Monday, December 15, 2008

Unsavory and Shifty Ingrates

In response to the recent shoe-throwing incident in Iraq, many Iraq war supporters - and the President himself - will attempt to dismiss the thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, as an outlier, an exception, an "attention" seeker (to paraphrase Bush), with the rule being a generally grateful Iraqi populace. Jonah Goldberg called al-Zaidi, an "unsavory Muslim or Arab."

Kathryn Jean Lopez quotes Michael Totten, who sought to set the record straight: "I have briefly met many Iraqi journalists in Baghdad. They seem like decent people, for the most part, and are not as shifty as many other civilians I encounter." What effusive praise. Iraq journalists: not as shifty as most Iraqi civilians. With the exception of Zaidi, of course.

However, as news reports confirm that al-Zaidi has become a cause celebre in Iraq - and the wider Muslim world - by virtue of his defiance of Bush, it will be harder and harder to paint him as some lone slinger. At that point, the mood in Iraq war/Bush booster circles will most likely shift to Andy McCarthy-type outrage at the lack of appreciation for all that Bush has done to help the Iraqi people. Already, there is a popular meme cropping up that al-Zaidi only enjoyed the freedom to hurl his shoe by virtue of America's invasion, and that under Saddam al-Zaidi would have been executed for this act.

This bit of gloss on America's neo-imperial endeavor is little more than a thinly applied sheen on an otherwise grotesque affair. The sentimentalists insisting that US policy in Iraq has been guided by some altruistic democratization impulses should cease the self-delusion or, if they be more cynical, the attempt to delude others about the driving forces of our foreign policy. Rather, it is essential to the crafting of future policy that we make an honest, full reckoning of our past policies vis-a-vis Iraq. In this way, we can begin to appreciate the sentiment behind al-Zaidi's act, his act's popularity and the continuing resentment of all those "ingrates" in Iraq. And elsewhere. And how to begin the long process of attempting to repair the damage.

First, we must appreciate why it is we are in Iraq, and what led us there. Alan Greenspan summed it up rather succinctly in a rare moment of honesty, stating "the Iraq War is largely about oil." Oil and, importantly, the ability to establish a large and "enduring" (not permanent!) American military presence in the middle of the largest oil producing region in the world (and the relocation of certain military assets outside of Saudi Arabia). Ted Koppel appealed to a brand of common sense that conflicts with romanticized notions of American excetionalism:

Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a half-century. [...]

If those considerations did not enter into the Bush administration's calculations when the president ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would have been the first time in more than 50 years that the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was not a central element of American foreign policy.

For some, also, there was the need to show the world after 9/11 that we were still a force to be reckoned with. Jonah Goldberg termed it the "Ledeen Doctrine":

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

Or as Thomas Friedman put it, the need to attack some Muslim country (Iraq mostly because it was easiest) in order to tell the Muslim world to "Suck. On. This." For others still, removing Saddam was seen as an important step in ensuring Israel's security for decades to come (a long held goal for the PNAC crowd that only morphed into concern about WMD and al-Qaeda after 9/11).

While there was a conscious decision to use the vague term "WMD" (backed up with blatant "mushroom cloud" and al-Qaeda links duplicity), as the means to sell the war to the public, the record shows that the Bush administration showed far less interest in gauging Iraq's actual WMD capacity or ties to al-Qaeda as it did in hyping what little evidence there was. The decision to invade was made early on, regardless of the potential findings of inspectors on the ground in Iraq. Upon finding no WMD in Iraq despite following every lead provided by the US government, those inspectors were removed from the theater to clear the way for shock and awe.

Those that supported the Iraq war for democratization purposes were certainly the minority in the Bush administration, and even many of the supposed proponents conceived of democracy very narrowly: government by US viceroy for many years, followed by - or in conjunction with - the installation of US friendly clients such as Ahmad Chalabi. Even to this day, declarations by the democratically elected, and ostensibly "sovereign" Iraqi government, are dismissed cavaliarly by many in the democratization set.

Whether or not the flypaper theory was part of the calculus before the invasion, or just a convenient ex post facto rationalization, war supporters from the President and Vice President down have repeated the argument that by virtue of the invasion, and maintenance of troops in Iraq, we can attract al-Qaeda and other extremists to Iraq and "fight them there so we don't have to fight them here." Just today Bush reiterated this point:

Bush: There have been no attacks since I have been president, since 9/11. One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take ...

Raddatz: But not until after the U.S. invaded.

Bush: Yeah, that's right. So what?

So what? Really? I imagine some Iraqis might, you know, care that their country was turned into bait to lure combatants. Maybe anger at this was part of what led al-Zaidi to make his protext, the same way such anger led this Iraqi to vent at one of Bush's earlier recitations of this rationle:

There was one sentence in what [Bush] said that really provoked me and made me feel disgusted. I was about to throw the ash tray at the TV when he said "to win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy." how dare he say that? He brought these enemies to our country and now he wants to fight them there? to keep Americans safe?!! Is it on the expense of innocent people?! Is it on the expense of destroying and dividing an entire country to make Americans safe?! I consider every American supporting him in that is selfish and mean and blood thirsty. Think of the bread you are eating and compare it to the blood-mixed bread Iraqis are eating. Think of the children crying when they hear an explosion. Think of the pregnant who lost their babies because they were unable to reach the hospital. Think of those deprived from their education. All of this is happening because his majesty believes in "taking the fight to the enemy" so that you become safe and we become the bait in which he could catch "terrorists" with.

Ah, but he wouldn't have been able to write about such callousness in Saddam's Iraq!

Which of these rationales does the reader suppose most Iraqis put stock in? Are there not valid reasons for Iraqis to doubt the selflessness of our motives?

Regardless of the motivation for our invasion of Iraq, the fact remains that we have either wrought, or set in motion a series of events that have led to, immense destruction and loss of life. Aside from the loss/disruption of vital services, enormous psychological trauma, 2 million internal and 2 million external refugees created and countless injuries, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives as a result of the invasion.

In large part due to dearth of images of Iraqi dead appearing in our media, the number of dead retreats to the realm of sterile abstraction for many Americans. It is hard to grasp just what that body count entails. But if we do not confront the full breadth of the carnage, we will not understand the anger represented by al-Zaidi's acts. A story about body parts to help those incapable of empathy:

At the morgue.

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. [...]

When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. “We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.”

Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned. We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

We were asked what we were looking for, “upper half” replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. “Over there.” We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains’; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

For those that still insist that Iraqis are insufficiently greatful for our magnanimity, I would suggest a brief perusal of this miniscule sampling of images of dead and injured Iraqi children. Now multiply that by the thousands. Perhaps those images of children in various states of violence will help to inform those that think that al-Zaidi should just be thankful that he lives in a country in which he can throw a shoe at the leader that unleashed such unthinkable bloodshed on his country in the name of narrow US interests.

Even if Bush's intentions were entirely noble (for the sake of a tenuous argument), it should be easy to understand why al-Zaidi would want to assail the bricklayer that paved the road to hell.

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