted in the cratering of streets in upstream Sunni cities like Tal Afar, Falluja, and Samarra where the insurgency was strongest. One result was the wrecking of already weakened underground sewage systems. In the Sadr City section of Baghdad, for instance, where much fighting has taken place and American air power was called in regularly, there is now a lake of sewage clearly visible on satellite photographs.
The ultimate destination of significant parts of the filth from devastated sewage systems was the two rivers. Five years worth of such waste flowing through the streets and into those rivers has left them thoroughly contaminated. Their water can no longer be safely drunk by humans or animals, the remaining fish cannot be safely eaten, and the contaminated water reportedly withers the crops it irrigates….
Fundamental to the American occupation was the desire to annihilate Saddam Hussein’s Baathist state apparatus and the economic system it commanded. A key aspect of this was the closing down of the vast majority of state-owned economic enterprises (with the exception of those involved in oil extraction and electrical generation).
In all, 192 establishments, adding up to 35% of the Iraqi economy, were shuttered in the summer and fall of 2003. These included basic manufacturing processes like leather tanning and tractor assembly that supplied other sectors, transportation firms that dominated national commerce, and maintenance enterprises that housed virtually all the technicians and engineers qualified to service the electrical, water, oil, and other infrastructural systems in the country.
Justified as the way to bring a modern free-enterprise system to backward Iraq, this draconian program was put in place by the President’s proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III. The result? An immediate depression that only deepened in the years to follow….
Education has been a victim of all the various pathologies current in Iraqi society. During the initial invasion, the U.S. military often commandeered schools as forward bases, attracted by their well-defined perimeters, open spaces for vehicles, and many rooms for offices and barracks. Two incidents in which American gunfire from an occupied elementary school killed Iraqi civilians in the conservative Sunni city of Falluja may have been the literal sparks that started the insurgency. Many schools would subsequently be rendered uninhabitable by destructive battles fought in or near them….
The American solution, as with the electric grid, was to hire multinational firms to repair the schools and rehabilitate school systems. The result was an orgy of corruption accompanied by very little practical aid. Local school officials complained that facilities with no windows, heating, or toilet facilities were repainted and declared fit for use.
The dwindling central government presence made schools inviting arenas for sectarian conflict, with administrators, teachers, and especially college professors removed, kidnapped, or assassinated for ideological reasons. This, in turn, stimulated a mass exodus of teachers, intellectuals, and scientists from the country, removing precious human capital essential for future reconstruction.
Finally, in Baghdad, the U.S. military began installing ten-foot tall cement walls around scores of communities and neighborhoods to wall off participants in the sectarian violence. As a result, schoolchildren were often separated from their schools, reducing attendance at the few intact facilities to those students who happened to live within the imprisoning walls….
Schwartz also mentions what has been one of the most morally hideous aspects of the war (aside from the mass murder and vast human suffering, of course): the American establishment’s callous denigration of the very people they have ravaged and despoiled, condemning their victims for not being able to stand up with their kneecaps broken and a big jackboot on their necks:
Much has been made in the U.S. presidential campaign of the $70 billion oil surplus the Iraqi government built up in these last years as oil prices soared. In actuality, most of it is currently being held in American financial institutions, with various American politicians threatening to confiscate it if it is not constructively spent…
Yes, practically the only part of the Iraq debacle highlighted in the presidential campaign has been the shiftless, thieving Iraqis’ petulant refusal to spend the nest egg of oil money — wrung from their own soil — that has somehow ended up in American banks. Yet as Schwartz points out, “even this bounty reflects the devastation of the war”:
De-Baathification and subsequent chaos rendered the Iraqi government incapable of effectively administering projects that lay outside the fortified, American-controlled Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad. A vast flight of the educated class to Syria, Jordan, and other countries also deprived it of the managers and technicians needed to undertake serious reconstruction on a large scale.
As a consequence, less than 25% of the funds budgeted for facility construction and reconstruction last year were even spent. Some government ministries spent less than 1% of their allocations. In the meantime, the large oil surpluses have become magnets for massive governmental corruption, further infuriating frustrated citizens who, after five years, still often lack the most basic services….
The rebuilding of the water and medical systems, however, cannot get fully underway unless the electrical system is restored to reasonable shape. Repair of the electrical grid awaits a reliable oil and gas pipeline system to provide fuel for generators, and this cannot be constructed without the expertise of technicians who have left the country, or newly trained specialists that the educational system is now incapable of producing. And so it goes.
Yet the basic trope now adopted by both parties is that all of this is now the Iraqis’ responsibility. It’s the Iraqis’ fault. As I noted here a few weeks ago, right after Obama’s aria of praise for the dreamy success of the surge:
Obama also emphasized the obscene and morally depraved position that has become the Democrat’s standard line on Iraq: that the lazy, no-good Iraqis “still haven’t taken responsibility” for running “their own country.” The arrogance and inhumanity of this position is staggering, almost indescribable. The United States of America invaded Iraq, destroyed its society, slaughtered its citizens, drove millions from their homes, occupied the country and made itself the ultimate master and arbiter of the conquered land — but still the Iraqis are condemned for “not taking responsibility for their own country.”
Not a single Iraqi attacked America. Not one. America’s action has killed more than a million Iraqis. But it is the Iraqis who are now “responsible.”
Not only has Obama validated McCain’s position on the surge, but his and the Democrats’ stance on the Iraqis’ “responsibility” also completely buys into the Bush Faction’s lie that the “government” of Iraq — installed at the point of foreign guns, with a “constitution” based upon the arbitrary directives of an occupying power — is somehow legitimate. This stance too validates the “success” of the entire war: “Hey, they’ve got a legitimate government there now, so they need to take responsibility for their own country.”
This bears repeating: the Democrats’ position on Iraq fully accepts — and even celebrates — the Bush Administration’s fundamental claims for the war. The war has established a legitimate, democratic government in Iraq, Bush and the Democrats both say. The “surge” has succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams” in “securing” Iraq, Bush and the Democrats both say. When “conditions on the ground” are right, America should withdraw its “combat troops” from Iraq, leaving behind an unspecified number of troops for training Iraqi security forces, conducting counterterrorism operations and providing security for other American personnel and reconstruction projects, Bush and the Democrats both say.
Where then is the actual difference — the evidence for genuine “change” — between these two positions? While the Democrats will occasionally assert that instigating the war was a “mistake” — because we should have been fighting more wars elsewhere — they steadfastly refuse to denounce it as an illegitimate and criminal action. And, as we have seen, they agree almost entirely with Bush on the results that the war has produced. The rhetoric is different, of course, and each side denounces the other in the usual partisan bickering — but the fundamental agreement is undeniable.
You know, I’m no idealist, no ideologue; I don’t demand perfection in politics, don’t have a party line, don’t require that candidates march in lock-step with me on every single issue. I can stomach a good deal of spin and waffling and gameplaying and hypocrisy, even a dollop of chicanery and corruption here and there; that’s human nature, it’s in us all. And I can understand and respect the argument that says, well, it’s a horribly brutal and rapacious system we’ve got here, but one side might possibly mitigate some of its worst aspects and even do a bit of good around the edges, so you must go for the lesser of two evils, and so on and so forth.
But great God Almighty, shouldn’t “change” — or even slight mitigation — be made of sterner stuff than this?