Posts Tagged ‘George W. Bush’


Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

On this day (May 1) ten years ago President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and gave perhaps the largest hostage to fortune ever handed over by an American politician. Beneath a huge sign that read “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announced that, “In the Battle of Iraq the United States and its allies have prevailed.”

Hmm, no, the US and its’ allies hadn’t prevailed. The War to Overthrow Saddam had succeeded, but the Battle of Iraq hadn’t really begun.

Of all the ten year anniversaries associated with the first phase of the Iraq War, this is the one on which to consider whether, with less arrogance and better planning, the war might have succeeded.

As Syria disintegrates and North Korea adds an unneeded level of nuclear fear to east Asian life the questions of intervention are still with us. The reluctance to answer them and then act is wholly down to an inability to answer them honestly – including the most critical question: if you intervene – how do you prepare for the day after victory?

Here’s a small insight from ten years ago.

On April 11, 2003, Saddam’s regime collapsed in the northern city of Mosul without a fight. In the night it effectively disappeared. Baghdad had fallen several days earlier. In Mosul, the army evaporated. Soldiers literally walked out of their uniforms. Weeks later you could still see boots and military kit along the side of the road.

In the city there was looting, particularly at a UN food depot and the Iraqi National Bank. The historic record of the day, in images and the sounds I recorded, make that looting seem like the dominant response to Mosul’s self-liberation.

But the overwhelming truth – something no camera or sound recordist could capture – is that most people were not capable of looting. They were walking around in a state of shock. Everywhere you looked were somnambulants wandering in parks and up on the grassed over walls of ancient Nineveh. A whole city awoken from a collective, decades’ long nightmare into bright, spring sunshine.

When you come out of a nightmare, reality often seems a continuation of the dream. There is a pervasive sense of disbelief. You have to shake your head very hard to make sure that yes, you are in fact awake, and the world around you is real.

On one residential street, a small crowd gathered around my friend, Ahmad Shawkat, a dissident who had been living in internal exile in Erbil, in the Kurdish safe area, an hour’s drive away. Even his presence, after years of exile, couldn’t completely re-assure the men, his former neighbors, that the regime was gone. These old friends, many of them university professors, simply couldn’t believe it. Saddam was too clever, this was all a trick. He would be back. The implication was: those who celebrated will be dragged away by the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

Ahmad turned to me and said, “This is the infection of ‘dictatorism.'” But as the hours passed and the looting and somnambulism continued, Ahmad said, “I had no idea my people would behave so strangely.”

In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Fear of the state security apparatus had become a fundamental part of Iraqi’s lives over 30 years. As the next hours and days unfolded, the immediate reality of liberation worked its way around the city along with a new fear: the absence of security.

I’m not talking about the sense of security that the police will come if your house is burgled and that should the criminal be arrested there is a reasonable chance he will be tried and convicted of the crime. I’m talking about something much deeper, a going about daily life without having to even think about the most basic existential questions.

If nothing else, totalitarian states deliver this. The regime provides absolute parameters on what is permissible. It becomes a cocoon. People exist within that framework. If they question it, they disappear.

What the Bush Administration’s overthrow of Saddam did was take those existential certainties away overnight and put nothing in their place.

That President Bush and his advisers’ planning for the post-war period was negligible was known beforehand. In an article in the New York Times a week before the war began, columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who was very pro-war, wrote about the President, “He and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it. The only place they’ve been bold is in their military preparations “

But even if the Administration had deployed enough troops to provide the mundane kind of security necessary to prevent anarchy in the post-war period, it could never have got to grips with this more abstract notion of being secure, not just in your person, but in your soul. The bureaucratic kingpins who planned the war were not capable of that kind of thinking.

They never thought to ask, Why did totalitarianism’s collapse in the Soviet Union not lead to people embracing modern democracy but instead lead to kleptocracy and then a re-embrace of nationalist authoritarianism? Why did the end of the Soviet Empire bring about Yugoslavia’s violent break-up over 19th century concepts of national identity accompanied by a series of civil wars fought with medieval savagery augmented by 20th century weapons?

Why would the disappearance of the Saddam regime not have a similar negative effect on those who had been forced to live under it? Then they should have asked the obvious question: How do we prevent a similar bad outcome?

It is hard to imagine unless you have lived under totalitarianism or been present when it collapsed but freedom means fear. Many people in a society making the transition from dictatorship would prefer the old certainty, even if it means not being “free.” Those, like my friend Ahmad, who argue that it is worth taking the risk to live with freedom’s uncertainty face violence. He was murdered five months after the regime collapsed.

Yet I am certain that in those months between the regime’s collapse and my friend’s death there was the possibility of success in Iraq. The people wanted order in the street, but they also wanted unthinking security in their souls. If the US had delivered the latter, there would have been a better outcome. But giving Iraqis a feeling of inner security required more than troops and bureaucratic thinking, it required planning based on an understanding of the psychology of societies that endure totalitarianism – or prolonged periods of violent instability.

This is an important lesson to learn. In the coming years there are many societies that will be jostled out of their nightmares – suddenly or after years of violence. The Ba’ath regime of Basher Assad will fall in Syria, even North Korea will someday emerge from the shadow of the Kims.

When these things happen, the US and the whole of the international community, need to have thought through how best to ease people past the inevitable fear that comes from waking up from the nightmare of certainty to the uncertain reality of freedom.






1. Writing History in a Time of Forgetting: 9/11

Monday, October 18th, 2010

In the journalism business we live for significant anniversaries … loads of easy to peg stories accompany something like the fifth anniversary of Katrina. Next September there will be an over abundance of such stories. Next September will mark a decade since the attack on the World Trade Center.
This blog is going to be a countdown to that anniversary. It will ask questions sometimes, declare opinions at others, debate with those who find their way to it and post responses to my comments. There will be fragments of book ideas and an irregular column called “The Corrections” in which I will act as the editor too many opinion columnists do not have.
The framework for everything you see here is this question:
Did 9/11 change America? or had American society already changed, only Americans just did not know it?
The intent is to write History in a Time of Forgetting.
To begin:
Do you remember ten years ago this month? Oct. 2000. It was a hot election season, remember? Were you a Democrat? what do you remember? Do you remember watching Al Gore in the debates and feeling like a parent watching your child at a school event, willing him to do well. Do you recall suspending your own critical judgment, like a parent watching a child, and thinking he did well, even when some part of you knows he didn’t?
When you read the debate reports in the press the next day or listened to the instant pundits on NPR and CNN did violence flash through your brain. Al Gore was prissy, Al Gore was too smart, Al Gore was everything the American people don’t like – as if TV folks actually know anything about what ordinary Americans like, think or how they live. Did you feel like hanging Maureen Dowd upside down by her ankles and then dropping her into a pile of excrement?
Did you watch the polls in disbelief as you realized how many of your fellow citizens actually thought George W. Bush would make a good president?
If you are a Republican – I hope there are one or two who find their way to these words – do you remember your feelings? Did you look at Gore and think what a fat pompous ass he is? Or were you more Christian in your assessment? Were you Christian in making your judgments about George W. Bush? Did you see in him a man of faith? Did you willingly suspend your disbelief and see a man of the Texas soil, a person just like you, rather than the son of Connecticut Yankees who was comped into Yale and Harvard Business School, who spent his summer’s in a private compound on the coast of Maine?
What do you remember?
Here’s what I have recalled.
I was just back from Bosnia. An anniversary story. Five years had passed since the civil war there had ended. I covered the end game of that conflict and was returning with my tape recorder to see how well the Dayton Accords had worked.
To me Bosnia had been a paradigm of how the United States, when it concentrated its political will towards action, could be a force for good. During my trip ten years ago this month I had stayed on a U.S. military base in the eastern part of the country. It was my first overnight with the Army, during the war I had stayed with a British unit in central Bosnia but this was altogether different.
I imagine it was just like being with the Roman Army when it was working its way through Gaul. Outside the base was chaos, inside was civilization. Camp Eagle was a bit of America transferred to the Balkan mountains. Six kinds of American cuisine in the mess hall, a gym, satellite TV relaying the soldiers’ favourite shows.
Most of the officers were reservists, men my age, seconded from their small businesses and schoolrooms to oversee the logistical part of the operation. We had plenty in common. There was no lack of conversation.
I went on patrol in Zvornik, one of the nastiest towns in the country, with the soldiers. Ethnic cleansing had been murderous here. On a hillside overlooking the Drina River was a modern hotel where Bosnian Muslim women had been taken to be literally raped to death by Serbs. The place only closed down because so many corpses were thrown into the river that the spillway in a dam just by Zvornik had become dangerously clogged.
I watched a young artillery officer develop on the job peace-keeping experience. It was not what he signed on for when he decided to make a career in the army … but it was the assignment he was given, and I thought he did it incredibly well.
Pride in the power of the U.S. to do good. That was what I came away with from my trip to Bosnia. Even though I could see that Dayton had been a short term solution that did not solve the deeper problems raised by the civil war, despite observing at first hand the grotesque corruption that a semi-permanent presence of international peace-keepers and aid agencies with big budgets brought into conflict resolution zones, I thought the U.S. had done supreme good here. I had visited the morgue of Tuzla – smelled it before I saw it – where the unidentified remains of several thousand victims of the Srebrenica were housed.
I watched a young Anglo-American couple, forensic scientists as they worked their way through brown paper bags containing bits of bone, some still with bubbles of flesh on them, laying them out on autopsy tables, cataloging them so that some day, the remains might be claimed and given a proper burial. The couple’s salaries came through a fund organized by Senator Bob Dole, yes, at its bi-partisan best, America’s big heart reaches deep into parts of the world that know pain and suffering.
Ten years ago – do you remember what you were doing – what you felt about being American? Did you think about it at all?

The Connection: Gore\'s Big MomentBosnia: Inside Out