The Petraeus Moment Blots Out the World
By Tom Engelhardt
The former Cockney flower-girl turned elegant-English-speaker Eliza Doolittle caught something of our moment in these lyrics from My Fair Lady: “Oh, words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…. Is that all you blighters can do?” Of course, all she had to do was be Galatea to a self-involved language teacher/Pygmalion. We’ve had to bear with the bloviating of almost every member of Congress, the full-blast PR apparatus of the White House, and two endless days of congressional testimony from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, not to speak of the flood of newspaper, radio, and TV stories about all of the above and the bevy of experts who are hustled out to do the horse-race assessments of how the general and ambassador performed, whether they “bought” time for the President, and the like.
And — count on it — that’s just the beginning. The same cast of characters will be talking, squabbling, spinning, and analyzing stats of every sort for weeks to come — with a sequel promised next spring. Everyone knows that’s the case, just as everyone has known since mid-summer that we would get to this point and, when we did, that things similar to those said (and written) in the last two days would indeed be said (and written), and that nothing the blighters would say or write would matter a whit, or change the course of events, or the tide of history, even though whole forests might be pulped in the process and it would be springtime for hyperbole and breathless overstatement in the world of news.
There has been a drumbeat of growing excitement in the press, preparing us for “pivotal reports,” a “pivotal hearing,” “highly anticipated appearances,” and “long-awaited testimony,” or, as both the Washington Post on its front page and ABC World News in a lead report put it, “the most anticipated congressional testimony by a general since the Vietnam War.”
Petraeus himself has been treated in the media as a celebrity, somewhere between a conquering Caesar and the Paris Hilton of generals. Nothing he does has been too unimportant to record, not just the size of his entourage as he arrived from Baghdad, or the suite he was assigned at the Pentagon, or even his “recon” walk through the room in the House of Representatives where he would testify Monday, but every detail. Somehow, when he refused to give interviews before his “long-awaited” appearance, lots of Petraeus-iana slipped out anyway:
“[H]e also has taken short breaks for walks with his wife…. for dinner with their daughter, who lives in the area, and for lunch with his wife’s parents. On his daily jogging route he maintains a brisk, steady pace over a seven-mile route, snaking from Fort Myer, across the Potomac and through Georgetown”
So who, exactly, was so eagerly awaiting the jogging general’s testimony? If a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll is any indication, a majority of Americans weren’t among that crowd. They had already discounted whatever he would say — I doubt the ambassador even registered — as “exaggerated” and “a rosier view” than reality dictated before his face and that chest full of ribbons hit the TV screens. (“Just 23 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents expected an honest depiction of conditions in Iraq.”) This was simple good sense. What exactly could anyone outside of Washington have expected the general — who had a hand in creating the President’s “surge” strategy, is now in charge of the “surge” campaign, and for months has been delegated the official administration front man for what was, from day one, labeled a “progress report” — to say? An instant online headline caught the mood of the Petraeus moment while his first round of testimony was still underway: “Gen. Petraeus Sees Iraq Progress.” Ah, yes
And what in the world could anyone have eagerly anticipated from our unbudgeable President? Just what occurred. And yet, in our media, and inside Washington, the drumbeat for “an anticipated moment of truth” continued, as if something were actually at stake. Take just one example. On Sunday, the Washington Post had a hard-breathing piece by no less than six of its best journalists, with the headline, “Among Top Officials, ‘Surge’ Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting.”
It focused on a reported “clash” between Gen. Petraeus and his theoretical boss, Centcom Commander Adm. William J. Fallon. It seems that the two fell into a near end-of-the-world-style struggle because Fallon had begun “developing plans to redefine the U.S. mission and radically draw down troops.” (“‘Bad relations?’ said a senior civilian official with a laugh. ‘That’s the understatement of the century…. If you think Armageddon was a riot, that’s one way of looking at it.'”) Naturally, Petraeus, like the President, wanted to continue to surge full strength (as we now know — not that we didn’t before — from his slow-as-molasses plan to drawdown American forces). But what did that radical Fallon have in mind that led to a “schism”? According to a source who spoke to a Post reporter, it “involved slashing U.S. combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010.” Imagine a Centcom commander as a force slasher!
But hold on a moment. Combat forces make up, at best, less than half of all U.S. forces in Iraq; so if, by 2010, the good admiral wants only three-quarters of those combat troops withdrawn, then we’re still left with at least 80,000 or more troops in that country three years from now.
Well, I’m with Eliza D — and so, evidently, was the technology of the House hearing room in which the general and the ambassador appeared on Monday. After chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton (D-MO) and various other Congressional representatives introduced the hearings for what seemed like hours, the general was finally given the floor for his “long-awaited” testimony. His mouth began to move but in a resounding silence. The mike had failed and (except for Code Pink protesters rising from the audience to shout and be escorted out) the room fell into just about the only Iraqi silence of these past, “eagerly anticipated” months — and what a relief that was. While Skelton fumed, the announcer on MSNBC suggested, “The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq is apparently powerless over the sound system in the hearing room.”
It was a moment that had Iraq written all over it. After all, has anything worked as planned or dreamed since March 2003?
Of course, fifteen minutes later the mike had been replaced (though the room lights then proceeded to flicker as if in distant communion with electricity-less Baghdad) — in Iraq, you suspect, people would have just started shouting — and the general did finally launch on his monotonal, mind-numbing, expectably boiler-plate testimony. He promised that, if all went well, American troops would be back to pre-surge levels by mid-July 2008, ten months from now, 18 months from that plan’s beginning. “Progress” indeed.
The general’s testimony would be dealt with in the tones of gravitas that journalists-cum-pundits and pundits-cum-pundits reserve for moments like this. Yet, given the original expectations of the Bush administration, some of the testimony Petraeus (and later Crocker) had to offer would have been little short of hilarious if the subject weren’t so grim. (Good news! Four years after the invasion of Iraq, we finally have the former Baathists of al-Anbar Province, whom our President used to refer to as “dead-enders,” on our side! Even better, we’re arming them and all is going swimmingly!)
Buying a precious extra six-plus months for the White House, the general also suggested that it would be premature to think beyond next July, when it came to “drawdown” plans, and that we should, instead, all reconvene in mid-March 2008 for more of the same.
You can, of course, already begin writing the script for that “eagerly anticipated,” “long awaited,” “pivotal” moment when the situation in Iraq will be predictably worse, predictably more precarious, and predictably surprising to the general and the ambassador.
As aids for his testimony, Petraeus had brought along a profusion of enormous, multicolored charts to illustrate his points. Many of them — amazingly enough — seemed to have more or less the same blue, red, or yellow lines, each of which crested about chart middle and then essentially nosedived toward the present moment. The message was clear: Good news on the numbers! Everything’s falling! You didn’t need an expert — you essentially didn’t need to know a thing — to find the confluence of those descending lines with the general’s appearance in Washington a tad tidy.
As for me, I found it hard to believe that those charts hadn’t been recycled from the Vietnam era, when Petraeus’ equivalent, General William Westmoreland, used similar brightly colored, bar-coded, son-et-lumière aids to wow visiting congressional delegations with the metrics of “progress” in his war. Now, once again, we’re knee deep in the Big Metric, flooded with so many different kinds of stats that you can hardly tell one from another (though most involve dead bodies). If you remember the Vietnam era, there’s a simple rule here: When the top brass hauls out the pretty charts, duck
In the meantime — mind you, this is Iraq where nothing has been orderly — everything was, we were assured, to proceed in an orderly fashion, summed up in the general’s wonderfully tidy, if somewhat Orwellian-sounding formula, “from leading to partnering to overwatch.”
Hmmm “overwatch.” I wonder who first woke up in a sweat in the middle of the night with that lovely term on the brain? I wonder what it even means? I wonder where we’ll be “overwatching” from? Perhaps from that monstrous embassy that we’ve almost completed in Baghdad, the largest on this or any other planet, or from our vast permanent-seeming base towns like the one with the 17-mile security perimeter that the President visited in Iraq’s western desert, but that no reporter accompanying him even thought to describe for us. (Oh, back in November 2006, that base, as a British reporter described it, already had the requisite Subway and pizza outlets, a football field, a Hertz rent-a-car office, a swimming pool, a movie theater showing the latest flicks, and two bus routes.)
Like Eliza, I’m for skipping the words at this point. After all, what does all the talk mean if, in September 2007, the U.S. is building yet another base in Iraq, this time near the Iranian border, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The military describes it as a “life support area” — don’t ask me what that means — with this added definition: “[It’s] not really permanent, although it will be manned 24/7 and will be used for as long as necessary.”
What does all the talk mean if, as the Washington Post’s indefatigable Walter Pincus noted, also on Monday, the U.S. Commerce Department is looking for a new legal adviser for Iraq with a contract running through July 31, 2008, plus two possible 12-month extensions. (There we are in 2010 again!) This adviser is to help the poor, ignorant Iraqis as “they draft the laws and regulations that will govern Iraq’s oil and gas sector.” After all, as the proposal makes clear, the Commerce Department (U.S., not Iraqi) “will be providing technical assistance to Iraq to create a legal and tax environment conducive to domestic and foreign investment in Iraq’s key economic sectors, starting with the mineral resources sector.” And “conducive” is just such a nice word! Even nicer than “sovereignty.”
What do the words mean, if the far edge of Armageddon, as defined in Washington or in military-insider politics, leaves enough American troops in Iraq to fill a couple of baseball stadiums — or several gigantic bases — in 2010?
At some level, the situation seems remarkably uncomplicated, if you skip the words (and the words about the words). As has always been true, the top figures of the Bush administration remain completely unmoved by, and unmovable by, words which, as is well known, are only meant to move other people; the Republicans in Congress — after all this time, despite all the dismal polling figures — are still on bended knee to the Bush administration, so powerless that they feel incapable of striking off on their own. (Senator John Warner, R-VA, who isn’t even seeking reelection, recently begged the President to please, please, pretty please, send home a few thousand troops, any troops at all, and call it a day. And, in his testimony, General Petraeus threw the Senator a carefully gnawed bone, agreeing to do just that.)
The Congressional Democrats are too weak (and divided) to change policy — and let’s be honest, even if they did, this administration would undoubtedly pay no attention whatsoever to anything they mandated. The Republican candidates for President (minus the maverick Ron Paul, who isn’t really a Republican at all) have bowed down low before presidential Iraq policy, as if before a pagan idol in the desert, in search of the “base vote.” Democratic candidates for President (Bill Richardson and Denis Kucinich excepted) are running “tough” (which means running scared and cautious) on Iraq. If, in 2008, the war actually proves good for business at the polls for Democrats, then, to their consternation, they’ll find they’ve just inherited a disastrous war, that they’re likely to be blamed for losing it, and that they’re in charge of Hell, not the Oval Office or Congress. (And note that, out of kindness to all of you, I’m not even mentioning Iran…. though there was that nice, giant block of type over Iranian territory on a Petraeus-displayed map labeled “Major Threats to Iraq” that said: “Lethal Aid, Training, Funding.”)
Given this line-up of forces, how could it have been anything but “words, words, words” in Washington, even while it was death, death, death in Iraq?
What those words do, however, is fill all available space, reinforcing a powerful sense that Washington’s importance in the scheme of things is the one unquestionable reality on our planet. The rest of the world hardly registers, except in the mode of frustration.
Is there a single ounce of humility anywhere in Washington? Can we even imagine that, somewhere on Earth, someone doesn’t think about us?
General Petraeus, always identified as having “earned a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton University as a young officer,” is said to be a man with a high regard for his own reputation. Hasn’t he noticed, then, that, for one extra star and his Warholian 15 minutes of fame, he’s made himself this country’s fourth commander of American forces in Iraq in less than five years? Each of those commanders had a plan. Each was confident. Each claimed “progress.” And, once upon a time, each was embraced by the President as the man to give him “advice.” Ambassador Crocker is similarly the fourth American civilian viceroy to head up our caliphate of Baghdad. He now has “carte blanche” there. But carte blanche to do what?
Could these men really believe that, with them, the occupation of a crucial country in the embattled oil heartlands of the planet would finally head down the IED-pocked path of success? Is the vanity of American officials as great as that? Was it really worth turning so many Iraqis into red and blue lines, into military metrics?
To grasp the Petraeus moment, you really have to re-imagine official Washington as a set of drunks behind the wheels of so many SUVs tearing down a well-populated city avenue — and all of them are on their cell phones. They hardly notice the bodies bouncing off the fenders. For them, the world is Washington-centered; all interests that matter are American ones. Nothing else exists, not really. Think of this as a form of imperial autism and the Petraeus moment as the way in which the White House and official Washington have, for a brief time, blotted out the world.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt