Monday, November 27, 2006

Bush in Babylon

Bush in Babylon – a book review

By George Epp

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-29963-7

452 pages

How much do you and I know about Iraq, it’s history and culture? How much did George Bush, his Vice-president Dick Cheney, his Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld know about Iraq’s history and culture before they launched their war to unseat Saddam Hussein? Did they have sufficient grasp of the fact that Iraq was like a container of tightly coiled springs that were liable to unwind explosively if any of the balance-of-the-whole were disturbed? Did they anticipate that insurrection and terrorism would be as significant a factor in post-Saddam Iraq as it has turned out to be? Did they appreciate how extensive a post-Saddam nation building project would be required, and did they have plans in readiness to ensure security until a new and acceptable regime could be established, exercising the functions that democracies require?

According to George Packer, the planning for the invasion of Iraq went as far as the “shock and awe” of Saddam’s demise, and no further. Central to his observations are the bungled opportunities to win over a populace that could go either way after the overthrow of the Baath Party. In fact, Packer’s central thesis could be summed up in the words of Brad Swanson, whom Packer quotes:

First there was the arrogance phase, and then there was the hubris phase. The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, underplanned, underresourced, skim off the top layer of leadership, take control of a functioning state, and be out by six weeks and get the oil funds to pay for it. We all know for a variety of reasons that didn’t work. So then you switch over to the hubris phase. We’ve been slapped in the face, this is really much more serious than we thought, much more long-term, much more dangerous, much more costly. Therefore we’ll attack it with everything we have, we’ll throw the many billion dollars at it, and to make Iraq safe for the future we have to do a root-and-branch transformation of the country in our own image.” (186)

Will this be history’s assessment of the war in Iraq? No doubt, there are less ascerbic analyses, but the news these days supports Packer’s view that the war began as the culmination of a vision held for some time in a small, neocon group in the USA, and that George W. Bush was sold on this vision by people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others, and that the perpetrators have been in complete denial for the past three years as the project unraveled and their goals didn’t materialize.

George Packer has spent much time with the principals in the war, both American and Iraqi. He records the views, dreams and disappointments of the Kurds, the Shiia, the Sunni minority, and it soon becomes clear to the reader that there was much more to consider in democratizing Iraq than the simple overthrow of the Baath Party regime. Released suddenly from the tyrannical rule to which they had become accustomed, Iraqis seemed unable to take initiative without being told exactly what to do, and American troops had no idea what they should be telling them. L. Paul Bremer was put in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority and appears to have done his level best to kick-start the planning of reconstruction, but by then it was a matter of too little, too late. Too much time had passed without noticeable progress in reconstruction, and disillusioned Iraqis of all stripes lost confidence in renewal and the cycle of insurgency began.

The CPA was, of course, disbanded after elections in Iraq and currently there are 1040 reconstruction projects underway and 590 planned but not started ( Reports to congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) paint a picture of organized, steady progress toward the rebuilding of Iraq, but the bloodshed goes on. Does the Coalition in Iraq have the time or the fortitude to complete the job that has now, finally, been accepted as being necessary? Drawing on the testimony of Drew Erdmann – formerly working in the CPA and chief advisor to the Iraqi ministry – Packer remains mildly optimistic on this point:

I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. Fort this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive (448).

The Assassins’ Gate takes its place among a raft of books on the subject of America’s adventure in Middle East democratization. A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts was published in 2004 but tells a similar story. Both books are written by respected journalists who spent a great deal of time in Iraq. Both are well-written, highly readable accounts of their authors’ experiences.

Of course, we now have another year or two behind us since either of the above books were released, and we’ve witnessed an election in which the Democratic Party replaced the Republican in control of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Americans are increasingly realizing that the war in Iraq has long since turned into a fiasco that could have been averted. I was halfway through The Assassins’ Gate when I watched the president announce the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld seemed almost jubilant as he feigned a golf swing, and I wondered if he wasn’t enormously relieved that his complicity in creating the Iraq debacle might well be forgotten before it got any worse and others became the foci of attention.

The most wrenching chapter in The Assassins’ Gate is called “Memorial Day.” It’s the story of an American father mourning the loss of his son to a chance piece of flying shrapnel shortly after arriving for duty in Iraq. The father’s agony underlines the possibility that many deaths of brave and/or innocent people served no discernable purpose. This may end up being the most devastating aspect of this war to Americans generally, namely that a misguided leadership led them into a war that achieved nothing worthwhile. Only time will tell whether or not America will have to face up to the same realization of futility that accompanied their military’s ignominious departure from Vietnam.

A note: If you are unprepared to read Packer’s 400+ page book, I suggest you tap into Here you’ll be able to print off and read a 29-page essay called “War After the War.”


© George Epp, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mainstreet Rosthern

Saddam's Punishment

We got the news yesterday. A tribunal in Baghdad has sentenced Saddam Hussein to death by hanging. If his appeal fails, as it's likely to, he will mount a gibbet sometime in the spring of 2007, a rope will be knotted around his neck with the other end tied to a beam above his head, someone will trigger the trap door on which he's standing and the fall will tear apart the vertebrae in his neck (if he's lucky) and all sense and sensation will cease. If improperly knotted, the rope and the fall will result in his strangulation and as many watch, he will choke until his oxygen-starved brain goes to sleep and his vital organs cease to function.
I oppose the death penalty, even for a barbarian like Saddam who is said to have asked one of his colleagues to leave a cabinet meeting with him for a private chat, and then to have shot him in the head. Given reports of incidents like that, many will dismiss Human Rights Watch's ( claim that Saddam did not have a fair trial and will say that he didn't deserve one, given the arbitrary way in which he "tried" and executed his adversaries. To me, these are irrevalancies. Hanging is easily as barbaric as a pistol execution, maybe more so, and in applying this penalty, we seem to be saying, "Since Saddam killed people in a barbaric fashion, it's right that we should kill him in the same way." Ideally, a civilized society would never carry out executions because it would be impossible to find anyone willing to trip the trapdoor. In our world though, I suspect, there'd be a line-up for the opportunity.
I think much more would be gained by the Iraqi government if Saddam were to be kept in confinement for the rest of his life. It would demonstrate an unwillingness to descend morally into the pit where Saddam lived when he was president. It would create pressure to normalize: Saddam could not be held up as a martyr, while the new government would still be shown to have had the fortitude to try him and to hold him. Being alive, he would also serve as a reminder to Iraqi's of their recent history and the terror they endured.
Most of all, I believe that the gospel of Christ includes in its message a call to deal with human evil in new ways. Although the gospels are relatively silent on the subject of crime and punishment in the secular sphere, a follower of Jesus could hardly be the instrument for ending a life given the example of his master, for whom reconciliation, forgiveness and healing were central. Christ prayed for his executioners, we recall.
I would urge people who share the view that capital punishment is barbaric to add their voice to those of the members of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It will be hard to raise a protest in the case of Saddam Hussein, I'm afraid, given the heinous crimes he is alleged to have committed, but in the interest of consistency, this case is as worthy of our interventions as any.