Monday, January 08, 2007
The Bush Gamble. posted by Richard SeymourAccording to US policymakers, the problem with Iraq is that insurgents are winning the PR battle. Through online videos and cameraphone images, the Iraqi resistance has successfully annihilated a US government PR machine worth billions: one that reaches into every news room, all over the world. The US Embassy in Baghdad complains:
"Without popular support from US population, there is the risk that troops will be pulled back ... Thus there is a vital need to save popular support via message."
And goes on to recommend a series of 'messages' that might succeed with the US public: "vitally important we succeed"; "actively working on new approaches"; "there are no quick or easy answers." Meanwhile, "Inadequate message control in Iraq is feeding the escalating cycle of violence." And so on, the assessment of the strategic communications director in America's embassy in Baghdad. I note: 1) that this involves a more or less open declaration that the executive is determined to remain in Iraq; 2) that it is preparing to wage a PR battle against representative institutions in the US to prevent them from being too representative; 3) the article provides an invaluable PR service in itself, taking US propaganda claims at face value while citing preposterous outfits like the SITE Institute. To be sure, "message control" is the decisive factor in Iraq, provided you understand the daily run of events as a vast information contraflow. Certainly, an air strike on Sadr City is a kind of "message", a piece of information in its fashion. Torture cells and death squads additionally have their own informational content. However, that sort of data is not considered by MSNBC to be part of the "PR battle" (you know, the one for hearts and minds) that the US is losing.
The Bush administration is set, as we know, to embark on a "surge" - an interesting synonym for "escalation" in this context. To this end, some neocons have been resurrected and drafted back into government to help out. I don't quite know what wisdom twits like William Kristol and Fred Kagan will offer, and perhaps their temporary promotion isn't all that important, but at the very least they find themselves positioned to recommend a strategy that Bush is going to attempt anyway, and presumably they will catch the flak if it fails (since the Bush administration is all too aware of the world's obsession with neoconservatives).
At the same time, Bush proposes to sweeten the deal with $1bn in 'aid' and the deployment of Kurdish units in Baghdad. The title of the Guardian's article refers to a plan to "draw Iraqis into fold", a somewhat quaint way of saying that the Bush administration intends to terrorise and bribe Iraqis into acquiescing in their own subjugation. The suggestion that the use of peshmerga in Baghdad will alleviate matters is obviously a conscious giggle at the world's expense, but what about this aid? Weren't we told that Bush had turned off the 'aid' spigot? The Congressional Research Service calculated that the US 'aid' budget to Iraq topped $28.9 billion over three years, and it all went miraculously astray. This is in part because the 'reconstruction' system in Iraq is a technique of patronage and political control on the part of the occupiers, and in part because Cheney's mates were sent in there to extract as much as possible. Another $1bn, however dispersed, will disappear into the corporate coffers very quickly. A billion dollars isn't even real money any more - in London, you'd be lucky to get a house with it. Additionally, Bush is going to send more civilian workers to populate the US embassy in Baghdad which alone, FT notes, covers 104 acres. Add a noose of fourteen permanent military bases dotted around the country, and you have a serious usurpation going on.
The Democrats are blowing hot and cold on this, but as Gary Younge notes, offer no serious opposition. Initially, a lot of leading Democrats were quite chipper about the idea of a 'surge' until they saw the polls, and have since taken to saying they might be opposed to it. Joe Biden insists, for instance, that withdrawing funds from the war effort would be a "hollow threat", but would consider proposing a Congressional resolution informing Bush that Biden and his colleagues don't approve of what he is doing. That'll tell him. Most likely they have cynically calculated that, however many lives are lost, if Bush strings this one out then it can only redound to the benefit of a Democratic presidential candidate.
It seems unlikely that tens of thousands more US troops tearing up Iraqi towns and cities will improve matters for the occupiers. Gen. David H. Petraeus, Bush's man in Baghdad and a co-architect of the escalation, is treated to glowing reviews by the US press. He is eulogised by the Washington Post as a man of 'flinty scepticism' who mistrusted the invasion of Iraq that he participated in, a man who is 'incredibly intelligent and creative', a man who stays up at nights worrying about what will happen to Iraq. He is the man who can save Iraq, despite the fact that the article unwittingly acknowledges Petraeus's responsibility for what has already occurred in Iraq, not least in "overseeing the initial reconstruction of Iraqi security forces" - that is, Petraeus was responsible for the Special Police Commandos, the deaths squads whom he repeatedly praised for their "tremendously aggressive" operations, what with the drilling and the torture and the massacres. So, what do you think a man like this wants with twenty to forty thousand more troops? Given the size of Iraq's insurgency and the popular base behind it, there is no way that such numbers will do anything other than intensify the resistance. Petraeus is practically the only military leader who thinks it will - and he had to be promoted into his role, bumping out the recalcitrant Abizaid who has repeatedly insisted that it will not improve matters.
Yet, what is their alternative? They cannot leave Iraq, and don't intend to, so they may well be desperate enough to hope that a drastic escalation in repression in Iraq will be sufficient to pacify the country and reverse the negative assessment not only of the US public, but increasingly of the American ruling class. And this is based at least partially on a realistic assessment, which is that the main problem for the occupation is not sectarian violence but resistance violence (principally roadside bomb attacks). The effect that this has on US public confidence in the war is striking. Aside from the massive Iraqi casualties, 3,000 US bodybags and tens of thousands of wounded or crippled soldiers have been one of the principal reasons for the war's unpopularity. But it is deeper than that. If Americans really believed that the resistance was the work of a small minority of Iraqis, or some Al Qaeda offshoot, they might see this differently: but the breadth and persistence of the resistance, dramatising the fact that Iraqis don't want to be occupied, and the increasing awareness that Iraqis have good reason to fear and despise the occupation, all contribute to growing dissent. Given that withdrawal is simply out of the question for Bush, a last-ditch effort at colossal demonstrative violence may be all he has left. That is: the 'surge' policy is a bifurcate gamble; a PR war directed against Americans; and a terror war directed against Iraqis by the man who brought you the Salvador Option.