The Precipice, the Brink, the Abyss — Iraq

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George’s Inferno
And Other Images from a No-Name War

By Tom Engelhardt

Look at the polls. When Gallup’s pollsters go out to ask Americans about the Bush administration and Iraq, they frame their questions this way: “Do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?”; “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war with Iraq?”; “Who do you think is currently winning the war in Iraq?” Mind you, never the Iraq War — like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Gulf War — but the war in Iraq. The CBS and NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters sometimes use that formulation too, as does Zogby (which has also used, “the war against insurgents.”). On the other hand, the pollsters at the Pew Research Center, like those at ABC/Washington Post, CBS, Newsweek, the Associated Press/Ipsos, Time, Fox News, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal all like to put the phrase “the situation in Iraq” into their questions. Pew also employs: “the U.S. military effort in Iraq.” Sometimes in follow-up questions, pollsters simply speak of “the war” (always lower-cased) or, as with Harris pollsters back in November 2005, just “the situation.”

As a further experiment, go to the Pentagon’s website, click on “transcripts of news briefings,” “transcripts of background briefings,” and “speeches,” and put into the search window “Iraq War.” Curiously, what comes out of the archival depths of our five-sided, war-fighting headquarters is essentially nothing, or rather the words, “Iraq” and “war” in the same paragraph or even sentence but quite unconnected — as in “Iraq” in one place and the Cold War, the War on Terror, or the Long War somewhere in the vicinity. At best, you can find our garrulous Secretary of Defense at a news briefing with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, telling reporters that our military is “able, at a moment’s notice, to respond to the pleas of millions across the world, while at the same time fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe.” And here’s an odd thing: As far as the Pentagon search engine can tell, “Iraq War” doesn’t come up normally even in the questions reporters ask Rumsfeld and other Pentagon figures, though “the situation” obviously plays a major roll in Pentagon press briefings and announcements.

Or give a shot to the Iraq part of the U.S. Central Command’s website (still headlined, by the way, Operation Iraqi Freedom) where two references pop up: one as part of a question from a Stars and Stripes reporter in a news briefing (“Throughout the Iraq war, we’ve been relying fairly heavily on the National Guard.”); the other to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Or, just for the heck of it, check out the White House website which archives presidential and vice-presidential speeches, announcements, press conferences, radio addresses, and statements. The top item that comes up there is this: “President Addresses Nation, discusses Iraq, War on Terror.” Pretty typical, it turns out.

The President’s most recent major address — to the American Legion (given after the Golden Mosque’s dome was blasted to smithereens in Samarra) — not surprisingly uses “war” twenty times and yet never directly in conjunction with events in Iraq, even though “freedom’s progress” there is up for discussion, as are “our efforts in Iraq,” as is “our clear strategy of victory in Iraq” (though strangely not in the Iraq War or even the Iraq war, no less the war in Iraq). What we’re doing there, it turns out, is “working to defeat every terrorist working to stop freedom in Iraq.” Our goal is to make Iraq in victory our “strong ally” in the only war in town — not the one in Iraq, even though the President that evening was grimly assuring his audience that “this is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people” — but the “war on terror.” Only in the context of that great “global war,” that multigenerational conflict which, according to the Vice President’s office, gives the President all those commander-in-chief powers as a “unitary executive,” can he say in no uncertain terms, “[W]e remain a nation at war.”

The Vietnam War was known as such from very early on. (Of course, it helped that John F. Kennedy was pushing it as his counterinsurgency war of choice against the Soviets.) Similarly, while the war the elder Bush fought against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was dubbed Operation Desert Storm, it quickly became known as the Gulf War. That this war has no name — and that no one even thinks to comment on it — has represented a quiet success for the Bush administration.

In not naming the “situation in Iraq,” the media and the public seem to have followed in the administration’s footsteps. You can search the press, for instance, almost in vain for “the Iraq War,” and when, on occasion, you do find it, that “war” is always lower-cased. Nor do people speak, say, of ‘Raq, the way in the last years of Vietnam, Americans (following the lead of the soldiers there) spoke of ‘Nam. In fact, though we now know, according to a unique Zogby poll just taken, that 72% of American soldiers stationed in Iraq today want the United States to “exit” within a year (over half within six months, and over a quarter tomorrow), if they have their own name or nickname for the conflict, we are blissfully ignorant of it.

War without a Name, Name without a War

The lack of a name for our “effort” in Iraq should not be seen as some kind of bizarre oversight, or even a reflection of the confusing or nondescript nature of that conflict. After all, the Bush administration regularly puts great time and effort into naming things. It has, for instance, created various Orwellian names for its programs in a game of opposites — the Clear Skies Act, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and so on. And much thought went into what to label the actual invasion of Iraq. After, at least one rumored false step — Operation Iraqi Liberation (with its obviously unacceptable acronym) — it was dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), a name the President has proudly used many times since, but which officially was over when he landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 and declared “major combat operations” ended.

Not naming something can be as much an act as naming it. Nearly three years have passed since George Bush stood under a “mission accomplished” banner on the deck of that aircraft carrier. Almost 2,300 Americans have now been killed and almost 17,000 wounded in Iraq; untold numbers of Iraqis — undoubtedly well over 100,000 — have died since our invasion, while families and livelihoods have been destroyed and, ever more commonly, neighborhoods ethnically cleansed and religious institutions damaged or destroyed. The country itself has been turned into an impoverished failed state, riddled with terrorists, filled with sectarian or religious militias, bled by a still growing insurgency, and threatened by ethnic and religious divisions which seem to widen by the week. Its government exists, to the degree it does, inside a fortified zone in a capital city that itself seems beyond normal rule, and whose streets are controlled by a variety of armed groups, militias, police, and gangs. Even for the Americans, the now-famous “Pottery Barn rule” of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “You break it, you own it,” is proving surprisingly untrue. The Americans seem to control little but the Green Zone and the giant military bases they occupy. And all for an unnamed conflict.

If, by some miracle, the archives of the Bush administration are finally pried open, I have no doubt we’ll discover, as with so much else that was named by these officials, that the decision not to name “the situation in Iraq” was carefully considered and fully discussed. After all, they (and various neocons supporters in or on the edges of the government) have spent parts of the last few years constantly experimenting with names for the “war” that counts for them: The Global War on Terror, acronymed GWOT, aka World War IV, the Millennial War, the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, and (recently enshrined in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review as well as attributed to Centcom commander and popularizer Gen. John Abizaid)) the Long War.

Once, to the suprise of this administration’s top officials, a home-grown Sunni (and from time to time Shia) insurgency “situation” took hold (as American intelligence agencies had warned them it would in 2003), they would be very clear and precise in their non-naming practices. Iraq (like Afghanistan) was not to be a war at all. It was — and the President, Vice President, and other key officials would regularly reiterate this in speeches, press conferences, and other appearances — only a “theater” or, at best, the “central theater” in their Global War on Terror which, as the Bush liked to say dramatically, was being “fought on many battlefronts.” In his American Legion speech, for instance, he spoke of Iraq and Afghanistan as but two “fronts in this war on terror.”

Just as, in administration statements in 2002-2003, the coming invasion of Iraq was repeatedly linked to the 9/11 attacks (and Saddam Hussein’s regime to al-Qaeda), so Iraq was now to be put forever in a subsidiary relationship to their global war of choice, the one against the 9/11 terrorists. This was the clear line of the administration — that Iraq not be singled out as a war in itself.

As a result, we have the following strange “situation.” The most obvious war we’re fighting goes unnamed, as does the lower-level conflict in Afghanistan which no one even thinks of calling our second Afghan War (the first being the one we organized and funded against the Soviets in the 1980s when Osama bin Laden and his ilk were our allies). On the other hand, GWOT, a “war” that bears no resemblance to anything ever historically recognized as “war,” is constantly being given that name. Turn on your TV any night and you’ll get a report on the situation in Iraq amid a plethora of stories about the “war on terror” and its domestic fallout.

Recently, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post visited Patrol Base Swamp, “the forwardmost American position in the so-called Triangle of Death southwest of Baghdad” and offered this quote from Sgt. Chad Wendel of the 101st Airborne Division on fighting Sunni insurgents: “It’s like trying to track down a bunch of ghosts.” That line that could have come straight out of Vietnam or perhaps a host of other counter-guerrilla wars. But, in fact, there is no more ghostly “war” than the President’s war on terror, fought against neither army, nor state, not even scattered guerrilla forces. It is the ultimate asymmetric conflict between the superpower that has the most advanced military on the planet and a scattered movement that is little short of virtual (and whose most imposing presence, when terror bombs don’t go off, is on-line). Think of us, then, as fighting a war without a name and a name without a war.

Naming through Images

There is, however, one way in which “the situation in Iraq” has indeed been named, after a fashion — and that’s been through vivid images which seem to well up relatively spontaneously from this administration (and the military) and then are ratified by group use. So, along with various old-fashioned “struggles” for and marches of freedom or freedom’s progress, often cited by the President, there was, early on, an urge to use a homier (and revealingly patronizing) image to capture our situation in Iraq. What we were doing there had nothing to do with war or, for that matter, occupation. Like any good parent, we were simply teaching an inexperienced child how to ride a bike. This was assumedly the bike of democracy. So, for instance, the President assured Republican congressional representatives back in May 2004 (according to a participant in the meeting) that it was “time to take the training wheels off The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it’s time for them to take the bike and go forward”; while, on the subject of getting Iraq “straightened out,” Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told American troops in March of that year: “[The Iraqis are] learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it.”

At about the same time, a second image caught the fancy of American officials — “putting an Iraqi face” on events in Iraq. This was at a moment when they were resisting another kind of naming — calling our occupation of that country an “occupation.” The image itself, widely used, was both revelatory and oddly blunt. An Iraqi mask was to be continually placed over the actual face of Iraq, which was us. So, for example, when Saddam was finally taken by American forces in December 2003, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times wrote:

“A decision was made early on that the capture of Mr. Hussein would need an Iraqi face, said [Gary Thatcher, the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority], a stipulation that Mr. Bush felt strongly about, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Sunday at a briefing. ‘Iraqis were going to be making the announcement no matter what,’ Mr. Thatcher said. ‘This was overall an Iraqi victory. It was obviously going to mean a great deal to the Iraqis.'”

As late as May 2005, John Burns of the Times explained the anonymous American military sources in a story of his this way:

“By insisting that they not be identified, the three officers based in Baghdad were following a Pentagon policy requiring American commanders in Baghdad to put ‘an Iraqi face’ on the war, meaning that Iraqi commanders should be the ones talking to reporters, not Americans. That policy has been questioned recently by senior Americans in Iraq, who say Iraqi commanders have failed to step forward, leaving a news vacuum that has allowed the insurgents’ successful attacks, not their failures, to dominate news coverage.”

As “the situation in Iraq” slowly devolved, other images, meant to offset the “bad news,” began to arise: There were the upcoming “landmarks” of progress on the road to Iraqi sovereignty, as well as soon-to-arrive “tipping points” and “turning points,” including various elections — none of which would tip or turn things in the direction the Bush administration desired — not to speak of possible “corners turned” (though no one dared bring up that Vietnam classic, “the light at the end of the tunnel”).

Now, in the wake of the bombing of the Golden Mosque and a descent into significant intra-communal bloodshed, we’ve arrived at a new, far more panicky moment for administration officials — and a new set of images entirely. This moment has been creeping up on us for a few months now. I first noticed the central image of the moment — the precipice — back in October 2005 when Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post quoted an anonymous American this way, “As one official put it, every time the administration appears on the edge of a precipice, it manages to cobble together a result that allows it to move on to the next precipice.” His piece was entitled, “For U.S., a Hard Road Is Still Ahead in Iraq.” At the time, I wondered whether it was the road to or from that precipice.

In the wake of the Golden Mosque bombing, that question seems to have been answered. Though American officials initially “sought to convey concern without appearing to panic,” panic followed remarkably quickly. To a host of those officials, the road had suddenly disappeared and only the precipice remained. As one unnamed official told Stephen Weisman and Robert Worth of the New York Times, the bombing was “an event that brings us to the precipice — you can see the chasm below that could mean a descent into civil war and everyone is taking a deep breath.”

For the last week, that precipice has seemed in full view. Alternately, in an image dredged directly from the Cold War era, we were pictured as at “the brink” — “the upper edge of a steep or vertical slope,” my dictionary tells me, “as in the brink of a cliff.” We had arrived at the global brink a number of times back in those bad old days when the possible superpower destruction of the planet was on the brain. Now, we were at a more modest brink, just the “brink of civil war,” the moment when Iraq might plunge off that cliff and turn the region into a charnel house, sending the oil heartlands of the planet into shock and assumedly a smash-up on the rocks way below. Whether a brink or a precipice, all agreed that when you looked over what you saw was “the abyss” (or “the chasm”) which is what “Iraqi leaders” were “staring” into, according to another of those anonymous U.S. officials, quoted in this case by the Associated Press’s Robert Reid.

Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador in Iraq, promptly announced that the Iraqis were at the “precipice of full-scale civil war” (quoted in a piece the New York Times briefly headlined “U.S. Envoy in Baghdad Says Iraq Is on Brink of Civil War,” and then quickly and more mildly retitled, “U.S. Envoy Says Sectarian Violence Threatens Iraq’s Future” with the quote gone.) Intelligence tsar John Negroponte picked up on the ambassador’s comment while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Ambassador Khalilzad used the phrase I saw quoted today about how they came up to the edge, the brink. They realized they don’t want to fall down that precipice. So I think they’re struggling mightily to avoid that.”

The image spread faster than an oil slick on a windy day. David Newton, who served as Washington’s ambassador to Baghdad in the late 1980s, typically said: “If you can get through the next few days without any major events, there’s a chance you can get the political process restarted. But that we’re closer to the edge of the cliff in Iraq, there’s no doubt.” On the Lehrer News Hour, journalist Edward Wong, speaking from Baghdad of civil war, commented, “They’re trying to pull people away from that precipice.” In Washington, columnist David Ignatius quoted Raad Alkadiri, an energy consultant who advised the British government in Baghdad during the first year of occupation, this way: “We’ve reached a point of no return nowAre Iraqis willing to put aside their narrow interests? Is there a real Iraqi state? You can’t fudge this. This is the edge of the precipice.”

Even as higher levels of carnage in Iraq became the new norm and a kind of modest hope that the country would not go over a cliff arose in officialdom, the image spread. George Bush’s National Security advisor Stephen Hadley weighed in (according to Reid): “It is a time of testing for Iraqis. They’ve stared into the abyss a bit.” Khalilzad returned from the precipice to report: “It was a serious crisis. I believe that Iraq came to the brink and came back.” And then, in a new, grimmer context, he gave a nod to an older set of images: “Great crises such as this can fragment, polarize people or pull them together. I hope in 10 years, in 15 years, in 20 years, people will look at this crisis as a turning point in getting Iraqis to come together against a common enemy.”

In the meantime, as accompanying imagery of fragmentation, fractures, cracks, rifts, and fault lines proliferated, newspaper editorial pages weighed in. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlined an editorial, Iraq: Civil war precipice; the New York Times headlined a lead editorial Iraq on the Brink (suggesting that “time is rapidly running out” for Iraq’s leaders to “save their country”); while the National Review optimistically entitled its version of the same Walking Away from the Brink (“Arriving at the precipice of civil war might just scare the Iraqi factions into the compromises necessary to create better governance and further isolate the insurgency”). Times columnist Thomas Friedman, ever one for imagery, insisted in a TV interview that, indeed, “the Iraqis are going to stare into the abyss and pull back, or I’m afraid they’re going to fall in. We’ll know real soon whether anything is salvageable here.”

Even when imagery like this arises relatively spontaneously and comes to be used remarkably collectively, it always involves making choices. Precipice and brink are extreme images that may indeed represent administration panic. They may also be accurate. But it’s perfectly possible to imagine other forms of imagery entirely — both more and less extreme — which might explain our “situation in Iraq” better.

After all, back in September 2004, Arab League chief Amr Mussa presciently proposed a far more extreme image for Iraq at a time when Bush administration officials were still speaking hopefully of turning points. He said: “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.” At about the same time, French President Jacques Chirac offered a hardly less extreme image, comparing the situation in Iraq to Pandora’s box.

On the other hand, when you consider our invasion and occupation in, say, six-month intervals, few cliffs or precipices actually appear. Instead, there is a relatively slow, steady devolution. Insurgent attacks rise relatively steadily; services to Iraqis fall relatively steadily; oil production declines over time to its present abysmal level of less than 1 million barrels a day, again rather steadily under the pressure of a botched reconstruction effort and persistent insurgent sabotage; Iraqi casualties increase; the seeds of a possible civil war are planted; bodies, cuffed and shot in the head, begin to appear more frequently in ditches or fields; families flee mixed neighborhoods more regularly. In the meantime, outside Iraq, in Jordan, in Saudi Arabia (where recently there was the first failed terrorist attack on an actual oil facility), things also seem to be devolving, even if more slowly yet. In short, while no cliff appears, and there is no particular turning or tipping point; things just get worse. Pick your image for that.

If you think of matters in this fashion, rather than in cliff-hanging terms, then you are driven to another conclusion. As long as the basic components of the situation remain more or less the same, six months from now the situation will be worse. Six months from then, worse yet. Those who believe deeply in the preponderant global power of the last superpower simply cannot get it through their heads that the United States is, in Iraq, not part of the solution but part of the problem; that American forces do not stand between Iraq and civil war, but are a major factor encouraging that possibility.

Here’s a question then: Will American officials (and the media) now pull back from the brink and, if things calm down a bit, stop staring into that abyss for a while? In this period, there was at least one attempt to propose a different image for Iraq. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a senior policy and planning officer with U.S. Central Command, commented: “This isn’t a bump in the road, it’s a pothole. And we’ll find out if the shock absorbers in the Iraqi society will hold or whether this will crack the frame.”

Having headlined the possibility of instant, country-wide “civil war,” will we now settle for Gen. Kimmitt’s “pothole war” until the next “precipice” appears, until the next major shrine is bombed, or oil field lit, or the unexpected happens and the flames of murderous internecine conflict burn yet brighter? Will we continue, as the President insisted in his speech to the American Legionnaires, to “stand up” an Iraqi military on the fiction that we can then “step down” — even if what we’re standing up is largely a Shiite and Kurdish force perfect for one side of an intensified civil war?

Will we simply continue bumping along that potholed “road” until, six months, or a year, or three years from now, every “solution” ends up leading only to what might be dubbed George’s Inferno — and the oil heartlands of the planet are ablaze?

[Note: For those of you interested in keeping up with the situation in Iraq, I would suggest the following: Make Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog your first stop of the day. (He even offers regular glimpses of how the Middle Eastern press is covering Iraq.) Then check out, whose editors have a fine eye for the day’s telling headlines and commentary; next, try Paul Woodward’s the War in Context website. I like his quirky eye for what’s important and his almost Koan-like comments. Finally, you might look from time to time at the always interesting Dreyfuss Report (though Dreyfuss posts relatively infrequently).]

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt