Most US citizens don’t reflect on the reasons for anti-American sentiment throughout much of the world. But policy makers once focused precisely on this theme. In 1947, George Kennan, who headed policy planning for the State Department, assumed this antipathy when he wrote: “We have about 60% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concept. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
In protecting and expanding US privilege through power, US Presidents used more than idealistic slogans; moralistic rhetoric emanated from the White House. Simultaneously, the presidential promoters of democracy, freedom, self-determination and peace, since World War II, have consistently altered the destiny of third world peoples who did not obey Washington. Until 1989, “fighting communism” justified armed intervention in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, The Dominican Republic, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada and Panama (just some examples). As the United States emerged as a world empire its leaders categorically denied all imperial intentions. Indeed, President George W. Bush follows a parade of presidential disavowers of empire in repeatedly assuring the world of inherent US goodness; evil is externally located.
So, when he announced that US troops would invade Iraq, he pledged not only to rid the world of the evil Saddam Hussein and his fabled weapons of mass destruction and Al-Qaeda links, but also to make Iraqis recipients of democracy and freedom.
Evidence about WMDs and terrorist links didn’t overwhelm the President, but he knew his brain trust would find compelling arguments elsewhere. Led by sneering Vice President Dick Cheney and smug Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and surrounded with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle and Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby, this so-called neo con (neo-conservatives, or those who could con others in a new way) clan pushed Bush to war against Iraq (evil).
On March 19, 2003 Bush made war. On May 1, he declared victory. Then, the Iraqi resistance to occupation surfaced and casualties increased. Bush snarled: “bring ’em on,” (meaning “send ’em in”) and blamed the “insurgency” on foreign zealots. In April 2004, US casualties numbered 129 dead and thousands wounded. The Pentagon quietly admitted that the core of the insurgency was Iraqi, not foreign.
Reporters discovered that Iraqi exiles on Pentagon payroll had supplied the nonsense that Bush then propounded to Congress as solid evidence that Saddam had WMDs. Ahmed Chalabi, “our man in Baghdad” (while living in Washington), was the source of false intelligence before the war. Bush then appointed him to the governing council in Iraq where he possessed neither a constituency nor qualifications. Indeed, Jordan wants him extradited for embezzling some $200 million.
Because the causes seemed so flaky, the move to war divided Americans. Before it started millions demonstrated their opposition in the streets. The rifts have grown deeper. In April, Spanish voters defeated the pro war party of President Jose Maria Aznar. On May 3, incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero voiced the opinion of Spain’s majority.
“The mission in Iraq, which is showing itself every day to be a failure, should serve as a lesson to the international community: preemptive wars, never again; violations of international law, never again.” The real and most efficient fight against terrorism is through the cooperation of all democratic countries, all free countries, in the United Nations with the cooperation of all and not via unilateral interventions, which only lead to failure.”
Zapatero’s words appeared on newspaper pages alongside photographs showing US troops torturing Iraqi men and women. On May 5, wire services reported that 25 prisoners had died in in US-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iran. On that day, Bush lectured an Arab TV interviewer. He did not apologize for the abuses. He abhorred the systemic torture by US troops in Iraq, but called it an “isolated incident;” acts committed by “a few people” who “don’t represent the America I know.”
Rumsfeld dismissed the dirty deeds as “un-American.” Yet, US troops had repeatedly done far worse in Vietnam and Korea. Indeed, wars produce atrocities as day follows night and the United States has initiated more wars since 1950 than any nation in the world.
Apologies hardly suffice! But contrast Bush’s petulant moralistic pose to the language of the investigation by the 800th Military Police Brigade. According to Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, “US Army Soldiers have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international law at Abu Ghraib/BCCF and Camp Bucca, Iraq.” He said that “key senior leaders” had “failed to comply with established regulations, policies, and command directives in preventing detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) and at Camp Bucca during the period August 2003 to February 2004.”
Ion other words, those ordered to win Iraqi hearts and minds committed “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses.”
Taguba mentioned “the following acts:”
“– Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
— Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;
— Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
— Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
— Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;
— Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;
— Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;
— Writing “I am a Rapest” (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;
— Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture;
— A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;
— Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee.”
Taguba blames those in command. MP’s and the contract workers (mercenaries), he says, had received encouragement from their superiors to soften up prisoners before interrogation.
But the sadistic pornography trail of Abu Ghraib leads back to the White House. Iraq is George Bush’s war. If Saddam constituted evil, how to explain the stench of sin that now arises from Bush’s legions of “good”? Indeed, months before Seymour Hersh’s May 3 New Yorker story revealed the scandal, Army criminal investigators had interviewed 50 plus military, contract and Iraqi detainee witnesses. The Abu Ghraib horror photos and videos circulated in national security sectors months before this became public. Did Rumsfeld keep this from the President or did Bush know and do nothing?
Adults shoulder responsibility. Bush passed the buck. Military heads rolls; more will follow. But the torture issue goes beyond acts committed by frightened, frustrated, angry and sadistic US troops – encouraged by their superiors. Like the massacre of My Lai and others in Vietnam, abuses at Iraqi prisons follow from war itself – especially a war based on false premises.
In the second week of May, the US body count neared 800; the wounded near 10,000. The mission of transforming Iraq to our political model fades as the repulsive torture photos travel through the Muslim world. Instead of victory in Iraq we turn backwards to past foolish wars.
In 1968, the Vietnamese launched their Tet Offensive proving wrong the US military estimate of their feeble status. Vermont Senator George Aiken advised the disconsolate President Lyndon Johnson to “just declare victory and come home.”
Six plus years later, tens of thousands of dead US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese, the United States cut and ran. In 1975, Congress cut off funds for the war. US officials in Saigon frantically burned documents and money. US Embassy guards thrust bayonets at desperate Vietnamese trying to escape the new Vietnamese government.
History threatens to repeat itself in Iraq. Having again launched an unjustified imperial war under the axiom of disavowing empire, the chief imperialist himself goes into denial. “Freedom, liberty, democracy,” chanted Bush in his rare and incoherent press conference in April. Bush the triumphant of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln last May has turned defensive, seeking to place blame on others for his own foolish and bloody deeds. John Kerry has the moral and political duty to now call unequivocally for the rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Such a move would overwhelm Bush, the “decisive” coward, who thinks “honoring the fallen” means having more fall. He is unfit to hold office.
SAUL LANDAU directs the Digital Media Arts program at Cal Poly Pomona University. His new book, The Business of America, will be published in May.