On the fourth anniversary of George W, Bush "Mission Accomplished" declaration of victory in Iraq, 02 May 2003, there's a perfect storm barreling down on the Bush White House.
It's driven, among other things, by the rash of bloody suicide bombings in Iraq and continued American casualties, by the revelations of former CIA director George Tenet, and especially by the determination of a Democratic controlled Congress to finally investigate the lies and cover-ups that proceeded -- and followed -- the 2003 invasion.
There are a couple of remarkable points to make about this. First: there is nothing really new or earthshaking in any of the facts that have been revealed. Most of them, such as Tenet's charge that there was never any serious debate in the White House about invading Iraq, have been known for years. As was the Pentagon's shameful cover-up of the death by friendly fire of football hero Pat Tillman.
Secondly, even as Democrats in congress vow to continue probing the past, the Bush administration's deceptions and distortions continue. US body counts too high? Don't give the media access to the returning coffins, and keep the President away from any mourning families. Iraqi civilian casualty figures getting out of hand? Have the Iraqi government cease providing civilian casualty figures. Insurgent bomb attacks on the rise? Stop including casualties due to suicide car bombers and other explosive devices in the totals.
Similar games are being played with US troop levels. Though President Bush originally talked of a surge of 21,500 in fact more than 30,000 will be sent. But even that number is only an approximation. For there are 120,000 private contractors -- otherwise known as mercenaries -- in Iraq. Together they would make up the second largest foreign military force in the country. What are they up to? To whom do they answer? What do they cost?
Don't hold your breath for the answers. Their activities are far from the oversight of the United States Congress -- though most of their salaries are ultimately being paid by the US government. The Department of Defense itself is trying to get a handle on their numbers and activities. But don't expect any information from that source either. The fact is, many of the interrogators and intelligence analysts in Iraq are private contractors, and recently US intelligence officials spent several months attempting to learn just how many such contractors work in all of America's top secret intelligence agencies. But after finally coming up with a figure, the officials now refuse to make it public. (Though it's not clear what Al Qaeda could do with such information.)
US officials however did make public a list of several "successful" projects in Iraq that would demonstrate the effective use of the $30 billion that the United States has poured into that country. But when other US inspectors arrived to check out the claims from a sampling of eight such projects, they found that seven were no longer operating as designed -- several were no longer operating at all. And, more unfortunate, the inspectors reported, they were unable to take a truly random sampling because many of the projects were in areas too unsafe to visit.
This is the same reason that, although many journalists are brave and intelligent, it is pretence that they actually know what is going on in Iraq. It is more showbiz than fact. Because of the fearful security situation, they are restricted to the artificial enclave of the Green Zone, literally cut off from the rest of the country. When they venture out, it is usually only with helmet and flak jacket, safely embedded with American military units. Most of Iraq and most of its people are unknown territory.
In the Green Zone, however, reporters are able to cover another highly staged event, the trial of Saddam Hussein, which drones on, even though the former dictator has departed the scene. Officials who served under Saddam are being charged with various crimes against humanity. But there is no mention by anyone -- neither the prosecutors nor the media -- about the complicity of the United States and other major powers in many of Saddam's most horrific acts.
Most reporters also avoid reporting that the claim of the squabbling do-nothing politicians in the Green Zone to be the government of Iraq is another fiction promulgated by the Bush administration. Everyone -- the media, visiting congressmen and officials all seem to play along—but as retired General Barry McCaffrey recently pointed out: There is essentially not a single province in the country where "the central government holds sway."
The current debate over Iraq avoids other fundamental issues. While Congress and the President are at logger heads over a schedule for withdrawing US forces -- as if they're really talking about pulling all US troops in Iraq -- what about the four mammoth military bases that the United States has spent billions of dollars building in Iraq over the past four years? One of them, Balad, North of Baghdad, covers fifteen square miles. Those bases could soon be the object of a major confrontation among Iraqi leaders, hostile to any attempt by the United States to maintain permanent bases in their country. Indeed, there's no way those facilities could be considered "temporary," though that's how the Bush administration sold them to congress. And then there is the sprawling new American embassy -- the most mammoth American embassy in the world -- currently being built in the Green Zone.
It would be naive to think that the Bush administration would just walk away and leave those facilities. More likely are major troop commitments -- to back up future Iraqi governments as well as America's influence in that vitally strategic part of the world -- commitments that may last for decades. Though these bases are certainly a subject of concern to Iraqis, they've been scarcely mentioned in any of the debates concerning America's commitment to Iraq. On the other hand, though most Americans have yet to be briefed on the situation, some US troops certainly have. Recently, at one of those facilities, the massive marine base of Al-Asad in Anbar province, a visiting reporter was assured by US soldiers that American troops would be rotating though for at least the next decade.
Barry Lando is a former CBS "60 Minutes" producer and journalist with Time-Life. He is the author of Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush (2006).
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