President Bush’s trip to Baghdad Tuesday has been hailed by the
American media and official Washington as something of a political masterstroke.
In fact, the sudden trip, conducted in secrecy even from the Iraqi government
that holds nominal sovereignty in the US-occupied country, was a demonstration
of both the dire state of affairs in Iraq and the political isolation and disorientation
of the Bush administration.
No amount of “spin” can alter the sense of something degrading
and even ludicrous in the spectacle of an American president stealing into a
foreign capital, spending five hours on the ground in a series of stage-managed
and largely meaningless public appearances, and then flying off under cover
of darkness, never having left the safety of the fortified Green Zone in downtown
The most remarkable fact of the visit was that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri
al-Maliki, was informed of Bush’s presence in his country only five minutes
before he was ushered in to meet the US president. Until then, Maliki had been
led to believe he was going to the US embassy to participate in a videoconference
with Bush and his war cabinet, ensconced in the presidential retreat at Camp
Maliki’s ignorance of Bush’s arrival demonstrates that the government
installed in Baghdad by the American invaders lacks one of the most essential
attributes of sovereignty: it has no control over who comes into the country.
If Bush had swooped down on any other capital city in that fashion—with
the possible exception of Kabul, headquarters of another US stooge regime—his
plane or helicopter would have been intercepted or even shot down. But Iraq
is not an independent country. It is a conquered province of the US empire.
The Iraqi “government” does not govern, even in Baghdad. It is
simply an agency of the real government, the American occupation regime headed
by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and enforced by 130,000 US troops.
The US media did not raise this issue in its initial coverage of the Bush trip,
instead parroting the claim that the Iraqi government was kept in the dark for
“security reasons.” No one would expect that the presidential flight
plan be posted on the Internet, but the failure to inform anyone in the Iraqi
government, even at the highest level, has only two possible explanations, neither
of them very flattering to the pretensions of the Bush administration.
Either the Iraqi government is so riddled with enemies of the US occupation
that to inform Prime Minister Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and their closest
aides that Bush was coming would have created a security danger. Or the Bush
administration is so indifferent to world and Iraqi public opinion that it simply
can’t be bothered to sustain the fiction that the government in Baghdad
exercises any real authority.
The second thesis would also explain the discontented scowl on Prime Minister
Maliki’s face throughout his appearance with Bush. He seemed uncomfortably
aware that the US president was treating him like a guest in his own country—an
impression underscored when the president leaned over to him and said: “I
appreciate you recognizing that the future of the country is in your hands.”
Actually, neither the future nor the present is in Maliki’s hands, as
Bush’s sudden appearance demonstrated.
The timing of Bush’s visit was ostensibly determined by the swearing-in
of Maliki’s cabinet after its approval by the Iraqi parliament. That followed
seven months of political wrangling between rival religious and ethnic-based
factions, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish, over control of various state positions,
particularly the three key security positions. Bush hailed the cabinet line-up
as “very impressive,” although it must be doubted whether the US
president could actually identify a single member besides Maliki.
The real purpose of the trip had more to do with American than Iraqi politics.
Bush sought to cash in on the wave of publicity surrounding the killing of Abu
Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and give a boost both to
his crumbling political support and to the congressional Republicans, who face
losing control of at least the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate
in the November elections.
Bush and his top political aides do not seek to reverse their plunging poll
numbers by making any concessions to the growth of anti-war opinion. Rather,
they hope to rally their ultra-right base by using the Zarqawi killing to give
credibility to new promises of military victory in Iraq.
To that end, Bush gave his full support to the military operation which the
Maliki government is to launch Wednesday, mobilizing 75,000 Iraqi troops, backed
by US “advisers” and warplanes, to flood the streets of Baghdad,
establish hundreds of new check points and conduct house-to-house searches in
many neighborhoods suspected of supporting the anti-US resistance.
Public relations exercises and a show of force will not, however, alter the
fundamental reality of the war in Iraq: the US military occupation is bitterly
opposed, not only by the vast majority of Iraqis, but by a growing majority
of the American people. On the eve of Bush’s trip, a new AP-Ipsos poll
of public opinion in the United States found that support for Bush’s handling
of the war in Iraq has fallen to 33 percent, a new low, and that his overall
job approval rating was only 35 percent, the lowest for any American president
since Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the Watergate scandal.
The Bush administration is sustained politically, not by popular backing for
the war or for its right-wing domestic agenda, but by the prostration of the
Democratic Party, the only other major reservoir of support for the US occupation
of Iraq. Typical was the reaction of a leading Senate Democrat, Carl Levin of
Michigan, to Bush’s visit to Baghdad. The senior Democrat on the Armed
Services Committee hailed the trip as “likely to lead to phased redeployments
this year and continuing in the next year.”
Actually, as one network television correspondent pointed out, there are 8,000
more US troops in Iraq than the last time Bush visited—his Thanksgiving
Day photo-op in 2003, where he was shown serving a turkey to troops at the Baghdad
International Airport. (The turkey was later revealed to be a plastic prop.)
There is the same element of bizarre, almost childish pretense in the latest
public relations stunt. Why, moreover, should the security precautions include
keeping the CIA director, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and much
of the White House staff in the dark? Was there a danger of Al Qaeda infiltration
there too? Why the fighter jet patrols over the green zone? The insurgency does
not possess an air force.
The cloak-and-dagger dramatics and the heavy-handed security precautions suggest
an element of cowardice in the face of the dangers which tens of thousands of
ordinary US soldiers face every day, as well as the vast majority of the Iraqi
people. This is a character trait often found in those who, like Bush, enjoy
playing the bully.
Let us not forget that this same president—who as a young man used his
family connections to avoid serving in Vietnam—famously told Iraqi insurgents
to “bring it on.” His defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dismissed
the concerns of rank-and-file soldiers about the poor-quality armor on their
vehicles, telling them, “You go to war with the Army that you have.”
Now, after close to 2,500 American deaths and well over 100,000 Iraqi
deaths, the US commander-in-chief steals in and out of Baghdad like a thief.
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Howdy Doody in Babylon