As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama described the war in Iraq as one that “should never have been authorised and never been waged”. (www.wsws.org/articles/2009/mar2009/pers-m02.shtml) On February 27, as president, Obama saw it differently. He told US troops at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina:
“You have fought against tyranny and disorder. You have bled for your best friends and for unknown Iraqis. And you have borne an enormous burden for your fellow citizens, while extending a precious opportunity to the people of Iraq. Under tough circumstances, the men and women of the United States military have served with honor, and succeeded beyond any expectation.” (‘Obama’s Speech at Camp Lejeune, N.C.,’ New York Times, February 27, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/ 02/27/us/politics/27obama-text.html)
This might best be described as Generic Invader Nonsense (GIN). Much the same has been said by every war leader and general of every invasion in history. Did Goebbels not argue that Germany was fighting “tyranny” on the Eastern front in 1941? Were Indonesian armed forces not offering a “precious opportunity” to the impoverished people of East Timor in 1975?
Obama next directed his GIN to the people of Iraq:
“Our nations have known difficult times together. But ours is a bond forged by shared bloodshed, and countless friendships among our people. We Americans have offered our most precious resource – our young men and women – to work with you to rebuild what was destroyed by despotism; to root out our common enemies; and to seek peace and prosperity for our children and grandchildren, and for yours.”
The precise moment when the illegal invasion demolishing Iraq – the attack that “should never have been authorised and never been waged” – became a selfless act of friendship in pursuit of peace and prosperity was not identified. Did this happen half-way through 2003? Perhaps early 2004?
America and Iraq have indeed known “difficult times together” – the US has caused them and Iraq has suffered them. The US helped install a vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, supporting him through his worst crimes, which Western governments and media worked hard to bury out of sight. It then inflicted the devastating 1991 Gulf War and 12 years of genocidal sanctions, which claimed one million Iraqi lives. The 2003 war and invasion have cost a further million lives, have reduced 4 million people to the status of destitute refugees, and reduced a wrecked country to utter ruin.
But Obama’s lies matter little to much of the public, anti-war activists among them. ‘You don’t understand,’ they tell us. ‘Obama +has+ to say all this stuff – it’s not what he believes. He’s out to change all this, but he has to say it.’
This involves a kind of treble-think. Politicians typically hide their ruthlessness behind compassionate verbiage. Obama, we are to believe, is hiding his compassion behind ruthless verbiage – Machiavellianism in reverse.
Which is exactly what was said of Clinton and Blair in the 1990s. Of course it could be the case now. But should we not aim to be a little more socially scientific in our political analysis?
We can observe that, in a way that mirrors Newtonian physics, enormous political forces tend to act unimpeded unless challenged by powerful oppositional forces. We can observe, further, that there is no reason whatever to believe that the greed and violence that have become entrenched in American politics over decades and centuries have simply gone away. Certainly they have not been countered by mass democratic movements rooted in compassion rather than greed. There are no new, mass-based parties rooted in progressive values; no city-stopping protests erupting out of a transformational political process.
If a brand new, benevolent face now fronts the system in which traditionally ruthless forces dominate, rationality demands that we assume it to be a makeover, a brand alteration, an attempt precisely to reduce pressure on the system to change.
The Bush-Blair crimes contaminated the American brand with Iraqi and Afghan blood products – we have to assume that the same ferocious system is now in the process of rehabilitating, not revolutionising, that brand. Greed, ignorance and hatred do not miraculously transform into compassion, wisdom and peacefulness, in individuals or in superpowers. Call it Newtonian political physics. Call it Buddhist psychology. Call it common sense.
Obama then spoke to the US armed forces:
“And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime – and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government – and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life – that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.”
The first sentence is a flat lie. Bush also was “very clear” that the “single question” concerned the disarmament of Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. When it became impossible to deny their non-existence, Bush resorted to talk of “regime change”, although he knew this pretext was illegal under international law. Even this was not enough – the ‘coalition’ insisted the invasion would go ahead whether or not Saddam and his family left Iraq (as they were urged to do) because the goal, now, was “democracy”. As Noam Chomsky noted in April 2003:
“The one constant is that the US must end up in control of Iraq.” (http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/10582)
Obama announced his plans for US forces in Iraq:
“As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of sixteen months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and to protect our troops. Those consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a time line that will remove our combat brigades over the next eighteen months.”
“As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 US troops.”
As commentators have noted, 50,000 is a lot of troops. The initial US invasion force in 2003, after all, consisted of 90,000 troops. And Obama did not comment on whether the US will maintain permanent military bases in Iraq. He did not discuss the withdrawal of over 100,000 private US military contractors and mercenaries stationed there.
On the face of it, there was a clear contradiction between Obama’s declared aim to “remove our combat brigades over the next eighteen months” and his leaving 30,000-50,000 troops to conduct, among other things, “targeted counterterrorism missions” – ie, combat missions.
The New York Times helped explain last December 4:
“Pentagon planners say that it is possible that Mr. Obama’s goal could be accomplished at least in part by relabeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned,’ their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.” (Thom Shanker, ‘Campaign Promises on Ending the War in Iraq Now Muted by Reality,’ New York Times, December 4, 2008;
Military occupiers have forever described their combat troops as ‘military advisors’ and suchlike – more GIN.
According to the American agreement with Iraq – known as a SOFA (status of forces agreement) – US forces must leave Iraq by the end of December 2011. But the “must” is actually much closer to a “might”. The New York Times noted that SOFA “remains subject to change, by mutual agreement, and U.S. Army planners acknowledge privately that they are examining projections that could see the number of Americans hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 – and some say as high as 70,000 – for a substantial time even beyond 2011.” (Ibid)
“Privately”, obviously – why, in a democracy, would the public be told the truth?
In support of this private reality, Phyllis Bennis cites retired General Barry McCaffrey, who wrote in an internal report for the Pentagon last year:
“We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. (My estimate–perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops).” (Quoted, Bennis, ‘Obama To Announce Iraq Troop Withdrawal,’ February 27, 2009; http://www.zcommunications.org/ zspace/commentaries/3787)
Because SOFA allows both sides to suggest changes, power politics has free reign. As Bennis notes, the Iraqi government has, from its beginnings, been “dependent on and accountable to the U.S.” She asks: “do we really think that that government would refuse a quiet U.S. ‘request’ for amending the agreement to push back or even eliminate the ostensibly final deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops?”
The Media Response
The above was covered by the corporate press with the same wilful gullibility that is found in its reporting on all key issues – the pattern is systematic and unvarying. Patrick Cockburn announced dramatically in the Independent:
“The pullout will bring to an end one of the most divisive wars in US history…” (Cockburn, ‘Obama announces troop pullout,’ The Independent, February 28, 2009)
No reasonable person could use “will” in that sentence. Honest news reporting would begin: “It is claimed…”. Instead, the Independent predicted:
“31 December 2011
“The date by which all US forces will have left Iraq.” (Ibid)
Ewen MacAskill wrote in the Guardian:
“Almost six years after the invasion of Iraq, the end is finally in sight for America’s involvement in its longest and bloodiest conflict since Vietnam. Barack Obama yesterday set out a timetable that will see all US combat units out by summer next year and the remainder by the end of 2011.” (MacAskill, ‘US withdrawal: Six years after Iraq invasion, Obama sets out his exit plan,’ The Guardian, February 28, 2009)
There is no reason to believe this, but it is the required ‘liberal’ view of the new ‘liberal’ president’s GIN. Stated with this level of confidence it is potent propaganda. MacAskill added for good effect:
“The prospect of 50,000 staying, even if only for another year, produced dismay among the Democratic leadership in Congress.”
It is an interesting and significant reality of modern press performance that the right-wing media are often more honest about ‘liberal’ leaders than the ‘liberal’ press. Compare the Independent and Guardian’s take on events with Tim Reid’s in Murdoch’s Times:
“President Obama announced the withdrawal yesterday of more than 90,000 US combat troops from Iraq by August next year but his decision to keep a force of up to 50,000 was attacked by leaders of his party as a betrayal of his promise to end the war.” (Reid, ‘Obama promises to pull out 90,000 troops – but keep 50,000 there,’ The Times, February 28, 2009)
MacAskill continued in the Guardian:
“For Iraq, the death toll is unknown, in the tens of thousands, victims of the war, a nationalist uprising, sectarian in-fighting and jihadists attracted by the US presence.”
This is truly shameful journalism. The idea that the death toll is simply “unknown” fits well with Chomsky’s observation:
“The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1992, p.79)
Just last month, John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, wrote:
“We are now able to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died in the war instigated by the Bush administration.” (Tirman, ‘Iraq’s Shocking Human Toll: About 1 Million Killed, 4.5 Million Displaced, 1-2 Million Widows, 5 Million Orphans,’ The Nation, February 2, 2009; http://www.alternet.org/story/123818/)
Tirman reported that “we have, at present, between 800,000 and 1.3 million ‘excess deaths’ as we approach the six-year anniversary of this war.”
“This gruesome figure makes sense when reading of claims by Iraqi officials that there are 1-2 million war widows and 5 million orphans. This constitutes direct empirical evidence of total excess mortality and indirect, though confirming, evidence of the displaced and the bereaved and of general insecurity. The overall figures are stunning: 4.5 million displaced, 1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans, about 1 million dead – in one way or another, affecting nearly one in two Iraqis.”
Tirman noted that only 5 per cent of refugees have chosen to return to their homes over the past year. According to Unicef, many provinces report that less than 40 per cent of households have access to clean water. More than 40 per cent of children in Basra, and more than 70 per cent in Baghdad, cannot attend school.
It is important to recognise that it is utter catastrophe on this scale that is being so blithely misreported and downplayed by journalists in the Guardian and Independent. These are genuine crimes of journalism – crimes of complicity and deception perpetrated against the British and Iraqi people.
Even the Guardian’s own journalists last year found that “Estimates put the toll at between 100,000 and one million”. (Jonathan Steele and Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘What is the real death toll in Iraq?,’ The Guardian, March 19, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/19/iraq)
Why would MacAskill write of casualties “For Iraq” (not just civilian casualties) in “the tens of thousands” when the lowest figure, one year ago, +just+ for civilian deaths +just+ by violence, was 100,000?
Martin Chulov brought further shame on the Guardian, writing:
“Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed during the insurgency.” (Chulov, ‘We will leave Iraq a better place – British general,’ The Guardian, March 2, 2009;
We wrote to Chulov and his editor, Alan Rusbridger, on March 2:
“I’ve never seen that formulation before. This is how the truth is slowly cleansed from the newsprint through repeated brainwashing. Now the main context for the killing is the insurgency rather than the occupation. The occupation itself just +is+ – maybe it’s a natural phenomenon, happened out of a clear blue sky. The facts – that it was based on a pack of lies, that it was an illegal war of aggression, an oil grab, and has zero legitimacy such that the US has no right to be there at all – somehow just don’t matter to you.”
We received no response. The Guardian editor has not replied to our emails since December 2005, such is his commitment to open debate.
The reality, as every thinking mainstream journalist knows, is that free discussion into corporate profit-making does not go.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Patrick Cockburn at the Independent
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Ewen MacAskill at the Guardian
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Martin Chulov at the Guardian
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Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
Guardian readers’ editor: