| Ultimate in chutzpah
Television is the great deceiver. It conjures up the mirage of conflict in living rooms across the world. But “militainment”, a new word for blow-by-blow military coverage, only brings us what the United States of America, which controls the channels of information, wants us to see.
A small incident revealed for me the clash of race that underlies many conflicts. When an American sergeant ran amok in Kuwait, lobbing grenades into the tents of his comrades, other American soldiers at once pounced on two Kuwaiti contractors working in the camp. That instinctive suspicion of the Asians in their midst also helps to explain America’s fierce refusal to allow the United Nations any role in post-war reconstruction. George W. Bush’s right wing born-again friends of the American Enterprise Institute yearn for “radical reform of the UN, regime change in Iran and Syria, and ‘containment’ of France and Germany.”
America is fighting two wars. One is to murder Saddam Hussein. The other is a propaganda offensive to insist that this is a defensive operation to prevent a repetition of the Twin Towers tragedy without anything to link the Iraqi leader with the terrorists. Attempts to cripple Iraqi television and suppress al Jazeera highlight the media’s importance. “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state” says Noam Chomsky, guru of the American left. What Bush has the nerve to call Operation Iraqi Freedom could more accurately be described as the Mother of all Propaganda Wars.
He himself is the ultimate in chutzpah, the Yiddish for effrontery. The classical illustration of chutzpah used to be the youth who killed his parents and then pleaded with the court to pity his orphaned state. After shrinking from certain rejection at the forum of the world that is the UN, Bush had the gall to proclaim that his only mission was to “enforce the just demands of the world”.
Shifting tactics and the induction of reservists and elite troops confirm that the Americans underestimated the task. No one has hailed them as deliverers. Iraq’s military has not surrendered in huge numbers as they were supposed to do; far from rising against Saddam or fleeing the country, Iraqis are putting up stiff resistance, helped by a stream of returning expatriates. The US Central Intelligence Agency’s protracted campaign of distributing propaganda literature, wooing individual members of Saddam’s entourage and subjecting the Baghdad establishment to sustained psychological pressure has all been in vain. Nationalism lives.
We infer all this because the information flow is one-sided. True, a large media contingent is covering the invasion. But these journalists and cameramen are “embeds”. They are “embedded” in — or camp followers of — the Anglo-American forces. It’s dangerous to be on your own. Paul Moran, an Australian freelance cameraman, could be blown up in northern Iraq while photographing the Kurdish guerrillas, because he was not an “embed”.
The US central command’s changing version of the bombing of a Baghdad shopping mall gives the lie to promises to spare civilians. The Americans also say that they deliberately skirted Basra, following General Douglas Macarthur’s World War II “hit ’em where they ain’t” strategy of hopping from one undefended Pacific island to another towards Japan, avoiding heavily fortified Japanese strongholds. But Baghdad’s explanation is that US troops dare not engage the towns. It is only in the desert that they can avoid resistance, not just from the Iraqi army but also from the fidayeen and mujahedin.
These militias are another bone of contention. The Americans vehemently denied Baghdad’s claim that a farmer had shot down an Apache helicopter gunship because this contradicted their own picture of the entire populace seething with rage against Iraq’s ruler. They maintain that while a demoralized army is on the run and its generals waiting for a chance to defect, only civilian “thugs” who owe everything to Saddam’s patronage are putting up a fight. Call them what you will, fidayeen, mujahedin or thugs, there is obviously strong grassroots opposition to the invasion.
Towns go on fighting after the Americans have announced their capture. Generals who have reportedly surrendered with their troops continue to defend their country. Saddam appears on television though British and American intelligence reports claim he is dead or at least seriously injured and receiving transfusions of blood. It would have been a farce if death and disaster had not accompanied American propaganda, and the outcome not been so grim not just for Iraq but for the entire non-Anglo-Saxon world.
Foaming at the mouth, Bush threatened to treat the Iraqis as war criminals after American prisoners were shown on their television. “SAVAGES” screamed the New York Post. But only the day before, US networks had shown files of Iraqi prisoners with hands raised above their heads or tied behind their backs. One hapless Iraqi was searched thoroughly as he knelt in the sand clutching his white flag.
Praise be to Amnesty International for pointing out this double standard. Obviously, the Geneva convention does not apply to America. It did not when more than 600 Afghans were denied prisoner of war status. They were paraded on television hooded, manacled and shackled, and are now languishing at Guantanamo Bay.
Meanwhile, the US is promising even foreigners a share of the $1 billion reconstruction loot. Dick Cheney was for five years chief executive of the Texas-based oil and construction company, Halliburton, whose subsidiary, Kellogg Brown and Root, has been awarded one contract to extinguish blazing oil wells and is fishing for another. In 1997, when Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu in Zaire, the first mineral concession he granted was not to one of the international mining giants but the little known American Mineral Fields operating out of Hope, Arkansas. That tiny town was the home of Bill Clinton, then US president.
But if America has lost the communications war, there is little doubt that its formidable fighting machine, which is taking a cruel toll of Iraqi life, will win the military war. The invaders will then claim to find conclusive proof of chemical and biological weapons, of advanced nuclear plans and other evidence of Iraq’s violation of a string of UN resolutions. The supposed seizure of gas masks and chemical weapons suits prepares the ground for the next round in the propaganda offensive.
What then' As France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, told the security council, “The choice (is) between two visions of the world.”
I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s invocation of imperial might and the responsibility that great power carries. In “Recessional”, he urged humility on a Britain that was drunk on the glory of Queen Victoria’s jubilee with grim reminders of how quickly temporal glory vanishes. In “The White Man’s Burden”, Kipling bluntly told the US, which had just seized the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain, that doing good is a thankless task.
Both lessons are again apposite, reiterating Senator William Fulbright’s warning. “America is now at the historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it,” he wrote in 1966. “Other great nations, reaching this crucial juncture, have aspired to too much and, by overextension of effort, have declined and then fallen.
“Gradually but unmistakably America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world; the measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot’s duty of dissent.”
Meanwhile, the old Chinese saying about killing the chicken to scare the monkey explains speculation about the long-term message of eliminating Saddam. Which Afro-Asian leader’s turn will it be next'