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Mirage After Mirage After Mirage

By Robert Parry
August 30, 2005

The latest promised Iraqi oasis – a constitution that would herald peace and democracy – has turned out to be just the latest mirage in America’s bloody trek through the Iraqi desert. But George W. Bush is already pointing toward the next shimmering image and the Washington establishment agrees that the nation must press on.

Dramatic alternatives – like finally turning back and withdrawing U.S. troops – remain out of the question as far as nearly all major politicians and pundits are concerned. As in the run-up to war in late 2002 and early 2003, the United States is experiencing a truncated debate about what to do next in Iraq, often led by the same debaters.

Typical of this new version of the old imbalanced debate, NBC’s “Meet the Press” program on Aug. 28 consisted of two segments: the first with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad and the second with a panel of retired U.S. generals.

In the opening segment, Khalizad tried to put the best face on Iraq’s proposed constitution, which rather than advancing reconciliation has deepened Iraq’s bitter divisions. The document would transform Iraq from a secular to an Islamic state and embrace a federalism that Sunnis say will hand the oil wealth to the Shiites and Kurds.

But Khalizad told NBC’s Tim Russert that the constitution represented “a new consensus between the universal principles of democracy and human rights and Iraqi traditions in Islam. And in that, it is an agreement, a compact between the various communities and it sets a new paradigm for this part of the world, a reconciliation, a consensus between the various forces and tendencies that are at work here in Iraq.”

Russert did cite dissenting views, including objections from Iraqi Sunnis, who live primarily in parts of the country without oil, and protests from women, who complain that the constitution would strip them of equal rights under the law. But no one advocating those positions or opposed to a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq was included on the NBC program.

Military Experts

After Khalizad came the segment with the ex-generals – Barry McCaffrey, Montgomery Meigs, Wayne Downing and Wesley Clark. The group offered up a generally positive assessment of the war’s progress, including warmed-over complaints that the news media wasn’t reporting enough of the positive developments.

Clark, who briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, was the most critical of the Bush administration’s policies, reminding listeners that he was skeptical about the war before it was launched in 2003. But even Clark rejected the possibility of a prompt U.S. military withdrawal from the Iraqi killing fields.

“I still believe there’s an opportunity to make the best of a bad situation in Iraq,” Clark said. “I don’t want to see us come out of there if we can put a strategy together that will leave that region more peaceful and protect our interests and the interests of the other nations.”

Clark urged stronger U.S. diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, while acknowledging that the Bush administration has shown little stomach or aptitude for such an initiative. In effect, the former NATO commander was taking up the Democratic demand that Bush finally “get Iraq right,” a politically clever positioning to protect the Democrats from accusations of defeatism but which lets the war go on indefinitely.

In watching “Meet the Press,” I had a sinking feeling of déjà vu, a memory of how hawkish ex-generals before the war had helped marginalize any objections to the invasion by making protests seem naïve, unmanly and unpatriotic.

While there were a few voices like Clark’s raising nuanced objections, strong opposition to Bush’s war plans rarely found a hearing as the major networks and the 24-hour cable news channels competed to wrap themselves in red-white-and-blue.

Besides some footage of peace demonstrations and a few clips of anti-war celebrities, the war doubters were almost invisible, rarely allowed to make their case in any detail. Mostly, their images served as foils for pro-war pundits to rail against traitors who were aiding and abetting the terrorists. [For more on how this media imbalance worked, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Empire vs. Republic.” For a comprehensive review of how the U.S. got into this fix, see Robert Parry's “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.”]

False Hope

Since the invasion in March 2003, Bush and his backers have hailed one mirage of false hope after another, from the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, to Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, to the slaying of Hussein’s two sons, to Hussein’s capture, to the transfer of “sovereignty,” to last January’s elections – and finally to the proposed constitution. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sinking in Deeper.”]

However, these transient causes for celebration were overwhelmed by the harsh realities on the ground as the U.S. invasion and occupation aggravated Iraq’s ethnic tensions and a stubborn insurgency arose to challenge the Americans militarily.

Also, the war’s chief justification – supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be bogus as did allegations of Hussein’s collaboration with al-Qaeda. Then, the disclosure of sexual and other abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison enflamed anti-Americanism worldwide.

Yet, even as the Iraq War skeptics turned out to be right and the pro-war pundits were exposed as gullible or worse, the same Washington dynamic of a pinched debate about Iraq has continued to apply.

No pro-war columnist has been fired for showing inadequate skepticism about Bush’s claims. No anti-war thinker has been added to the op-ed pages of major newspapers to make sure there is more skepticism now.

Indeed, there has been no appreciable change in either the make-up or the ideology of the TV pundits. As little accountability as there was for senior Bush officials for misleading the country to war, there’s been even less for star journalists who failed to ask the tough questions. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington the Unaccountable” or “Bush’s Nation of Enablers.”]

Media criticism of Bush’s war effort is still mostly limited to comments about how the war could be fought more effectively or how the administration needs to sell its case better to the American people.

Without intended irony, commentators have called on Bush to “level with” the public – but not about evidence that he “fixed” the WMD intelligence – instead about how the nation must be prepared to sacrifice more blood and more money to win in Iraq. [For a satirical look at a truthful Bush speech, see Consortiumnews.com's “Bush's Alternative Speech.”]

Today, the major pundits are as confident about the need to “stay the course” as they were about the undeniable threat from Iraq’s WMD before the war.

Cindy Sheehan

The talk shows’ favorite target for criticism now is Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, and the anti-war activists who have rallied around her. They are deemed crazy or disloyal for favoring “immediate withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq. But they rarely get the opportunity to fully explain their thinking.

Though seldom shared with the American people, there is a rational argument for withdrawal: that a U.S. military departure would undermine the terrorists by taking away their chief recruitment pitch while driving a wedge between the foreign jihadists and Iraqi insurgents, whose interests would stop overlapping once the U.S. occupation ends. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal.”]

But the Bush administration continues to confuse the public by mixing together references to the Sunni-led insurgency and the non-Iraqi jihadists associated with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi – much as the White House did in the pre-war period by associating Hussein with Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.

While rallying support for invading Iraq in fall 2002, Bush personally implied that Zarqawi and Hussein were in cahoots because Zarqawi reportedly got medical treatment in Baghdad in May 2002.

“Some al-Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq,” Bush said in a key pro-war speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 9, 2002. “These include one very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks.”

That was a reference to Zarqawi, although there never was any evidence that Hussein was aware of Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq or cooperated with him. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Misleading the Nation to War” or “Bush’s New War Lies.”]

In building the case for war, the White House also exploited another claim about Zarqawi, that his terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, which was based in northern Iraq, further proved a connection between Hussein and Islamic terrorists.

Left out of that assertion, however, was the fact that the Ansar al-Islam base was in a northern section of Iraq that was outside the control of Hussein’s government and under the protection of a U.S. “no-fly zone.”

The Zarqawi Confusion

Still, the residues from those misleading references to Zarqawi remain part of the administration’s defense of its Iraq War policies.

At a Pentagon briefing on Aug. 23, 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld challenged a reporter’s question about whether Zarqawi was building a base for international terrorism inside Iraq by stating that “well before the war in Iraq, well before the U.S. invaded, Zarqawi was in Baghdad.”

The Bush administration also justifies its current war policies by treating the Sunni-led insurgency and Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists as one entity.

This formulation clouds the fact that the Sunni-led insurgency has divergent interests from those of Zarqawi and his non-Iraqi jihadists. The insurgents are fighting for a narrower set of objectives, including their claim to Iraq’s oil riches, while the jihadists are sneaking into Iraq to fight a holy war against Western infidels.

But rather than looking for ways to split the insurgents from the jihadists – by withdrawing their common enemy, the U.S. occupation force – the Bush administration seeks to merge the two groups in the minds of Americans so any alternative to “staying the course” can be ruled out on the grounds it would “let Zarqawi win.”

This emotional argument is made easier to pitch to the American public because the U.S. news media has shown little interest in delving into details about Iraq or expanding the diversity of the war debate.

That, in turn, leaves the same government officials and media commentators – who led America into the Iraqi desert – guiding the nation on the next leg of the death march toward one more optical illusion of success.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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