Here's a scenario for you: American aircraft are firing into residential neighborhoods inhabited by the very people we claim to be protecting; American casualties are spiking; local security forces we've built and supported collapse or flee the scene; American officials are confined to their "compounds" because of "security worries"; top officials are rushing on air to claim that things are not what they seem, that progress is occurring; American generals are publicly planning for the possibility of sending in more troops; the President is swearing that we will not "cut and run" but "stay the course"; pundits, editorial writers, and TV journalists are calling the situation a "quagmire"; the American public is catching all this on television, including shots of American troops battling in the streets of major cities; the latest opinion polls indicate that Americans are reconsidering their support for the ongoing war and that rising numbers -- 44% -- now claim to be in favor of pulling out American troops "as soon as possible"; under the weight of the latest war news, the President's opinion-poll popularity ratings are dropping fast.
Do we have to wait another day before some official completes this picture by using the phrase "the light at the end of the tunnel"? Here's the sort of statement that's already coming out of the mouth of the Coalition Provisional Authority's L. Paul Bremer:
" 'There is no question we have control over the country. I know if you just report on those few places [where the fighting is taking place], it does look chaotic,' Bremer said on CNN's American Morning. 'But if you travel around the country, what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped… The story of the house that doesn't burn down is not much of a story in the news. The story of the house that does burn down is news."
So is Iraq -- yes, we're talking about Iraq, not Vietnam -- a glass half full or half empty? Or could it be half-shattered… or is it a glass at all?
Soon enough we'll undoubtedly hear plaintive murmurings from official Washington that "they" -- the Sunni insurgents in that famed "triangle" (reminiscent of "triangles" first named decades ago); and the followers of the young Islamist extremist Muqtada al Sadr -- have been militarily "defeated" and should recognize as much and act accordingly. As if that were the point. As if the story were really a military one in the first place.
For anyone of a certain age, memories -- particularly of the shocking beginning moment of the surprise 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam -- are bound to come flooding back; not, I hasten to add, because that massive nationwide series of assaults which stunned the American public into disbelief and this chaotic spread of rebellion into the Shiite areas of Iraq are in any literal way similar, but because the response is familiar, because the "gap" between events unfolding on television and the Iraq promised by this administration is already large enough to create genuine unease in the "homeland," to give the alternately sunny and belligerent pronouncements of this administration's spokesmen in Baghdad and Washington the look of propaganda, not to say surreality.
In the Vietnam years, at least, our government had a series of military regimes, however shaky, to back in South Vietnam (even if we had largely put them in place). Iraq, on the other hand, is like a strange administrative void at the moment. Under other circumstances, an American administration would simply have backed a military strongman or junta of some sort. But this is now inconceivable. With every other announced explanation for the invasion of Iraq from weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda links down the tubes, this administration has nothing left but the idea that it's bringing "democracy" to the country. Lose that and what is there except dreams, greed, and disaster.
Theoretically on June 30 we're passing "sovereignty" on to some still-undefined group of Iraqis, but what is it we'll actually be passing on? What is it we actually possess in Iraq right now to pass on?
I continue to be fascinated by the language American officials of various sorts are using in this moment of delamination. Senator Joseph Biden, along with Senator Richard Luger -- Biden being the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of which Luger is the chairman -- has been on TV endlessly the past couple of days complaining about Bush administration neglect, urging more troops for Iraq, and asking what "the plan" for handing over "sovereignty" actually is. (It's interesting, by the way, that even the Republican chairman of the appropriate Senate committee and a supportive Democratic senator have found themselves so "out of the loop" that they haven't been able to get as much as a five-minute meeting with the President.) Like various CPA officials over the last months, Biden has spent much time recently discussing the question of "face." Quite literally.
In a conversation on Fox News Sunday with former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, for instance, Biden typically said:
"And we need to, in my view, take the total American face off of this [occupation]."
Gingrich responded, "… and I do agree with Senator Biden, we want to get the American face off of this. But the real key is to, as rapidly as possible, get an Iraqi face on it."
In the Washington Post, Biden wrote an op-ed which said in part (Last Chance for an Alliance):
"Our goal should be to take the 'American face' off the occupation so that we are not blamed for everything that doesn't go right in Iraq… Instead, the Bush administration's current plan is to have a new U.S. ambassador call all the shots, at the risk that Iraqis will think the occupation has not really ended on June 30. Indeed, we will be going from the CPA -- which at least has some international flavor -- to an exclusively American operation with a 'Super-Embassy.'"
And in the New York Times he was quoted as saying: "NATO troops… could supplement the dwindling American forces and give a more international face to the military presence."
This is extraordinary language. (Do these people imagine that neither Iraqis, nor Europeans can understand English?) For "face" (or "flavor") all you need to do is insert the word "mask" -- or as the British used to say in happier and blunter colonial days, "façade" -- and you immediately know where these men imagine power to lie before and after June 30. My suggestion: What if someone were to imagine adding an Iraqi body to that "face"? Mightn't that help a tad?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is a co-founder of the American Empire Project (www.americanempireproject.com) and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism and the Cold War.
Copyright © 2004 Tom Engelhardt