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Failed opportunities in Iraq
June 6, 2005 8:50 PM   Subscribe

NEWSWEEK's Baghdad bureau chief, departing after two years of war and American occupation, has a few final thoughts. A short, yet refreshingly honest, look at Iraq from a respected journalist on the way home.

What went wrong? A lot, but the biggest turning point was the Abu Ghraib scandal. Since April 2004 the liberation of Iraq has become a desperate exercise in damage control. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib alienated a broad swath of the Iraqi public. On top of that, it didn't work. . . . The four-square-mile Green Zone, the one place in Baghdad where foreigners are reasonably safe, could be a showcase of American values and abilities. Instead the American enclave is a trash-strewn wasteland of Mad Max-style fortifications. The traffic lights don't work because no one has bothered to fix them. The garbage rarely gets collected. Some of the worst ambassadors in U.S. history are the GIs at the Green Zone's checkpoints. They've repeatedly punched Iraqi ministers, accidentally shot at visiting dignitaries and behave (even on good days) with all the courtesy of nightclub bouncers—to Americans and Iraqis alike.
posted by caddis (51 comments total)

 
Also from the article, Now their [US military] primary mission is self-defense at any cost—which only deepens Iraqis' resentment.
posted by caddis at 8:58 PM on June 6, 2005


[This should go smoothly]
posted by squirrel at 8:59 PM on June 6, 2005


Dick Cheney said we won...

Vietnam?
posted by UseyurBrain at 9:05 PM on June 6, 2005


Hey now, that's not a very nice thing to say about nightclub bouncers...
posted by nightchrome at 9:12 PM on June 6, 2005


All because they had no idea what to do after invading. Didn't think more than one move deep in the chess game. The surviving locals were supposed to say thanks, take over, and immediately implement capitalist democracy. Didn't happen so now what.
posted by scheptech at 9:19 PM on June 6, 2005


They had a chess game, it's just that the next move was Iran.

So it turns out to be a long game.
posted by hackly_fracture at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2005


when the dirty bomb/or worse does go off in times square (or a park near you anywhere in the U.S.) ... will anyone in the world give a sh*t... or think for a second anything other than "they had it coming"?
posted by specialk420 at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2005


Nightclub bouncers had the sense not to join the army.
posted by mischief at 9:30 PM on June 6, 2005


when the dirty bomb/or worse does go off in times square (or a park near you anywhere in the U.S.) ... will anyone in the world give a sh*t... or think for a second anything other than "they had it coming"?

lol.
posted by angry modem at 9:55 PM on June 6, 2005


You know, it's not that funny when you live in New York.
posted by cytherea at 10:08 PM on June 6, 2005


when the dirty bomb [...] does go off in times square [...] will anyone [...] think for a second anything other than "they had it coming"

Well I should think the people in and around the park will, at least for a second. It's difficult to say about the rest of the world, but at the very least, those injured are sure to have friends and relatives elsewhere. And of course we'd like to think that at least some fraction of the general world populace will feel a sympathetic response, regardless of their political and ideological leanings. I hope that helps answer your curiosity, though you should bear in mind that my response is entirely hypothetical. If you want a really solid answer, I guess I'd suggest a behavioral psychologist or sociologist - though any responsible professional will tell you it's dashedly difficult to predict what anyone will think under the best of circumstances.

Nonetheless, I hope you find my surmise helpful. Let me know if you have another other such intriguing questions.
posted by freebird at 10:09 PM on June 6, 2005


I think this policy of turning over the fight to the Iraqi security forces will win us the the war.

He's unconventional, but I've heard good things about the guy whose running the "Iraqization" effort, Lt. Col. (Ret.) John Paul Vann.
posted by orthogonality at 10:11 PM on June 6, 2005


It's a great piece, by someone who actually witnessed events there...it's a pity that because it's a guy from Newsweek it won't even be read by millions.
posted by amberglow at 10:14 PM on June 6, 2005


You know that scene in the movie where the robber grabs a baby and uses it as a shield as he runs out of the bank? Well, the robber is the current administration and it's cadre of financial interests, and the baby is the US population.

I hope that there aren't any, but more large-scale attacks on US citizens are very likely. I'm wondering what the tipping point would be, where the country wakes up and realizes it's being used as a shield to protect lying crooks and their interests. We've already given up 2,000 lives, and killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Will it take another 9-11 to wake up the US? Or will another attack push us farther down the same idiotic road?
posted by squirrel at 10:17 PM on June 6, 2005


I'm a bit confused by your metaphor, but I may be thinking of the wrong movie - I believe I've seen several with scenes similar to the one you describe.. If the baby is the US population, it seemes a likely to be represented by the bank being robbed - or perhaps even the innocent employees of the bank. Maybe the baby should be the US soldiers? But I guess you want to get victims of domestic terrorism in there as well.

The metaphor becomes still more difficult to interpret - though interestingly so, don't misunderstand me - when one considers the other players implicit in your description: the police attempting to stop the robbery. They must be present, or the fundamental tension of your trope is lost, yet their meaning is uncertain. Surely it's problematic to have the international terrorists be the cops! So I suspect your intent is that the robbers are being shielded from legal and political censure. Yet surely this would come largely from the US population - already present as the baby!

Can the US population be both the baby cruelly held up into a hail of bullets - and the firer of the bullets? The poignant tension of the duality at the heart of your metaphor leaves me cock-a-hoop with fascination at the possible exegeses!
posted by freebird at 10:29 PM on June 6, 2005


An audience member offered a more chilling analogy, the possibility that the Iraqi insurgents would mirror the evolution of the Irish Republican Army. Interestingly, the infamous "torture memo" written by the U.S. Justice Department to justify its treatment of "enemy noncombatants" held at Guatanamo Bay and later, Abu Ghraib prison was based on the even more infamous "Five Techniques" pioneered by the British military. (These detailed instructions for efficient extraction of information through torture were eventually ruled merely "abuse" in a widely mocked decision by the international criminal court.) The audience member recalled how the IRA had realized that the British didn't particularly care if they killed Irish civilians, but cared very much when the IRA turned to striking commercial targets in downtown London. And at that point, the British military resorted to torturing IRA suspects, and the battle between the two groups became one to the death. Could the same thing happen in Iraq?

There is no doubt, Danner answered, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed to be the terrorist mastermind in Iraq, and the Baathists would like to take the insurgency on the road, and orchestrate more attacks in New York and elsewhere in America. The question is how soon they will be able to.

About one thing Danner was sure: "It's clear that Americans and Iraqis will continue to be killed in the interim, and that U.S. troops are going to be needed [in Iraq] for a long, long time."


"Shooting through a straw"
posted by y2karl at 10:36 PM on June 6, 2005


Hmm... maybe replace cops with rival gang. The terrorists (whatever that means) are shotting at us, but they're not what I would call cops.

Not a perfect metaphor, I agree. Still, the question it points to is my purpose: how many domestic deaths will the US population abide before it realizes that its interests are not being served?
posted by squirrel at 10:38 PM on June 6, 2005


Will it take another 9-11 to wake up the US? Or will another attack push us farther down the same idiotic road?

Further down the same idiotic road.

We'd been follow, follow, following that idiotic road for some time when 9/11 happened. I naively thought that it might give us some pause for thought and reflection: why were they so mad at us? Perhaps our foreign policy might have something to do with it?

We did, for a very brief time. But I think it was the bloodthirsty reaction to Sunsan Sontag's essay that signaled the end of introspection for the American mind.

If something like that were to happen again (and I so hope it's still an "if" and not a "when"), it would be disastrous for everything we hold dear about this country. We'll look back fondly on the time before the second 9/11 when it was just the flying monkeys.
posted by cytherea at 10:47 PM on June 6, 2005


maybe replace cops with rival gang

Yes, perhaps a gang war is more apt, as it has less of an implicit moral structure. Yet, this seems to raise new problems - surely a rival gang would be less concerned about the welfare of the baby than would police? I wouldn't think they'd allow that to interfere with their gunning down of their rivals. Do you perhaps mean that the baby (representing the US populace) carried as a hostage by one gang (representing Big Business) is in some way connected to the rival gang (representing the terrorists)?
posted by freebird at 10:49 PM on June 6, 2005


y2karl: That's an interesting quote. It states
And at that point, the British military resorted to torturing IRA suspects, and the battle between the two groups became one to the death.
Which group is supposed to have died?

IRA members blended in perfectly and existed in large numbers in the UK population as a whole. The Iraqis have don't have that advantage.

Striking US civilians makes more sense in other ways, blowing up aircraft and attacking American bases and Embassies all over the world would appear to be easier.

The US occupation of Iraq is a very unwise action, but it isn't directly analogous to Britain's possession of Northern Ireland.
posted by sien at 10:57 PM on June 6, 2005


Let me know if you have another other such intriguing questions.

now that you ask... if lets say the russians had invaded iraq on false or at the very least faulty pretense, proceeded to kill between 10,000 and 100,000 innocent civilians, continue killing them and treating them like animals. and lets say a son of one of those whose family had been anhilliated decided to blow the sh*t out of himself and bystanders in downtown moscow... how many americans (specifically right-wingers/bush supporters) .... would say anything OTHER than - "the SOBs had it coming" ... and continue on down the road in their SUV with a pro-death when it suits them smirk on their face ?
posted by specialk420 at 11:11 PM on June 6, 2005


I'm afraid I can't really give a better answer than I did above - certainly those directly involved with the tragedy would say something other than "the SOBs had it coming". Say this is 100 people, though you've not specified the magnitude or type of tragedy. Beyond that, it gets a bit hazy. You do specify "right-wingers/bush supporters", which narrows the field a bit. Assuming for the sake of argument that the election results indicate roughly the proportions, this is around 0.51 * 295,734,134 at the moment. So we know the answer to your question is between 100 and 150 824 408. I hope that helps narrow down the possible answers, and apologize I couldn't be more specific. I might suggest the question would have an easier and more exact answer were you to specify the context more precisely.
posted by freebird at 11:20 PM on June 6, 2005


I might suggest the question would have an easier and more exact answer were you to specify the context more precisely.

The irony here is that this is unintentional self-parody.
posted by y2karl at 11:28 PM on June 6, 2005


Nope - it's self-consciously naive. So it's more like being sarcastic while looking in a mirror - at someone else with their back turned but watching you watch them on TV!
posted by freebird at 11:33 PM on June 6, 2005


Well, at least the condescension came across loud and clear.
posted by y2karl at 11:51 PM on June 6, 2005


Well I should hope so! Nothing's worse than wasted snark!

I'm sorry, but I really can't take the seriously idea that most right wingers would simply "smile their pro-death smile and continue down the road in their SUV" were Moscow to suffer a major terrorist attack, nor that the rest of the world would simply feel "we deserved it" were it to happen (again) to us. If I did take that sort of comment seriously I'd be really pissed off, because I think such hyperbole weakens the very positions I tend to agree with by making them clownish caricatures of actual political thought.
posted by freebird at 12:02 AM on June 7, 2005


Specialk, personally, given that exact scenario, my instant response would probably be 'wow, good for them!' on behalf of the Iraqis... the rooting for the underdog effect. Only after a minute or two would I be sorry about the people who died, and angry that the Iraqis hadn't hit a military target instead.

I very strongly suspect that most people would just leave it at 'hey, good for them!'

Getting back to the original post, it's a bit startling how much this guy seems to agree with my armchair assessment of the war. He echoes my strongest belief on the subject, that we lost at Abu Ghraib. I think it's just a matter of how many body bags we want to fill from here... they'll NEVER accept us as an occupying force. Not ever. He doesn't go that far, but he sure seems to agree about Abu Ghraib.

He also echoes, albeit somewhat less directly, my belief that we're using the wrong tool for the job; terrorism isn't something you can fight with an army. The single strongest sentence in that essay was this: "The most powerful army in human history can't even protect a two-mile stretch of road."

It's like attacking a field full of ant nests with a lot of army boots. You can do all the stomping you like, but unless you have an unbelievable amount of men and time, you're just not going to kill all the ants. Worse, if you undercommit with this bad tool, all you end up with is VERY angry ants.

It'd probably take several weeks for five thousand men to clear an ant-infested acre in Georgia, if all they could do is stomp nests. With the RIGHT tools, on the other hand, it would take one guy a couple days.

And no, terrorists aren't ants, they're tremendously more dangerous... but the model is still a pretty good one. You can't get to the queens/leaders directly, you have to get the colony ants to work for you.

We didn't do that. The war, which was always about hearts and minds and never really about bullets, is lost. Now what the hell do we do?
posted by Malor at 12:04 AM on June 7, 2005


Off topic but related to above: The Truth About Dirty Bombs
posted by knave at 12:16 AM on June 7, 2005


"Good Intentions Gone Bad."

I'm just going to pound my head against the desk here for a while. Don't mind me.

Conquering a country and installing a puppet government are only "good intentions" if you're a fascist. Or Newsweek, apparently.
posted by Clay201 at 2:09 AM on June 7, 2005


specialk420: your scenario maps pretty neatly on the past decade of conflict in Chechnya. And yes, basically the Western world is unsympathetic to the Kremlin's claims that it's just fighting international terrorism.

Bigger question is this: when is Newsweek going to stop hurting America?
posted by senor biggles at 3:27 AM on June 7, 2005


I'm not all that worried about a dirty bomb in Central Park, but I'm somewhat worried about a nuke in downtown DC.

I have to concede, when I've watched the Chechen terrorism in Russia, I've thought, "The Russians had it coming." I'd think much the same if the terrs nuked Washington.
posted by alumshubby at 3:34 AM on June 7, 2005


I think this policy of turning over the fight to the Iraqi security forces will win us the the war.

Four Letters: ARVN.
posted by eriko at 4:22 AM on June 7, 2005


freebird: GAAAAHHH! I give up!

Don't hate the baby!
posted by squirrel at 4:37 AM on June 7, 2005


I very strongly suspect that most people would just leave it at 'hey, good for them!'

Hmm. I'm surprised--are you really recalling, for example, the recent school killings in Russia? At that time did you really think to yourself: "those kids had it coming?" To me that attack, along with some others, had the effect of deadening my sympathy for the Chechen cause. In the same way, even though I'm against the U.S. invasion, I have little sympathy for Iraqi terrorists who fight it by indiscriminately killing fellow Iraqi civilians. It seems to me that much of the European world, for example, is balanced on the edge between anti-U.S. feelings and Arab-phobia. Remember the French debate about headscarves, and the difficulties over Turkey and the E.U.? European sympathy can swing both ways.

Re: the Newsweek article, it was good, but I take issue with its claim of good intentions gone awry. I wish people in the States would be more angry and less resigned. I wish we'd turn on our leaders a little more and start pointing fingers. And the implicit assertion in the article that Abu Ghraib happened because of failure to control a few bad apples, rather than because of positive pressure from the top, is absurd and misleading. We did this to ourselves--it didn't just happen through inattention.
posted by josh at 5:11 AM on June 7, 2005


Those Russian school kids, specifically? No, but the Chechens didn't become terrorists just for the hell of it, either. The Chechens have had some very nasty things happen to them, famously under Stalin but going clear back to the tsars.

As for Abu Ghraib, I suspect there was a lot of laissez-faire looking the other way from the upper echelons rather than "positive pressure from the top" -- have the prosecutions of the lower-ranking personnel directly involved revealed anything to the contrary?
posted by alumshubby at 5:38 AM on June 7, 2005


eriko writes "Four Letters: ARVN."

You didn't recognize the name "John Paul Vann" or follow the link, right?
posted by orthogonality at 5:45 AM on June 7, 2005


...have the prosecutions of the lower-ranking personnel directly involved revealed anything to the contrary?

That's rich. Do you do barmitzvahs?
posted by squirrel at 6:14 AM on June 7, 2005


Alumshubby, didn't the express legal opinions about torture, requested by the President mind you, clue you in that he knew perfectly well we were torturing people?
posted by Malor at 9:46 AM on June 7, 2005


MetaFilter: "both the baby cruelly held up into a hail of bullets - and the firer of the bullets."

Just since, you know, no one else has.
posted by Rawhide at 9:52 AM on June 7, 2005


orthogonality-I didn't follow the link because I recognized the name.

I think Josh makes good points above (as always). I think that the thing to deplore is all the senseless (which is not to say irrational) violence. If I get pissed when the US kills Iraqi civilians, shouldn't I also be pissed when suicide bombers or insurgents do the same thing? Shouldn't I also be pissed if those people do something in Russia or in NYC? Condemning terrorism is not equivalent to excusing the abhorrent and unjust use of military might.
posted by OmieWise at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2005


ahem. I found that bug I was looking for last night, and am feeling much better thanks.
posted by freebird at 11:05 AM on June 7, 2005


Interesting editorial. Kind of sad that he doesn't see any kind of exit strategy.

Baghdad's main American military base, Camp Victory

WTF, they couldn't find a more propaganda name?

sien writes "IRA members blended in perfectly and existed in large numbers in the UK population as a whole. The Iraqis have don't have that advantage. "

Your average Iraqi could blend in just fine in America I suspect. I highly doubt your average American can tell apart Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, Pakistanis or anyone else with vaguely Middle Eastern features. What are you going to do, deny entry to anyone who has an Iraqi ancestor in the last three generations and lock up all those already in the country?
posted by Mitheral at 11:34 AM on June 7, 2005


Those Russian school kids, specifically? No, but the Chechens didn't become terrorists just for the hell of it, either.

No. They did it for MONEY.

The Chechens have had some very nasty things happen to them, famously under Stalin but going clear back to the tsars.

The CHECHEN PEOPLE were screwed over. But the those run and fund the current "Chechen" rebel and terror groups are essentially criminal gangs made up of all sorts of ethnic and non-ethnic groups barely related to Chechen independence. They are mobsters. They deserve zero sympathy.
posted by tkchrist at 11:47 AM on June 7, 2005


Didn't the express legal opinions about torture, requested by the President mind you, clue you in that he knew perfectly well we were torturing people?

I wasn't following the trials closely enough, obviously; I didn't realize the Prez was requesting opinions specifically about Abu Ghraib. Is that what you meant? If not, well, what the hell, I'm already wrong about the Chechens, so why not screw this up too....
posted by alumshubby at 12:45 PM on June 7, 2005


I love freebird! He's the only guy keeping this debate rational. It's not that I disagree with the majority of posters, but in doing so he seems to be the only one who cares whether MeFi is a kneejerk leftish community or one that actually weighs issues and finds their true value. We can all learn something by stopping to think.
posted by zwemer at 1:46 PM on June 7, 2005


For the record, I actually agree with most of the posters' positions, more-or-less. I just show it in odd ways.
posted by freebird at 2:01 PM on June 7, 2005


"Odd ways" = tediously pedantic bloviation.

I trust, of course, you see the irony in that.
posted by Haruspex at 4:32 PM on June 7, 2005


Sorry - if I see sloppy metaphors and melodramatic hyperbole, and I'm all coffeed up and in the mood, I will make use of it as I see fit for my own enjoyment. I thought the overextended bank robbery metaphor was a lot of fun! Certainly more fun than a bunch of us sitting around preaching to the choir or shouting each other down, either of which you might find less tediously pedantic but I find annoying and onanistic.

But I think there's room for all of us in here!
posted by freebird at 5:25 PM on June 7, 2005


Freebird --

I laughed, although I may or may not have gotten your actual point. But you gotta be crazy to think Big Business and International Terrorism are rival gangs! Maybe the CIA and the FBI are the rival gangs, and International Terrorism is the money. Or the bullets.
posted by jlub at 5:59 PM on June 7, 2005


Okay, now, so who's the baby again?
posted by squirrel at 10:25 PM on June 7, 2005


"in the span of time we're just babies..it's all relative, time is unreal./ we're just babies, we're just babies, man."

Mathowie? He's just a baby, man. And jlub? He's just a baby too. Oh and squirrel? He's just a baby, man. Metafilter? We're just babies too.
posted by freebird at 10:57 PM on June 7, 2005


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