An Annotated Response

As columnist David Saransohn of the Oregonian points out, there is a curious gap in all the talk at the Republican National Convention:

At this convention, you don’t hear much about Iraq.

That is, Iraq the country.

You hear constantly about Iraq the symbol, the demonstration of American resolve, the place that will be a beacon of democracy throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. Speakers repeatedly invoke Iraq as a stage set for President Bush’s determination, a symbol of a rebuilding world.

As he doesn’t point out, it’s also true that you hear almost nothing about Iraq the country from Democrats; for them, it’s at best a symbol of Bush’s lies, nothing more. For John Kerry, it’s just a distraction from the real issue: Vietnam.

Still, few Democrats can match the Republicans when it comes to dissociating from reality. George W. Bush’s performance last night was something to behold, a combination of rehashed non-arguments from the buildup to the war and hallucinatory rhetoric about what’s actually happening in Iraq and the Middle East today, building up to a grand, messianic finale in which he seemed at times to forget that he was a presidential candidate rather than Jesus on the Mount.

Below is an annotated response to the foreign policy portion of his speech.

BUSH: Today, the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror; Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders; Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests; Libya is dismantling its weapons programs; the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom; and more than three-quarters of Al Qaeda’s key members and associates have been detained or killed. We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer.

RESPONSE: What exactly makes Afghanistan “free” today is unclear. Most of Afghanistan is in the hands of the exact same warlords who ruled before the rise of the Taliban (which was so meteoric partly because of anger against some of the warlords’ excesses) and in southern Afghanistan the Taliban is resurgent. The presidential election planned for October comes only after repeated U.S. subversion of democratic processes in Afghanistan, most notably the hijacking of the loya jirga in June 2004, where the favored candidate of the delegates, Zahir Shah, was pressured to resign so that delegates could be presented with the handpicked Hamid Karzai as a fait accompli. Karzai is the only feasible candidate, which is why the election is being allowed to proceed; legislative elections have been delayed until next spring.

In Pakistan, where a handful of al-Qaeda leaders have been captured (more than have been captured in Afghanistan), Islamist parties for the first time in the country’s history, forged a united front, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. In the October 2002 national parliamentary elections, the MMA got 11% of the vote, roughly three times what all Islamist parties combined used to get in national elections.

As for the claim about al-Qaeda, I didn’t know that Bush had an exhaustive listing of “key members and associates.” Even were the claim true, it is essentially meaningless in the face of the massive proliferation of new organizations dedicated to similar attacks and the reorientation of existing larger Islamist organizations toward similar attacks.

The world is far less safe, as is proved almost daily. America is almost certainly less safe as well.

BUSH: This progress involved careful diplomacy, clear moral purpose and some tough decisions. And the toughest came on Iraq. We knew Saddam Hussein’s record of aggression and support for terror. We knew his long history of pursuing, even using, weapons of mass destruction. And we know that Sept. 11 requires our country to think differently. We must, and we will, confront threats to America before it is too late.

In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat. Members of both political parties, including my opponent and his running mate, saw the threat, and voted to authorize the use of force. We went to the United Nations Security Council, which passed a unanimous resolution demanding the dictator disarm, or face serious consequences. Leaders in the Middle East urged him to comply. After more than a decade of diplomacy, we gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the civilized world. He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office, a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make. Do I forget the lessons of Sept. 11 and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.

RESPONSE: Bush consistently implies that his choice was between trusting Hussein and war. In fact, Iraq had been undergoing intrusive weapons inspections for months before the attack. It allowed inspectors into the country in November 2002; UNMOVIC head Hans Blix withdrew the inspectors only in March 2003 after Bush stated that a U.S. attack was imminent. It turned over 12,000 pages of documents to comply with UNSCR 1441’s disclosure requirements. At the time inspectors withdrew, Iraq was destroying its al-Samoud 2 missiles, as prescribed by UNMOVIC, because they were slightly over the range limits in some tests — information that was actually contained in that original disclosure.

Weapons inspectors had been absent from Iraq since December of 1998 when they were withdrawn by UNSCOM head Richard Butler at the urging of the Clinton administration before the “Desert Fox” bombing campaign, which was very clearly an attempt at “regime change” rather than disarmament.

Both Hans Blix and Mohammed el-Baradei of the IAEA expressed confidence that continuing inspections might be able to account for all issues not fully resolved in a matter of months. Instead, after the invasion, the United States left potentially dangerous facilities like the al-Tuwaitha nuclear reactor site unsecured for months — had Hussein been working with al-Qaeda or even contemplating it, ample time for terrorists to seize large amounts of low-grade radioactive material.

BUSH: Because we acted to defend our country, the murderous regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are history, more than 50 million people have been liberated and democracy is coming to the broader Middle East.

In Afghanistan, terrorists have done everything they can to intimidate people. Yet more than 10 million citizens have registered to vote in the October presidential election, a resounding endorsement of democracy. Despite ongoing acts of violence Iraq now has a strong prime minister, a national council and national elections are scheduled for January. Our nation is standing with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq because when America gives its word, America must keep its word.

RESPONSE: Iraq’s “strong prime minister,” Ayad Allawi, was chosen in the most anti-democratic manner possible, by fiat of the U.S. occupying forces. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy who at least consulted with the major political players while trying to arrange the “transfer of sovereignty,” ended up being totally sidelined and denouncing L. Paul Bremer, then head of the CPA, as the “dictator of Iraq.”

Allawi has since established his “democratic” credentials by reportedly shooting six Iraqis in cold blood, warning journalists in Najaf that they might be killed if they stayed to cover the assault, and even having the Iraqi police bring journalists in to threaten them. He’s made clear repeatedly his ambition to be Saddam-lite.

The national council that was recently selected came into being in almost exactly the way that the Afghan loya jirga in 2002 “picked” Hamid Karzai. 19 members of the 100-member council came from the U.S.-picked Governing Council, one of its quid pro quos for agreeing to the “transfer.” The other 81 were ratified at a national conference of 1200 delegates from around the country, representing a fair but hardly complete cross-section of political forces (no representation from the armed resistance).

But instead of open debate, candidates running, and an actual vote, the delegates were confronted with a pre-selected slate of 81 candidates, picked in back-room dealings between the major political parties that collaborate with the U.S. occupation. Efforts by smaller parties and independent groups (not affiliated with the occupation) to at least put up another alternative slate fell through at the last minute and the slate was declared as elected by conference organizers without even putting it to a pro forma formal ratification.

This is not democracy by any stretch of the imagination. But it is what the Bush administration is creating in Iraq, for the simple reason that Iraqi public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the occupation and there is no chance that even cosmetic demonstration elections would turn out the way the administration wants. If this doesn’t change by January, and there is no reason to believe it will, expect those elections to be either postponed indefinitely or sidestepped by maneuvers like those at the national conference.

BUSH: As importantly, we are serving a vital and historic cause that will make our country safer. Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export. Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them, and that helps us keep the peace.

So our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is clear: We will help new leaders to train their armies and move toward elections and get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible. And then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned.

Our troops know the historic importance of our work. One Army specialist wrote home: “We are transforming a once sick society into a hopeful place. The various terrorist enemies we are facing in Iraq,” he continued, “are really aiming at you back in the United States. This is a test of will for our country. We soldiers of yours are doing great and scoring victories in confronting the evil terrorists.” That young man is right; our men and women in uniform are doing a superb job for America.

RESPONSE: The constant repetition that the occupation’s enemies in Iraq are “terrorists” is wearing awfully thin. When the United States assaulted Fallujah mercilessly, with snipers killing civilians in droves (about 800-1000 people, most of whom were civilians, were killed in the assault), bombing its power plant and deliberately shutting down its main hospital and people of the town fought back, that was not “terrorism.” In fact, armed assault against an occupying military force is not terrorism; the right of armed resistance is almost universally recognized, most particularly in a 1987 General Assembly resolution that singles out military occupations and “colonial and racist regimes” as legitimate targets of armed resistance.

Similarly, the Mahdi Army are not terrorists; they weren’t even the ones that provoked their two armed showdowns with the U.S. military.

Interestingly, the United States negotiated a withdrawal with the mujaheddin of Fallujah, which, given the constant refrain that they are terrorists means that Bush negotiated with terrorists. Fortunately, even Kerry, overdosing heavily on militarism these days, has not yet gone there.

BUSH: Tonight I want to speak to all of them and to their families: You are involved in a struggle of historic proportion. Because of your service and sacrifice, we are defeating the terrorists where they live and plan, and you’re making America safer. Because of you, women in Afghanistan are no longer shot in a sports stadium. Because of you, the people of Iraq no longer fear being executed and left in mass graves. Because of you, the world is more just and will be more peaceful. We owe you our thanks, and we owe you something more. We will give you all the resources, all the tools, and all the support you need for victory.

Again, my opponent and I have different approaches. I proposed, and the Congress overwhelmingly passed, $87 billion in funding needed by our troops doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets and fuel and vehicles and body armor. When asked to explain his vote, the senator said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Then he said he was “proud” of his vote. Then, when pressed, he said it was a “complicated” matter. There’s nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.

RESPONSE: Of course, Kerry and Edwards, both of whom voted to support the war, were completely in favor of the $66 billion for direct military expenses. They just didn’t want the $18.4 billion for reconstruction (which, it turns out, was a sham) to be given to Iraq; first, they wanted Iraq to pay back half of it (while supporting the idea that other countries should forgive Iraq’s debt), then to increase taxes on the very wealthiest in partial compensation.

BUSH: Our allies also know the historic importance of our work. About 40 nations stand beside us in Afghanistan and some 30 in Iraq. I deeply appreciate the courage and wise counsel of leaders like Prime Minister Howard, President Kwasniewski, Prime Minister Berlusconi and, of course, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Again my opponent takes a different approach. In the midst of war he has called America’s allies, quote, a “coalition of the coerced and the bribed.” That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia and others – allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician.

RESPONSE: Of course, Great Britain, Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands are neither coerced nor bribed. Japan has been coerced with regard to U.S. foreign policy ever since V-J Day. El Salvador under a right-wing government is pretty much a direct colony of the United States. Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe have been coerced and bribed by “NATO expansion” (a process that started in Clinton’s second term) and U.S. arms sales, military aid, and joint training. Rampant attempts at coercion and bribery leading up to a proposed U.N. Security Council vote on a war resolution were actually unsuccessful.

Of course, Italy, Spain, Poland, etc. joined the coalition in express defiance of the will of, in each case, roughly 90% of the population. But that seems irrelevant to both Bush and Kerry.

BUSH: I respect every soldier from every country who serves beside us in the hard work of history. America is grateful and America will not forget.

The people we have freed won’t forget either. Not long ago seven Iraqi men came to see me in the Oval Office. They had X’s branded into their foreheads and their right hands had been cut off by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, the sadistic punishment for imaginary crimes. During our emotional visit, one of the Iraqi men used his new prosthetic hand to slowly write out in Arabic a prayer for God to bless America.

I am proud that our country remains the hope of the oppressed and the greatest force for good on this earth. Others understand the historic importance of our work. The terrorists know. They know that a vibrant, successful democracy at the heart of the Middle East will discredit their radical ideology of hate. They know that men and women with hope and purpose and dignity do not strap bombs on their bodies and kill the innocent.

RESPONSE: The United States is right now the principal force opposing democracy in Iraq. The reason is, contrary to the hallucinatory rhetoric, the Bush administration is well aware that more democracy in the Middle East would inevitably lead to more opposition to U.S. policies.

BUSH: The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear. And they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march. I believe in the transformational power of liberty: The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom.

RESPONSE: At this point, he has completely burst the surly bonds of rationality. The starkly eschatological contrast drawn between the champions of freedom and, I suppose, the people who want to be enslaved, is reminiscent of nothing so much as Paul Nitze’s NSC-68, the defining document of the “Cold War” and the confrontational policies that drove the world to the brink of disaster so many times.

BUSH: As the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq seize the moment, their example will send a message of hope throughout a vital region. Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel. Young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming. Young men will hear the message that national progress and dignity are found in liberty, not tyranny and terror. Reformers and political prisoners and exiles will hear the message that their dream of freedom cannot be denied forever. And as freedom advances, heart by heart and nation by nation, America will be more secure and the world more peaceful.

America has done this kind of work before, and there have always been doubters. In 1946, 18 months after the fall of Berlin to allied forces, a journalist in The New York Times wrote this: “Germany is a land in an acute stage of economic, political and moral crisis. European capitals are frightened. In every military headquarters, one meets alarmed officials doing their utmost to deal with the consequences of the occupation policy that they admit has failed.” End quote. Maybe that same person is still around, writing editorials.

RESPONSE: This comparison is illegitimate. Most of Europe and large parts of Asia were wrecked by World War 2 and it was difficult or impossible to mobilize the resources to fix it. A better comparison is with the rebuilding by Saddam’s government after the Gulf War. The devastation to infrastructure was greater (in fact, electrical power, bridges, and civilian industry were systematically targeted) Iraq had no oil revenue and no ability to buy spare parts and was forced to do repairs by cannibalization, but in large parts at least of the capital city electricity and phone service was restored within three months. The United States, with no such impediments and an abundance of resources, did less to restore such services in a year. As late as June 2004, average electricity production was less than it had been before the war (4300 megawatts as opposed to 4500).

The United States basically hasn’t spent any money (except some of Iraq’s) on reconstruction.

BUSH: Fortunately, we had a resolute president named Truman, who with the American people persevered, knowing that a new democracy at the center of Europe would lead to stability and peace. And because that generation of Americans held firm in the cause of liberty, we live in a better and safer world today.

The progress we and our friends and allies seek in the broader Middle East will not come easily, or all at once. Yet Americans of all people should never be surprised by the power of liberty to transform lives and nations. That power brought settlers on perilous journeys, inspired colonies to rebellion, ended the sin of slavery and set our nation against the tyrannies of the 20th century. We were honored to aid the rise of democracy in Germany and Japan, Nicaragua, Central Europe and the Baltics. And that noble story goes on.

RESPONSE: Germany, Japan, Central Europe, and the Baltics are a longer story, but the claim that the United States aided the “rise of democracy” in Nicaragua is rich.

In 1984, while under assault by a terrorist army created, funded, equipped, and trained by a superpower that was, as Ronald Reagan pointed out, only two days’ drive away, Nicaragua had what were acclaimed by all impartial observers as free and fair elections. The contra war and U.S. policy consistently militated against, not for, democracy.

The 1990 election in which the Sandinistas lost sets some kind of record for external intervention, short of a coup. This included massive coercion by the United States, which made it clear that reelection of the Sandinistas would mean restarting the contra war; open offers of preferential trade agreements and aid made directly to Violeta Chamorro, but contingent on her being elected; and the spending by the United States of roughly eight times as much money per person in Nicaragua on the election as Bush spent per person in the United States on his own reelection campaign.

Bush was no doubt correct when, in the concluding paragraphs of his speech, he said that millions in the Middle East hope, often silently, for liberty. He seems, however, to have paid no attention to the fact that for the vast majority of them one of the primary components of that liberty is freedom from the heavy hand of the empire.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is publisher of Empire Notes. He has been to Iraq twice in recent months and reported from Fallujah while it was under siege. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies, as well as continuities between Democratic and Republican policies on Iraq. He can be reached at