Quagmire of the Vanities


“It depends”, said Bill Clinton, “on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” ; and he was promptly pilloried by scandalized commentators and shocked – shocked – legislators whose morals and motives were of course impeccable. But there is curious silence on the part of these paragons of semantics and virtue now that there is disagreement about the meaning of words used by two pathetic crackpots who occupy posts in the present US administration.

Washington’s charlatan-in-chief, Cheney, has boasted he stands by his statement that Iraq’s insurgents are in “their last throes”, because it all depends on what the meaning of ‘throes’ is. He decided to order some deep thinking, and his researchers told him to say “If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period”.

The vain and arrogant draft-dodging Cheney should know all about that. When the war in Vietnam was in its last throes, and he was obtaining deferment after deferment because he said he had “other priorities”, the conflict was indeed violent. And the violence ended when the US was forced out of the country.

It is obvious that when Cheney first used the phrase “last throes” he was convinced the insurgents were in their final shuddering spasms before collapsing. He meant he was sure that the insurgents were indulging in last desperate efforts and that the débâcle would soon end in victory for the Washington warmongers. And if there were a few hundred more US troops killed in the process that wouldn’t matter because, in the words of Bush, the “Mission Accomplished” president, “I’m not giving up on the mission. We’re doing the right thing.”

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on June 23, General John Abizaid, commander Central Command, didn’t seem too keen on Cheney’s smart comment. He admitted there are just as many insurgents now as there were six months ago, but when asked if they were in their “last throes” he could say only that “There’s a lot of work to be done against the insurgency . . . . I’m sure you’ll forgive me from criticizing the vice president.” I’m not sure what that means except for one thing : if he had agreed with Cheney that the insurgency was in its last throes, he would have said so in a very loud voice. But he lacked the moral courage to answer the question.

Then there is the matter of the word ‘quagmire’ that so excites Rumsfeld. Webster defines ‘quagmire’ quite simply : “Marshy ground that gives way under the foot; a difficult situation”. Oxford says it’s “A hazardous or awkward situation.” The sense comes through. Quagmires are nasty.

In his anxiety to portray Iraq as a non-quagmire the equally vain and foolish Rumsfeld told the Committee that the insurgents “in recent months have suffered significant losses and casualties, been denied havens and suffered weakened popular support.” Nobody pointed out that in recent months US occupation troops “have suffered significant losses and casualties, been denied havens and suffered weakened popular support.” In March to May there were 168 American soldiers killed and 534 wounded in Iraq. But it isn’t a quagmire, of course.

Senator Ted Kennedy asked a question about quagmires and “Rumsfeld, flanked by top US commanders, responded : ‘First let me say that there isn’t a person at this table who agrees with you that we’re in a quagmire and that there’s no end in sight’.” So there must, conversely, actually be an end in sight to the counter-insurgency war.

Let’s think back to 1967, to the quagmire in Vietnam. The US embassy in Saigon held a New Year’s party to welcome 1968. The invitation read “Come see the light at the end of the tunnel”. Exactly a month later, on the night of January 31, 1968, 19 Vietnamese guerrillas arrived at the embassy and blew their way in to its compound, killing four US soldiers. The Tet offensive had begun. And on February 6 Art Buchwald’s column read :

“Dateline: Little Big Horn, Dakota. General George Armstrong Custer said today in an exclusive interview with this correspondent that the Battle of Little Big Horn had just turned the corner and he could now see light at the end of the tunnel. “We have the Sioux on the run”, General Custer told me. “Of course we’ll have some cleaning up to do, but the Redskins are hurting badly and it will only be a matter of time before they give in.”

The Senate hearing was on Thursday June 23, and the world was told by Rumsfeld that there is an end in sight to his war in Iraq. But on June 26, on Fox News Sunday, Rumsfeld said “Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, ten, twelve years”. So what happened in Cheney-Bush Washington between Thursday and Sunday?

One of the things that happened was a decision that Rumsfeld should get himself on the Sunday news shows to try to make up for his stumbling and embarrassing performance in front of the Committee. But his pathetic attempts to achieve credibility fell flat.

NBC’s Tim Russert showed Rumsfeld a video clip of Cheney’s silly claim that the US invaders would be “greeted as liberators” and was asked “Do you think this was a misjudgment?” There is only one honest answer to that question, because it was one of the most foolish misjudgments of the many made by the Cheney-Bush administration. But of course Rumsfeld couldn’t give an honest answer. He got himself in deeper by avoiding the question and then claiming he had given Bush “a list of about 15 things that could go terribly, terribly wrong before the war started.”

Rumsfeld declared that “oil fields could have been set aflame like they were in Kuwait, [and] we could have had mass refugees and dislocations and it didn’t happen. The bridges could have been blown up. There could have been a fortress Baghdad where the moat around it with oil in it and people fighting to the death. So a great many of the bad things that could have happened did not happen.” Certainly, “a great many of the bad things” didn’t happen before the invasion. They happened later, as a direct result of the triumphal mindset and unthinking brutality of the conquerors.

There was no moat of oil around Baghdad. That was a ludicrous prediction. But as to the other main warnings Rumsfeld says he gave, it appears he doesn’t read newspapers. It was his air force that destroyed bridges, and there have been scores of oil pipeline fires caused by guerrilla attacks since Iraq was “liberated”.

Pipelines are much less risky to target than oil wells, as anyone could have told Rumsfeld if he had not been so vain and smug as to reject advice about his war. Such attacks have several effects : they deny oil, and thus national income ; the threat of interference ties up security forces ; and they demonstrate the impotence of occupation forces and the make-believe government in Baghdad. The day before Rumsfeld’s talking parrot performances it was reported that guerrillas had blown up two pipelines : one in the far north, from Kirkuk to Turkey, and the other in the south, along the line from Basra to Baghdad. But Rumsfeld said Sunday that “solid progress is being made . . . economic progress is being made . . .” He must imagine that building more US prisons and military bases all over the country can be called economic progress.

Rumsfeld’s alleged warning to Bush about refugees and relocations was not relevant at the time of their invasion. These disasters took place afterwards. Has he heard of Fallujah? It was his merry men who took Nazi-style reprisals on the city and reduced much of it to rubble, creating hatred of America that will last for generations. Rumsfeld doesn’t want the world to know the extent of the destruction wrought by his merciless blitzes, but the State Department has revealed officially that “about 90,000 of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents have recently returned to the city”.

Where are the rest? — They are despairing, bewildered, poverty-stricken, helpless, tent-dwelling refugees who have to be fed, after a fashion, by the UN and other charitable refugees’ organizations. They are examples of Rumsfeld’s “solid progress.”

And in the north there is massive “relocation” taking place, because the Kurds are forcing out the Arab population at gunpoint, and US forces are doing nothing about it. They couldn’t do anything even if they wanted to. They don’t understand the problem and they haven’t got the expertise or troop numbers to even begin to moderate the ethnic cleansing and slaughter that are taking place. “Solid progress”?

Then there was Rumsfeld’s amazing nonsense about the full scale insurgency that has taken thousands of lives. Tim Russert wanted to know if the vain and arrogant secretary of defense had foreseen this, so asked him “Was a robust insurgency on your list that you gave the president?”

That was a very good question. In old-fashioned British military parlance (and to quote Evelyn Waugh), it was a ‘swift one’. If Rumsfeld had told the truth and said “No”, there would have been melt-down. If he had answered “Yes”, he would have looked even more stupid. So he tap-danced round the point and said “I don’t remember whether that was on there, but certainly it was discussed the possibility that you could have dead-enders who would fight.”

It may be credible to some that the US secretary of defense does not remember if there was a factor as vital as post-invasion insurgency on the list of 15 likely problems he says he gave to his president. On the other hand, you could conclude that Rumsfeld is a liar.

Rumsfeld’s tactics are eerily reminiscent of the Nixon era — “Just say you don’t remember”. In fact the writer George Higgins summed up the Nixon presidency and was unknowingly prescient about the Cheney-Bush administration when he wrote in the Atlantic of November 1974 that “The Nixon School of Lying was erected on the premise that people will hear what they want to hear, and all you have to do is give them something.” Last Sunday Rumsfeld gave the people of the United States of America the same sort of mendacious twaddle that Nixon and his people dished out about Watergate.

Rumsfeld said he didn’t remember if he had mentioned the biggest single problem facing any military occupation force : the likelihood of an uprising by people who don’t like their country being occupied and who do not take kindly to swaggering bullies blowing down their doors in the middle of the night, stealing their savings, humiliating men, terrifying women, torturing captives and in general behaving as barbarians. The army and marines acted and continue to act like a tribe of video-game hi-tech savages. Their conduct is a direct result of lack of training that was caused by lack of planning.

And the lack of planning was the direct result of inaction on the part of a vain, naïve and foolish man : Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. He thought he knew it all. He thought he was infallible. Perfection personified in a priggish buffoon. But at the Senate hearing he was taken down a well-deserved peg by Senator Byrd who said “Mr. Secretary, I’ve watched you with a considerable amount of amusement . . . I don’t think I’ve ever heard a secretary of defense who likes to lecture the committee as much as you. You may not like our questions, but we represent the people . . . We ask the questions that the people ask of us whether you like it or not . . . The problem is we didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of this war that we got into, Mr. Bush’s war . . . I don’t mean to be discourteous [but] I’ve just heard enough of your smart answers to these people here who are elected . . . So get off your high horse when you come up here.” Rumsfeld could not summon up a reply. (This splendid piece of ego-deflation was not a feature in the main newspapers or any TV reportage.)

Rumsfeld might have been shaken by such a well-merited rebuke from someone whose boots he is not fit to polish, and his dumbfounded reaction certainly indicates this possibility. But he is so absurdly convinced of his righteousness that he and his soul-mate Cheney cannot understand that anyone who disagrees with them might actually have a reasonable point to make.

Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush are so arrogant, ignorant and vain that they imagine they can never fail. But they have failed disastrously and in the course of their reckless self-deception they have disgraced their country. There is small comfort in the fact that hubris leads to nemesis, because countless human beings have been sacrificed to their bumptious pride. They don’t yet realize it, but they are in the quagmire of their vanities.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website www.briancloughley.com


















Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.