In thinking about the election in Iraq, my mind keeps jumping back to last week's train wreck in California. A deranged man, intending suicide, drove his Jeep Cherokee onto the railroad tracks, where it got stuck. The onrushing train drew near. The man suddenly left his vehicle and leapt out of the way. He watched as the train crashed into his SUV, derailed, jackknifed, and hit another train. Railroad cars crumbled. Eleven people were killed and nearly 200 were injured, some gravely. The deranged man was arrested. Whatever troubles had made him suicidal in the first place paled in comparison to the trouble he has now.
Iraq is a train wreck. The man who caused it is not in trouble. Tomorrow night he will give his State of the Union speech, and the Washington establishment will applaud him. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead. More than 1,400 Americans are dead. An Arab nation is humiliated. Islamic hatred of the West is ignited. The American military is emasculated. Lies define the foreign policy of the United States. On all sides of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there is wreckage. In the center, there are the dead, the maimed, the displaced -- those who will be the ghosts of this war for the rest of their days. All for what?
Tomorrow night, like a boy in a bubble, George W. Bush will tell the world it was for "freedom." He will claim the Iraqi election as a stamp of legitimacy for his policy, and many people will affirm it as such. Even critics of the war will mute their objections in response to the image of millions of Iraqis going to polling places, as if that act undoes the Bush catastrophe.
There is only one way in which the grand claims made by Washington for the weekend voting will be true -- and that is if the elections empower an Iraqi government that moves quickly to repudiate Washington. The only meaning "freedom" can have in Iraq right now is freedom from the US occupation, which is the ground of disorder. But such an outcome of the elections is not likely. The chaos of a destroyed society leaves every new instrument of governance dependent on the American force, even as the American force shows itself incapable of defending against, much less defeating, the suicide legions. The irony is exquisite. The worse the violence gets, the longer the Americans will claim the right to stay. In that way, the ever more emboldened -- and brutal -- "insurgents" do Bush's work for him by making it extremely difficult for an authentic Iraqi source of order to emerge. Likewise the elections, which, as universally predicted, have now ratified the country's deadly factionalism.
Full blown civil war, if it comes to that, will serve Bush's purpose, too. All the better if Syria and Iran leap into the fray. In such extremity, America's occupation of Iraq will be declared legitimate. America's city-smashing tactics, already displayed in Fallujah, will seem necessary. Further "regime change" will follow. America's ad hoc Middle East bases, meanwhile, will have become permanent. Iraq will have become America's client state in the world's great oil preserve. Bush's disastrous and immoral war policy will have "succeeded," even though no war will have been won. The region's war will be eternal, forever justifying America's presence. Bush's callow hubris will be celebrated as genius. Congress will give the military machine everything it needs to roll on to more "elections." These outcomes, of course, presume the ongoing deaths of tens of thousands more men, women, and children. And American soldiers.
Something else about that California train wreck strikes me. As news reports suggested, so many passengers were killed and injured because the locomotive was pushing the train from behind, which put the lightweight passenger coaches vulnerably in front. If, instead, the heavy, track-clearing locomotive had been leading and had hit the Jeep, it could have pushed the vehicle aside. The jack-knifing and derailment would not have occurred. The American war machine is like a train running in "push-mode," with the engineer safely back away from danger. In the train wreck of Iraq, it is passengers who have borne the brunt. The man with his hand on the throttle couldn't be more securely removed from the terrible consequences of his locomotion. Thus, Bush is like the man who caused the wreck, and like the man who was protected from it. Deranged. Detached. Alive and well in the bubble he calls "freedom," receiving applause.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."
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