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The imperfect media storm or George Bush and the Temple of Doom

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Quote of the week: The President on Larry King Live finally puts to rest any doubts you had about what he was doing for those 7 minutes in a Florida classroom on September 11, 2001: “Well, I had just been told by [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card that America was under attack. And I was collecting my thoughts. And I was sitting with a bunch of young kids, and I made the decision there that we would let this part of the program finish, and then I would calmly stand up and thank the teacher and thank the children and go take care of business.

“KING: Wasn’t that the hardest seven minutes of your life?

“G. BUSH: Well, there’s been a lot of hard moments in my life.

“KING: But at that moment, to hear that news. . . .

“G. BUSH: Yes, it was — trying to understand exactly what it meant. But there have been a lot of hard moments.”

So My Pet Goat was just a cover. The President was actually collecting his thoughts and trying to understand exactly what IT meant before leaping on a plane and heading for Louisiana.

The Perfect Media Storm

The day before Charley the hurricane hit, I checked out prime-time network news, which on every channel led with (and lingered on) New Jersey Governor McGreevey’s resignation (“I am a gay American”). Story two, unsurprisingly, involved a series of reports on the unprecedented double-hurricane threat bearing down on Florida. ABC even displayed a weather map with the evil-looking, multicolored, swirling radar eye of one hurricane right over the island of Cuba, which, of course, went unmentioned as only Florida’s upcoming fate was being considered. The third story of the night, maybe 12 minutes into the news, was the ongoing “Iraq, Najaf branch, more trouble in.” And this was, when you think about it, extraordinary in its own way. After all, sex and the weather — think Michael Jackson and El Nino — regularly trump any other subjects on the news agenda. Americans love bad weather. (If you don’t believe me, just visit El Paso, Texas, as I do periodically, where the weather remains splendidly predictable week-in, year-out and watch the TV weather people reach as far as the Persian Gulf for a little ugly weather drama.)

What’s usually so lovely about bad weather, especially for television, is that it has all the visual action of war — lots of filmable disaster, plenty of casualties, vistas of damage, cartloads of close-ups of human pain — without the politics to worry about. So by the night Charley, the “worst” hurricane “on the west coast of Florida in at least a century,” according to my home-town paper, was blasting in, the full first perhaps 15 minutes or so of the network news had become all-hurricane all-the-time. On the other hand, a simple Google search (“did not match any documents”) tells me that for all the media coverage of the powerful storm and its wake of devastation, the one obvious, if controversial, connection no media person in America seems to have made was to global warming — or rather to predictions that our overheating-planet is going to have ever more “extreme weather” episodes. A linkage like that, after all, would make such a mess of the perfect media event.

And speaking of connections poorly (or not at all) made, rises in oil prices that would once have passed for nightmare energy scenarios have, like so many Creatures from the Black Lagoon, been swimming to the surface of the business pages and generally stopping there. On the network news, the latest oil price rises tend to be given later in the half-hour in the dry, scorecard manner of the Dow Jones figures. Last week the price of a barrel of crude surged over $46 a barrel. Maybe soon we’ll hit a previously unimaginable $50 a barrel, despite Saudi pumping promises, but no point in sounding apocalyptic or, say, making a few connections between the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, American energy use, the Bush administration, the perfect storm in Florida, the sales of SUVS, lowered fuel efficiency standards, and our poor, fragile planet. After all, why be globally apocalyptic when being south-Florida apocalyptic will more than do the trick. (Oh, and in case no one other than you and me have noticed, there’s been a stock market slide in recent weeks.) You could read your morning paper every day and catch your evening news (and check out NPR in the bargain) and still easily miss many of the signs of crisis that beset us like so many potential Charley’s.

Iraq may be the exception to this. Our encoded media have so much of the news compartmentalized and regularized. It’s rare to see a subject grow completely uppity, step out of line consistently, and insist upon taking on meanings other than the limited ones our media has assigned it. At the end of June, for instance, the Bush administration “handed over sovereignty” to the Allawi “interim administration.” By now, it’s quite clear that L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Administration officials controlled remarkably little of Iraq other than the places where our troops were garrisoned, and the Green Zone of Baghdad, and so had more or less nothing to hand over (had they wanted to, which they didn’t). Nonetheless, they created a tidy enough “sovereign transfer” for our media, mostly locked in Baghdad, where control was at least up for grabs. Put in headline terms, the transfer was meant to read: “Onrushing stability and democratic possibility in now-unoccupied Iraq.” It was meant to take Iraq off the front pages until at least November 3. And it did succeed in doing so for perhaps a month, during which time the Allawi [fill in the term of your choice: interim administration/government/regime/puppet government] was written about in our press as if it were indeed a serious government, a genuine partner with the United States (or alternately those “multinational forces”), and not a shell, completely reliant on the Bush administration and unable to extend its powers beyond parts of Baghdad — neither to the semi-independent Kurdish north, nor to the rebellious Sunni triangle, nor to what may soon enough come to be known as “the Shiite triangle.”

During that month, the press (and television) dealt with Allawi’s regime as if it were anything but “interim” (as I’m sure Allawi would himself prefer) and as if it were truly an independent player, despite the fact that, as geopolitical columnist Paul Rogers of the openDemocracy website recently pointed out: “US officials or their appointees operate at a senior level in every Iraqi government ministry, and the regime is dependent on American military forces in Iraq for its very survival.”

This treatment was extended to Allawi’s paltry and poorly trained police and security forces, whose willingness to fight and allegiance to his regime look thin indeed, especially since, as Kamil Mahdi, an Iraqi university lecturer in England, writes in the British Guardian, “[T]here is now a greater effort at involving the police and other new Iraqi armed forces in waging the United States’ war-by-proxy against the political opponents of the occupation.” The reality of the troops our press call “Iraqi forces” (as if those fighting them came from some other planet) is not encouraging. Tony Karon of Time magazine recently pointed out that in Najaf the Americans seem to have had special plans for those “Iraqi forces” (while our military spokespeople talked of Sadr’s militiamen and other “anti-Iraqi forces”):

“The government rushed to assure Iraqis that American forces would not enter the Imam Ali Mosque, and any fighting there would be done by Iraqi security forces. The problem was, U.S. commanders had reportedly concluded that the Iraqi forces in the city had trouble achieving even ‘minor combat objectives.'”

For anyone with a memory of the Vietnam War, where “our” Vietnamese continually disappointed their American advisers, while the enemy — “Charlie” or “the VC” — performed with often startling bravery against overwhelming firepower, much of what is to come will undoubtedly prove painfully familiar. Our paid Iraqi troops will go up against Sadr followers like Ahmed Eisa, armed with a powerful sense of nationalism and a religious fervor. Eisa is a Shia who counts 27 relatives killed during the Saddam era and who sent his wife and two young children out of Najaf “to make sure there is someone to remember me after I die.” He then told a Washington Post reporter:

“I know the Americans have better weapons. They have better plans. They have uniforms that cost $3,000, and we have only our clothes But I have principles. I have holy land to defend. I have family to protect, so I feel stronger than them. The occupation forces are nothing but mercenaries who fight for money, so I feel stronger.”

He added:

“I am old enough now to differentiate between occupation and freedom It’s not true that the Americans came to get rid of Saddam. It was only a trick to occupy the country. We all know that Bush announced twice that this is a crusade. So we know they are targeting a certain group [the Shiites]We know the strategic importance of Iraq in the region and the wealth of our country. They want to control it. They want to control our oil, our wealth and the world.”

“There is something called patriotism I like my country, and I saw the U.S. forces did not come to protect us. So I wanted to follow the leader who can demand my rights and defeat the occupation. The U.S. forces are occupiers, so we have to resist them.”

George Bush and the Temple of Doom

As in Vietnam, the Americans simply can’t lose militarily and yet, as in Najaf, every victory will undoubtedly prove but another disaster. As retired U.S. Army General Daniel Christman put it, “The great vulnerability we have is to turn the mass of the Shi’ite population against the coalition. We can win every tactical battle, but lose the war if we don’t put the individual engagements inside a larger political context.” We lose by winning and they win with every loss. It’s as if we (and our Iraqi allies) are fighting in another dimension from either the Shiite or Sunni resistors. Every slaughter, every defeat, only brings greater support.

In brief TV shots of sizeable Sadrist demonstrations in Baghdad in response to events in Najaf, for instance, Iraqi policemen in uniform were shown in the crowd, holding up Sadr’s photo, and an eyewitness account by Dhiya Rasan and Mohammed Fawzi, Iraqi reporters in the Glasgow Morning Herald — Iraqi voices in our media, other than official spokespeople for the Allawi regime, are in short supply indeed — confirms this impression for Baghdad (though not Najaf):

“A young police officer beams at the marchers, clearly moved by the display. ‘We’ve come here to protect them, not stop them,’ he says. Word circulates in the crowd that the Muslim Scholars’ Board, a conservative Sunni organisation with links to Sunni insurgents, has issued a fatwa in solidarity with al-Sadr banning any Iraqi policeman or official from cooperating with the coalition and government forces.”

In Iraq right now, the Bush administration is trapped in a Rube Goldberg-style machine of its own making as our confused and ludicrous maneuvers in Najaf have recently shown — first, the threats of no negotiations; then the taking of the holy cemetery (with its two million dead); next the withdrawal of our forces from the cemetery; then an official position, in Colin Powell’s words, of “squeezing” Najaf, that is, al-Sadr and his followers in the Shrine of Imam Ali (think siege), but quietly leaving open an entryway for food and reinforcements to arrive, followed by negotiations, their breakdown, the resending of our troops into the cemetery, and more “bloody” fighting, followed by a decision to pull back U.S. forces and send mainly Iraqi ones into the areas around the Shrine; not to speak of an initial implicit threat that American troops would take the Shrine, followed by the threat that Iraqi troops would be sent in to take the Shrine, followed by promises that the Shrine would not be touched, and so on and so forth. The fact is, there are probably no military actions the Bush administration can now take in Iraq, whether an “Iraqi face” is put on them or not, which are likely to work.

In Najaf, for instance, our soldiers kill large numbers of Iraqi “enemies” with few casualties, each set of deaths a visible military victory; while elsewhere in response resistance only spreads. As we “squeeze” Najaf, Sadrism bursts to life in other cities and, barely reported in our media, all sorts of protests burst forth. To offer just a few recent examples — Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite vice-president of the interim government in Baghdad and one of the few figures in it with any public support, vehemently criticized American assaults on Najaf as “uncivilized” and called for the withdrawal of American troops; the deputy governnor of Basra, which British troops have evidently largely ceased patrolling for the time being, called for southern secession from a Baghdad “responsible for the Najaf clashes”; the top Sunni religious body, “the Association of Muslim Scholars issued a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding Muslims from offering any support to the forces of ‘occupation'”; like half the provincial council for Najaf governate, the deputy governor of Najaf, Jawdat Kadhim Najam al-Quraishi, appointed by the Americans, resigned in protest against the assault, saying, “I resign from my post denouncing all the US terrorist operations that they are doing against this holy city.”

What we may be seeing, as Paul Rogers comments, is a new “quasi-nationalist cause starting to emerge that transcends the confessional communities and is becoming united in common opposition to the United States occupation and the Iyad Allawi regime. If this is indeed so, then a transition from insurgency to a more general uprising is certainly possible.”

We have made ourselves the decisive factor — uniter and unraveler — in Iraq. The Iraqis, of course, have problems enough on their own, but our very presence in their country as a massive and destructive armed occupier, takes precedence over all else. However canny the new set of Americans inside the Green Zone in Baghdad may think themselves, there is probably no longer a maneuver they can perform that would lead to anything more than more, and worse, of the same (and in the process the strengthening of the most extreme elements in both Shia and Sunni Iraq).

There is probably no longer a way out for the Americans — other than out. And here’s the sad thing: we know that the Pentagon develops contingency plans for just about everything. There are, at this moment, undoubtedly plans somewhere in the Pentagon for the insertion of American forces into Albania, or Guinea-Bissau, or the Sudan. But I’d put a few dollars on the fact that there isn’t a single contingency plan anywhere in the Pentagon or the Bush administration for the withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. When our commanders speak of being there for another five years, they just mean for the illimitable future. When John Kerry speaks of drawing down American forces within a year, he has to promptly deny that he has a “schedule” for such a move. Originally, of course, we had no “exit strategy” because the Bush administration never planned to depart. Now, we have none because we’ve trapped ourselves in a strategic prison of our own making, a cell that President John Kerry (if elected) will be no less capable of occupying, as columnist William Pfaff recently made clear, unless his position on Iraq undergoes significant changes in the coming months.

All this was put only too eloquently by those Americans most in danger from this mad situation in a recent Anne Barnard piece in the Boston Globe. She wrote about a squad of American Marines stationed near Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle and how “the slow pace of progress is shaking their faith in their mission.” Lance Corporal Anthony Robert, 21, of Charlottesville, Va., is quoted as saying: “People are tired of us being here. It’s the same as if someone came to the US and started taking over. You’d do what you’d have to do.”

Here are comments from other squad members:

“If we stay 10 years or if we stay one year, we’re going to leave and there’s going to be chaos.”

“The Army troops whom the Marines replaced told them, ‘You’re going to learn to hate these people I thought, “With that attitude, no wonder you’re having a hard time.” But you know what? They’re absolutely right.'”

“Last year . . . kids ran up to us and waved. Here, kids throw rocks.”

“From [squad leader] Goward’s point of view, the United States has fulfilled its goals in Iraq: toppling Saddam Hussein, capturing him, and handing off formal sovereignty to Iraqis. ‘What’s left?’ he said.”

If only we could also hear a few more Iraqi voices on their own country. After all, what voice should we really have in the affairs of Iraq? One of those voices, that of an Iraqi woman living abroad, appeared in the Tomdispatch e-mailbox recently. As her e-letter caught no less eloquently than the Marines in Ramadi something of the crisis at hand, I thought I might (with her permission) reproduce it here. She writes:

“Dear Tom,

“I am an Iraqi woman living [abroad]. I have just finished reading your recent piece about Najaf and I share your fears about what is going to happen if the issue is not resolved quickly. Iraq will be on fire; Shiites who are now sitting on the fence will join the fight in no time.

“All my family is still in Iraq/Baghdad, and I know from talking to them and to others in Iraq that most people hate Muqtada Al-Sadr for what he is doing to the Holy cities; they don’t trust him because he is so young, with no experience. He had even been sidelined by his late father. The problem is his followers (as you correctly mentioned) are those young, unemployed and uneducated but heavily armed men (a very dangerous mixture).

“The even bigger problem, which I dread to think about, is if this assault on Najaf continues, the moderate Shiite men, who are the majority now, will join Sadr’s men. Not because they support him but the assault will touch a very sensitive chord in every Shiite (including myself).”

Here’s the remarkable thing: Although most of the time we in this country can hardly hear so much as the whisper of Iraqi voices, Iraq and its resistant people have somehow managed to refuse the many media compartments into which they have repeatedly been stuffed. I remember only one example like it in my lifetime. Back in the late 1960s, the Vietnamese managed to fight at least partway into American living rooms at the cost of untold numbers of dead — all those interminable, questionable American “body counts” which nonetheless crudely reflected the slaughter underway and are now starting up again in Iraq.

That’s why I continue to find that third position, right after McGreevey and Charley, for the Iraqi story the other night remarkable indeed. We were to “liberate” Iraq and, in return, the Iraqis were supposed to return to the quiet back pages where foreign news stories (Zambian ferry sinks, 322 dead) are squibbed. But Iraq has proved the imperfect media storm. You might write it this way in storm terms: “Iraq is the worst storm of resistance and rebellion to hit the U.S. media coast in at least 40 years.”

So here we are, hardly a year and a quarter beyond that “mission accomplished” moment and the Bush administration finds itself in the middle of Najaf, a most unathletic Indiana Jones facing the Temple of Doom. Since the moment just after 9/11 when our President briefly uttered the fatal word “crusade” (and then had to swiftly retract it), it seems as if we’ve never been heading anywhere else. Our troops, Humvees, tanks, Predator drones, Apache helicopters, and F-16s are all right there, just overhead or at moments only a few hundred yards from one of Islam’s holiest spots. Who cares about motives, you couldn’t have created a better recipe for a “clash of civilizations” if you wanted to. Tom

Part 2, later in the week: Media language and Iraq