A Protest That Is Also Prophecy?

I don’t endorse all of his politics, but the world today gives Edwin Markham’s classic poem, Man With a Hoe, an eerily prescient ring. He wrote it after seeing the renowned painting by Millet.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this —
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed —
More filled with signs and portents for the soul —
More fraught with menace to the universe.

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in the aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world.
A protest that is also prophecy.

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream,
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings —
With those who shaped him to the thing he is —
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world
After the silence of the centuries?

Advertisements

What Happened To Iraq?

Over the past two months, as Iraq has disintegrated in the face of ISIL, one particular interpretation of events has been consistently pushed forward by neoconservatives and Bush apologists: Iraq is in crisis today because America pulled its troops out too soon. Excuses are, of course, all that can be expected from the neocons at this point, since they have long since proven themselves impervious to the instructive benefits of hindsight. More concerning, though, is the readiness of otherwise thinking, intelligent people to buy into such a fantastical narrative. Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted with the argument that if only the US had taken the same time and effort in Iraq that we did in Japan after WWII, we might have a similarly friendly, democratic ally in the Middle East today. (Of course, the underlying goal of such claims is nearly always to shift the blame for the current state of affairs in Iraq away from the neocons and toward Obama.)

My initial reaction to this suggestion was disbelief, followed, however, by a determination to give it full consideration and compose a thoughtful response. I confess that my impatience with the whole idea has increased with the amount of time I’ve had to consider it. The total dissimilarity between Iraq today and postwar Japan is so obvious that it seems unreasonable to devote space to proving it. Be that as it may, such an effort is clearly needed. Following are four reasons why the postwar Japan model does not apply to Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

1 – There was no reason to anticipate a civil war in Japan, held together by two thousand years’ worth of cultural, religious and political ties; there was every reason to expect one in an Iraq held together by little more than Saddam Hussein.

Japan in 1945 had been a unified nation more or less for two millenia. It was a commercial society built on an ancient feudal structure. Culturally and politically, it’s hard to imagine a more cohesive national identity. While Shintoism and Buddhism have had their share of conflict, religious animosity was not a significant force shaping Japanese society in the 1940s. The Mikado was widely viewed as a deity and could trace his ancestry back through a nearly unbroken line of emperors all the way to Yamato herself, 300 years before Christ.

In contrast, Iraq in 2003 was a relatively new, arguably artificial nation cobbled together by Great Britain in 1920 from three distinct provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra), with a piece of Kurdistan thrown in at the insistence of exiled Syrian king turned British puppet, Faisal I. Its multi-ethnic population was deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Fourteen hundred years of tension between Sunni and Shia Islam cut across Arab, Kurdish, Turkish and Assyrian ethnic groups. Most if not all of these groups included armed militias. Political stability was a consequence of complete domination of government power by the Sunni Arab ruling class.

2: The Japanese people had many reasons to trust the US;  the Iraqi people had as many reasons not to.

The United States in 1945 was at its zenith as a world power. We had, deservedly or not, a worldwide reputation for plain dealing and fair play that had not yet been squandered by reckless adventurism and failed interventions. The Japanese had no longstanding reasons to hate America. While an indigenous insurgency was of course a possibility, it was not a likely scenario.

By 2003, on the other hand, our conduct over the past sixty-odd years in the Middle East had been marked by lies, injustice, backstabbing diplomacy, broken promises – in short, every thing but plain dealing and fair play. Iraqi Shia and Kurds both had vivid memories of being encouraged by the US to take up arms against the Hussein regime, only to be brutally crushed when America failed to deliver the expected assistance. Saddam’s own regime knew first hand how treacherous we could be, having secretly received chemical weapon components (and critical intelligence help with targeting those weapons) from the US during the Iran-Iraq war, and more recently, having invaded Kuwait with an implied American promise of neutrality only to have that promise broken spectacularly in 1991. In short, no one in Iraq had any reason to trust America or any illusions that the occupation was meant to serve the interests or improve the lives of the Iraqi people. An insurgency against American occupation may not have been inevitable, but it was nearly so.

3: In 1945 the US imposed a military government on a soundly defeated aggressor; in 2003 the US was the aggressor.

The most glaring difference between occupied Japan and occupied Iraq is in the circumstances leading to the occupation. Japan had preemptively attacked the US in pursuit of an expansionist agenda that aimed to bring the entire western Pacific under Japanese control or influence. Their aggression failed; instead of knocking America back on its heels while Japan consolidated its gains, the war became a fight for survival of the Japanese state. By the war’s end in 1945, Japan had been thoroughly defeated and the expansionist wing of Japanese politics just as thoroughly discredited. Under such circumstances the Japanese people feared the worst from the occupation; instead they were treated remarkably well.

In 2003, however, it was America who launched a preemptive war against a country that had neither the ability nor the motivation to threaten it. The Iraqi government and military, entirely unable to face the US in conventional warfare, collapsed in weeks, but the Iraqi people, most of whom had merely observed the invasion rather than resisted it, were undefeated. Their primary allegiances were tribal and religious, not to the Hussein regime; they were not about to transfer those allegiances to the US.

4: Bremer was no MacArthur.

Does that really even need to be said?

Douglas MacArthur was a brilliant general and strategist with years of experience in the Far East; more importantly, he was a conscientious leader who took his responsibilities as such seriously. He was an avid student of Japanese culture; he went out of his way to show respect for,  and sensitivity to, their customs; he used his vast power to give the Japanese people a taste of just, efficient government; he carefully discriminated between those responsible for the war and the average Japanese. He won the respect – some would say love – of the Japanese people by his conduct and policies, not by some magical force of personality.

Now consider L. Paul Bremer – a career fearmonger masquerading as a terrorism expert. Prior to his appointment as Interim Dictator of Iraq he was Chairman and CEO of Marsh Crisis Services, a risk assessment firm – which is to say, his professional expertise was in frightening other corporations. While real terrorism experts like Michael Scheuer repeatedly warned the Bush administration of the likely consequences of Bremer’s (and Bush’s) policies, Bremer used his powerful position to immortalize his own incompetence and ignorance. He disregarded years of American propaganda aimed at convincing Iraqi soldiers to abandon Saddam. Within weeks he had created all the conditions for a Sunni insurgency in Iraq through a series of incredibly stupid executive orders. That insurgency was the incubator in which Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his private army, AQI/ISIL, were formed and developed. The current “Islamic State” traces its origins directly to Bremer’s first three months in office. While a civil war and an anti-American backlash were likely consequences of the invasion and occupation anyway, Bremer did everything imaginable to guarantee both.

Does it still seem reasonable, in light of the above, to blame the absence of American forces since 2011 for Iraq’s current plight? Add to all this theorizing the fact that insurgent violence and terrorism during the occupation was at its worst from 2004-06, with >100,000 coalition troops in the country – before the much hyped “surge” had taken place and before the 2011 withdrawal date had been set by the Bush administration. If the insurgency could not be contained with that level of military presence, on what basis can it be claimed that an extended troop presence would have helped? Add to that the equally important fact that even the puppet government we established under Maliki refused to allow any American troops to remain, so that if we had kept combat forces there they would likely have been dealing with a Shia threat perhaps equal to the Sunni insurgency.

There is simply no way one can argue from the facts that it was the withdrawal of American forces that paved the way for ISIL. On the contrary, it was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent occupation of Iraq and the policies pursued by the Bush administration and the occupying authorities which led to the ongoing tragedy that is Iraq today.

Facts or Propaganda?

As the final debate between Obamney approaches, I am bracing for what will likely be the undoing of the warm feelings I have been dutifully nuturing toward our candidate. Governor Romney’s blissful ignorance of America’s place in the world, constitutionally and in reality, remains the biggest obstacle to this conservative’s support. And his efforts to reassure voters by promising to defer to his military advisers are anything but comforting. The only thing the founders feared more than an executive with unchecked war-making powers was an autonomous military. James Madison must be digging out of his grave by now.

Not only does Romney fail to understand both the mess that is the American empire and the relevant constitutional law, he doesn’t even seem to have a coherent position of his own. In his much hyped VMI speech two weeks ago, Romney identified the “bedrock principles” of the Romney doctrine: “America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might.” But as Gene Healy points out in an excellent piece in the Washington Examiner, “…those are attitudes, not principles. And if jut-jawed self-assurance that we know what we’re doing in the Middle East was the key to victory, we’d have a little more to show from the last 11 years of war. Hope is not a strategy, but hubris isn’t either.”

Worse than the over-confident and under-informed arrogance, however, is the deliberate deception and propaganda constantly peddled by both campaigns and the war lobbyists they work for. Nonsense about Muslims hating us because we’re free, idolization of Syrian “freedom fighters” with no acknowledgement of their terrorist connections, and fearmongering that borders on psychosis with regard to Iran are all examples of the schizophrenic foreign policy jumble that both candidates embrace. And the voting public seems tragically complacent about the utter lack of meaningful distinctions between Team A and Team B.

Several days ago I was reading a Foreign Policy article about the radicalization of rural Pakistani youth, and specifically the techniques employed by terrorist groups in recruiting teenage boys for suicide attacks. I was stunned by the sickening methods used to convince these uneducated and ignorant boys to kill and die. Without repeating the claims made in the article, I will only say that one cannot help seeing even a suicide attacker in a different light after the author’s description of their indoctrination.

As my wife and I were discussing the article, my oldest son arrived home from school. He greeted me with, “Hi dad, Mrs. – says Iranians are dangerous people, is that true?”

Oh boy, I thought, here we go. “Why does Mrs. – say so?” I inquired.

“She says they are building a nuclear bomb to launch at us.”

“And why does she think they would want to launch a nuclear bomb at us?” I persisted.

“Because they don’t like that we’re over there defending our oil.”

Now, in fairness to Mrs. -, who I genuinely like and admire, I’m reasonably certain that she wasn’t quoted verbatim. It is entirely possible that my son’s impression of her comments differed substantially from her intent. Be that as it may, the timing of his question, coming as it did while the deceptive propaganda of Islamic jihadists was fresh in my mind, was an uncomfortable, but inescapable, reminder that both sides are equally guilty of using rank propaganda and deception to motivate and gain the support of the masses.

The problems with such ridiculous claims (which, regardless of whether my son’s impression was accurate, are widely believed by rank-and-file conservative voters) ought to be obvious. First of all, to describe “Iranians” (or any other ethnic group) in such sweeping terms demonstrates a pitifully two-dimensional view of the world, not to say of human nature. Secondly, our own intelligence agencies have been unanimous in their opinion that Iran is not, at present, building a nuclear weapon. Nor are they enriching uranium to the level required for such a weapon. Thirdly, if Iran did succeed in building a nuclear weapon, they are clearly unable to deploy it via ballistic missiles that would threaten the US. Fourthly, if Iran ever did develop intercontinental nuclear capabilities, what motive could they possibly have for a first strike? And lastly, while it is undoubtedly the height of insolence for Muslims in general and Iranians in particular to live on top of our oil, the evidence does not favor our appetite for oil as a pat explanation for Iranian animosity toward the US.

But its been a long time since evidence was last allowed to get in the way of the military-industrial complex. I expect Romney to differ from the President tonight only in the violence of his rhetoric. I would love to see him advocate a more humble and constitutional foreign policy, one that would present voters with a real choice to deal with the national debt, stop alienating allies and manufacturing enemies, and put James Madison back to bed. He has changed his position on most other issues, so perhaps there is reason to hope.

But, alas, hope is not a strategy.