Imagine that you have been waiting — like many people in some Indian cities — for your telephone connection and the day arrives when a telephone-lineman turns up at your residence with an instrument, wires et al. The phone is installed, the lineman is given his reward and you wait for him to leave so that you can make your first outgoing call. Meanwhile, your phone rings and it is your boss on the line. The boss has one terse message for you. That you have been sacked from your job!
That was what happened to Barbara Bodine last week. Bodine, an American diplomat and former ambassador to Yemen, is commonly referred to as the governor of central Iraq in the American-led occupation administration in Iraq. Baghdad, with its population of five million and its massive post-war challenges, falls in central Iraq and has been under her charge.
Serving diplomats in the United States of America are normally reticent about speaking on the record about matters such as their own reassignment. But Bodine has been so surprised by her abrupt recall that she herself has been giving out to Baghdad-based American reporters stunning details of how she has been treated by the Bush administration. She has, by no means, been singled out for such treatment among the American officials now running Iraq.
Her boss, the retired general, Jay Garner, Iraq’s American viceroy since April 21, was so confident about his mandate to remake the ancient land of Mesopotamia in the image of Coca Cola and McDonald’s that he began his first television address to the Iraqi people with the words: “Hi, I am Jay Garner and I am here to reconstruct your country.” Arab reporters in Baghdad who saw the telecast confess they had a problem translating his “Hi” into Arabic. Garner, who was handpicked for the Baghdad assignment by the vice president, Dick Cheney, and the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has been told to pack his bags a little later than Bodine, but to immediately hand over the job of administering Iraq to a civilian. Garner has been at his post in the Iraqi capital for just about three weeks.
Those, in India, who argue that the war in Iraq has changed the course of history, and therefore, want the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to abandon his plans to visit Syria lest it annoyed Washington, ought to study closely the implications of major decisions taken by the White House last week on Iraq. The sweeping and desperate changes that the president, George W Bush, is now making in Baghdad are an admission that his policy of pre-emption — besides everything else that flows from it — is a failure and cannot work. What is surprising is not that Bush has been jolted into this realization, but that he has come to accept it so soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Details that are emerging about the way Americans are running their administration of Iraq after the fall of the Baathist regime are truly shocking. What we are discussing here is not about the way the Iraqis are being governed by their new authority, but about the way the Garner team’s internal administration is being run.
Garner and his team moved into Saddam Hussein’s opulent Republican Palace of nearly 300 rooms on the banks of the Tigris in the last week of April, where they created Baghdad’s version of Writers’ Buildings. There, the Americans were supposed to set up a restricted access network of 4,000 telephone lines which would enable members of the interim American administration to communicate with each other. It simply never happened. Many people who read this column may find it difficult to believe that in the 21st century, because they had no telephones on their desks until last week, not only Garner but also his top advisers have been running to each other along the corridors of the labyrinthine Republican Palace every time they wanted to communicate something important.
The Americans insist that theirs is not an army of occupation. That they are not there to colonize Iraq. That they will not stay in Iraq a day longer than necessary. The first words of Garner’s civilian successor, Paul Bremer, upon touching down in Iraq, on the tarmac of Basra’s airport were that “the coalition did not come to colonize Iraq. We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny”.
Mary Beth Sheridan, a reporter from The Washington Post who was embedded with the 12th Aviation Brigade during the war in Iraq, wrote last week after her return home from the Gulf that the first Iraqi she met was in a hospital, two and a half weeks after the war began. For a reporter covering the war inside Iraq, it is an admission that is shocking for its honesty. Shocking because it shows how the devious policy of “embedding” reporters made sure that they saw only one side of the picture, that too in the limited area which they were assigned to report from. This policy minimized, to the point of elimination, any chance that pictures like the one of a naked girl fleeing from American napalm bombs in Vietnam might get into print or into drawing rooms across the US through television.
Garner had to cease being the US viceroy to Iraq last week because the framework of “embedding” was extended to the entire interim administration in Iraq after Saddam Hussein and his gang fled for their lives. Neither the retired general nor any of his aides, including Bodine, could go anywhere in Baghdad without the huge infrastructure of security protection. Which meant that they had no chance of meeting ordinary Iraqis, the very people who ought to be thanking Garner and his team for liberating them, or getting any idea, first-hand, of their problems and expectations.
The only Americans who have any concept of what conditions in Iraq truly are after the fall of the Baathist regime are their hapless soldiers who are on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities every day. They are exposed to ordinary Iraqis and to the conditions in post-Saddam Iraq for what they really are. What these soldiers hear from the Iraqis do not make them feel good, despite the brainwashing that they receive from their commanders and the military establishment.
Even if the Americans have no desire to colonize Iraq, they ought to have studied a little more in detail the history of colonialism and the experience of occupying powers in many parts of the globe. It is not unusual for colonial or occupying powers to come up against situations which they are at a loss to handle. The British faced this in India, time and time again, when M.K. Gandhi was leading the struggle for freedom. The Dandi March in 1930 and the events that followed are examples of this. But the British were never lacking in credible intelligence about what they were up against. Unlike the Americans in Iraq today.
Forget intelligence. Even with incidents which directly involved American soldiers such as their shooting at Iraqis, resulting in deaths on several occasions, Garner’s headquarters often had no information even 24 to 36 hours after such incidents. From all accounts, the mess that the US has made of Iraq and the quagmire that the Americans have got themselves into by launching the war for “liberating” Iraq defy the imagination. Diplomats and international civil servants who have dealt with situations similar to what the Americans are now faced with in Iraq are appalled that Bodine, who will now take up a job in the state department, is one of the few members in Garner’s team who can speak Arabic.
Yet, some good may come out of it all. South Korea’s new president Roh Moo-Hyun, who arrived in Washington this week on his maiden visit to the White House, said publicly even before he met his American counterpart that Pyongyang must be exempted from the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. It is an acknowledgement by a staunch US ally that the Iraqi model has not worked and that it is not acceptable — not only to France, Germany and Russia, but even to important US allies. Many Americans have been shocked by comments this week by Jawad Zarif, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, about the prospects of improved ties between Tehran and Washington in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Zarif has been telling American audiences that an improvement in US-Iran relations depends on America’s behaviour in future.
It was not to produce this kind of insolence that Cheney and Rumsfeld plotted this war in Iraq. But if this is the result of their carefully laid-out plans — even in the early days which ought to have been America’s honeymoon with the Iraqi people — then something has gone seriously wrong with the Bush administration’s foreign and security policy in the aftermath of its military action in Iraq.