By Tom Engelhardt
When the “transition” moment occurred in Baghdad — so tightly was the secret held that not even comrade-in-arms Tony Blair knew the schedule — George Bush, in Turkey for the NATO summit, is reported to have turned to the British Prime Minister. “Stealing a glance at his watch to make sure the transfer [of sovereignty] had occurred, Bush put his hand over his mouth to guard his remarks, leaned toward Blair and then put out his hand for a shake.”
That was in keeping with the moment. And momentary it was. An unannounced five-minute, “furtive” ceremony, two days early, on half an hour’s notice, in a “nondescript room” in the new Iraqi prime minister’s office, under a blanket of security, with snipers on adjoining rooftops in the heavily fortified Green Zone, “before only a handful of Iraqi and U.S. officials and journalists.” A few quick, polite lies (L. Paul Bremer III: “I have confidence that the Iraqi government is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead”), a few seconds of polite clapping by the attendees. That was it. Sovereignty transferred. The end.
Other than L. Paul Bremer, not a significant American official was in sight, even though the President, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State were all in Turkey, not 90 minutes away. There were no representatives from other governments. No flags. No bands. No cheering crowds. No marching troops. No hoopla. Nothing at all. And two hours later, Bremer, the erstwhile viceroy of Baghdad, his suits and desert boots packed away, was on a C-130 out of the country.
Talk about “cutting and running,” he didn’t even stick around the extra five hours for the swearing in of the new interim administration. That’s not a matter of catching a flight, but of flight itself. I’m sure Bremer is already heaving a sigh of relief and looking forward, as Time magazine tells us, to enrolling in “the Academy of Cuisine in Washington.” As for the “psychological boost” provided by the transfer of sovereignty, Prime Minister Allawi and friends are not likely to be its recipients. It looks as if the Bush administration engaged in a game of chicken with a motley group of insurgents and rebels in urban Iraq — and at the edge of what suddenly looked like a cliff, the Bush administration flinched first.
This is a victory, certainly, but not for Bush & Co. or for their plan to, as they like to say, put “an Iraqi face” on Iraq. It may be spun here as a brilliant stratagem to outflank the Iraqi insurgency, or as Carol Williams and Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times put it, a “ploy to pre-empt disruptions,” or as proof that the interim administration was ready ahead of schedule, but the word that most fits the moment is actually humiliation. Ignominious humiliation.
Imagine if, on May 1, 2003 as George Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in color-coded triumph, someone had leaned over and, behind a cupped palm, whispered that he would not attend the crowning triumph of his first presidential term, the official recreation of an Iraqi government in our image. Imagine if someone had then told him that an insurgency, evidently without a central command, armed with nothing more powerful than Kalashnikovs and RPGs, and made up to a significant degree of ordinary, angry Iraqis (as Edward Wong of the New York Times vividly reported today,) would stop his plans in their tracks; or that our sheriff in Baghdad would, hardly a year later, flee town tossing his badge in the dirt. What would George Bush have said then? Who among his followers wouldn’t have had the laugh of their lives?
And yet, here we are. You won’t read this in your daily paper or see it on the nightly prime-time news, but I assure you that what we’re witnessing in slow motion is likely to be one of the great imperial defeats in history.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com.