Iraq: propaganda and the “civil war” question

The parade of denial goes on. US Central Command chief Gen. Abizaid makes headlines by speaking the obvious—his dramatic understatement treated like a splash of cold water, so deep is the degree of self-delusion:

“I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war,” Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

“We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war,” added Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who expressed confidence that war could be averted if Iraqi security forces improve.

The generals’ statements mark a departure from the more upbeat Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of Sunni-Shiite civil war despite a year of unabated sectarian violence.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, speaking on Air Force One as Bush flew to Texas, told reporters, “I don’t think the president is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations.” [Newsday, Aug. 4]

Gen. Casey, the US commander in Iraq, echoes his boss in an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz:

Raddatz: The threat of civil war, how serious is that?

Casey: As John [Abizaid] said, it certainly is possible. When you have levels of sectarian violence the way they are, it certainly is possible. That said, I think I know the Iraqis are determined not to go there. And they’re determined to prevent that and they’re taking, what I would say, were the appropriate actions along with us and their security forces, to ensure that doesn’t happen. [ABC, Aug. 7]

US Ambassador Khalilzad opts for damage control in an interview with Margaret Warner of “The News Hour”:

Margaret Warner: Last week, the CENTCOM commander, General Abizaid, said that Iraq could slide into civil war. How big a risk do you think there is of that at this point?

Zalmay Khalilzad: Well, there is some risk of that. There are, in the circumstances that are present here, a way forward that could bring that about. But I think the prospects for avoiding a full civil war is stronger at the present time. [PBS, Aug. 7]

So does President Talabani, quoted in Qatar’s The Peninsula:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani yesterday rejected the idea that his country is caught in the grip of a civil war between the majority Shi’ites and the formerly privileged Sunni community.

“I don’t believe that a civil war is taking place in Iraq,” Talabani told a joint news conference with the commander of US and coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey.

“There is more than one Iraqi political force… which opposes civil war,” he said, naming the ruling Shi’ite coalition and the Sunni National Concord Front. “Therefore, I don’t expect a civil war,” said Talabani, himself a member of the Kurdish minority. [The Peninusla, Aug. 8]

And, of course, the requisite denial by the Bush administration:

“It would be, really, erroneous to say that the Iraqis are somehow making a choice for civil war, or, I think, even sliding into civil war,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”. [AP, Aug. 8]

What is really scary is that everybody—or at least the mass media—seems to be buying this transparently disingenuous bosh. Civil war in Iraq remains permanently just over the horizon, forever receding into the future, never arriving—because there is no fixed definition of it. This propaganda device was noted by George Orwell, who wrote of words like “democracy” that “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.” Orwell also noted the trick of using words “in a consciously dishonest way,” with special, unspoken definitions. “That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” Thus, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Burma all face levels of violence considerably lesser than that in Iraq yet nobody denies there is civil war there. The same could be said of the recent conflicts in Nepal and Aceh, arguably that in Kosova ten years ago, and certainly those in Central America ten years before that. Yet in Iraq, an unspoken special definition is being used that is never applied in any of those other cases: the actual official fracturing of the governing coalition. No matter how routine mass murder becomes, no matter what atrocities are committed, no matter how many people are displaced by sectarian warfare, no matter what vast swaths of the country remain outside even token government control, no matter how blurred the lines grow between official security forces and lawless militias—in Iraq it will never be “civil war” unless that special litmus test is passed.

Why is nobody calling out this propaganda charade? Alas, as we have noted, the supposed anti-war left has just as much invested in denying the reality in Iraq as the Bush administration it loves to hate. Like generals still fighting the last war, it is so accustomed to viewing all US interventions through the prism of Vietnam that it cannot see that the more appropriate model in contemporary Iraq might be, say, Bosnia…

See our last posts on Iraq and the sectarian cleansing.

  1. Friedman smells the coffee
    From, Aug. 6:

    Tom Friedman’s Walter Cronkite moment

    by Wasserman, Harvey

    The reality that the Vietnam War was a hopeless catastrophe definitively penetrated the mass American psyche when CBS Nightly News Anchor Walter Cronkite—the “most trusted man in America”—faced the facts.

    That was in 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive shredded any pretence that an American victory (whatever that would mean) was possible in Southeast Asia. When Lyndon Johnson heard Cronkite had turned on the war, he knew it was over, and soon thereafter declined to run again.

    Now Tom Friedman has done the same thing about Iraq and Southwest Asia. Has anybody noticed?

    Friedman has long been the lead neo-liberal cheerleader for the American attack on Iraq. From his perch on the New York Times op ed page, Friedman has pontificated long and in earnest about the need for the US military to establish “democracy” in the land once run by Saddam Hussein, that horrific dictator installed by the US military, then fired in the wake of 9/11 attacks conducted by his bitter rival, Osama bin Laden.

    Somehow the Iraq war’s supporters want us to believe that an administration that holds power by denying democracy in Florida and Ohio sincerely wants to bring it to Iraq.

    But like Walter Cronkite on Vietnam, Tom Friedman has finally thrown in the towel. The prime reason, of course, is the staggering incompetence of the Bush/Rumsfield Keystone Kop campaign. As martial strategists, these guys make architects of the Vietnam catastrophe seem positively brilliant.

    We can here spare ourselves a tour of this lethal Bush idiocy. That private funds are now being raised to pay for helmets and body armor to be worn by US troops is about all that need be said.

    Since Vietnam, pro-peace bumper stickers have proclaimed the hope that the Pentagon would someday have to be funded with a bake sale. Under Bush/Halliburton, that day has finally come, tragically, for those abused and exploited troops the GOP has thrown so cynically into the abyss.

    Now Friedman has reluctantly recognized that the US Commander-In-Chief’s prime idea of a foreign policy initiative is to foist a ghastly backrub on a horrified German Prime Minister. George W. Bush is clearly incapable of the complex thought needed to win a war anywhere at any time, let alone in the infinitely complex Middle East.

    Thus, says Friedman, “it is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.” [NYT, Aug. 4]

    Staying the course, Friedman says, “is pointless.” We can’t, he says, “throw more good lives after good lives.”

    Friedman proceeds to argue as if there is intelligent, honorable life in the White House. Having failed to make clear what it was doing in Iraq, the administration “at least owes us a Plan B.”

    But Bush/Cheney/Rove don’t believe they owe anybody anything, least of all the American people. Friedman still hasn’t faced the fact that Plan A through Plan Z has always been to establish permanent military bases in Iraq and control that oil, and that little else ever really mattered, except for maybe George 2 trying to show George 1 he’s the better man.

    Friedman predicts that the Bush-inspired chaos will send oil over $100/barrel. Unfortunately, he is still hung up on the catastrophic delusion that there is a place for nuclear power in our future other than as the ultimate terror target. But Friedman does have the sense to understand that higher oil prices will at least “spur more investment in alternative fuels that could one day make us independent of this volatile region.”

    That Team Bush may well fail even in establishing viable military bases in the Middle East remains undiscussed. Democratic neo-liberals haven’t faced that reality any more than the fact that they have wimped away from two consecutive stolen presidential elections.

    So Friedman proceeds as if Team Bush actually cares about negotiations and diplomacy, neither of which it can manage on any level.

    When Walter Cronkite used his bully pulpit on America’s most-watched evening news show to say it was time to leave Vietnam, mainstream America listened, having come largely to the same conclusion.

    Lyndon Johnson may have been obsessed with “not losing” in Vietnam. But Walter Cronkite mattered. His willingness to say the war couldn’t be won meant the American mood had changed. It never changed back.

    Tom Friedman’s capitulation is a parallel event. In a sane nation, it should have serious consequences. It certainly reflects a broad national consensus that Southwest Asia has matched Southeast Asia as a hopeless quagmire, a quicksand sinkhole from which even a well-run US military could never extract victory, let alone one being run into the ground by hopeless incompetents.

    The tragedy now is that George W. Bush has neither the intelligence nor the integrity nor the heart to call a halt to the slaughter. And if the GOP stranglehold on the machinery of the American vote count is left unchallenged, the next occupant of the White House will certainly be no better.