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 Victorian England.
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 "success."
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 success?
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 "success?"
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.
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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 that matter.
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 manage 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.