During the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century, eunuchs at the court of the Chinese emperor had the problem of informing him of the repeated and humiliating defeat of his armies. They dealt with their delicate task by simply telling the emperor that his forces had already won or were about to win victories on all fronts.
For three and a half years White House officials have dealt with bad news from Iraq in similar fashion. Journalists were repeatedly accused by the US administration of not reporting political and military progress on the ground. Information about the failure of the US venture was ignored or suppressed.
Manipulation of facts was often very crude. As an example of the systematic distortion, the Iraq Study Group revealed last week that on one day last July US officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. In reality, it added, “a careful review of the reports … brought to light 1,100 acts of violence”.
The 10-fold reduction in the number of acts of violence officially noted was achieved by not reporting the murder of an Iraqi, or roadside bomb, rocket or mortar attacks aimed at US troops that failed to inflict casualties. I remember visiting a unit of US combat engineers camped outside Fallujah in January 2004 who told me that they had stopped reporting insurgent attacks on themselves unless they suffered losses as commanders wanted to hear only that the number of attacks was going down. As I was drove away, a sergeant begged us not to attribute what he had said: “If you do I am in real trouble.”
Few Chinese emperors can have been as impervious to bad news from the front as President George W Bush. His officials were as assiduous as those eunuchs in Beijing 170 years ago in shielding him from bad news. But even when officials familiar with the real situation in Iraq did break through the bureaucratic cordon sanitaire around the Oval Office they got short shrift from Mr Bush. In December 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad said that the insurgency was expanding and was “largely unchallenged” in Sunni provinces. Mr Bush’s response was: “What is he, some kind of a defeatist?” A week later the station chief was reassigned.
A few days afterwards, Colonel Derek Harvey, the Defence Intelligence Agency’s senior intelligence officer in Iraq, made much the same point to Mr Bush. He said of the insurgency: “It’s robust, it’s well led, it’s diverse.” According to the US political commentator Sidney Blumenthal, the President at this point turned to his aides and asked: “Is this guy a Democrat?”
The query is perhaps key to Mr Bush’s priorities. The overriding political purpose of the US administration in invading Iraq was to retain power at home. It would do so by portraying Mr Bush as “the security president”, manipulating and exaggerating the terrorist threat at home and purporting to combat it abroad. It would win cheap military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would hold “khaki” elections in which Democrats could be portrayed as unpatriotic poltroons.
The strategy worked – until November’s mid-term elections. Mr Bush was victorious by presenting a false picture of Iraq. It is this that has been exposed as a fraud by the Iraq Study Group.
Long-maintained myths tumble. For instance, the standard stump speech by Mr Bush or Tony Blair since the start of the insurgency has been to emphasise the leading role of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and international terrorism. But the group’s report declares “al-Qa’ida is responsible for a small portion of violence”, adding that it is now largely Iraqi-run. Foreign fighters, their presence so often trumpeted by the White House and Downing Street, are estimated to number only 1,300 men in Iraq. As for building up the Iraqi army, the training of which is meant to be the centrepiece of US and British policy, the report says that half the 10 planned divisions are made up of soldiers who will serve only in areas dominated by their own community. And as for the army as a whole, it is uncertain “they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda”.
Given this realism it is sad that its authors, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, share one great misconception with Mr Bush and Mr Blair. This is about the acceptability of any foreign troops in Iraq. Supposedly US combat troops will be withdrawn and redeployed as a stiffening or reinforcement to Iraqi military units. They will form quick-reaction forces able to intervene in moments of crisis.
“This simply won’t work,” one former Iraqi Interior Ministry official told me. “Iraqis who work with Americans are regarded as tainted by their families. Often our soldiers have to deny their contact with Americans to their own wives. Sometimes they balance their American connections by making contact with the insurgents at the same time.”
Mr Bush and Mr Blair have always refused to take on board the simple unpopularity of the occupation among Iraqis, though US and British military commanders have explained that it is the main fuel for the insurgency. The Baker-Hamilton report notes dryly that opinion polls show that 61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US forces. Given the Kurds overwhelmingly support the US presence, this means three-quarters of all Arabs want military action against US soldiers.
The other great flaw in the report is to imply that Iraqis can be brought back together again. The reality is that the country has already broken apart. In Baghdad, Sunnis no longer dare to visit the main mortuary to look for murdered relatives because it is under Shia control and they might be killed themselves. The future of Iraq may well be a confederation rather than a federation, with Shia, Sunni and Kurd each enjoying autonomy close to independence.
There are certain points on which the White House and the authors of the report are dangerously at one. This is that the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki can be bullied into trying to crush the militias (this usually means just one anti-American militia, the Mehdi Army), or will bolt from the Shia alliance. In the eyes of many Iraqis this would simply confirm its status as a US pawn. As for talking with Iran and Syria or acting on the Israel-Palestinian crisis it is surely impossible for Mr Bush to retreat so openly from his policies of the past three years, however disastrous their outcome.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, to be published by Verso in October.