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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Posted: March 17, 2008 07:22 PM

New York Times to America: Stay the Course in Iraq

On Sunday March 16, the Times Week in Review observed the fifth anniversary of
the Iraq war with two separate commemorations: an essay by John Burns (former
chief of the Times Baghdad bureau) that looks back from the devastation of 2008
to the hopes of March 2003; and a symposium on the progress of war, with short
comments by nine strategists, pundits, officials, and soldiers.

Burns wrote his piece in a mood both chastened and festive, and he begins with
an awestruck rhapsody on the "shock and awe" bombings -- "40 minutes, followed by
a break, and then another 40 minutes" -- a new kind of evening at the Cineplex.
Even "Iraqis yearning for their liberation," writes Burns, "called it, simply,
'the air show.'"

Yearning. What a weight of paternalism that word conceals. How many Iraqis
exactly did Burns hear speak of the destruction of a sizable portion of their
city and its infrastructure as "the air show"? Was this the expression used by
Iraqis who saw their friends or relatives killed in the bombing? His repetition
of the phrase suggests an utter dissociation of moral judgment from aesthetic
pleasure -- a tendency given free rein when he passes to a hushed reverence at
"the sheer, astonishing, overwhelming demonstration of power, more like an act
of God than man." Whatever truths he may have told in the past, John Burns will
surely be remembered for that sentence, so charmed and so light-headed, so far
beyond truth and falsehood.

John Burns is English; but he writes here largely as a friend of Americans and a
comforter. All of his presentation is designed to persuade American readers that
the Iraq war has been a tragedy of good intentions. And yet, to judge our own
intentions against what we suppose to be their imperfect fulfillment, is a way
of thinking that leads back to self-justification. A saner way of judging
anyone (including ourselves) is to infer the content of the intentions from the
content of the actions.

Talk of our own good intentions is an American addiction, and Burns administers
the drug in a heaped measure. The looting of Baghdad, he says, was a phenomenon
of "palaces and torture centers, along with ministries, museums, and hospitals."
Notice the order: they went after the torture centers first, then the museums
and hospitals. In all but the words, this resembles Donald Rumsfeld's comment
that freedom is "untidy." But did they really go after the palaces and torture
centers first, thereby leading the occupying army to make a natural mistake?
The weasel-words are "along with."

So, too, Burns speaks of a "failure to find weapons of mass destruction" (not
the finding that there were no weapons) and "the absence of a plan" after the
invasion (rather than a planned absence). In Abu Ghraib, "America's intentions
were betrayed by its troops in more personal ways" -- but "betrayed by its
troops" offers a scandalously false suggestion. It supports (without answering
for) the Defense Department explanation that the atrocities were merely the
personal acts of a few bad soldiers. The truth is that we know -- not suspect but
know -- that the atrocities of Abu Ghraib were the predictable effects of a new
policy of torture, and of an urgent directive that the interrogators obtain
actionable intelligence by any means. The authority conferred on General
Geoffrey Miller to "gitmoize" Abu Ghraib was something more than a "personal"
outrage committed by "troops." All of these familiar facts, Burns takes care to
press out of his account, in order to sustain his chosen theme of good

He administers a moral salve to Americans by alluding, generically, to "that
terrible sense, familiar to anybody who has experienced war, that nothing, or
almost nothing, can justify its wounds." "Almost nothing" is a trimming touch,
meant to please everyone; and it is of a piece with Burns's canting hope that
America "ultimately finds a way home with honor, and without destroying all it
went to Iraq to achieve." This begs the question, How much has been destroyed
already? And what did we go there to achieve?

Burns's diagnosis of "what went wrong" lightens the blame by finding a reason
buried so deep that it satisfies every conceivable demand of self-acquittal. We
have to probe, says Burns, "beneath the carapace of terror" (the metaphor labors
as the conscience unloads); but, when once we probe, we "uncover other facets of
Iraq's culture and history" which made the defeat of America's good intentions a
foregone conclusion. Iraqis, thinks Burns, were "deeply traumatized" by the
regime of Sadaam Hussein; and this hidden trauma created "deep fissures" (very
deep -- so how could we know?) in the psyche and society of Iraq. The fissures
only showed on the surface when the American effort mysteriously failed.

If our good will is not to blame, neither is our intelligence. Anyone might be
pardoned for having overlooked those traumas and fissures. After all, they had
been "camouflaged by the quarter-century of Mr. Hussein's totalitarian rule." A
tragedy, then, and like all tragedies, inevitable. (In his next article, Burns
will call it "Greek.") Is there anything left to say?

A reporter who writes like this has given up argument and evidence. Trauma and
traumatized are weapons of the last resort in the analytic arsenal; they go off
when you run out of facts and surmises. These words are among the indefeasible
descriptors about which historians rightly say: "With that kind of license, you
can bag any game." Iraqis must have been traumatized, declares Burns. What else
but a previous trauma could account for the fact that they disliked the
invaders of their country and deplored the effects of a catastrophic war?

Even so, Burns thinks (he is not quite done), we may overrate the apparent
reaction against the United States. It is true that every recent poll shows
Iraqis saying they want the Americans to leave their country. But, says Burns,
he has learned to discriminate the Iraqis who speak their minds from those who
don't; and among those who "felt secure enough to speak with candor," he has
noticed that an overwhelming majority want the Americans to stay. "Secure" is
the tricky word here. Does Burns mean the very rich, the very safe, or just the
very courageous? Does he include persons in the pay of American forces?

John Burns's elegiac meditation on the Iraq war is offered as a sort prelude to
the March 16 "Week in Review" symposium of experts. And here, we may truly say,
what the American Enterprise Institute sowed, the New York Times has reaped.

In the selection of commentators on this fifth anniversary, nothing has been
left to chance. Care was taken not to invite a comment from a single person who
judged the war wrong from the start. Evidently the Times did not even think it
useful, not even for the sake of appearances, to include more than one writer
-- Anthony Cordesman -- whom the years since 2003 have brought to conclude that
the Iraq war was worse than a temporary and tactical setback. Three out of the
nine commentators -- Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka, and Frederick Kagan--are
actually fellows of the American Enterprise Institute. This is a good deal like
convening a symposium on World Religions and having three of your nine comments
issue from professors at Notre Dame (but the comparison does an injustice to
Notre Dame).

The AEI is the neoconservative think tank from which many of the policies here
under scrutiny are known to have emerged. The newspaper of record thought it a
fine thing to ask the architects of the policies to give their sincere opinion
on their own handiwork.

Kenneth Pollack, the neoliberal advocate of the bombing and invasion who threw
his support behind "the surge" in a Times op-ed last summer, offers a short and
self-serving comment that puts all the blame on the Bush administration. Did the
Times count Pollack as a moderate--even, somehow, a skeptic? Their own record of
publication was there to prove otherwise. Another apparent moderate, Anne-Marie
Slaughter, regrets the Baghdad looting, but joins the consensus of responsible
advisers who, she says, "debate whether it will take 10 to 15 years" to repair
the damage. The innocent question asked by Slaughter as by Pollack, is, how so
big-hearted an act of international benevolence as the bombing and invasion of
Iraq "has gone so wrong."

L. Paul Bremer is the only contributor to express personal regret. "I should
have pushed sooner," he says, "for a more effective military strategy"; but,
adds Bremer, thanks to the wise reconsiderations of the president, we now have
that strategy. The co-author of the surge, Frederick Kagan, is summoned by the
Times to praise himself. He gives thanks to "our soldiers and marines" who "use
their firepower to the full" while minimizing "collateral damage." We are now,
says Kagan, fighting a war of "skill and compassion," and he repeats the word
compassion, as he also repeats "precision": our soldiers have been taught to
mount "high-precision operations" using only "precision-guided weapons." (This
is in many ways a schoolboy essay.)

A soldier's experience of the invasion is recounted by Nathaniel Fick, who
remembers the fear that Saddam Hussein might unleash chemical weapons, and asks
whether better intelligence could have obviated some tactical errors early in
the war. A retired major general, Paul Eaton, now an adviser to Hillary
Clinton, repeats the judgment of General Eric Shinseki that too few troops were
allotted for the task assigned.

And Richard Perle? Can no quantity of errant judgments and measurable wrongs to
the country remove a person from the establishment list? Newsweek awarded
a column to Karl Rove as soon as it was clear that Rove had dodged indictment
by a grand jury; the Times, not to be outdone, here brings back Perle,
principal of the venture-capital security company Trireme and alumnus of Donald
Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board. Perle asserts that the U.S. should have cared
less about democracy. Rather, once Saddam Hussein was gone, we should have
"turned Iraq over to Iraqis." He means of course that we should have turned it
over to the right Iraqis; and that means Ahmed Chalabi -- the protege of Perle
who (when elections were held in December 2005) received less than one percent
of the vote. Richard Perle is permitted by the Times to utter the mystic phrase
"Iraq to the Iraqis" without ever mentioning Chalabi.

A different view of the relation between democracy and neoconservatism comes
from Danielle Pletka, billed here as "vice president for foreign and defense
policy studies" at the AEI. Pletka's comment is entitled "There's No Freedom
Gene," and it is the story of the disappointments that have made her a sadder
judge of political things. In 2003, Pletka "felt secure in the knowledge that
all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well"; but she found "I was
wrong." All who yearn -- "yearning" -- dangerous, tremulous emotion; mixing desire
and idealism with the invitation to war. Pletka draws a direr lesson than John
Burns about the yearning both imputed to the Iraqis who have since disappointed
them. "There is no freedom gene," she writes.

And there we have it pure and uncut, the AEI doctrine on the Middle East. Under
all the sorrow at misjudged yearnings, it is the age-old racist idea, the idea
by which, sooner or later, all empires are rationalized. Some people don't have
it in them to be free. They aren't born with the right genes. It isn't in their
blood, their roots, their race, their religion. Nevertheless, freedom is a gift
of God, of civilization, of the West; and we who have the gene must give it to
those who lack it. We must "foster appreciation of the building blocks of civil
society." But that will take time. So, it might seem that the choice, for Iraq,
is to be free as we tried to let them be, or unfree in their own way as people
lacking the gene are fated to be. Yet that is not what Pletka and the resident
fellows at the AEI have in mind. Having failed the genetic test, Iraq must now
submit to be unfree under American supervision, while Americans climb the long
trail (so much steeper than we thought) toward making them free like us.

Such is the message from the New York Times to America on our Iraq anniversary.
A message from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American Enterprise
Institute, and assorted agreeable others. The United States must stay in Iraq,
for however long it takes. Takes to do what? Many significant actual repairs
are beyond our means in the visible future; and it is telling that none of the
Times contributors says a word about the destruction of Iraq's available supply
of water and electricity -- a disaster that was a planned not an accidental effect
of American bombings in the 1990s, in 2003, and after. This was the meaning of
shock and awe to the inventor of the phrase and the method, Harlan Ullman. You
give a stunning shock to the system of the people you intend to dominate, by
taking the system away. You put a country out of commission very fast, and make
the people very scared, and they are completely dependent on you. The rest is a
matter of after-planning.

American troops are being asked to stay in Iraq for something other than the
renovation of the country. The megalithic embassy in the Green Zone, and the
half-dozen superbases, have been built to last, while "the building blocks of
civil society" were less rigorously attended to. The purpose for which those
bases and that embassy were built is inseparable from the word Iran: a word
that surfaced neither in John Burns's commemorative piece nor in any of the
symposium comments the Times published last Sunday. And yet, one can't help
feeling that Iran had much to do with many things that were said, and with many
other things that were carefully left unsaid.

The Burns essay and the Iraq symposium are part of a consistent effort by the
Times -- the Pollack-O'Hanlon puff for the surge and the double endorsement of
McCain and Clinton were part of the same effort -- to shift legitimate opinion
toward acceptance of a large and permanent American force in the Middle East.
Among lawmakers, only Russell Feingold, Chuck Hagel, and Ron Paul have drawn
sustained attention to the commitments we are entering into. For a major paper
to do the same would be an act of candor. The New York Times, by its elaborate
contrivance of a sham debate, and by the transparent omissions of its analysis,
has done a conspicuous disservice to public discussion.