Monday, August 09, 2010

"One More War, Please" -- David Bromwich


Afghanistan, for now, is the war we are in. Iraq is the war we’re getting out of — even if tens of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries remain, and the bases that protect them, and the world’s largest embassy. Yet our image of what we did to Iraq has been remarkably cleansed. The mainstream media have taken the cue of the president’s pledge not to look at the past. So, when we get a story of the impoverishment and squalor of Iraq, nothing appears to trace such effects to the economic sanctions of 1990-2003. Those were part of the “decent” fight against Saddam Hussein, according to American mythology; the pressure skillfully applied under the older, wiser Bush and under Bill Clinton. But pass now from the American media to a review of the evidence on sanctions by Andrew Cockburn in the London Review of Books, and a different story emerges. To take one example: the sanctions kept out pumps for the treatment of dirty water; and, writes Cockburn,

Every year the number of children who died before they reached their first birthday rose, from one in 30 in 1990 to one in eight seven years later. Health specialists agreed that contaminated water was responsible.

The effect, meanwhile, of inflation and unemployment was to make the people of Iraq ever more dependent on their dictator. Madeleine Albright in March 1997 declared that even if Saddam Hussein complied with the inspection requirements, the sanctions should not be lifted, since they were there to help overthrow the dictator himself.

Thirteen years after an American secretary of state uttered those words, we come no closer to the truth about U.S. policy when we read of the “benchmark” of electrical competence in a recent Times story by Steven Lee Meyers. Meyers tells us that “chronic power shortages are the result of myriad factors, including war, drought and corruption, but ultimately they reflect a dysfunctional government.” “Ultimately” must be taken here outside its normal usage to refer to the latest but not the largest cause. This mode of analysis is in keeping with other elements of Meyers’s coverage; for example the way the brute fact of American destruction of the electrical grid (a central feature of Shock and Awe) is dropped into a sagging sentence whose tenor is the vague idea that things happen: “Before Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago this month, Iraq had the capacity to produce 9,295 megawatts of power. By 2003, after American bombings and years of international sanctions, it was half that.” Notice the reluctance to say it plain: “American bombs destroyed Iraq’s electrical grid, and American insistence organized and maintained the sanctions.” Yet the Times story by Steven Lee Meyers is hardly a terrible example; it is if anything more honest and less self-acquitting than most that appear in the Times and elsewhere.

So much for present and past wars. What of the future war, the war a significant body of Israeli and American opinion is already preparing, the war against Iran? President Obama has called Israel a “sacrosanct” ally, and even before he used language so pious, fulsome, and unsuitable to the leader of an independent republic, Iran did not entirely trust the United States. To remember why, we would have to violate President Obama’s pledge to look only at the future, and actually look at the past. But let us follow his injunction for the moment; look only at the war of the future. How, then, does Iran link up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? From the tenor of Obama’s recent words about Afghanistan, one would suppose he is doing the best he thinks possible now — namely, getting out — but at the speed his domestic opponents compel, that is, more slowly than he knows it would be right to do. With Iran, by contrast, Obama seems to be doing what he believes is wrong — namely adding momentum to the pressure for a future war — but, again as with Afghanistan, he is doing it more slowly than he knows his opponents would wish in order to secure their ends. The war party within his administration is placated but not yet happy. Possibly the result Obama is hoping for is that these two manifestations of slowness, slow on the right side in Afghanistan, slow on the wrong side with Iran, will meet somewhere in the middle, and spare us two catastrophes at once. Yet time, in politics, doesn’t work like that; a fact this president often seems unwilling to absorb. It is sometimes important to say No early and definitively. You must say it early and definitively if you don’t want to get trapped into saying yes later in spite of yourself. History suggests that wars, by their nature, are not as well equipped for multitasking as the mind of Obama.

We are involved now in a slow effort to extricate ourselves from the defeat of our hopes for an empire in Asia. That seems the uncontroversial meaning behind Obama’s recent words if not all his actions; yet he is trying to do it without surrendering the assumptions we began with. The strongest word that Obama ever said against the Cheney-Bush war in Iraq was not that it was unjust, impolitic, or ignoble, only that it was “dumb.” A harsh condemnation in the idiom of technocrats, but not really in a league with Gladstone’s appeal to the English people

to ask whether you are substantially to be governed, your future pledged, your engagements enormously extended, the necessity for your taxes enlarged and widened, not only without your assent, but without your knowledge, and not only without your knowledge, but with the utmost care to conceal from you the facts.

It is hard to say which is worse, the expenditure or the secrecy, but as Gladstone saw, both function on the same principle. Much of the spending goes to beneficiaries whose identity must be kept secret, and every blunder committed in secret requires fresh outlays to cover it up.

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