The wages of imperial hubris

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

Saddam Hussein's hanging after a farcical trial highlights the Bush administration's continuing culpability for the catastrophe in Iraq.

WHEN President George W. Bush welcomed the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as "an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy", he could not have known what an ugly word "democracy" has become in Iraq thanks to its occupation and systematic brutalisation. Going by what Iraq-born novelist Haifa Zangana says, in Iraq, "democracy is coming back like a joke. If you want to say a bad word about someone, you say they're democratic. What Bush and Blair have achieved... is they've killed democracy." Zangana should know. A dissident, she suffered imprisonment under Hussein.

After Hussein's deeply flawed trial, in which he was denied the right to defend himself in ways consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, even "justice" is likely to become a bad word in Iraq. Hussein was tried by a tribunal whose rules were rigged by the occupying powers. The trial, during which two of his lawyers were murdered, was a mockery of justice.

Hussein's execution on the first day of the Eid-al-Adha feast of sacrifice guaranteed him martyrdom. His obscene taunting during his last moments by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr has embarrassed even Bush, who now says the hanging could have been more "dignified"; "but nevertheless he was given justice".

The state of "democracy" is as good an indicator as any of Iraq's grim reality. Its "elected" government has lost all legitimacy. Its writ does not run much beyond Baghdad's tiny 10 kilometre-square Green Zone, the world's "ultimate gated community". It is dependent for its survival on two Shia militias, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, controlled by the ruling coalition's two biggest parties. The government is so riven by sectarian hatred that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had no compunctions in handing over Hussein to a Shia lynch mob.

Terror and fear rule Iraq, where more than a hundred civilians are killed in violence every day. As Sunnis attack Shias in "terror-related bombings", Shia leaders use death squads and target ordinary Iraqis as they go about their daily business. Militias, often working with the Interior Ministry, have killed and tortured thousands of Sunnis. A United Nations report speaks of headless bodies dumped in fields or by the road, which "often bear signs of severe torture, including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones... missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails".

Above the mayhem and violence looms the occupation, Iraq's central reality, which most Iraqis hate - irrespective of religious affiliation or ethnicity. An overwhelming majority regards United States troops as inimical. A University of Maryland poll says 78 per cent of Iraqis believe that U.S. troops are "provoking more conflict" than they are preventing; 71 per cent, including 74 per cent of Shias and 91 per cent of Sunnis, want them out. Sixty-one per cent of Iraqis favour attacks on American troops. The average number of such daily attacks have risen from 14 in July 2003 to 70 two years later, to 185 now.

The occupation has reduced Iraq's middle-level human development society to penury. Iraq's gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk by almost three-fourths since 1990. Per capita income, which was once over $2,500, four times higher than India's, has collapsed to under $500.

As many as 1.8 million people have fled Iraq (population: 17 million) and 1.6 million have been internally displaced. Over 50,000 Iraqis flee their homes every month. Homes in Baghdad have electricity for just 7.3 hours a day. The percentage of homes connected to sewers has fallen to just 37. Over four-fifths of Iraqis say they are much worse off now than under Hussein.

The Bush administration is increasingly proving bankrupt and helpless in the face of this catastrophic situation. U.S. forces have failed to establish even a modicum of security in Iraq. As an American journalist reported, "the Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy". If Bush was looking for succour or ideas from the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, it has failed to offer any real solutions. Most of its recommendations have already been tried out in one form or another - with no success.

As journalist Robert Dreyfuss recently reported, the ISG early in its deliberations was divided between two choices: Option 3, which recommended an all-out effort by the U.S. to stabilise Baghdad, suppress the insurgency and strengthen Iraq's security forces; and the "cut-and-run" Option 4, which would involve the orderly withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The ISG settled for what has been called "Option 3.5": a sudden surge (by between 20,000 and 50,000) in the number of deployed American troops in an effort to suppress violence in Baghdad and help create a strong central government. If things do not improve within a year or so, the U.S. should move towards Option 4.

Bush is trying some version of Option 3.5, albeit with reduced numbers. But the Democrats, who now control Congress, have shot down the suggestion. "We are well past the point of more troops to Iraq," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid told Bush and urged him to begin pulling out in four to six months.

Thus, all that Bush may be able to push through is a reshuffle of his military and diplomatic teams in Iraq, including the replacement of his two top generals, George Casey and John Abizaid, and the nomination of the Arabist, Ryan Crocker, (currently Ambassador to Pakistan) as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq in place of Zalmay Khalilzad. Casey and Abizaid have expressed their unease with proposals to increase the number of U.S. troops. They will be replaced by generals with a reputation of being "tough". But Crocker is on record as having opposed the Iraq war. It is unclear if the new combination can produce significantly different results.

Bush has obviously not given up the imperial illusion that U.S. troops can somehow stabilise Iraq. This is of a piece with the series of blunders that marked the handling of Iraq right since its invasion, ably documented in recent books such as Bob Woodward's State of Denial, Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine and James Risen's The State of War.

U.S. policymakers deluded themselves that the "post-war phase" would be as smooth as the toppling of Hussein. They based themselves upon information and assessments provided by a minuscule minority of pro-American Iraqis dependent on U.S. troops for their survival, who would doctor such paltry information to which they had access to please their masters.

In formulating strategy, U.S. policymakers assumed that the victory in the "post-war phase" would be overwhelming and decisive - "enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world", as Mark Danner puts it in his devastating review article on the three books in The New York Review of Books (December 21, 2006). They were led by what can only be called the hubris and arrogance of Empire. Thus, as Bob Woodward recounts, when Henry Kissinger was asked why he supported the Iraq war, he replied: "Because Afghanistan wasn't enough." In the conflict with "radical Islam", precipitated by 9/11, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them" - presumably through military force.

Many American policymakers shared this view. According to Suskind: "The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending National Security Council briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to make an example of Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behaviour of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the U.S."

Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defence, commissioned Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, to produce a report on how to respond to 9/11. The document, Delta of Terrorism, argued that the U.S. "was in for a two-generation battle with radical Islam". Says Woodward: "The general analysis was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia... were the key, but the problems there are intractable. Iran is more important... ", but similarly difficult to deal with. "But Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable. DeMuth said they had concluded that `Baathism is an Arab form of fascism transplanted to Iraq.... We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable. He was a gathering threat - the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed'."

This report, says Woodward, had "a strong impact" on Bush, "causing him to focus on the `malignancy' of the Middle East" - and the need to act to excise it, beginning with an attack on Iraq... " Thus would begin a process of "democratic transformation" that would quickly spread throughout West Asia.

The results are there for the whole world to see - in Iraq's failed occupation, in the horrors that have become part of its daily life, and in the totally bankrupt policy of an America that now finds itself in a quagmire.

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