Introduction by Tom Engelhardt
The Tipping Point
And so we barge through another door marked “Open With Caution” and into yet another wing of our new age of extremity whose rooms now seem to extend in all directions forever. And this descent into barbarism is being reported to us in the anodyne language of embedded war reporters.
In the meantime, back in Bush’s Washington, we seem to have drifted out of the Persian Gulf and down the Mekong River into the Land That Time Forgot (but that Americans can never quite get out of their brains) — a.k.a. Vietnam. There’s our President receiving reports from his generals on our “progress” in a country suffering the sort of regression that in a human being would leave you hospitalized, if not locked away for life. Shades of General William Westmoreland and President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Then, there are our fighting commanders offering pep talks invoking the glorious tradition of Hue, the former Vietnamese imperial capital which, in the bitterest siege of that war, was all but leveled; finally, there’s our Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld back at his old stand-up lectern talking about how we’re just possibly reaching the “tipping” point in Iraq — where public opinion will shift over to us. (For those who remember, the long slide downhill in Vietnam was greased with such “points,” including the famed “crossover point” when we would kill more of the enemy than they could replace, or as General Westmoreland put it famously at the National Press Club in November 1967: “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” It turned out to be the end of the beginning of the beginning of the end, if I remember rightly.)
It’s not, as I’ve argued before, that Iraq and Vietnam are simple analogs, but that our leaders can’t get Vietnam off the brain. It’s the collective correlative of a guilty conscience for an administration otherwise completely lacking one; and filled, Colin Powell excepted, with people who were unwilling to have anything to do with the Vietnam War in their own earlier lives.
In the meantime, our re-embedded reporters return to the kind of docility and general boosterism that was the hallmark of the early Vietnam years. In our press, extremity only fits others. So our journalists can report on the barbaric extremity of enemy acts — the beheadings, kidnappings, “hostage slaughterhouses” and the like — in an appropriate way. But our role in the roiling extremity that is Iraq remains largely beyond them. It’s cleansed from the very language they automatically employ. Nothing startling here, of course. This is, after all, but a “balanced” press version of American exceptionalism.
Recently the always interesting Anatol Lieven published a new book, America Right or Wrong (which I soon plan to read). It sports the subtitle, “An Anatomy of American Nationalism.” While Lieven is identified on the book jacket as a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington D.C., the subtitle is a pure giveaway as to his un-American-ness. (The poor sap is a Brit, I think.) If he were an American journalist he would never have linked the word “nationalism” (a state of unreasonable zeal for one’s own land) to “American.” Americans, it’s well known, are “patriotic” or, if driven toward the dreaded moniker “nationalistic,” then “super-patriotic.” It’s well known here, just taken for granted, that only foreigners are “nationalistic,” or worse yet, “nationalists.”
Similarly, in Iraq, the FFs or “foreign fighters” are invariably Syrians, Saudis, Yemenis, Tunisians and other mad Muslims who slip across borders into places like Falluja to fight us. Americans, who boldly invade to liberate, cannot be FFs ever. Our good intentions evidently leave us implicitly at home wherever we go and whatever we do, though no one could deny that American troops are by definition “foreign fighters” in Iraq and, to judge by news reports, increasingly feel that way. (Here I issue a challenge: Any reader who can find a passage written by an American journalist in any mainstream news report in any of our major papers since the invasion of Iraq which refers to American troops as “foreigners” even once will get the Tomdispatch all-expenses-paid trip to sunny Abu Ghraib.)
Similarly, in a recent New York Times front-page story by Edward Wong and Eric Schmitt, large numbers of the rebels and jihadists in Falluja were said, both in the headline (The Insurgents: Rebel Fighters Who Fled Attack May Now Be Active Elsewhere) and in first sentence, to have “fled.” (“Insurgent leaders in Falluja probably fled before the American-led offensive and may be coordinating attacks in Iraq that have left scores dead over the past few days, according to American military officials here.”) Now, maybe they did flee, but assumedly neither those military officials, nor Wong and Schmitt were actually there to watch them fleeing. The only relevant quote in the piece, from a cell-phone interview with a “midlevel commander” of the insurgency speaks of “leaving” Falluja. Since the American offensive was long announced and coordinated fighting has broken out elsewhere in the Sunni areas of Iraq, it would be as logical to speak of the Fallujan fighters “redeploying” (as American troops brought to Falluja did). But flight, of course, implies cowardice.
Similarly, former American generals, now TV consultants, have flocked back onto TV to decry the rebels and jihadists for being so cowardly as to mix in with the civilian population (as guerrillas invariably do). They should, the implication is, come out and fight like men. No American journalist would ever claim, however, that American pilots in AC-130 gunships or jets attacking Falluja are cowardly, though they are obviously using another type of cover. War, of course, is like that. Each side tends to use the advantages it has. Guerillas not mixing with the population are likely to find themselves not manly or brave but dead, as many undoubtedly now are in Falluja, when facing American fire power in anything like the open or isolation.
But American exceptionalism — the deep belief that our motives are uniquely pure, our goals singularly above reproach — means that descriptions of our actions don’t fit any of the language categories in which we put those we fight. This is essential to our war coverage — and largely unexamined. When, for instance, our planes destroy or our troops capture a clinic or hospital, as we did in our first and second acts in Falluja, the reporting on this may be grim — patients and doctors rousted from hospital rooms, thrown on the floor and handcuffed — and yet because Americans have done this, there will be no mention of the Geneva Conventions which such an act almost certainly contravenes. (The Fourth Geneva Convention contains this clear passage: “Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”) Similar acts — the dropping of 500, 1,000 or 2,000 pound bombs in major urban areas (sometimes to kill a single sniper) or the turning back of men trying to flee Falluja (because we have no way of telling whether they are civilians or fighters) — lead similarly down a steep but unacknowledged path to Hell.
Last night on the prime-time news, a video was run of an American tank blowing the minaret off a mosque (where, again contravening the Geneva Conventions, one or more snipers were hidden). The only comment or commentary offered was a brief interview with an American soldier on the scene offering the completely understandable ground-level view that this was “no holds barred” warfare and his troops had to be protected. But, folks, we’re talking about the so- called City of a Thousand Mosques. Imagine an al Qaeda sniper in the steeple of an American church or cathedral and how Americans might react.
Or let’s imagine this: If American claims are accurate and (like the Russians before they went in and leveled the Chechnyan capital of Grozny), we did our best to get civilians out of Falluja, possibly a couple of hundred thousand of them, where did they go? Tens of thousands of refugees, homeless and desperate? Where are the articles about them? Who is thinking about what will happen when they finally return to a city in ruins, to homes that may no longer exist in neighborhoods that have been pounded into rubble in areas possibly lacking the most basic services or functioning hospitals? These are, as Naomi Klein points out on the Alternet website, the future “voters” of Sunni Iraq.
The decision by American strategists to “take” Falluja the second time around leads us directly into the charnel house of history. Unfortunately, even to think reasonably about what’s unfolding in Iraq you need to leave the American press behind. Only elsewhere in the world are the obvious analogies to Falluja (or Iraq) today coming to mind. Take the Russian destruction of the city of Grozny from whose ruins so many years later guerillas still ambush Russian troops, as described by former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin in the Sydney Morning Herald; or the eerie and depressing parallels — right down to the beheadings — to the Algerian independence struggle against the French (“the first campaign in which poorly equipped Muslim mujaheddin licked one of the top Western armies”) as described by Alistair Horne in The Spectator, the conservative British publication; or the Syrian destruction of the city of Hama as considered by Charles Glass in the British Independent.
Only elsewhere (or on the Internet) are you likely to find mention of the Geneva Conventions when hospitals are taken or mosques blown apart. Only elsewhere is the language of American war-making and war reporting questioned or the efficacy (no less morality) of bombing civilian populations in major urban centers considered.
The other day CNN had a report on the recent actions of the French military in the Ivory Coast. In the headline and the subsequent report, the French were lambasted for their “hypocrisy” in opposing our actions in Iraq and yet acting like the former colonial masters they are in the Ivory Coast. I assure you, however, that you can search the American press or television in vain for a single report that might link the word “hypocrisy” to the Bush administration for any of its actions. It’s just not in our journalistic dictionary, and that dictionary ensures that, even as our leaders push ever further into the age of extremism — remember, Alberto Gonzales, just nominated as our next Attorney General, oversaw the White House effort to create a legalistic framework for an offshore torture regime — it’s nearly impossible for American readers to grasp the extremity of the situation.
Depending on what news report you read, American troops have by now taken 50% or 70% or 90% of Falluja. The real question, though, is 50-70-90% of what? In the meantime, after initially upbeat reports, it looks like there will be significant American casualties in Falluja, which means growing anger and frustration, which means ever more extreme acts on the ground.
So here’s an old Vietnam-era word that might have been worth bringing back as our Fallujan offensive began: “escalation.” The widespread destruction in Falluja represents an escalation of our Iraq war. It represents an extremity of behavior (on both sides), horrific in itself, for which there will be a cost as yet unknown. As small-scale running battles, assassinations, and car bombings now shake Mosul, Samarra, and other cities in Sunni Iraq, we see yet more doors marked “Open With Caution,” or even “Do Not Enter,” before us, and yet more tanks and jets and angry soldiers, and more frustrated American commanders and strategists ready to barge through them.
What we need now is not our usual set of embedded reporters, but the artist Hieronymous Bosch back from the grave to paint us the necessary pictures. After all, we’ve already seen what the liberation of Najaf and Falluja look like. But what will Iraq look like after we’ve liberated Samarra and Mosul and who knows where else — and the insurgency only grows? Below, Mark Levine considers four possible scenarios from our now Fallujanized world and what they tell us about Iraq and ourselves.
Four Times Falluja Equals?
By Mark LeVine
As American forces penetrate ever deeper and more destructively into the city of Falluja, each of the major players in this violent drama is engaged in a complex, constantly shifting calculus involving ways of turning events to their advantage. Of the many possible outcomes to the battle of Falluja, the four which seem most plausible follow, starting with the one that might be viewed most positively by the Bush administration. In sum, they offer us a grim picture of how the window of success has closed on American strategists in Iraq. Even the “best” outcomes below (from the administration’s point of view) have lost the trappings of freedom and democracy that helped justify the invasion nineteen months ago.
The Hama Solution: In 1982, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad put down a potential nationwide revolt of religious activists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood by killing upwards of 20,000 people in the city of Hama, essentially flattening its central districts in the process. In an Iraqi version of the “Hama solution,” the Americans and their Iraqi allies would take Falluja relatively quickly — at whatever cost to its essential infrastructure — in the process killing the majority of the resistance fighters in the city along with uncounted civilians who were too poor, young, old or infirm to flee before the invasion. Falluja would then act as a terrifying example to other rebellious Iraqi cities. The end, however temporary, of Mutaqa al-Sadr’s Shia insurgency in the early fall increased the likelihood of success for such a move, freeing up as it did American troops from Najaf in the south and from the Shi’i slum of Sadr City in Baghdad. At the same time, the many month-long threat of a massive attack on Falluja seems to have created fracture lines in the resistance between indigenous groups seeking political solutions that might avoid mass civilian casualties and smaller groups of foreign jihadists, unbound by local ties and determined to fight to the death.
On the other hand, all those months of saber rattling evidently allowed many local fighters and jihadist leaders to leave the city before the invasion began, a troublesome development for American strategists and the interim government of Iyad Allawi as they seek to pacify the larger Sunni Triangle in time for announced elections in January. In the last week, after all, insurgents reoccupied the city center of Ramadi, attacked fiercely in Samarra, fought it out in Baghdad neighborhoods, and left authority in Mosul tottering, while American troops were occupied with the battle of Falluja — and these were just a few of the many indications that, no matter what happens in Falluja, the insurgency is anything but defeated.
Yet if enough resistance fighters are killed to reclaim Falluja and sap the force of the insurgency in other cities, American strategists can at least hope to be on their way to a limited pacification of Sunni Iraq. Sunni leaders might next be bought off or co-opted and enough followers, fighters, and civilians, killed elsewhere to quiet the country for the next several months. Iraq would then have its “successful” election, and the Bush Administration would breathe a huge sigh of relief. So would Prime Minister Allawi who, according to a senior Iraqi official with whom I’ve spoken in recent days, is still livid that the Americans bypassed him to negotiate an end to the siege of Najaf. (According to my source, the bandaged hand Allawi sported during his recent trip to New York came from “banging his hands on the wall” after leaning of a secret meeting between American Ambassador John Negroponte and Shiite rebel leaders.) In one fashion or another, in this scenario, “democracy” would mean an extension of the Allawi government via a limited and managed election.
The ongoing, seemingly ceaseless violence in the Palestinian Occupied Territories under Israeli occupation reminds us that pacifying an occupied population is an endless job. But if, as the Bush administration now hopes, the insurgency can simply be tamped down, when it resurfaces next spring it will be the problem of an elected Iraqi government. American troops, in the meanwhile, would largely be withdrawn to a dozen or more major bases lowering American casualties; yet they could be called back into action any time violence threatened to get out of hand. Iraq would then take its place beside Colombia, Israel, and Sri Lanka, to name only a few of the many countries plagued by ongoing but “manageable” political violence — while the United States would remain astride the second largest oil reserves in the world. This is today the best option available to the Bush administration.
The Jenin Scenario: If Falluja is largely subdued but low-level fighting continues for weeks or months in its back streets, chaos and anarchy might increase across the country, forcing a curtailment or postponement of the January elections, and yet the overall situation might not spin completely out of American control. The Allawi government would remain more or less in power in Baghdad and American troops could continue to occupy the country indefinitely (under the argument that the United States can’t leave Iraq in the midst of chaos). The insurgency would be slowly exhausted over a longer period of time, laying the groundwork for a post-independence system favorable to American interests.
Here, the example of the 2002 Israeli siege of the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin might prove the model for the present Falluja campaign. It stirred up incredible anger, violence, and chaos in Palestinian society and outrage internationally, but when the dust settled — as it usually does –Israel’s strategic position was actually stronger than before.
Even if the dust doesn’t settle quite as advantageously in Iraq, or settle at all, Bush Administration hawks could turn the ensuing low-level chaos to their immediate advantage by allowing it, or encouraging it to spread to Syria (near whose border the U.S. recently staged a bloody invasion of the Iraqi town of Tal Afar) or Iran (already in the sights of senior Administration officials, regardless of any nuclear deal its leaders may sign with the Europeans). In fact, it is well known that Israeli operatives have been working with Kurds in both border regions to gauge the feasibility of such a scenario. In the meantime, according to Iraqi officials I’ve spoken with, American oil companies are quietly exploring the 90% of Iraq where oil deposits have yet to be tapped, free of potentially embarrassing scrutiny by a media focused on urban violence rather than desert oil. American casualties would also remain limited; media attention modest; and so a Jenin scenario would be seen, under the circumstances, as a quiet but significant victory by the Bush administration.
The “British” Solution (or 1920 Revisited): If the invasion of Falluja backfires — if the fighting drags on and, for instance, there is evidence of large-scale civilian casualties, perhaps broadcast to the world by a dreaded al-Jazeera reporter via video phone — Iraqi public opinion might be inflamed to the point of sparking a more general Sunni or yet more significantly Sunni-Shi’i revolt. This actually happened in 1920 when occupying British troops tried to use massive force to pacify the country and the results were devastating for the occupiers (as well as the occupied); or if the resistance in Falluja proves more resilient or better armed than American military officials assume it to be and is capable of dragging out the fighting until a desperate compromise solution along the lines of the deal to end the Najaf siege becomes inevitable, a revolt might also be encouraged; or if the insurgents, with months to plan, left only a minimal force in Falluja to fight a delaying action against the Americans and their Iraqi allies and are able to conduct a larger, sustained insurgency across Sunni (and parts of Shiite) Iraq, as seems increasingly likely, the result could be the same.
Any one of these developments or any combination of them would destroy what is left of the credibility of the Americans and of the Interim Iraqi Government. If not contained, the present insurgency, facing overwhelming and relatively indiscriminate American power, could spark a more general revolt, joined by significant number of Shi’ites (whose leaders, unlike during the first siege of Falluja in April, have so far remained relatively quiet). It would capitalize on the intense anger felt by a country that has seen as many as 100,000 of its citizens killed in the last eighteen months. With the political costs of retreat almost incalculable, the Bush administration in turn might ratchet up the violence (as it did in Vietnam) before considering real withdrawal strategies, hoping that the prospect of tens of thousands of further deaths in the next year would lead Iraqis to accept some continued American military presence in the country and, most important, a continued hand in the management of the country’s petroleum resources.
The “French” Scenario: Any version of the “British” solution might, sooner or later, lead the Bush administration into the thickets of the even more unsettling “French” scenario. In this, a growing awareness of the human toll of the occupation, coupled with levels of political corruption that are already staggering would lend force to a desire to internationalize the next phase of Iraq’s transition to full sovereignty. (A former top Allawi aide, who recently escaped the country, summed up Iraqi despair on the issue of corruption in lamenting to me that “the new regime is the same as Saddam’s, just with different faces.”) The “French” scenario might involve the intercession of France, Germany, and Spain, joined by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan and supported by a resurgent worldwide anti-war movement aroused by the ongoing horrors of Iraq. With the insurgency still under way, pressure would be applied for a cease-fire coupled with an internationalization of the transition to sovereignty based on the complete failure of the United States and the Allawi government to stabilize the country. French President Chirac’s stated desire to build a counterweight to U.S. power and Kofi Anan’s rising displeasure with U.S. actions could encourage such a development, as could the resignation of the Sunni members of the interim government and a full-scale Sunni boycott of any future American-organized elections. While the United States and the British would likely veto any Security Council resolution to mandate such a move, the groundswell of support for it could lead to major changes in the management of the occupation in the lead-up to elections.
If all four outcomes described above are striking for what they reveal about the narrowing of the Bush Administration’s grand vision of a democratic and prosperous Iraq, the last one — a kind of final humiliation — would certainly be fiercely resisted by American officials and the Allawi government (nor would some factions of the insurgency be any too pleased by the possibility).
The wild card in the current crisis is the Iraqi people who, since the toppling of the Hussein regime, have more often than not remained horrified spectators while their country’s political landscape has been reshaped. This passivity, though understandable given the Iraqi experience over the previous two decades, has proved as disastrous for them and their country as the passivity of Palestinians was during the crucial early years of the Oslo peace process (which in actuality allowed Israel to increase significantly its West Bank and Gaza settlements, while Yasir Arafat cemented his autocratic and corrupt rule virtually cost-free).
Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for a massive nonviolent mobilization to end the siege of Najaf and the success of women’s groups in preventing a rollback of their social rights, both demonstrate that the Iraqi people can become active shapers of their own destiny. Were the Shiites to pour into the streets nationwide, as they did in Najaf in response to Sistani, the Iraqi situation would immediately take on a different look and the American occupation might find its days quickly numbered. But can Iraqi society challenge the violent calculus of American military planners and insurgents alike with a vision of a future free of occupation and autocracy, corruption and extremism? More than wishing the Iraqis well, the international community needs to get its hands dirty to ensure that they have a fighting chance.
Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California Irvine and author of the forthcoming books Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948, He is also the editor with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. He last spent time in Iraq in the early spring of this year.
Copyright C2004 Mark LeVine
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.