Sunday, April 15, 2007

World Strikes Back

Byline by M J Akbar: World Strikes Back

Is peace patriotic? That is the nub of the debate consuming America, as it debates the meaning of victory and the implications of defeat in Iraq.

War, of course, has always been patriotic. Any leader with a gun in one hand and a bugle in the other takes care to wrap himself in a flag. As long as you have acquired sole-selling rights to the motherland you can always send young men and women to their graves. Militant patriotism is such a powerful mantle that it cloaks even the most irresponsible clutter of inefficient sins. Protecting the halo of the "Commander in Chief" becomes a patriotic duty if not a compulsion.

Politicians in search of votes prefer the war ticket to the peace flag. Peace is fuzzy while war is muscular. While common sense suggests that any voter should prefer peace, common experience tells us that he can be milked more easily with the promise of war when war is justified as the answer to that most evocative of emotions, fear. This is the powerful combination of sentiment and logic that has sustained the Bush momentum for five years.

Bush did not inject fear into the American consciousness. That was done by 9/11. But he has been masterful at exploiting this fear for a Bush agenda rather than an American agenda. In its simplest manifestation, this might be called the difference between his war in Afghanistan and his war in Iraq. There was an explicit legitimacy to his attack on the Taliban state after it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. But the war against Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with the "war on terror". It has been proved over and over again that Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who has turned a sneer into an art form, used a deliberate maze of distortion, exaggeration and lies to turn Saddam into an ally of bin Laden.

The phrase, "war on terror", is a curious one. How do you fight a war against an abstract noun? But it did not emerge by accident. It is consciously elastic, to enable the White House to drag who it will into the target area. The mistake made by the Bush White House was to believe that the target would always remain a static fact, willing to take any punishment. The unexpected insurgency in Iraq has proved that a target can hit back with devastating results.

The daily count in casualties, an overstretched army, a soaring bill and an angry public opinion should suggest that Bush has exhausted the political lode which proved so lucrative for him and the Republicans. It says something about the tenacity of the "war-appeal" that it can be mined even after it has clearly outlived its utility. The debate for Bush and the Democrats now is whether there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Democrats want the boys back home within 18 months, or just before America elects its next President. Bush accuses them of "losing the war" by setting a deadline.

There is something bogus about Bush’s argument. His current strategy, known as the "surge", which means an increase in American troop levels in order to bring "peace" to Iraq, has received the support of unconvinced Republicans only because there is an implicit time-line. If the "surge" does not work by October or November, Bush will have to change track, and the only change can now be a form of disengagement. In other words, the Republicans are in reality giving Bush less time to succeed than the Democrats.

But of course the Bush rhetoric is different, despite every sign of military and public exhaustion. The Pentagon admits that the armed forces are hugely overstretched. This week, the rules were changed to extend a normal tour of duty in Iraq to 15 months. Even at the height of Vietnam, a soldier on active duty knew that his nightmare would end in 12 months. The army claims that it has maintained its level at 1.4 million, but this is because it recruited (at very high cost) 80,000 men within last year. The number is not indicative of normal retirement; it also suggests the high attrition rate in Iraq. Most of the soldiers at war have joined because the armed forces offer much-needed money or incentives that can help them in the future. They come from the poorer families of America. Some Democrat politicians are even urging the return of the draft, which would force rich kids to go into battle. They add that the war would end very quickly if the elite had to send its children to die for George Bush’s policies.

No one knows either which generation will pay for them. The bill for Iraq has crossed $500 billion. The first casualty in war is clearly the accountant. Blood on the battlefield is paid for by red ink on the balance sheet. In September a new generation of flying machines will replace the helicopters in use in Iraq. This is the V-22 Osprey, a chopper with less manoeuvrability but more speed than the helicopter. There is uncertainty about its value against an insurgency, but there is great certainty about its cost: $80 million a piece. Someone in the offense industry is becoming very rich.

The American people have begun to realise that money, or rhetoric, cannot purchase victory in a war without horizons. The trick that sustains the Bush rhetoric is a simple one: there is no definition of victory, and hence no talk of objectives achieved. If you think about it, both the declared objectives of the Iraq war have been achieved. It is now definite that there were no weapons of mass destruction with Saddam Hussein, and Iraq is not capable of producing them for a hundred years. And Saddam is now dead, his regime destroyed. So why are American and British troops still there? To become the policemen of Baghdad? If that is their mission then it is mission impossible. Any day’s newspapers will tell you that every claim of "success" by the White House or the Pentagon is answered by an attack on the heart of the American and British presence. The insurgency will not end as long as foreign troops remain on Iraqi soil.

When an administration begins to crumble, it does not fall on only one pillar. The erosion of credibility affects the whole base. All the high-flyers of this government are on the front pages for the wrong reasons. Karl Rove, mastermind of victory, is trying to explain why millions — yes, millions — of emails have been erased from the White House archives. Paul Wolfowitz, mastermind of Iraq and now head of the World Bank, is trying to explain why he used his influence to get his girlfriend a much bigger salary.

Some of Wolfowitz’s accusers believe that he does not care about the World Bank. That is not true. Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George Bush care very deeply about the World Bank. They just don’t care about the world.

The world is now striking back.

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