'Progress' in Iraq and the Bush Administration's Credibility Gap


8-09-07, 9:48 am

Progress. This is the new watchword for determining whether US military forces should remain bogged down in Iraq's civil war or if the Democrats will have enough political muscle to bring the troops home.

Because the Bush administration, using its vast control over information coming out of Iraq and its misleading rhetoric about terrorism, has once again managed to shift the public debate from how quickly to bring the troops home to a imposing 'benchmarks' as the key measure of 'progress,' it is important to scrutinize just what 'progress' really means.

This past week, discussions of 'progress' filled the media. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sought to lower expectations of progress by expressing disappointment and regret that the Bush administration underestimated the difficulties it would encounter in Iraq. Gates' comments are designed to get a head start on defining progress leading up to the General Petraeus report in September that members of Congress, of both parties, say they are waiting for in order to determine their positions on the war.

Secretary Gates, whose appointment has been widely regarded as a repudiation of the neoconservatives represented by Donald Rumsfeld, has carefully cultivated a reputation as more realistic and credible than even Bush himself. This persona offers the appearance of serious internal deliberations going on in the White House and a realistic 'bluntness' about the conduct of the war. In reality, however, it is merely a tactic to deceive the administration's critics and opponents into accepting a new version of Bush’s familiar 'stay-the-course' position.

Gates' acquiescence to this situation has begun to erode his credibility, to be sure, in a way not unlike the role played by former Secretary of State Colin Powell who also chose to surrender his credibility to the Bush agenda.

Downplaying Progress

According to reports in the New York Times, Gates said, 'We probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.' Gates went on to say that developments in Iraq have so far proved disappointing.

Time out. Let's scrutinize Gates' remarks carefully. Gates implies that we haven't been waiting for more than four years and almost 4,000 US troop deaths for something positive to come out of it. Now Gates is trying to distort that abysmal history of failure by imposing a new, artificial, 'come September' timeline, with some White House insiders hinting at a November wait date.

Gates would also like us to forget that 'our underestimation' of the degree of Iraqi resistance to the US invasion and the utopian post-invasion scenario formulated in the White House were part of the administration’s carefully crafted selling of the war. Recall these claims: US troops would be 'greeted as liberators,' the war would cost a mere $50 billion or so, it would be a 'cake walk,' casualties would be minimal, and the invasion of Iraq would lead to democratic reforms throughout the Middle East. And so on.

In reality, the war has cost US taxpayers more than one-half trillion dollars, approximately US 60,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and medically evacuated). An armed insurgency, terrorism, and sectarian violence quickly emerged, and the invasion has emboldened several Middle East countries, including those heavily supported by the US, like Saudi Arabia, to interfere actively in Iraq's internal affairs.

Despite the geopolitical mess and the ongoing violence, said Secretary Gates, 'my hope is that it can all be patched back together.'

Gates went on to acknowledge Iraq's political quagmire fueled by sectarian differences. Acceding to the demands of Iraqis, the parliament has refused to pass an oil law pushed by the Bush administration that would privatize about two-thirds of the country's oil industry. The oil law is one key 'benchmark,' some argue, that motivates the Bush administration's intent on extending the occupation.

A recent poll conducted by UK polling firm KA Research, shows that Iraqis, by a margin of more than 2-to-1, favor retaining national control over Iraq's oil resources. Additionally, only about 4% say they fully understand the details of the oil privatization law.

Unable to advance the Bush agenda and seemingly uninterested in inter-sectarian unity, the government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is losing a great deal of support. According to the Los Angeles Times, 17 cabinet ministers are boycotting the government claiming Al-Maliki refuses to handle the problem of Shiite militias who are involved in anti-Sunni activities. A majority of Iraq's parliament has signed a formal parliamentary petition calling for the phased withdrawal of US troops. Al-Maliki buckled under the pressure last month when he told reporters that Iraq is prepared to handle its own security issues 'any time' the US leaves. He quickly retracted the statement.

It has been recently revealed that US commanders have paid out millions of dollars to armed militant groups to enlist them as 'security contractors' ostensibly to fight Al-Qaeda. But as the Washington Post has reported, the real goal is to line them up against Shiite groups. Other US funds have been funneled, likely via Saudi Arabia, to Sunni groups in western Iraq to oppose violent sectarian groups and to counter the power and influence of Shiite groups, both supporters and critics of the Al-Maliki government believed to be tied to Iran.

The mobilization of additional 'security contractors' has simply meant that more armed groups outside the Iraqi state structure have lined up to feed at the US taxpayer-funded trough for self-serving reasons. But the superficial achievement of this security 'benchmark' is aimed at securing another Bush administration aim that has less to do with Iraq’s internal security or improving life in that country and more to do with checking Iran's regional power.

Here, of course, is where the plan is doomed to inevitable failure. Any group that seeks political legitimacy and power in Iraq will fail if they are perceived as being a tool of Bush's grandiose Middle East foreign policy aims. In addition to this basic fact, what amounts to bribing armed groups as an expedient measure to get them to accept US aims won’t relieve sectarian strife; it merely moves it around. These tactics weaken the constitutional authority of the Iraqi state and put more armed groups into competition for cash and power. It encourages a gangster society bent on fragmentation.

While the Bush administration campaigned this week to lower expectations about the levels of progress, some media reports indicate that the Petraeus report has already been written, despite being scheduled for delivery in mid-September. Because it is waiting final political vetting by the administration, observers have hinted that the Petraeus report will end up being less a military assessment than a politicized report.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), speaking earlier this week at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, expressed concerns about the objectivity of the Petraeus report. He said, 'This is supposed to be a president's report.' So why is a military commander delivering it? The unorthodox delivery of the report demonstrates the Bush administration's desire to give an impression of distance from the report in order to avoid tainting it with the White House's credibility problem.

Without questioning Petraeus' personal credibility, Sestak raised the issue of the politicization of the report and the 'metrics' by which the 'benchmarks' are being assessed. Politically motivated 'metrics' are predicted to skew the bases on which the Petraeus report has been written to give a distorted view of 'progress.'

PA contributing editor Prasad Venugopal, in a discussion last week on PA radio, echoed these concerns. 'Effectively this question of progress,' Venugopal noted, 'is a question of a group of people who write the questions, provide the answers to those questions, and then grade themselves on them. I think that is really what is going on, at least from the Bush administration side.'

Chaos, Progress, Chaos, Progress

Allowing Bush's hypothetical chaos scenario for post-occupation Iraq and his pretense of measured 'progress' to pass without a sharp response from the peace movement or the Democratic opposition in Congress, Venugopal suggested, leaves Bush exactly where he wants to be and the rest of us without a convincing argument for bringing the troops home.

'I don’t think the Democrats have come up with a plan,' Venugopal said, 'that actually says this is what we are going to do, and here is the part of our plan that will provide for a more stable Iraq.' The inability to provide a convincing position that counters Bush's tricky, contradictory rhetoric of progress and chaos, leaves the Democrats unable to control the debate on the war even though the majority of Americans want to bring the troops home and are disgusted with Bush.

Venugopal suggests two ways to regain control of the debate: 1) highlight the fact that the notion of 'progress' defies rationality and lacks credibility and 2) show that the Iraq quagmire has removed the capacity of the US to resolve alone and/or in the role of military occupier.

The glaring facts of the US occupation's failure to bring any semblance of normalcy to the lives of Iraqis are plain. Iraqi deaths due to the invasion, whether directly from US forces or as a result of sectarian violence erupting as a result of the invasion, far exceed the horrors imposed by Saddam Hussein on his country. Credible estimates put the total number of Iraqi deaths since the beginning of the war at nearly 1 million, between one and two million Iraqis have been displaced internally, and as many as .

Iraqis currently enjoy only a four hours or so a day of electricity. According to Aziz al-Shimari, Baghdad's Electricity Ministry spokesperson, said that power generation across the country totals only half of the demand and that in the first couple of days in August there had already been four nationwide blackouts. Other provinces, including Basra, Diwaniyah, Nassiriyah, Babil, and Kurdistan, have begun to disconnect from the national electricity grid to ration their own scant energy supplies. Al-Shimari complained that the current problems are worse then even in the summer of 2003.

A recent AP story quoted Qassim Hussein, a 31-year-old day laborer in Karbala, who said, 'The people are fed-up. There is no water, no electricity, there is nothing, but death. I've even had more trouble with my wife these last three days. Everybody is on edge.'

Sporadic electrical power has led to faulty sewage systems and an increased public health menace that has not been adequately addressed in large parts of Baghdad and in the many outlying provinces. Sewage waste has also contaminated crops leading to illnesses and food shortages.

Public health problems are compounded by a lack of potable water. According to a recent IRIN News report, a study by the UK-based charity Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq shows that around eight million Iraqis, approximately one-third of the population, are in urgent need of water and sanitation. The severity of the problem is intensified for the more than 1 million internally displaced persons who face both water shortages and militant groups who horde water in order to extort high prices from the refugees, according to IRIN News.

Additionally, cooking oil and gasoline have now become precious commodities that few Iraqis can get, with gasoline prices as high as $5 per gallon in the city of Karbala (half of the daily wage of a taxi driver there).

Unemployment affects about half of the labor force. UNICEF reports that the loss of parents, ongoing violence, and privation have caused 60-70 percent of Iraqi children to suffer from psychological problems. Economic collapse, according to the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, has left 4 million Iraqis without the ability to buy enough food, and 28% of the country's children are malnourished. Poverty, starvation, lack of access to health care, education, and other basic necessities are now what pass as normal in what was once considered an oil-rich, 'middle class' society.

Lack of security remains a major issue. Car bombings, murders, gang violence, religious intolerance, and assassinations are a matter of routine. Conservative estimates say that more than 13,500 Iraqi civilians and over 1,400 Iraqi military personnel have been killed in the violence since the beginning of the year.

Despite claims of progress on the security front, Americans rarely venture outside the 'green zone' in Baghdad, and if they do, they never go without armed escorts and heavy body armor. More than 660 US troops have been killed and more than 3,800 have been wounded (not including medically evacuated for other injuries or diseases) since the beginning of the year, when the Bush administration announced the military escalation aimed at ending the chaos and returning Iraq to normalcy.

The Solution: Iraq and Sovereignty

So how can it be resolved? First, let's accept what reality and rationality tell us: the situation has moved outside of the capacity of the US to resolve with military force. Sen. Barack Obama was correct when, at the AFL-CIO presidential debate Tuesday evening said, 'We’ve got no good options. We’ve got bad options and worse options.' Once we realize this, drawing down the occupation forces and redefining the mission away from combat to withdrawal operations is the next step.

Setting in motion steps to complete withdrawal of all military forces and related civilian contractors as quickly as possible, the US should aid as much as possible in the shift to alternative means of security with UN peacekeepers and focus on a diplomatic response to ending outside interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. What will it take for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and other regional powers to feel secure about the situation in Iraq enough to halt current meddling?

The Bush administration has tried to give an impression that it seeks good-faith diplomacy, but in truth, its ideologically motivated (and perhaps religiously motivated) fantasy of a 'greater Middle East' imposes preconditions on talks with countries like Syria and Iran. (This goal also drives the effort to manipulate Iraqi groups behind the scenes and the imposition of 'benchmarks' as punishments of the Iraqi government when it inevitably falls short of what the administration seeks.) In the end, Bush's desire to maintain an occupation force in Iraq will cause it to scuttle serious talks with regional powers and never accept responsibility for these failures.

Often ridiculed as a utopian or fantastic scenario, the notion that Iraqis themselves alone can save Iraq from further chaos is worth reconsidering. Iraqis have long held strong nationalist and secular views of themselves, and there are signs that such views are growing, despite outside interference and manipulation (mainly by the US but also Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey as well as internal groups seeking to hold onto power in the post-occupation period).

A recent survey of more than 7,000 Iraqis conducted by University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies found that sentiments reflective of nationalism are growing in Iraq, especially in the capital. In fact, despite constant emphasis on religious and sectarian identity by various forces, between the end of 2004 and the spring of 2007, there was an increase in national identification that surpasses nationalist sentiments found in other Arab capitals, according to the research.

As late as April 2006, only slightly more than one in four Iraqis identified as Iraqis 'above all else.' The survey results indicate, however, that by March 2007 more than half of Iraqis (and almost three-quarters of Baghdad residents) subordinate their identification as 'Arab,' 'Kurd,' 'Muslim,' 'Christian,' and the like to an Iraqi identity. This self-identification was accompanied by strong, positive feelings of national pride. (Interestingly, these results accompanied suspicion and anger about the US occupation, with only 2% of Iraqis appearing to believe the Bush administration's claim of bringing democracy.)

According to Eastern Michigan University Professor Mansoor Moaddel, who collaborated in the study, 'The rise of national identity is indicative of the fact that Iraqis as a whole have little interests in sectarian Iraq and prefer national integration. Furthermore, the rise of national identity and support for secular politics have been in tandem with a decline with popular support for all religious parties.'

The reemergence of an Iraqi national identity is key to Iraq's self-reconstruction, reconciliation, and revival. This view is shared by the Iraqi Communist Party, which, in its recent Baghdad Congress that attracted thousands (publicized by word of mouth on very short notice for security reasons), argued eloquently for a national democratic revolution in Iraq. In the Congress' main political report, the ICP affirmed its opposition to the invasion and occupation, adding '[f]rom the moment the dictatorship ended, our Party has sought to unite our people’s forces and its patriotic energies to regain our sovereignty and the independence of our country.'

The report continued: 'The struggle to end the foreign military presence has become closely interconnected with the struggle for the unified federal democratic Iraq, and is also intertwined with confronting the external factor in the violence, through injecting non-Iraqi terrorist forces whose agendas and objectives in Iraq have nothing to do with Iraq and the interests of its people.'

On the question of security, the Party argued that 'Security must be dealt with as an integral part of a series of economic, social, political, military and media issues, that collectively contribute to eradicating the sources of terrorism and gradually curtail the forces on which it relies, and create conditions to improve the overall situation, so as to have a positive impact on the security situation itself.'

The party seeks to work closely with the broadest section of patriotic forces which alone can help create 'the conditions for the normalization of the situation and the success of the national reconciliation plan, restoring security and stability, launching the process of reconstruction, and regaining full national sovereignty and ending the presence of foreign forces.'

The Communists are not alone in expressing these sentiments. Iraqi nationalism is definitely on the rise. More and more Iraqis are rejecting sectarianism and religious fundamentalism, with less than 1 in 5 Iraqis asserting the importance of an Islamic government. In a space and time free of outside interference, including from the US, along with adequate resources for reconstruction, these nationalist sentiments could quite quickly turn into a basis for overcoming the competing political interests that fuel sectarian violence.

It is both morally and rationally right to give such a process a chance.

Steps the US Should Take

The new foreign policy situation regarding North Korea could be taken as a model for the method of diplomacy the US should adopt toward Iraq and its neighbors. When the Bush administration backed off talk about air strikes and economic punishment of North Korea and returned to six-party and direct talks with North Korea, that country also backed off its nuclear ambitions. A growing sense of regional collective security in East Asia that does not involve interference in the internal matters of one particular country combined with generous economic aid helped foster a new environment, and tensions have been dramatically reduced.

Opening multilateral regional talks without preconditions combined with a swift and systematic US troop redeployment, the formation of a UN-mandated alternative multinational security force, no strings attached economic assistance for Iraq, and the return of national sovereignty are about the only positive steps the US can take at this point to both extricate itself from Iraq and avoid the continuing chaos predicted for the post-occupation regime.

Steps toward regaining a semblance of credibility in the region and on the world stage, not to mention developing an anti-imperialist foreign policy, would require several additional articles to elaborate.

--Reach Joel Wendland at

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