The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
Site Search:
Home ArticlesLettersArchives
Empire Notes Needs Your Help
More info: How to Help

Empire Notes

"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

Subscribe to our E-Mail List (hit "Enter")

March 26, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- A Fight Over Iraq Appropriations?

I can’t really join in the chorus of condemnation from the antiwar left of the “Iraq Accountability Act,” the new supplemental appropriations bill which Speaker Nancy Pelosi just barely managed to ramrod through the House.

Nor am I impressed by the analysis in support of the bill from MoveOn and other inhabitants of the nebulous spectrum from centrist to soft progressive.

All of it seems to miss the main point: the bill should not be judged on the basis of whether it is a faux withdrawal bill or the real item; it should be judged on the basis of whether or not it presages a fight between Congress and the president over the supplemental appropriations being requested. Is it the first step in a struggle designed to extract concessions from the President or merely a symbolic dead end done to make a rhetorical point and gain some partisan advantage over the Republicans but not to be followed up?

The bill was carefully designed to serve three ends: it had to be so unpalatable to President Bush that he would be forced to veto it if it came to his desk, it had to be sufficiently mild that it would gain the support of most conservative Democrats as well as the pusillanimous political opportunists that make up the core of the party, and it had to be worded so as to provide political cover for the people who voted for it.

In order to serve these ends, the bill is a masterpiece of mixed messages – with a clear overarching theme of severe disapproval of the war. The most politically relevant passages require the president to certify by October 1 that the Iraqi government has met a laundry list of impossible requirements, including beginning to implement local and provincial elections, moderating its de-Baathification law, and actually spending the reconstruction money it has allocated on reconstruction.

If Bush cannot make this certification, a “redeployment” must immediately begin at that point and be completed in six months; if he violates his rigid moral principles and lies, the six-month redeployment must nevertheless begin on March 1, 2008.

The force of this requirement is considerably blunted by a clause that allows for the maintenance of U.S. military forces to conduct “targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach” and also to “train” Iraqi security forces. A liberal interpretation of this clause would certainly allow for several tens of thousands of soldiers to be maintained in Iraq and for a very wide variety of military activities. Most Democrats not only do not want to be associated with the “withdraw now” position, they don’t even want to be associated with any requirement that we leave Iraq altogether free of our interference – and also, of course, they especially shun any idea that they might be abandoning the colossally misconceived “war on terror.”

Even with this careful calibration to bring on board enough support, the bill required the addition of specifically targeted pork ($25 million for spinach growers who were hurt because of the E. Coli scare, for example) and tremendous pressure by the House Democratic leadership.

The precision of the calibration is indicated by the fact that six Democrats opposed it from the right and eight from the left; a more “left” bill would clearly not have passed the House floor. In any case, the bill is already so noxious to Bush that he can’t take it lying down.

If the final joint resolution that emerges is similarly noxious, Bush has already essentially committed himself to vetoing it. That is when we see the test of the Democratic strategy. Will they fold under the artificial whip of the Pentagon’s insistence that the money is needed for the troops by mid-April or will they use the administration’s need for the money as leverage to extract concessions? Pelosi and her colleagues may not even have decided this yet; certainly, pressure from the antiwar movement will increase the chances of at least some kind of stand by the Democrats.

Of course, it would be nice if the Congressional Democrats refused to pass any supplemental appropriations; it would also be nice if I was president. It’s a bit odd to go through elaborate institutional analyses that show just how limited the power structure and anyone who works within it is and then expect those people to act like radical activists.

Posted at 12:09 pm

March 19, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq Anniversary, Part 2

On March 16, the White House released a “fact sheet” that begins, “On The Fourth Anniversary Of The Beginning Of Operation Iraqi Freedom, The Regime Of A Brutal Dictator Has Been Replaced By A Democratically Elected Government Operating Under One Of The Most Progressive Constitutions In The Arab World.”

In a statement also timed for the fourth anniversary of the endless war, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that progress was being made and that “it is worth the sacrifice.”

Back on Planet Earth, things look a little bit different.

Rice’s statement is, I suppose, unobjectionable. Progress is, after all, being made toward having the Iraqi government adopt production-sharing agreements as the basis for oil investment deals, instead of more flexible instruments which might enable Iraq in the long term to ensure that more profits from the oil go to Iraqis. And certainly, the heroic American equanimity in sacrificing others has hardly been dented.

And some parts of the White House statement are literally true, I suppose. There is a democratically elected government, although the constitution is hardly the most progressive in the Arab world.

The truth, though, is that the Iraqi government is a corrupt clientelist regime where political parties with private militias divide up the oil revenues and the government authority as a way to fund and support their internecine power struggle. It has the worst human rights record in the Middle East, and it is perhaps the only example in history of a government with a popular TV show showcasing the coerced confessions of people it has tortured – though I suppose the Roman Empire might have done the same if it could.

But the damage goes far beyond this. It seems almost superfluous to tally the damage done to Iraq by this reckless invasion and brutal and stupid occupation, but, four years down the line, I think we owe it to the victims to highlight the cost – especially when the talk in Washington is all of American sacrifices and the failure of Iraqis to “meet their obligations.”

Nobody will ever know how many Iraqis are dead because of the occupation who would have lived otherwise. The only attempt to reckon the number by an unbiased method is the one by Les Roberts and colleagues published last fall in the Lancet. It puts the number of excess dead at 650,000 – a staggering 2.5% of Iraq’s population, 1 in 40 people. 600,000 of those are dead by violence, 180,000 of them at the hands of American troops. And these numbers are already six months out of date.

The number is not totally implausible – it means that each Iraqi knows maybe 3 to 5 people who have been killed – but there are serious questions about the study. Still, the plausible numbers are not as far apart as many people think. Even by the end of 2005, the U.S. military claimed to have killed over 50,000 “suspected insurgents.” This doesn’t include the number killed since, the number killed in the initial bombing, and the number killed in any attack where U.S. troops didn’t see the bodies – this would especially include aerial attacks on “suspected al-Qaeda safe houses.”

This doesn’t tell you the proportion that were civilians, although it’s well to remember that the insurgents were mostly civilians before a foreign occupier unleashed havoc in their land. But the total is high -- the range of 100-200,000 seems to encompass all reasonable estimates. And since it’s the very people who want to lowball the figure who claim that Iraqis killing Iraqis is a much bigger problem that Americans killing Iraqis, they will have to accept roughly the same ratio as in the Lancet article. So, 300-600,000 dead by violence (the number could be higher), of whom 100-200,000 killed by U.S. forces and the rest killed in processes unleashed by the U.S. “regime change” and the great willingness of U.S. power-brokers to sacrifice others for their higher goals.

Gross mortality is not, by a long shot, enough to sum up the damage to Iraqi society. There are close to 4 million refugees, 2 million in the country, and 2 outside – the largest transfer of population in the history of the Middle East. And there is a country in which living a normal life has become almost impossible although, heroically, most Iraqis continue to try.

Posted at 1:45 pm.

March 12, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq Anniversary, Part 1

As we approach the fourth anniversary of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” even the most blind and bigoted understand what a catastrophe it has been. Billed as a plan to liberate Iraqis, it has indeed liberated uncounted numbers from all earthly woes.

Next week, I’ll try to assess the big picture of this vast crime, but for today, a few stories that particularly affected me.

One is the recent suicide bombing on al-Mutanabi Street in Baghdad. A street of booksellers, Mutanabi was also the center of Baghdad’s literary and cultural life. In between the stands selling whatever could be scavenged in a country cut off from the world for 12 years (TIME magazines from the 1970’s, for example) to all those Iraqis desperate to find something, anything, that could take them away from the prison of their everyday lives were cafes where intellectuals would gather to talk for hours over endless cups of tea.

In 2004, I spoke to a man in one of those cafes who had been a political prisoner for 16 years, released only in October 2002 when Saddam almost emptied his jails. He had uttered some insult of Saddam in 1986. His timing was lucky – had he done it in the early 90’s or after, Saddam’s new laws would have mandated that he lose his tongue. Even so, he was fervently opposed to the occupation.

Somehow, Mutanabi Street had weathered the vicissitudes of occupation violence, suicide bombings, death squads, and the constant zealous efforts of narrow-minded fools to keep them from selling anything except the right kind of books, but I don’t suppose it will survive this blow.

Although March 20 is the official date when the invasion started, for me the war started on March 16, 2003, when Bush delivered his twin ultimata: to Saddam, to leave Iraq, and to the U.N. Security Council, to bow to his will.

Although in one sense this date was accidental – Bush had intended to start the war about two months earlier, but Tony Blair persuaded him to try one more time with the U.N. – in another sense, there was nothing accidental about it. That day was itself a macabre anniversary, the 15th of Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja as part of the Anfal, a systematic pacification and counterinsurgency campaign in northern Iraq.

That crime was committed with the full support of the United States. The Reagan administration and especially the current president’s now sainted father continued the flow of money to Saddam’s regime and made sure that the U.N. Security Council only issued a toothless president’s declaration rather than taking action.

Had even a single word about the humanitarian nature of the Iraq war actually been meant or even thought through for propaganda purposes, instead of simply providing a sanctimonious cloak for an assertion of American power and a reaffirmation, to ourselves, of our wondrous goodness, something would have been done for the victims of Halabja. After all, the regime change itself was an overt repudiation of George Bush Sr.’s heartless and cowardly crimes in Iraq, and “fixing the problems we created” was often cited as a reason for the war.

The victims of Halabja, coughing their lives out and drinking still-contaminated water, were the ultimate “righteous victims,” not like evil insurgents and Communists and hapless “collateral damage.” Yet virtually nothing was done for them, either by the United States or by the Kurdish leadership, after the regime change, except the building of a monument to the dead.

Two years ago, as part of a massive shift of U.S. “reconstruction” funds to “security,” $10 million that had been approved to renovate and extend the water system was cancelled, a final insult added to the injury that the United States aided and abetted. Last year, at the 18th anniversary commemoration, the victims vandalized their own monument during a protest over the use of the memorial for constant photo ops while no actual aid to the victims was forthcoming. Security forces killed one student in the protest, a young boy whose name, appropriately, was Kurdistan. Jonathan Steele, who recently returned to follow up on that story, quotes a young man who lost half his family in Halabja saying of the memorial, "If they rebuild it a thousand times, I will burn it down a million times."

There is very little I can add to that.

Posted at 1:08 pm.
Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and BeyondBush, Iraq, and Demonstration Elections Notes on Bush RNC Speech"Report from Baghdad -- Hospital Closings and U.S. War Crimes "Report from Baghdad -- Winning Hearts and Minds"Report from Fallujah -- Destroying a Town in Order to "Save" it"Report from Baghdad -- Opening the Gates of Hell"War on Terrorism" Makes Us All Less Safe Bush -- Is the Tide Turning?Perle and FrumIntelligence Failure Kerry vs. Dean SOU 2004: Myth and Reality