Published on Friday, July 25, 2004 by the Guardian / United Kingdom
Bush Will Have Nothing to Celebrate if He Comes Here
A Presidential Visit would be a Furtive and Humbling Affair
by Jonathan Steele
What kind of Iraq will George Bush see when he comes here next week to celebrate the handover of sovereignty to the country's new interim government? It will certainly not be the scene that Karl Rove, the White House political adviser, must have hoped for when he hatched the idea last autumn of bringing his boss into the heart of downtown Baghdad for the ceremony.
Huge crowds of adoring Iraqis would line the streets as the presidential motorcade passed. George Bush would mount a platform at the very spot where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in April 2003, the Great Liberator addressing the Iraqi nation and wishing them well as they embarked on the road to freedom and democracy. God Bless Iraq. God Bless America.
Now it will be a much more humble and humbling affair. There will be a speech, of course, but only after a helicopter dash to the heavily-fortified "green zone" where the occupation authorities have held sway for the past 14 months, handshakes with a small group of carefully selected Iraqis in the government which the Americans had a decisive role in appointing, and some hasty photo-ops with US troops.
Even this hole-in-corner performance will be enough to embarrass John Kerry, which is, after all, its main purpose. Like the Thanksgiving turkey platter which Bush carried out from behind a curtain in a hangar at Baghdad airport last November, next week's publicity coup will be hard for the Democratic party's candidate to denounce. You can't sneer at patriotism or deride a president for visiting the trenches.
By any wider scale of measurement Bush's Baghdad visit will only serve to highlight the failures of his overall Iraq strategy. Instead of enjoying peace and prosperity, Iraq is in a state of war.
The Bush visit has not been announced, and may yet be cancelled for security reasons, leaving Colin Powell, the secretary of state, or perhaps not even him, to come in the president's place. But like clues in a treasure hunt, telltale hints of the Bush/Rove plan are there for the finding.
First, the extraordinary coincidence that Bush will be attending a Nato summit in Istanbul on June 28 and 29, the eve of the sovereignty transfer in Iraq. From there it is barely 90 minutes' flight to Baghdad. When was this convenient date selected? Certainly some time after June last year, when Nato foreign ministers met in Madrid to plan the alliance's next summit. At that stage, according to the Nato website, the summit was to be held in May 2004.
The next time the ministers met - in Brussels last December - they changed the date to June. This scheduling adjustment occurred less than three weeks after the US occupation authorities had made an agreement with Iraq's governing council to transfer sovereignty at the end of June this year. Well done, Karl Rove.
The second piece of evidence is decoy stuff. The Americans and their British allies have been downplaying next week's transfer of power to an extraordinary degree. "It won't be Hong Kong," as a senior official in the Coalition Provisional Authority put it. No flags coming down masts. No 21-gun salutes. No fireworks (except perhaps from the resistance).
Other officials have been suggesting the ceremony will consist of little more than Paul Bremer, the outgoing US overlord, handing a formal document to the chief justice of Iraq's supreme court before the latter swears in the new president and prime minister. "Bremer might not even stay for that. It is the Iraqis' show," said another CPA man.
If in the end Bush decides not to take the security risk of coming to Iraq, it will be a major disappointment for him. But his sense of letdown will be as nothing compared to the disappointment that the vast majority of Iraqis feel about the American performance since April last year. The superpower that toppled the dictatorship in three weeks of war was expected to restore the economy, provide security, and create a climate of renewal.
Instead, as Iraqis see it, the Americans stood idly by and failed to get basic services working while looters ran amok. When Iraqis started to hold protests, they were treated with high-handed disdain at best, and cruelty at worst. When resisters took up the gun and planted home-made bombs, US forces overreacted with clumsy house-searches and mass detentions, provoking further resistance.
As the clumsiness of the military side of the occupation mounted, people were reluctant to denounce the resistance, let alone inform on those involved in it. Deprived of useful intelligence, the Americans went from blunder to blunder, laying siege to the Sunni city of Falluja and underestimating the popularity of the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.
On the political front, they were too slow to hand power to Iraqis. CPA officials argue that an occupation of only 14 months is short compared to the seven years it lasted in post-war Germany and Japan. But the comparison is unjustified. A majority of Germans and Japanese supported their previous systems. Finding people willing to set up alternative institutions necessarily took time.
Iraq was different. Most Iraqis hated Saddam and his crony dictatorship. When he fell, all they wanted was for the Americans to clean up the short-term mess and leave them alone. The presence of foreign troops was humiliating. "All done, go home", said a line of graffiti which appeared less than a month after the regime's fall on the plinth where Saddam's statue had stood.
In July last year, the Americans appointed an Iraqi governing council and asked it to pick a cabinet that would work alongside US advisers. The government that takes office next week is almost a clone of its predecessors, chosen largely from the same group of people. Was it at least elected? Not at all. It was appointed on exactly the same basis of private consultation.
This parallelism poses the question: why didn't the occupation end a year ago? If Iraq had had a government last July which was as free to take its own decisions as this one is claimed to be, would nationalist resentment and frustration have reached today's peak? Would all of us in Baghdad, whether Iraqis or foreigners, be living in as much anxiety as we are?
No, the American occupation authorities were not only bent on toppling Saddam Hussein. They also wanted to put their stamp on another people's life and behavior as well. Alas, the old imperial delusion that foreigners know best has taken its toll again. So if Bush appears in Iraq next week, he will have to come furtively rather than in style.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004