In "Through the Looking Glass," Lewis Carroll's
companion book to "Alice in Wonderland," Humpty Dumpty
harumphs to Alice, "When I use a word, it means just
what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." It
was, of course, a withering sneer at the deceit that
passed for sophisticated discourse in Carroll's
America has its own bulging cadre of Humpty Dumptys.
They are the Iraq apologists in the White House and
Pentagon and their sycophantic enablers in the
mainstream media. Their latest assault on simple
English and honest discourse is that Iraq is a
According to these linguistic torturers, the Middle
East has been transformed by Bush's invasion of Iraq.
Democracy is sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain.
Peace and prosperity are only a few more years away.
Be patient. The bounty will be incalculable.
Can the invasion and occupation of Iraq be considered
a success? Only if, like Humpty Dumpty, you can make
words mean whatever you want them to mean. Only if
you can assume away the mountains of contrary data,
for any lens turned to a sufficiently narrow focus can
find SOMEthing good to rest upon. Even 9/11 was a
boon to New York area scrap metal dealers.
But is that how we should judge policy, by looking at
the world through a rose-colored straw? Is Iraq a
Maybe Iraq is a success if you can ignore the
100,000-plus Iraqis killed, according to Lancet, the
respected British medical journal.
Maybe Iraq is a success if you can ignore the fact
that North Korea, one of Bush's "axis of evil"
nations, built its nuclear weapons in response to the
U.S. invasion. When Bush came into office, North
Korea had no nuclear weapons. But soon after the
invasion, Kim Jung Il, North Korea's leader, declared,
"The lesson of Iraq is that only defenseless countries
get invaded. We will not be defenseless." They now
have an estimated six nuclear warheads and have just
tested a missile capable of delivering them to the
U.S. Is this what the Iraq apologists mean by
Maybe if Iraq's people didn't want and need
employment, electricity, water, sewerage systems,
housing, medical care, security, food-all far worse
than before the invasion-maybe then you could consider
Iraq a success.
More than 80% of Iraqis believe the U.S. is not a
liberating force but an occupying force. Perhaps if
we overlook that inconvenient fact we could call Iraq
a success for democracy.
President Bush has called Iraq, "the front line in the
war on terror." Then, since global terrorist attacks
have tripled since the invasion, maybe that is a sign
of success. After all, within Iraq itself when
attacks go down it means we are winning. And when
attacks go up, well, it means we are winning.
Porter Goss, the new Republican CIA chief, has stated
that the invasion of Iraq provoked an increase in
global recruitment for Al Qaeda. Does that mean it's
a success? Also according to the CIA, Iraq is now the
premier training ground in the world for martyr-bound
Islamic jihadists who will later parachute like
dandelion seeds to wreak new havoc in countless other
countries around the world. Another sign of success?
Maybe we could imagine Iraq as a success if we could
wish away the patina of depleted uranium from American
weapons that blankets the country, a dusty film that
will remain toxic for thousands of years, making Iraq
the most cancerous geography on earth.
Maybe Iraq is a success if you can ignore the
exploding U.S. budget deficits, the plummeting value
of the dollar, and the doubling of oil prices since
the invasion. Those are all part-and-parcel with the
war, not unlike similar hemorrhages from Vietnam that
wrought so much damage to the economy in the 1970s.
The invasion itself, of course, was based on a
relentlessly executed campaign of lies from the White
House, Pentagon, and State Department. We don't hear
much about those lies anymore. Maybe that's what Bush
means when he says Iraq is a success.
Maybe Iraq would be a success if we could just wish
away the horror of the Abu Ghraib prison torture,
approved and encouraged at the highest levels of the
U.S. government. The damage to the US's moral
standing in the world is incalculable but perhaps
there is a hidden genius at work there that we mere
mortals cannot yet discern.
The naked violation of international law. Alienating
our allies while driving our former enemies-China and Russia-closer together. Swelling hatred of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world. A demoralized military, failing in its recruitment, pinned down in a place none dare call "quagmire." We could go on and on.
But let's be clear.
The lie of Iraq's "success," just like the lies of
"Mission Accomplished," "handing over sovereignty,"
"We've found the weapons of mass destruction,"
"democratic elections," and all the other lies, is
intended only to placate an American public quite
reasonably wearying of an illegal invasion and a catastrophically failed occupation.
The danger here is much bigger than the failure of the
Iraq venture itself. It is that words are being
highjacked, their meaning hollowed out in a Carrollian-cum-Orwellian contortion that leaves us with something that is, not unintentionally, the exact opposite of the truth. Only in a fantasy world where little girls fall down rabbit holes and mushrooms sing limericks can such ruthlessly guileful myopia as "Iraq is a success" be straight-facedly passed off as "truth."
What is occurring is the intentional debauching of
intelligent public discourse in favor of
institutionalized idiocy. It was Abraham Lincoln, the
original Republican, who stated, "Let the people know
the facts and the country will be safe." Conversely,
when the people are contemptuously misled,
purposefully deceived, blatantly lied to, the country
is in danger.
Leave aside, if you wish, the impossibility of a
lied-to American populace providing meaningful
"consent of the governed." What is at stake is
whether we can even discuss important issues any more
without our words-literally our capacity to think and choose-being rendered meaningless and, therefore, impotent.
What is also at stake is whether the media,
ritualistically humiliating itself with its own
reflexive servility, can ever get up off its knees to
render the public oversight function the country so
desperately needs of it and whether the public, fooled
more and more of the time but still not yet all of the
time, can ever trust that media again. Or itself, for
We should have no illusions. When the lie of Iraq's
"success" has been exposed and used up-as it
inevitably will be-it will be replaced with another
equally contemptible, equally fungible lie. That is
the game, after all: keep changing the lie, hoping
the dupes never catch on.
Remember Weapons of Mass Destruction? Remember
connections with Al Qaeda? Remember complicity in
9/11? Remember "a cakewalk"? Remember "flowers being
strewn in our path"? Remember "a self-funding war"?
Remember the "coalition of the willing?" Remember.
After finally being called by Alice on his linguistic licentiousness Humpty Dumpty bellowed defiantly, "I can mange the whole lot of them. Impenetrability!
That's what I say!" And that's what we have now in
the Bush administration's claim that Iraq is a
success. Welcome to Wonderland.
Robert Freeman writes on history, economics and
education. He can be reached at