Wednesday, October 06, 2004

95. TomDispatch: Withdrawal on the Agenda?

The "Enduring Camps" that couldn't be seen

As those of you who read Tomdispatch regularly know, I've long hammered away at our permanent bases, also known in Pentagonese as "enduring camps" – something close to an oxymoron. If you didn't factor those "camps" into the equation that was Iraq, the Bush administration's policies there made no sense from the start. (And almost no American could have done so, since almost no one knew about them.) If you did, they made a mockery of the neocons stated desire to create an independent, "democratic" Iraq rather than an occupied, acquiescent client state at the heart of the Middle East.

The planned (and now built) bases, obviously already in the works before our invasion even began, were proof that the Bush administration was, from the beginning, ready to settle into Iraq, however peaceable it might prove, for a long, long stay. If, of course, you were a visitor to political websites and blogs on the Internet, you would probably know a little more about the existence of such bases from places like Tomdispatch,, or to give a recent example, Justin Raimondo, columnist for; if you wandered the foreign press on the Internet, you might have found the odd piece on the subject in the British Observer or, say, Middle Eastern papers like Jordan's al-Arab al-Yawm.

But around this crucial subject a silence, until recently, lay like a pall; this despite the fact that our press regularly covers the Pentagon's global basing policies; despite the fact that, given all the problems involved in covering the Iraqi story (see below), American reporters are assumedly still capable of visiting U.S. bases like Camp Victory in Baghdad or Camp Anaconda near Balad with its 12 ½ mile circumference, its first-run movie theater, its two swimming pools and fitness gym; despite the fact that reporters in touch with me insisted they were indeed considering taking up the subject. Some of these bases, after all, are elaborate facilities, comparable to those we built in Vietnam in another era, and they must be impressive indeed. (Check out Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).

What isn't being reported on what isn't being reported

You turn on the TV and there's a CNN reporter standing on what looks like a porch set against the night sky of Baghdad; from there he offers us a report on the situation in Iraq. Only one problem, he's more or less stuck on that porch. It would evidently be difficult, if not impossible, for him to hear about a breaking story, jump into the nearest car or taxi, and head down the road. The danger to foreigner reporters, especially Western ones, especially American ones (and, of course, the Iraqis they interview) is now simply too great.

Trapped much of their time in their hotels, or perhaps in their company offices, or in the U.S. occupied and fortified Green Zone -- the six square miles of Baghdad that we set aside 18 months ago to house our occupation and have never given up -- western reporters, unless embedded with U.S. troops, now act largely as collators of government or military news (or leaks), of reports from Iraqi stringers (who can move somewhat more freely through an increasingly dangerous landscape), of gossip or rumors from elsewhere, and even of information that can be picked up off the Internet on, say, Juan Cole's Informed Comment website; but they're increasingly not reporters a lot of the time -- and so what passes for Iraqi news in our media turns out to be a very limited diet indeed. And yet, I haven't seen a single serious report on the subject of reporting from Baghdad in our press.

Then, last week -- still with not a single My-Day-in-Baghdad piece published by a single Western reporter in "Iraq" -- a fascinating thing happened. It turned out a reporter had written just such a story -- shocking, honest, blistering. It began: "Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest." And it continued:

"I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second."

When it came to Fassihi's piece on her life as a reporter, the only catch was: It wasn't a Journal piece at all, but an e-letter to friends that somehow was released onto the Internet where it sped around like a demon.
It's worth considering, though, why Farnaz Fassihi -- and perhaps other reporters like her with real stories about the ever more constricted nature of the reporting they're doing -- had to write this to friends and not to her editor to be published for the rest of us. Why was this story not fit for American readers? We have to assume, after all, that those editors back in New York or Washington or Chicago or Los Angeles are dealing daily with the difficult dilemma of ensuring their reporters' safety and so would find Fassihi's comments no surprise. But amid all the news that's fit to print, news that would make sense of Iraqi reportage clearly wasn't. Thank god for the Internet.

This is not a small matter when you, as a "consumer" of news, try to assess the quality of the news you're getting. So I say again, it's strange the way certain subjects percolate up into our world out of the political part of the Internet, which is increasingly becoming our great percolation range (and is sometimes used as such by mainstream publications). There, you can find a kind of unvarnished writing like Fassihi's, but unlike hers actually meant for the public.

To give but two recent examples: The biting William Saletan of Slate and the always sharp Chris Dickey of Newsweek (but only in a "web exclusive commentary" for that magazine) have written scathingly of something that should have been more widely noticed and reported on in the mainstream: The Bush administration has continually claimed that escalating violence in Iraq was only a sign of oppositional desperation, a last gasp of effort before a certain date. Last spring, it was the June transition of sovereignty; now it's the November election in the U.S. or the January elections (that may or may not happen) in Iraq. As the date passes and violence and opposition only escalate, administration officials simply push the ever-receding violence horizon on to the next event. About this, Saletan wrote:

"Three months after the handover, the attacks continue to escalate. Fallujah is completely out of control. Is this failure? No, it's success. Things are getting even worse because we're doing even better. Now it's the January 2005 Iraqi elections, not the June 2004 handover, that's supposedly inspiring the enemy's desperation. If we stay the course till January, we'll turn that corner we thought we'd turned in June."
Dickey's version of what he calls the administration's "hallucinatory rhetoric" was:

"Will Iraqi elections in January solve this problem? No. The elections are yet another artificial deadline or milestone declared by the U.S. government largely so it will have something to tell the American public. Since the summer of 2003 we've heard repeatedly that if there's an increase in violence, it must be because the insurgents want to undermine some great new American accomplishment just over the horizon. The through-the-looking-glass logic is that the more successful we are, the more violent the opposition becomes. But, then, the event passes, and the killing just keeps getting worse. The death of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay in July 2003 did nothing to stop what was then an insurgency in its early stages. Neither did the capture of Saddam himself in December 2003, as the rebellion continued to spread. Neither did the supposed transfer of sovereignty in June, which was followed by the appearance of no-go zones for U.S. troops in much of the Sunni heartland."

Withdrawal on the agenda

We know Iraq's a mess -- that's now widely accepted -- though it wasn't back in October 2003 when I wrote: "The president of the greatest power on Earth is being forced by events in ‘5% of Iraq' to call in his advisers for endless meetings, shake up the structure of his administration, hold sudden news conferences, offer new and ever more farfetched explanations of American actions, and backtrack on claims -- all because of Iraqi resistance." And I added the historically obvious: "Invade Texas, invade Iran, invade China, invade Albania, invade Lebanon, invade Iraq -- name your place, in fact -- and you better not assume there won't be resistance. Someone always resists. That single sentence sums up the last two centuries of global history."
Back then, having reviewed our sordid history in Iraq from the 1950s on, I tried to sum up our Iraqi problem in four sentences:

"History, long term and more recent, is not on our side.
"We are a war-making and an occupying force, not a peacekeeping force.
"We never planned to leave Iraq.
"Time is against us.

"Or to boil all this down to a sentence: We are not and never have been the solution to the problem of Iraq, but a significant part of the problem."

Should John Kerry be elected, the question is: Will he and his advisors feel themselves trapped inside his campaign promises to "win" the war in Iraq and by a fear of being labeled -- by the Republicans who are sure to give him a post-election day respite of perhaps 30 seconds -- the flip-flopper-in-chief? Even now, inside his "winning" strategy lie the seeds of a withdrawal strategy, including a no-oil, no bases pledge; but he won't have long to get out. As the canny columnist William Pfaff wrote, citing the way French President Charles De Gaulle once bit the bullet over Algeria and negotiated a French withdrawal:

"If John Kerry wins the U.S. presidency in November, he will find himself in the same plight as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon when they took office. Each inherited another man's war. Each prosecuted that war -- Johnson reluctantly, Nixon because he thought he could do better. Both failed and were destroyed by the war…. Kerry expresses no such doubts. He apparently accepts what ‘everyone knows' in Washington today: that ‘failure in Iraq is not an option.'

"This is true, but not in the way they think. Failure is no longer an option; it is a certainty. The questions that remain are failure's timing, and the gravity of its consequences... If Kerry is elected president, he will have the de Gaulle option. He will have a window lasting a few months during which he could reverse U.S. policy and expect, provisionally, to carry public opinion with him…

"The consequence of failure in Vietnam unseated the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Revolution in Iran and retreat from Lebanon in 1983 damaged the Carter and Reagan administrations. This year Iraq may defeat George W. Bush. Why should Kerry, an intelligent man, wish to be next?"

Withdrawal has bubbled up, finally, into the mainstream, though not yet quite into the realms of policy-making. That may not be enough, but it is something. Let me end with my final words of October 31, 2003. I don't think one of them yet needs to be changed:

"For me at least, the imperial occupation of the lands of this earth – whatever the empire – is unacceptable. Any armed occupation will always be part of the problem not the solution on this planet. In our present world, such acts can only lead to hell. We need to pressure this administration hard to step outside the box it has created for us, our troops, and the Iraqi people who truly did deserve a liberation and not the occupation and looting that they are living through. They are not the spoils of war.

"Let us offer Iraq genuine help, reconstruction aid, and support of all sorts afterwards, possibly indirectly through groups whose interests can't be mistaken for ours. But our troops are an occupying army. They can't keep the peace. They are the war."

Tom (click here for full article)