As every political junky in the country now knows, just before finding himself not indicted by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Karl Rove went to a fundraiser in New Hampshire and launched the Republican campaign for the 2006 midterm elections. Its simple goal was to keep a Democratic majority (and so the power to investigate) out of either house of Congress. He promptly attacked Rep. John Murtha and other Democrats for their “cut and run” attitudes on Iraq. (“They may be with you for the first shots, but they’re not going… to be with you for the tough battles.”) He swore that the administration had been right to take out Saddam Hussein (“We have no excuses to make for it…”) and proposed a new version of the administration’s most successful post-9/11 ploy — the constant linking of Saddam Hussein to the al-Qaeda attacks. Now, he would link the wreckage of administration policy in Iraq to future terrorist attacks. If we “cut and run,” he pointed out in a fabulous Mobius strip of political logic, “It would provide a launching pad for the terrorists to strike the United States and the West.”
His President had only recently announced the turning of “the tide” in Iraq with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the installation of a new Iraqi government in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Vice President Cheney would soon answer a question about whether we were still in the “last throes” of the Iraqi insurgency by insisting that the Democrats wanted to “bail out” just as we were “making very significant progress” in Iraq. The Congressional Republicans, whatever their private hesitations, were brought into line with the Rove plan and launched the sort of offensive that, in the past, has proven so ineffective in Iraq and so effective at home.
Given the disaster that Iraq actually is, some alterations of argument were obviously in order. Put in terms of Colin Powell’s infamous “Pottery Barn rule” (“If you break it, you own it”), this particular formulation would go something like: You’ve barged into Pottery Barn, an invading bull in a China shop and you’ve been breaking things right and left ever since; management, employees, and other customers are enraged, so what choice do you have but to stay and keep breaking things? Bail out now and all those angry folks will be heading for your house to break your things.
Once upon a time, this administration’s top officials and associated neocons dreamed of shock-and-awing the Middle East into the shape they wanted, settling into Iraq for the long haul, dominating the planet in geopolitical and energy terms, ensuring that no nation or bloc of nations would ever again challenge the U.S. and, in the bargain, installing the Republicans as the dominant domestic party for at least a generation. Now, forced to hitch their fates to the President’s disastrous war, they simply hope to squeak through the mid-term elections and, two years later, hand ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan off to another president. Joshua Marshall of the Talking Points Memo website recently described the President as “like an owner of a business that’s slowly going under? And he won’t just liquidate and save what he can, because then he’d have to come to grips with the fact that he’s failed. So his policy is denial and slow failure. Here of course the analogy to President Bush is rather precise since he only has to hold out until 2009 when he can give the problem to someone else, just as he did in his past life with other businesses he drove into the ground.”
In fact, whether it works or not, Rove’s political gamble is breathtakingly bold in its simplicity. He’s throwing the dice on a single proposition: That, in the end, Americans will prefer the illusion of living in a Green-Zone world all the way and so will swallow the Green-Zone fictions that go with it.
Let’s consider, then, a few small pieces of the Green-Zone world our President has created:
George in the Green Zone: On his Potemkin travels, the President has long taken a portable Green Zone with him. On the campaign trail, he almost never met an audience that hadn’t been carefully vetted and so seldom found himself face to face with a questioner who wasn’t beyond friendly, outright obsequious, or absolutely fawningly admiring. Put another way, with rare exceptions, his world is regularly cleared of reality as he approaches. On his foreign travels, this happens with clocklike regularity. Major metropolises are simply shut down or cleared of humanity, so that, like the USS Abraham Lincoln for his infamous “Mission Accomplished” tailhook landing, they become but movie sets on which he can tell his Green-Zone stories about how the world works without fear of complaint or contradiction.
Last week, George and his entourage landed in Vienna for a brief yearly confab with European Union leaders on a continent that views him with ever increasing alarm and hostility. According to the latest Pew poll, for instance, two-thirds of Austrians now have a negative view of the U.S. (even though Desperate Housewives is the TV hit of the year there). “A Harris Interactive/Financial Times survey released Monday found that 36 percent of Europeans view the United States as the world’s greatest threat to ‘global stability.’ By comparison, 30 percent of those polled named Iran as the biggest threat, while 18 percent named China.” When a European reporter actually confronted Bush with this at a press conference, it angered the President greatly and he responded not only with irritation, but with a Green Zone-style description of our American world: “We’re a transparent democracy,” he insisted. “People know exactly what’s on our mind. We debate things in the open. We’ve got a legislative process that’s active.”
Here, then, is a description of Vienna as he entered it by Charles Bremner, a British reporter who has covered summits all the way back to Jimmy Carter’s administration and finds the present security arrangements to have reached “absurd proportions.” He writes:
“The centre of Vienna has been locked down since Bush’s arrival on Air Force One last night. Streets are closed to traffic and parks and squares are locked shut. Bomb disposal squads are checking suitcases. The unusual quiet makes it feel like a prettier version of Soviet Moscow on the morning of the old November parades. Military helicopters are hovering over the Hofburg, the old Imperial Palace? We are working alongside in the usual vast press centre inside a cordon of about 2,000 police. To enter means penetrating three cordons, with the right credentials. At two of them, they searched all my bags and asked me to show that my computer and mobile phone were real. Dogs then sniffed them, along with the laundry in my overnight bag.”
Oh, and while humanity is cleared from the general area, the dogs are usually flown in from the U.S. along with snipers, hordes of security personal, a bevy of escort cars, masses of aides, even cooks.
Two weeks earlier, the President made his secret escape from Washington and flew into Baghdad international airport wearing 25 pounds of body armor, helicoptered into the capital’s heavily fortified American-controlled Green Zone, met with the new Iraqi prime minister (on five-minute’s notice — lest word get out and something terrible happen), dramatically looked him “in the eyes,” and a few hours later left the U.S. version of “Iraq” for the administration’s stage-set version of Washington to offer the American people yet another round of Green-Zone tales of turning tides, progress, and future Iraqi successes.
Incident in the Red Zone: But what about anyone who has to leave Baghdad’s Green Zone for even a brief visit to the region the Americans on the spot call the “Red Zone” and most of the rest of us think of as Iraq? Well, the Australian ambassador had an interesting experience along these lines lately. As it happens, not all Iraqi ministries are located inside the Green Zone. The Ministry of Trade is unlucky in this regard, being in one of Baghdad’s many embattled neighborhoods, which made the Australian ambassador no less unlucky. Last week, he had to visit Abdul-Falah al-Sudani, the Iraqi trade minister, in hopes of negotiating a multimillion dollar deal for Australian wheat. Naturally, he took along his “security guards.” (Who in Baghdad would go anywhere without them?) In the ministry’s parking lot they evidently ran into a set of armed Iraqis — the trade minister’s bodyguards, as it turned out — and evidently fearing themselves in danger, simply opened fire, killing one and wounding several. They then seem to have leapt into their vehicles and hightailed it back to the safety of the Green Zone (apologies to follow later). Amid security guards, bodyguards, militias, insurgents, armed criminals of all sorts, private mercenaries, jihadis, and armed, terrified citizens, shoot on sight is increasingly the operative phrase. Call it the Wild East or maybe the world that George made.
Life between the Zones: While George and Karl and Dick and Don and Condi and Zalmay — “Zarqawi’s death will not by itself end the violence in Iraq. But [it] is an important step in the right direction. It is a good omen for Iraq, for Prime Minister Maliki’s new government, and our overall efforts in the Global War on Terror…” — were spinning a cotton-candy confection out of post-Zarqawi, don’t-cut-and-run Iraq, our Green-Zone ambassador, the very same Zalmay Khalilzad, sent a cable marked “sensitive” to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that just happened to end up in the hands of the Washington Post. All the Post would say was that it was “obtained” by the paper — though assumedly it was leaked by someone, Iraqi or American, who wanted the world to know what life in Iraq was actually like, even for those working in the Green Zone.
The cable focused on the Iraqi staff of nine in the Public Affairs section of our gargantuan embassy and, though it got some media attention, few of us really read such long documents beginning to end, so let me summarize. It dealt with Iraqis who have to leave the Green Zone each night for Red-Zone Iraq and return each work-day morning. In their Red-Zone neighborhoods, the employees often got but an hour of power for every six hours without (one area lacked city power for “over a month”); spent endless hours in gas lines (12 hours on a day off for one employee); were taunted by Iraqi guards, who seem to belong to (assumedly Shiite) militias, at Green-Zone checkpoints; could not tell family members where they actually worked; faced mounting criticisms of the U.S. at home; experienced sectarian strains in homes and neighborhoods; could not protect their own children; did not take home their American cell phones (fearing these might ID them for death); are in some cases “planning for their own possible abduction” by entering code names for friends and colleagues into their Iraqi cell phones; cannot be called by the embassy on holidays or weekends without having their “cover” blown; regularly know of people dying and often attend funerals (“every evening” in one case); if female, are being intimidated and harassed for not “covering up” and for using cell phones (a “suspected channel to licentious relationships with men”); have to regularly modify behavior, language, and dress as they pass into different neighborhoods controlled by different militias; and find that in their neighborhoods “the central government…is not relevant.”
The memo concludes, “Although our staff retain[s] a professional demeanor, strains are apparent. We see that their personal fears are reinforcing divisive sectarian or ethnic channels, despite talk of reconciliation by officials.” In other words, even inside the heavily guarded American embassy, signs of incipient civil war can be observed.
But perhaps all you need to know is this: According to Khalilzad’s cable, “More recently, we have begun shredding documents printed out that show local staff surnames.” In other words — as with the President’s five-minute notification time for the Iraqi prime minister — the embassy is not reliably secure.
Whoever wrote this cable for the ambassador notes that “in March, a few staff members approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate.” In Iraqi minds, then, already the shades of Saigon, 1975 are arising.
At the very moment Bush and Co. were painting a picture of progress in Iraq, the ambassador’s memo bluntly notes that “even upscale [Baghdad] neighborhoods such as Mansur have visibly deteriorated.” The splendid New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise had a piece on this in the Saturday paper, Fear Invades a Once-Comfortable Iraqi Enclave. She writes: “[Once] Baghdad’s Upper East Side…but…no longer the address everyone wants…[n]ow Mansour, a religiously mixed area just three miles from the fortified Green Zone, feels more like wartime Beirut than Park Avenue, and its affluent residents worry that the wave of violence that has devoured large swaths of Baghdad has begun encroaching on them.” As you read on, it only gets grimmer. For instance, the owner of a well-known, upscale “Sweet Shop” that was satchel-bombed, she writes, “blamed the Americans for the security troubles, an opinion expressed by many in Mansour — Shiite and Sunni alike.”
And none of this includes the mayhem that followed that turning “tide” — the murder of one of Saddam Hussein’s lead lawyers, the small spike in American troop deaths, the steady stream of sectarian killings, or the gun battles that broke out between Sunni insurgents and the Sadrist militia (and came to include American troops) on Haifa street, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, once known as “Death Street,” and a notorious hotbed of insurgent activity that was long ago supposedly reclaimed by Iraqi troops.
Green Zones inside Green Zones: In good times and bad, the Bush administration has always had a Green-Zone strategy in Iraq, but never an “exit strategy” because they never planned to depart (and still don’t). From the beginning, they expected to hunker down in a series of permanent bases, largely away from major population centers, and these, to the tune of billions of dollars, have since been built. The biggest of them is Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, “a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq,” with 20,000 American troops, most of whom never leave the base, a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye’s, “an ersatz Starbucks,” a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, four mess halls, as well as extensive bus routes — and it’s still being upgraded. Bases like Balad were meant to be little islands of well-fortified and well-guarded American irreality at the heart of the planet’s “arc of instability” (think: its oil lands).
When the administration was received in Iraq so much more poorly than any of its officials ever dreamed, they simply fortified more heavily and settled into the chaotic ruins of the country for the long haul. Nothing more clearly illustrates this than the new American embassy rising inside the Green Zone, a massive citadel inside what’s already our citadel. It is, as Nicholas von Hoffman pointed out recently in the Nation magazine, the most permanent of bases. Known to Iraqis as “George W’s Palace” (a sly reference to Saddam’s elaborate former palaces), it is to be the biggest, most expensive “embassy” on the planet to the tune of at least $592 million (and probably more) — a mini-state within a fortified city-state with 8,000 employees, “twenty-one buildings, 619 apartments with very fancy digs for the big shots, restaurants, shops, gym facilities, a swimming pool, a food court, a beauty salon, a movie theater… and, as the Times of London reports, ‘a swish club for evening functions.'” When it comes to electricity and water, it will operate independently of the rest of Baghdad. With its own missile defense system, it will be the global bunker of bunkers.
(Not surprisingly, a not-so-mini-version of this embassy is being built in Afghanistan for our other failing war on terror. In 2003, it was already being constructed under a $100 million contract with Halliburton — which specializes in bases, prisons, and now fortress embassies for the Bush administration. Much of it is now finished, though little has been written about it, and it too, as someone who has seen it tells me, is an enormous fortress-like compound with very few windows (all probably easily convertible into gun emplacements), guarded by Nepalis — wouldn’t want to let the locals too close — and well supplied from the U.S. right down to the heads of lettuce.
Of course, as the early post-9/11 adventures of our Vice President indicated, the Bush administration has long been hunkered down with a bunker’s-eye view of the world through those gun-emplacement windows. For its top officials, the rest of the planet exists outside Green Zone walls, a place you never venture without your full contingent of security guards who shoot first, ask questions later, and never, never (unlike the Australians) apologize. Beyond those walls, it should never be surprising to find mayhem and horror on some version of the old American frontier (where you take people “dead or alive”), because out there is where you find the savages and barbarians.
The Green Zoning of History: One of the things you need to do when telling Green-Zone stories to the American people is “Green Zone” history. Historical memory (if you’re not remembering the glories of World War II — “‘The president understands people’s impatience…,’ [Tony] Snow said on CNN. ‘He understands that. If somebody had taken a poll in the Battle of the Bulge, I dare say people would have said, “Wow, my goodness, what are we doing here?” But you cannot conduct a war based on polls.'”) is generally to be avoided. For instance, the history of American support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s would, in the pre-invasion period, play no part in all those stories about Saddam’s “killing fields” and his acts of horror.
When our enemies (even if once our friends or allies) commit horrors, they are, of course, the brutes, the barbarians. In telling any such story, if the enemy is barbaric that automatically makes you “civilization.” Saddam was a barbarian, big time (but skip the years when our satellites were helping him pinpoint Iranian troop concentrations to gas). Only last week, out in the Red Zone, two American soldiers were brutally slain, their bodies mutilated and evidently burned beyond recognition, and one of them was beheaded (probably after death); the bodies were then booby-trapped with IEDS.
As New York Times correspondent John Burns put it, “The story really takes us back into the 8th century, a truly barbaric world.” National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley offered the following version of the same: “I think it’s a reminder that this is a brutal enemy that does not follow any of the rules. It attacks civilians for political gain, it provokes sectarian violence, and it really follows no rules of warfare. It’s a very brutal enemy, and it’s a reminder to all of us about what we’re up against.” And those were typical comments in our world.
Mind you, in Red-Zone Iraq, mutilated bodies — including many with holes from power drills (very twenty-first century), often tortured, it seems, by militias connected to our Shiite “allies” — have been pouring into the morgues for god knows how long. However, when a largely Green-Zoned American public is suddenly shocked by the horrific deaths of American troops and wonders what century the brutes we’re up against are really in, it helps enormously to lack all historical memory. I don’t mean memory of eighth century or even “medieval” brutality, but simply of the last decades of the previous century when the CIA ran the largest covert operation in its history, aimed at turning Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
To accomplish this, the Agency entered into an alliance with Pakistani intelligence and the Saudis to fund a range of extreme Islamic jihadists, including one by the name of Osama bin Laden. They were to take guerrilla war to the USSR by any means imaginable and make them pay — and that they did. Back then, hailed as “freedom fighters” by President Ronald Reagan and as a “resistance movement” in our press, our jihadis committed a wide range of terrorist acts (including using car bombs, bike bombs, wheelbarrow bombs, even “camel bombs,” as well as roadside IEDs) — and were hailed for it. Moreover, when they captured Russian soldiers, they made a point of torturing, mutilating, and beheading them. (Soviet atrocities were also legion.)
These were the well-funded predecessors of the jihadis (or in some cases, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan, they were the very same jihadis) fighting us today. Now, they are the barbarians.
As a point of comparison, the same week those American bodies were mutilated in a barbaric fashion, reporter Ron Suskind came out with a new book, The One Percent Doctrine in which, according to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, he describes the President’s special interest in a captured al-Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, who turned out not to be a leading terrorist but a complete nonentity and literal madman.
“‘I said [Zubaydah] was important,’ Bush reportedly told [CIA director George] Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?’ ‘No sir, Mr. President,’ Tenet replied. Bush…was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,’ Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, ‘Do some of these harsh methods really work?’ Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.’ And so, Suskind writes, ‘the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.'”
Of course, this administration never admits to torturing, but if you’re going by “medieval” standards, water-boarding was once upon a time simply known as “the water torture.” Such American actions — and they have been legion in recent years — have taken place outside the walls of the Bush administration’s Green Zone, out there in a world of barbarians where “the gloves must come off” and hands must be preemptively dirtied to make us all safer back here.
Running with the Barbarians: So let’s return to those ridiculous Europeans who think that the Bush administration is a greater destabilizing force than Iran or North Korea in our world. Despite the President’s outrage, here’s the odd thing: If you stop to think about it for a moment, the Bush administration’s Iraqi argument and the recent full-scale charge of the Republicans in Congress is now implicitly based on little but the destabilizing qualities of the President’s war-on-terror policies; on the thought that, if those policies are not pursued to their unimaginable endpoint, the destabilizing happening elsewhere, the turning of Iraq into a lawless, devolving Red Zone, of Afghanistan into a lawless, rebellious narco-state, the potential unsettling of the whole “arc of instability,” will arrive on our shores.
The globally disastrous results of Bush administration policy are now the explanation for continuing that policy. We must stay in Iraq because otherwise the Zarqawis will come to us. Who even remembers when, before the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi was a nonentity, a small-time thug and crude jihadist, a would-be whatever — with little hope of becoming that “whatever.” Now, he’s in the pantheon of whatevers and he and his successors are being transformed in the White House Rose Garden from the dismal results of what this administration has done into the justification for everything they still plan to do.
In the meantime, we have now passed the Nth tidal shift, the umpteenth turning point — moments which invariably allow the Bush administration to retell the same inane Green-Zone stories that the media always takes up with a strange kind of hope as if some slate had just been wiped clean until, soon after, they are drowned in new waves of blood and chaos.
How many more Green Zone stories are Americans capable of taking? For how long will Americans mistake safety for hunkering down in the ruins of occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, with the embassy lights on and the water running and that fabulous little club in full swing, and everything else going to hell? As long as we do, matters will only worsen. And sooner or later, whether the jihadis arrive on our shores or not, our empire will come home. It already has. Don’t for a second think that you can keep the torturers, their methods, and their mentalities — those classic “dirty hands” — off in the shadows, beyond the walls forever. Indeed, the barbarians are already inside the gates. Soon enough, they may be impossible to tell from us.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, is now out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt
This article appeared first at Tomdispatch.com.