"Welcome to the Republic of Darkness and Unemployment"

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[Editor’s note: A tiny bit of name-dropping in a good cause — I was speaking with the indomitable Studs Terkel on the phone today and his comment on the present situation was as follows: “If there’s a god, it’s W. C. Fields. Only he could have conceived of this — Bush as president and Schwarzenegger running for governor.”

His new oral history, a testament to activists from the 1930s til late last night with the glorious title Hope Dies Last, will be out in the late fall. Look for it and for excerpts at this site. In the meantime, Studs wanted to recommend another book, Chris Appy’s oral history
Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides
. Chris has written for Tomdispatch and I’ve recommended the book before, but listen to Studs, not me. “It’s The Book. This is the big one that was waiting to be written. It captures an era and all the voices in it, ours and theirs.” He’s right. It’s a classic and should be on best-seller lists nationwide. You couldn’t read through it and then go to war in Iraq.]

Quote of the day from the blog of Salam Pax:As you go into Baghdad from the west there is graffiti on the walls that says ‘Welcome to the Republic of Darkness and Unemployment.’ Baghdad had no electricity for a whole day. Call me the master of all whiners but do you have any idea what it feels like to sleep in 50C?” ( Baghdad Blogger, the Guardian)

Okay, three Americans dead and five wounded in the last 24 hours, according to American officials. At least one oil pipeline in the north burning, another in the south recently disrupted, both from unknown causes. Baghdad without electricity for a day, serious unrest in previously peaceable Basra and predictions of more to come. (The British have taken off those berets they were so proud of and put their helmets and flak-jackets back on.) All this after four months of “progress.”

And remember that “noose” tightening around Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t it just a week or two back that, according to our military commanders, we were just three or four hours behind the man? Strange, then, that I haven’t heard his name in a while. I wonder how many hours behind him we are now. I’m starting to believe the guy actually is in Byelorussia.

Rob Nordland in a Newsweek web exclusive (Curiouser and Curiouser) writes:

“Iraq’s mysteries are of two kinds: no one knows, and no one says. Where is Saddam? The military says he’s in Iraq, but how do they know that? Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, head of the U.S. Army’s Fourth Division that’s hunting him in Tikrit, says Saddam is moving every three or four hours to evade the manhunt. How does he know this, and if his information is that good, why haven’t they caught him by now? A hunted man is much more vulnerable on the run than in a bolthole. Is Saddam directing the resistance that we’re seeing, or just inspiring it? Right up the chain back to Rummy in Washington, the mantra is that it’s a local or sometimes regionally coordinated resistance, but not centrally directed. Then yesterday the Fourth announced that they had arrested one of the national leaders of the resistance. And if it’s so local, how do they seem to manage to strike, as they did last week, on successive days two different points on the just-reopened railway, separated by hundreds of miles?”

And in the meantime, according to the Australian paper the Age (picked up off the, more of the Iraqis closest to the occupation administrators are threatening to walk. As reported here in a previous dispatch, University of Amsterdam professor Isam Khafaji already did so, leaving the advisory Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council (and Iraq itself) with an eloquent statement of resignation. Warren Vieth of the Age quotes one of Khafaji’s compatriots thusly (Iraqi exiles ready to walk out on US):

“‘The population of Iraq perceives correctly that it is the occupiers who are running things. Everybody else is there in some secondary or subservient role,’ said Chicago attorney Feisal Istrabadi, an adviser to Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi. ‘It’s just like in the old days under the British mandate,’ Mr Istrabadi said. ‘Technically, you had an Iraqi minister. But it was the senior adviser, who was always a Briton, who was running things… That is very much the situation as it’s perceived today.'”

According to the New York Times, Paul Bremer offered an “impassioned defense” of the occupation yesterday after “one of the worst weeks” of its tenure (Richard A. Oppel, Jr., U.S. Overseer Defends Occupation of Iraq):

“‘Freedom matters,’ Mr. Bremer said at a news conference here. ‘It is important to remember this and look beyond the shootouts and the blackouts, and remind ourselves of the range of rights that Iraqis enjoy today because of the coalition’s military victory.’ He cited new academic freedoms and the ability to travel and to criticize people in authority.”

Times columnist Thomas Friedman, no opponent of the war or occupation, offered a closer-to-the-ground view of that vaunted new “freedom to travel” in his column today (Power and Peril):

“I was in a five-car convoy that was robbed in broad daylight on Monday morning just outside Baghdad. We were on the only highway linking Iraq to Jordan – the country’s lifeline – when several BMW’s with masked men, armed with AK-47’s, ambushed us under a bridge, pointed guns at our faces and demanded our cash (no credit cards!). They made off with thousands of dollars, which maybe they’ll just keep, or maybe they’ll use to pay people to kill U.S. soldiers. Who knows? I do know we drove for two more hours before we ran into the soldiers of a U.S. patrol and told them what had happened.

“‘Sorry,’ the sergeant said, ‘we just don’t have enough people.’

“It’s a travesty that four months after the fall of Saddam, the main road in and out of the country is still not safe. It underscores how much the Pentagon’s ideological reach exceeds its military grasp.”

Bremer’s comments may prove to be a “let them eat cake” classic. If you want something further on the undermanned nature of the occupation, check out Martin Walker of UPI: “By comparison with other similar peacekeeping missions in recent years, the place is very seriously under-policed.” (Running out of time in Iraq) But let me leave the last word to someone quoted in Salam Pax’s column in the Guardian:

“Everyone who got into the office today had bags under their eyes and a bad headache. Haifa, the nice lady who makes sure we have coffee in the morning, was ranting about having to watch ‘this Paul something’ give us lies on TV everyday. She actually described Paul Bremer as another Saddam; we see him every day on TV, and the news is all about what he says and what he does. Next we’ll have statues of him in the streets. Somehow you feel like he lives in a bubble and has absolutely no idea what the people are saying.”

And remember Pax, the daring blogger of Baghdad at war, was most sympathetic to the arriving Americans. The interesting point now is that many of the dissenting, angry voices we hear from Iraq are from people who support us — and not just Iraqis either. The Washington Post‘s Anthony Shadid reports from Basra that the British harbor similar feelings (In Basra Worse May Be Ahead):

“In interviews, residents of Iraq’s second-largest city almost uniformly expressed anger and incredulity at the shortages of gasoline and electricity and the skyrocketing black-market prices that have accompanied them. British officials in Basra, openly frustrated themselves, questioned the priorities of the U.S.-led reconstruction. And many feared that remnants of Hussein’s government or militant Shiite Muslim groups were prepared to capitalize on the disenchantment. Pickard [a spokesman for the British-led occupation in Basra] acknowledged that there was ‘an understandable degree of frustration’ and complained that British officials’ priorities in Basra — power, water and fuel — are not shared to the same degree by U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.

“‘It seems so bureaucratic. It’s so difficult to get things going,’ he said from a building that had been looted of everything but its windows before the British moved in. ‘We have not had a great deal of say. We don’t feel we’ve been able to influence the reconstruction program.'”

To my mind, Shadid, who has the advantage of speaking Arabic, has been the most reliable and insightful American journalist in Iraq. A couple of days ago he wrote the single most interesting piece I’ve seen recently — a close-up portrait of a villager killed by American troops in an ambushed convoy — on the complex home-grown roots of at least some of the Iraqi resistance movement in the north. I include it below. It repays careful reading.

And while I’m praising insightful (as well as reliable) journalists who have been with us through this endless crisis, let me mention Jim Lobe of Inter Press News Service, whose work I usually find at the Asia Times online or Foreign Policy in Focus. He recently took a fascinating stab at a subject everyone else pretty much has taken for granted — defining what a neocon actually is. (“With all the attention paid to neo-conservatives in the international media nowadays, one would think that there would be a standard definition of the term. Yet, despite their now being credited with a virtual takeover of US foreign policy under President George W Bush, a common understanding of the term remains elusive.”) Take a look. I also include below a striking piece he’s done on the return of the age of Reagan Iran-Contra scandals and the ways in which that nightmare may prove to have been a modest romp compared to what’s coming down the pike. Given the quality (and quantity) of his work, he should really be writing for one of the major papers, not a small news service whose pieces are seldom seen here.

Oh, and talking about the return of scandals, who should make a reappearance but — for all you Watergate nostalgia fans — Sam Dash, who served as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. Writing in Newsday, he bemoans the pathetic weakness of our present Congress (“There are no Sam Ervins in the Senate now”), which has proved a watchdog over nothing, including our liberties(Today We Face Another ‘Watergate):

“[I]f the Congress and the courts are passive in the face of a president’s assertion of excessive power, and the people are uninformed of the danger, the country can once again face the loss of precious constitutional freedoms.

“This lesson of Watergate is particularly pertinent now. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have sought and obtained from an acquiescent Congress unprecedented powers that are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights’ protections. It is not that these powers are necessary to fight terrorism.

“The government overreaches when it employs its war against terror to attack the liberties of American citizens. We now face sweeping federal wiretapping, secret searches and seizures, arrest and detention without trial or right to counsel, infiltration by FBI agents in our places of worship and in our social and political clubs and associations. Not even what we read, either from libraries or bookstores, is respected.”

Today, Newsday had an op-ed from James L. Larocca, a Vietnam Vet, which brought Vietnam and Iraq together in a particularly revealing way. (“Our government called it ‘pacification.’ We called it madness. It all has come back to me while watching the news from Iraq, where we should be applying more of the lessons so painfully learned in Vietnam. Instead, we seem to be repeating our mistakes.”) Let it never be said that there were no lessons we could have taken from the Vietnam experience. But our leaders just wanted — as they have for three decades — to bury Vietnam, not to learn a thing from it. And so here we are. Last but hardly least, I include a piece from a heroic figure who spans the two eras, Vietnam/Iraq, unsilenced: Noam Chomsky. At the ZNET website he summarizes where we’ve been and where we now are. Tom

Have We Forgotten Anger in the Eyes?
By James L. Larocca
August 13, 2003

Ordinarily, our boats patrolled Vietnam’s rivers in pairs. But on this night we had several teams operating together as we launched the Pentagon’s latest ingenious scheme for winning the war in the Mekong Delta.

The concept was simple enough: instead of surprising people with conventional gunfire during raids, the boats would first set the houses and buildings on fire with bows and arrows. The brass called this early version of “shock and awe” Operation Flaming Arrow.

James L. Larocca, a professor of public policy at Southampton College, was a naval officer in Vietnam during 1967-68. His Vietnam-based play, “Penang,” is being presented Thursday evening at Guild Hall.

To read more Larocca click here

Iran-Contra, amplified
By Jim Lobe
Asia Times
August 11, 2003

A specter of the Iran-Contra affair is haunting Washington. Even some of the people and countries are the same. And the methods – particularly the pursuit by a network of well-placed individuals of a covert, parallel foreign policy that is at odds with official policy – are definitely the same.

Boiled down to its essentials, the Iran-Contra affair was about a small group of officials based in the National Security Agency (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that ran an “off-the-books” operation to secretly sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

They used the proceeds over the following years to sustain the Nicaraguan Contras – US-sponsored rebels fighting Managua’s left-wing government – in defiance of both a congressional ban and of official US policy as enunciated by the State Department and then president Ronald Reagan. It was never clear whether Reagan understood, let alone approved, the operation.

To read more Lobe click here

A Villager Attacks U.S. Troops, but Why?
Iraqi’s Life and Death Provide Cautionary Tale

By Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post
August 11, 2003

ALBU ALWAN, Iraq — On a sun-drenched plain along a bluff of barren cliffs, a cheap headstone made of cement marks the grave of Omar Ibrahim Khalaf. His name was hastily scrawled in white chalk. Underneath is a religious invocation that begins, “In the name of God, the most merciful and compassionate.” It is followed simply by the date of his death, Friday, Aug. 1.

But one word on the marker distinguishes Khalaf’s resting place. His epitaph declares him a shahid, a martyr.

In a 15-minute battle so intense that villagers called it a glimpse of hell, U.S. forces killed Khalaf as he tried to fire rocket-propelled grenades at a convoy. A .50-caliber round tore off his skull. Machine-gun fire almost detached his left arm and ankle, which were left dangling from a corpse riddled with bullets and smeared with blood and the powdery dirt of the Euphrates River valley.

To read more Shadid click here

Preventive War “The Supreme Crime”
Iraq: invasion that will live in infamy
By Noam Chomsky
August 11, 2003

September 2002 was marked by three events of considerable importance,
closely related. The United States, the most powerful state in history,
announced a new national security strategy asserting that it will
maintain global hegemony permanently. Any challenge will be blocked by
force, the dimension in which the US reigns supreme. At the same time,
the war drums began to beat to mobilise the population for an invasion
of Iraq. And the campaign opened for the mid-term congressional
elections, which would determine whether the administration would be
able to carry forward its radical international and domestic agenda.

The new “imperial grand strategy”, as it was termed at once by John
Ikenberry writing in the leading establishment journal, presents the US
as “a revisionist state seeking to parlay its momentary advantages into
a world order in which it runs the show”, a unipolar world in which “no
state or coalition could ever challenge it as global leader, protector,
and enforcer” (1). These policies are fraught with danger even for the
US itself, Ikenberry warned, joining many others in the foreign policy

To read more Chomsky click here