CSI Iraq

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The Corpse on the Gurney
The “Success” Mantra in Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt

The other day, as we reached the first anniversary of the President’s announcement of his “surge” strategy, his “new way forward” in Iraq, I found myself thinking about the earliest paid book-editing work I ever did. An editor at a San Francisco textbook publisher hired me to “doctor” god-awful texts designed for audiences of captive kids. Each of these “books” was not only in a woeful state of disrepair, but essentially D.O.A. I was nonetheless supposed to do a lively rewrite of the mess and add seductive “sidebars”; another technician then simplified the language to “grade level” and a designer provided a flashy layout and look. Zap! Pow! Kebang!

During the years that I freelanced for that company in the early 1970s, an image of what I was doing formed in my mind — and it suddenly came back to me this week. I used to describe it this way:

The little group of us — rewriter, grade-level reducer, designer — would be summoned to the publisher’s office. There, our brave band of technicians would be ushered into a room in which there would be nothing but a gurney with a corpse on it in a state of advanced decomposition. The publisher’s representative would then issue a simple request: Make it look like it can get up and walk away.

And the truth was: that corpse of a book would be almost lifelike when we were done with it, but one thing was guaranteed — it would never actually get up and walk away.

That was in another century and a minor matter of bad books that no one wanted to call by their rightful name. But that image came to mind again more than three decades later because it’s hard not to think of America’s Iraq in similar terms. Only this week, Abdul Qadir, the Iraqi defense minister, announced that “his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018.” Pentagon officials, reported Thom Shanker of the New York Times, expressed no surprise at these dismal post-surge projections, although they were “even less optimistic than those [Qadir] made last year.”

According to this guesstimate then, the U.S. military occupation of Iraq won’t end for, minimally, another ten years. President Bush confirmed this on his recent Mideast jaunt when, in response to a journalist’s question, he said that the U.S. stay in Iraq “could easily be” another decade or more.

Folks, our media may be filled with discussions about just how “successful” the President’s surge plan has been, but really, Iraq is the corpse in the room.

“Success” as a Mantra

Last January, after announcing his “surge strategy,” the President called in his technicians. As it turned out, Gen. David Petraeus, surge commander in Iraq, has been quite impressive, as has new U.S. ambassador to that country, Ryan Crocker. Think of them as “the undertakers,” since they’ve been the ones who, applying their skills, have managed to give that Iraqi corpse the faint glow of life. The President asked them to make Iraq look like it could get up and walk away — and the last year of “success,” widely trumpeted in the media, has been the result. But just think about what the defense minister and President Bush are promising: By 2018, the country will — supposedly — be able to control its own borders, one of the more basic acts of a sovereign state. That, by itself, tells you much of what you need to be know.

In order to achieve an image of lifelike quiescence in Iraq, involving a radical lowering of “violence” in that country, the general and ambassador did have to give up the ghost on a number of previous Bush administration passions. Rebellious al-Anbar Province was, for instance, essentially turned over to members of the community (many of whom had, even according to the Department of Defense, been fighting Americans until recently). They were then armed and paid by the U.S. not to make too much trouble. In the Iraqi capital, on the other hand, the surging American military looked the other way as, in the first half of 2007, the Shiite “cleansing” of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods reached new heights, transforming it into a largely Shiite city. This may have been the real “surge” in Iraq and, if you look at new maps of the ethnic make-up of the capital, you can see the startling results — from which a certain quiescence followed. Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a longtime opponent of the Bush administration, called a “truce” during the surge months and went about purging and reorganizing his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. In exchange, the U.S. has given up, at least temporarily, its goal of wresting control of some of those neighborhoods from the Sadrists.

Despite hailing the recent passage of what might be called a modest re-Baathification law in the Iraqi Parliament (that may have little effect on actual government employment), the administration has also reportedly given up in large part on pushing its highly touted “benchmarks” for the Iraqis to accomplish. This was to be a crucial part of Iraqi political “reconciliation” (once described as the key to the success of the whole surge strategy). It has now been dumped for so-called Iraqi solutions. All of this, including the lack of U.S. patrolling in al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, plus the addition of almost 30,000 troops in Baghdad and environs, has indeed given Iraq a quieter look — especially in the United States, where Iraqi news has largely disappeared from front pages and slipped deep into prime-time TV news coverage just as the presidential campaign of 2008 heats up.

The surge was always, in a sense, a gamble for time, a pacification program directed at the “home front” in the President’s Global War on Terror as well as at Iraq itself. And if this is what you mean by “success” in Iraq, Bush has indeed succeeded admirably. As in the Vietnam era, when President Richard Nixon began “Vietnamizing” that war, a reduction of American casualties has had the effect of turning media attention elsewhere.

So another year has now passed in a country that we plunged into an unimaginable charnel-house state. Whether civilian dead between the invasion of 2003 and mid-2006 (before the worst year of civil-war level violence even hit) was in the range of 600,000 as a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet reported or 150,000 as a recent World Health Organization study suggests, whether two million or 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, whether 1.1 million or more than two million have been displaced internally, whether electricity blackouts and water shortages have marginally increased or decreased, whether the country’s health-care system is beyond resuscitation or could still be revived, whether Iraqi oil production has nearly crept back to the low point of the Saddam Hussein-era or not, whether fields of opium poppies are, for the first time, spreading across the country’s agricultural lands or still relatively localized, Iraq is a continuing disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory.

What Bush has done with his surge, however, is buy himself that year-plus of free time, while he negotiates with Iraq’s inside-the-Green-Zone government to cement in place an endless American presence there. In the process, he may create a sense of permanency that no future president will prove capable of tampering with — not without being known as the man (or woman) who “lost” Iraq. Forget the Republican presidential candidates — Sen. John McCain, for instance, has said that he doesn’t care if the U.S. is in Iraq for the next hundred years — and think about the leading Democratic candidates with their elongated (and partial) “withdrawal” plans. Barack Obama, for instance, is for guaranteeing a 16-month withdrawal schedule, and that’s just for U.S. “combat troops,” which are only perhaps half of all American forces in the country. Hillary Clinton’s plan is no more promising.

The President’s gamble, so far “successful,” has been that the look of returning life in Iraq will last at least long enough for him to turn a marginally “successful” war over to the next administration. If the Democrats sweep to power, he hopes to stick them with that war. As Michael Hirsh of Newsweek put the matter recently, while discussing the President’s trip to the Middle East: “Far away in the Persian Gulf, Bush is creating facts on the ground that the next president may not be able to ignore.” (Of course, this assumes that the Iraqis will comply.)

In that case, here would be another piece of potential Bush “success”: Nine months into any new presidential term and the Iraq War is yours. (Those of us old enough to remember have already lived through this scenario once with “Lyndon Johnson’s war” in Vietnam, so how does “Barack Obama’s war” sound?) Then, former Bush administration officials, Republicans of all stripes, neocons, and an array of pundits will turn on those uncelebratory Democrats who, they will claim, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of “success,” if not victory. Wait for it.

Victory Laps and Other Celebrations

But folks, let’s face it, despite the cosmetic acts of the President and his undertakers, America’s Iraq is still a corpse. And yet, in this “post-surge” moment, everybody is arguing over just how “successful” the surge has been. All agree it has “lowered violence” in Iraq. The Democrats insist that the plan’s “success” is limited indeed, because its main goal, “political reconciliation,” has not been reached. On the other hand, Republicans, assorted neocons, and some in the administration are already doing modest victory dances. The newest New York Times columnist, William Kristol, a man previously known for being endlessly wrong on his Iraqi war of choice, just last week chided the Democrats in his typical way: “It’s apparently impermissible for leading Democrats to acknowledge — let alone celebrate — progress in Iraq.”

Let the celebrations begin! In the White House, anyway. After all, whatever Iraq news breaks out of the inside pages of the paper is now often framed by this ongoing dispute about the how much surge and post-surge success has happened, about how much to celebrate, and that is another sign of success for the President. No wonder, as Michael Abramowitz of the Washington Post put it, Bush’s recent meeting in Kuwait with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, as well as his comments to a rally of 3,000 hoo-ahing U.S. troops, “had the air of a victory lap for a president whose decision to raise the troop levels in Iraq last year was questioned not only by Democrats but also by many Republicans and even generals at the Pentagon.”

But folks, George W. Bush can lap the Middle East, the planet, the solar system and America’s Iraq is still never going to get up and walk away. Not even in 2018 or 2028. Don’t forget, it’s a corpse. (In fact, unlike the politicians and the media, recent opinion polls show that the American people generally have not forgotten this.)

In the meantime, the military in Iraq is preparing for something other than a simple victory lap, just in case the President’s surge luck doesn’t quite extend to 2009. Former brigadier general and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs Mark Kimmitt, for instance, recently suggested that there was “only a mild chance” that surge security gains would prove permanent: “[I]f I had to put a number to it, maybe it’s three in 10, maybe it’s 50-50, if we play our cards right.”

In fact, General Petraeus and the rest of the U.S. military are faced with a relatively simple calculus for their exhausted, overstretched, overused forces among whom the rate of post-traumatic stress syndrome has tripled. Although the President recently insisted that he would be happy to slow down or halt an expected drawdown of 30,000 surge troops by July, the fact is that present military manpower levels there are literally unsustainable — especially since 3,200 Marines are now being committed to the ever less successful Afghan War. Drawdowns are a must and “successful” Iraq, already experiencing signs of another uptick in violence and death (including of American troops) in the new year, is likely to need a dose of something else soon, if that faint glow of life is to be sustained.

One candidate for that, as American troop levels drop, is air power, a much underreported subject in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the use of air power took a striking leap forward in 2007. According to the study, the number of Close Air Support/Precision Strikes — sorties that used a major munition — in Iraq went up five-fold between 2006 and 2007 (not including December of that year), from 229 to 1,119 or, on average, from 19 per month to 102 per month. 2008 started with a literal bang, 40,000 pounds of explosives were dropped in ten minutes on 38 targets in a Sunni farming area on “the outskirts” of Baghdad. After 10 preceding days of intermittent air attacks, this was probably the largest display of air power since the 2003 invasion. It was also undoubtedly a harbinger of things to come and, of course, guaranteed to drive up the number of civilian dead.

Similarly, between January and October 2007, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. military more than doubled its use of armed and unarmed drone aircraft, which clocked 500,000-plus hours in the air (mainly in Iraq). This is undoubtedly a taste of what “success” means in the year to come.

Dancing on a Corpse

So, here’s a simple reality check: The whole discussion of, and argument about, “success” in Iraq is, in fact, obscene. Given what has already happened to that country — and will continue to happen as long as the U.S. remains an occupying power there — the very category of “success” is an obscenity. If violence actually does stay down there, that may be a modest godsend for Iraqis, but it can hardly be considered a sign of American “success.”

Every now and then, history comes in handy. In a previous moment, when the neocons and their allied pundits were feeling particularly triumphant, they began touting Bush’s America as the planet’s new Rome (only more so). That talk evaporated once Iraq went into full-scale insurgency mode (and Afghanistan followed). But perhaps Rome does remain a touchstone of a sort for administration Iraqi policies.

What comes to mind is the Roman historian Tacitus’ description of the Roman way of war. He put his version of it into the mouth of Calgacus, a British chieftain who opposed the Romans, and it went, in part, like this:

“They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger, they loot even the ocean: they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; neither the wealth of the east nor the west can satisfy them: they are the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal passion to dominate. They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”

Folks, it’s obscene. We’re doing victory laps around, and dancing upon, a corpse.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

[Note: I’d like to offer one of my periodic bows to the invaluable sites that give me special help in collecting information on Iraq, especially Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Paul Woodward’s The War in Context, the daily Media Patrol summaries at, and the enormous range of pieces posted every day at In addition, thanks to Yasmin Madadi for research help and Michael Schwartz for advice. If you want to check out that CSIS airpower study yourself, click here (PDF file).]

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt