U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Iraq Syndrome

Print edition : June 15, 2007

The American flag stands in a set of combat boots placed in Grant Park, Chicago, on May 24 as part of the "Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Human Cost of the Iraq War". Each pair of boots represents a US soldier killed in the war. After this final display as a single exhibition, the exhibits will be divided into smaller exhibitions representing the casualties of each State.-JEEF HAYNES/AFP

Talk of the "Syndrome" among influential policymakers and intellectuals is a sign that the rot has spread far.

THE Bush White House is falling like a house of cards. Resignations of senior staff began after the November 2006 defeat of the Republican Party in the midterm election. The most senior official to succumb was Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But he was not alone. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Press Secretary Scott McClellan left, as did Under Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

It is normal for an administration to change personnel after a major election, particularly since many of these senior people become eager to parlay their contacts to the private sector for personal gain. However, what was significant is that each of these senior people had an intimate role in the "selling" of the Iraq war in 2002-2003. Their departure was a way for the Bush White House to acknowledge that changes needed to be made. Since November 2006, however, the White House has reverted to the classic error of power: when a strategy appears to fail, do not quit but instead double your investment in it. The surge of US troops in Iraq is a double-or-nothing gamble with real lives, and a real country.

In 2005, two years into the war, it had become clear to most people that the situation in Iraq was untenable. The Washington Post gave prominent space on January 9 to Sir Lawrence Freedman, a well-regarded Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, who warned that the US had jettisoned the "Vietnam Syndrome" for the "Iraq Syndrome". "Unlike Vietnam, a war of containment," wrote the official historian of the Falklands War, "Iraq was supposedly a war of preemption. So the Iraq syndrome poses an even more serious challenge to US policy than the Vietnam syndrome did, because it calls into question not only the wisdom of intervention but the integrity of US intelligence and judgment about what poses a direct threat to US national security." Toward the end of the year, Professor John Mueller extended this line of argument in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs (November-December 2005). "Among the casualties of the Iraq syndrome," Mueller writes, "could be the Bush doctrine, unilateralism, preemption, preventive war, and indispensable-nationhood."

Talk of the "Iraq Syndrome" among these influential policymakers and intellectuals is a sign that the rot has spread far. Wolfowitz was right when he complained that his troubles at the World Bank stemmed from his key role as architect of the Iraq war. When he entered the H Street headquarters in Washington, D.C., many of the staffers greeted him coldly. Wolfowitz did not help his cause by bringing in a retinue of personal advisors, all veterans of the selling of the Iraq war. His brusque Pentagon style rankled with the Bank's staff, who saw his unilateralism as a cognate of the US drive to world primacy. Wolfowitz did operate as an adjunct of the Iraq strategy when he tried to push a recalcitrant Christiaan Poortman, Vice-President of the Bank for the Middle East (West Asia), to move more resources to Iraq. Poortman's refusal was met with transfer orders to Kazakhstan, but the Dutchman resigned.

(It should be pointed out that Poortman's career at the Bank has been marked by ruthlessness toward the poor, particularly when he was Resident Representative in Zimbabwe in the 1990s and later in the Balkans. As head of the Iraq Trust Fund, Poortman wanted to push for more private sector participation in the State Owned Enterprises. All this was shared with Wolfowitz, who wanted Poortman to move faster, at the Bush administration's pace, and not to change course.) Not long after this, Wolfowitz himself had to resign from the Bank, dignity barely intact.

University of Massachusetts (UMASS) decided to give an honorary degree to one more of the exiles from the Bush administration. Former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had not only managed the Bush policy teams but also set up the White House Iraq Group (WHIG). Formed in August 2002, WHIG's principal task was to sell the Iraq war to the American people. In WHIG meetings, the main marketing experts in the White House figured out ways to show the US public that Iraq was a "clear and present danger" to them. In an early meeting, on September 5, 2002, speech writer Michael Gerson provided the group with an analogy that would be repeated by all the major players in the months to come: two days later, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice unveiled it on CNN: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." WHIG, according to a Washington Post analysis, wanted "gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence". In other words, WHIG wanted to sell the war effectively rather than make a judicious case for it. The "smoking gun" image worked. Card had done his job.

UMASS' students' organisation led an effort to squelch the honorary degree to Card. The graduate and undergraduate senates as well as the graduate employees and faculty unions passed resolutions against the granting of an honorary degree to Card. An angry Card called two faculty members on May 1. He complained that they had insulted him without knowing him "personally". Professor of Communications Paula Chakravartty and Professor of Labour Studies Stephanie Luce subsequently recounted their conversation in an opinion piece for the local newspaper. After writing about Card's angry responses, they concluded: "Granting this degree normalises Card and his role in the Bush administration, rewarding him as if he were just any other public servant from Massachusetts. It reduces falsification and exaggeration, suppression of documents and the coercion of less powerful nations into alternatives along a reasonable spectrum of actions. War and torture become matters of `personal opinion'. Lying is just `part of the job'." The protests continue. Card got his degree only after a great deal of public disapprobation. The Iraq Syndrome claims its latest victim.

There is no anti-war movement in the US, but there are a host of ongoing and resilient anti-war actions. Small groups of committed people in each locality drive public opinion because it is often their actions that remind the population of the costs of this war, in Iraq and in the US. Protests and vigils continue, and if Bush is increasingly becoming untouchable, his surrogates (such as Card and Wolfowitz) will have to suffice.

The impeachment movement to go after Bush himself is not without legs. In March 2007, the Vermont State Legislature passed a resolution to impeach him. Following it, with pending impeachment motions are the State legislatures of California, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Washington, Wisconsin and even Texas. Several hundred towns and cities have passed resolutions that call for the impeachment of the President. About 50 per cent of the US population favours his impeachment if it can be shown the President lied in the run-up to the Iraq war.

A shelf of books has appeared this year to make the case for impeachment, led by David Lindorff and Barbara Orshansky's The Case for Impeachment, which argues: "If we fail to stand up for the Constitution now, it may be only a piece of paper by the end of President Bush's second term. Then it will be time to be afraid."

The Democratic leadership, however, has shrugged off all talk of impeachment since their eyes are fixed on the 2008 presidential election. Even before the 2006 midterm election, Nancy Pelosi (now leader of her party) told her caucus members in a closed session, "Impeachment is off the table." Bush might not, after all, have to pay for taking the US into an illegal and unwarranted war. But Bush's reputation has hit rock-bottom.

Veteran anti-war activist Tom Hayden in his new book Ending the War in Iraq offers a summary of the myriad actions taken by those who are opposed to this war. It is this anti-war effort, he argues, that has stymied the Bush agenda and given the Democrats a modicum of courage to challenge his policies. For the rest, he argues that the Iraqi resistance played a singular role, as did world public opinion. One must not underestimate the role played by what The New York Times' Patrick Tyler called the "second superpower", the anti-war movement across the planet. Nor sneer at the brave developments within the US. The US anti-war movement gained momentum from the lead taken by Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace and by Maxine Waters and the Out of Iraq Caucus in the US. House of Representatives (with eight members in 2005 it was the largest caucus in the House). The Republican defeat in 2006 came from their push, and so did talk of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. These are major gains of the anti-war efforts.

The Iraq Syndrome, like the Vietnam Syndrome before it, makes it hard for the ruling political class to accede to what might appear to be a US defeat. The Democrats came with the mandate to cut off funding for the war, but faced with the Iraq Syndrome they have conceded to provide funds if there are some unenforceable benchmarks. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson was as isolated by the anti-war movement as Bush in 2006. He created a White House Information Group to advise him and to mobilise the media on his behalf. When the effort failed, Johnson withdrew from the presidential race that Richard Nixon won the following year. Nixon, also squeezed by the anti-war movement, pledged to end the war, but he continued it for another seven years in the hope that the US might squeeze victory from the jaws of defeat. The worry is that the Democrats have now succumbed to the same disease and that they might allow this conflict to linger in order to salvage American prestige and power. It might be an impossible task. It is against this that Hayden calls for the organisation of anti-war energies into a robust movement. "The greatest threats to the neoconservatives, the Pentagon, the multinational corporations, and the White House," he writes, "come not from caves in faraway countries, but from the gathering force of the American people."

The Iraq Syndrome is rooted. Adventurous wars are once more disparaged. Recruitment for the military is weak. Patriotism is frayed, as Howard Zinn's slogan "Peace is Patriotic" resonates. The ruling political class is rattled as the Democrats mop up after the Republicans to save the prestige of the US and to salvage the neoliberal policies that also almost fell victim to the Syndrome. That is the reason why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have raised far more money than the frontrunners for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Money flows to the Democrats, in the hope that they will steer the US back on course for genuine primacy.

If Tom Hayden's "gathering force" comes to pass, it might wrest the Democratic Party from its moneyed handlers. Not in 2008, but perhaps in the years after that.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor