Michael K. Scott: A draft essay for comment: Iraq as seen in the United States


Michael K. Scott
A draft essay for comment: Iraq as seen in the United


Date: Wed, 04 Jul 2001 21:41:40 -0500
From: "Michael K. Scott" mscott.miamikha@prodigy.net
Subject: [Iraq] A draft essay for comment: Iraq as seen in the United States
To: Iraq@yahoogroups.com
Mailing-List: list Iraq@yahoogroups.com; contact Iraq-owner@yahoogroups.com

The following is an excerpt from a report on post sanctions reconstruction policy advocacy I am working on. I have communicated background information on this exercise to this list in the past year, with promises of feedback as yet unfulfilled. Maalish, I know people are busy and the text I submitted was long, and the issues complex / detailed...

I will try again, having noted Anwar's despair with those of us who lurk more than contribute. I therefore renounce my lurking and submit for your comment my thoughts, at this time. If I see evidence of interest I will follow with more material. Comments and criticisms will be welcome.

best wishes to the stalwart of this list. and hamdillah ala as-salaameh, ustaz Anwar!

I. Iraq as seen in the United States: Perceptions and Positions

1. The General Public

Iraq, for the majority of US citizens beyond their teens, is but a hazy memory of the televised, video-arcade inspired presentation of the Desert Storm campaign. Less than a place that might figure on someoneıs "radar screen", it is a figment of the mediated American imagination, vaguely associated with "our oil" , and the continuation of "our way of life". The American public has had little opportunity but to swallow the subliminal suggestion that Iraq is where one encounters the stereotypic sleazy, cunning and fundamentally despicable Arab ­ personified by Saddam Hussein. The latter has been packaged for public consumption in what is surely the most consistent and longest-running caricature of evil in the history of US media. Saddamıs staying power has long since surpassed the Ayatollah Khomeini as the symbol of everything Ugly and Bad that American goodness is destined to triumph over.

In a country that is still trying to overcome the trauma of its entanglement with Vietnam ­ as the forced but unapologetic Vietnam confessions of former Senator John Kerry and numerous treatments of the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon bear testimony ­ Iraq is not high on the average American citizenıs lists of causes for concern. (Although, in the aftermath of the Clintontime era of "rogue states", it remains officially, at least, to use the last coinage of Madeleine Albrightıs obfuscating jargon, a "state of concern.")

In reviewing two recent books which "drive home the simple fact that this country fought a war there and the war was lost", Jeremiah Creedon writes in the February 1999 edition of Utne Reader that "in work after work Vietnam and the Vietnamese are merely a backdrop for the drama of America confronting itself. Itıs no surprise then, that the most fully realized character to emerge from these works is our nation: a wounded giant gazing in a mirror, drained of its innocence, much of its youth, and quite a lot of blood." In the case of Vietnam, Creedon notes that years had to pass before the basic truth about Vietnam ­ that we fought a war there and lost ­ could be plainly stated. This was after the death of 58,000 Americans and over a million Vietnamese. So what about Iraq?

Truth be told, America is really still trying to sort out the US Civil War, something particularly obvious if one examines the regional divisions, electoral machinations and racist manipulations that characterized the 2000 Presidential election and the selection of George W. Bush by the US Supreme Court as Clintonıs successor.

George W. Bushıs accessionıs to the Oval Office itself provided an occasion to resurrect the dying nostalgia for Desert Storm, and a flickering consciousness of Iraq in the publicıs gaze at their TV sets: first by hiring all of his Daddyıs cabinet and henchmen, and second by launching air strikes against Baghdad before he could even establish his exercise routine at the White House. This was just a week before sending General Colin Powell to the region to assert his governmentıs will. If nothing else, the display of cowboy swagger and arrogance combined with military pyrotechnics served to distract the American public from the scandal of someone like W being placed in the White House at all. In all this of course, Iraq and Iraqis were nothing but the backdrop and extras to a passing story on the news. And most people in the US do not pay much attention to the news, if it is not local.

Iraq briefly surfaces from time to time, as a diversion, for most Americans. When someone in the Pentagon or the White House deems it necessary to rally the troops, test out the new "smart" bombs, take the old boys out to commemorate the coalition, or turn the worldıs gaze away from a fraudulent US election, or from a bloodbath taking place in the Holy LandŠ Iraq and Saddam are a useful currency to pull out.

True, the 1999 Hollywood film "Three Kings" made some effort to heighten the American publicıs awareness of Iraq by driving home questions like "What did we do here?" (Answer: "George Bush told the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam and then he let them get slaughtered by Saddamıs Revolutionary Guards."); and, "Whatıs wrong with Michael Jackson?" (Answer: "He let the White Man make the Black Man fŠing hate himself just like they fŠing hate the Arabs."). And to its credit, it marked a first in the cinematic history of "Reel Bad Arabs" (a recent study of Arab stereotypes in American cinema, by Jack Shaheen) by portraying ordinary Iraqis as thinking and feeling human beings. But it was in effect a passing quixotic effort soon overtaken in the box office by the more typical Arab-bashing of films such as "Rules of Engagement", set in a bloodthirsty place called Yemen. It is unfortunately the case that most Americans know little, and care less, about Iraq. We tend to be proud of our ignorance, too.

But perhaps things are changing, albeit slowly, as US policy towards Iraq, and more generally on the international arena, is increasingly discredited, in ways that we hear about. And perhaps it is not out of place to cite an assessment by the late Aziz Siddiqui, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of his countrymen, with reference to my own:

"The majority of the population may be a silent entity but its heart often beats for sanity. And although good sense is rather frail as a weapon, it is exceedingly hard to defeat in a patient encounter."

Working against the fundamental good sense of the American public, though, is the absence of US troops on the ground in Iraq ­ or in Palestine. Americans deployed on the ground in the Middle East inevitably would return home with compelling stories to tell, and would generate a stronger public demand for truthful media coverage of the facts of US intervention in the region. The US strategic decision to avoid placing US troops in hostile territory, in direct contact with Iraqis or Palestinians, militates against the possibility of accurate information regarding Iraq or Israel/Palestine ever informing US public opinion.

Nevertheless, despite the distorting impact of the US media on public perceptions regarding the Middle East some people feel there is hope that we may be open to becoming better informed (even without the BBC short wave World Service to help us). According to the Middle East Report and Information Project, a stalwart Washington DC-based network of progressive US academics committed to promoting high standards of research, improved understanding and more constructive US policy towards the peoples of the Middle East,

"American public opinion on important issues appears to be "out in front" of mainstream media coverage of the region, suggesting receptivity to alternative perspectives and policies."

So all may not be lost, in terms of developing alternative visions of the future interaction of the global community and the people of Iraq. Particularly so, when Middle Eastern affairs are becoming "domestic issues" more than ever before, as exemplified by the "choice" George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have conspired to put to the American public regarding the energy required to sustain our American Way of Life, and in promoting their Œnewı energy policy: we either drill in and exploit the oil in the Alaskan Arctic Wilderness preserves, or we remain dependent upon Arab oilŠIt doesnıt matter that this is utter nonsense, this is what is being sold to the public! Chances are, however, that we will, eventually, see through the deception.

It is important to recognize that the challenge of public outreach and advocacy on Iraq and the wider the Middle East and its resources is enormous. As John Pilger has noted in The Nation:

"Few of us, " wrote Arthur Miller, "can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And the evidence has to be internally denied." (Dec 14, 1998, "Killing Iraq")

That sums up what is probably the biggest issue of all in engaging the American public in a constructive dialogue on Iraq after sanctions. How can support be given to people in the United States to live with and act upon the notion that their government is conducting intolerably punishing interventions in other societies, and that we may well be the immediate beneficiaries ­ or the next victims ­ of that punishment?

A widely respected and politically moderate commentator on US Foreign Policy, particularly as it relates to the Middle East, the "Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, Dr. Shibley Telhami, called on June 20th 2001 in the Washington Post for initiating a new policy of "realism on handling Iraq" . The challenge he puts forward is to achieve a new "national consensus" as an outcome of a much-needed "honest national debate" on Iraq. The obstacles to lifting economic sanctions, which he terms "the only workable policy short of waging a war", are "greater here at home than they are abroad". The implication is that the Bush administration, and with it the American public, is a prisoner of the counterproductive inflation of a "third-rate power" and its ruthless dictator to the status of the greatest threat to world peace. Or, as Time magazine put it so prophetically in its March 1990 cover story, a full five months before Saddam offended our sensibilities by actually invading Kuwait after our ambassador in Baghdad told him we werenıt concerned by inter-Arab issues and he could go right ahead if he wished: "The Black Knight, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Public Enemy Number One".

2) Conservative Arabists and Foreign Policy Progressives: Specialist circles amenable to building a more constructive relationship with the people of Iraq.

Among the thinning ranks of the "Arabists" in and around the US State Department, that is, the core of foreign policy professionals who had or have intimate personal and professional knowledge of the Middle East (and the Arab world in particular) that was effectively marginalized under Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright during the 1990ıs -- the decade of the Oslo Peace Process and the "sanctions decade" ­ there is a consistent position: "there is no 'bad time' to start promoting a more constructive U.S.relationship with the people of Iraq".

Such circles generally welcome the Iraq advocacy initiative, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm and/or willingness to become involved in an explicit and public advocacy process. Cynicism runs rife in these circles of disillusioned diplomats, and no doubt the Iraq advocacy venture may appear to such folks as quixotic. Generally however, people in these out-of-power (if not entirely out-of-influence) circles are open to talking, but seem to be wary of committing themselves personally or institutionally to engaging over the medium or long term in an Iraq-focused advocacy process. Clearly this is viewed as a somewhat contentious and fraught undertaking in the United States for any mainstream institution, or any person contemplating a return at some point to public service.

In addition, wariness to commit to an advocacy discussion or initiative is in part due to a lack of sufficient information in the United States regarding the advocacy initiative­ "where it is coming from", and in whose interests it is acting. Certainly the more strident anti-sanctions voices in the United States tend to be quite suspicious of any British or US agency that has worked quietly behind the scenes during the "sanctions decade" in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many well-informed persons in the anti-sanctions movement in the US would welcome evidence of creative and hard-hitting advocacy work on issues of fair trade, HIV/AIDS, or third world debt being deployed to advance a wider understanding of the issues involved in Iraq. For the more mainstream, relatively conservative Arabists, however, other things are at stake and can generate this wariness!

The career foreign-service Arabists in the US State Department were until very recently effectively muzzled by the strident pro-Israel policies and personalities of the last two administrations. Today however, under the Œmore of the sameı directions of the new administration of pResident Bush amidst heightened volatility of the Middle East as a whole and world economic markets to boot, many retired state department officials, ambassadors and oil executives appear to be regaining some backbone, albeit ever-so-cautiously.

They are voicing, in an increasing number of fora and often through the alternative, independent media, their deep misgivings regarding current US policy towards the Middle East, and Iraq ­ and Iran ­ in particular. Sometimes the tone is astonishingly strident, in a recent high-powered seminar in the US Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, the eventıs host and moderator ­ himself a retired US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, referred to US policy towards Iraq as being the worldıs first example of a genuinely ":autistic" foreign policy. (The End of Dual Containment: Iraq, Iran, and Smart Sanctions, June 2001, Middle East Policy Council)

A month earlier, in another government-private sector-academia moot on sanctions at Georgetown, the final speaker capped the dayıs deliberations by referring to Iraq as "a perfect case of failed foreign policy". However, the US government officials who spoke in the earlier sessions clearly were not of this persuasion; in the State Department, and on Capitol Hill, the word is clearly out for more of the same. No changes are likely to be forthcoming until more powerful and better connected folk than retired Arabist ambassadors start to speak out for change. In Winston Churchillıs words "America will always do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the other possibilities".

The open-mindedness of this retired but now ever more vociferous foreign policy elite can also be found among the mainstream Protestant and Catholic Churches in the United States and Canada; the majority of the American Arab community (possibly, but not necessarily, excluding Iraqi exiles and Kuwaiti dual nationals); and the various fledgling and heavily outgunned networks of US activists engaged in promoting the human, civil, economic and social rights of the Palestinian people.

The latter are found generally in and around US university campuses, and particularly those that have Middle East area studies programs (often generously funded by Arab sheikhdoms). A renewed, nationwide, campus-based activism on issues of globalization, sweatshops, living wages for university service employees, and environmental protection at home and abroad, set the scene in 1999 for an intensive and well-attended month-long tour of US university communities by the former UN Secretary Generalıs Special Representative for Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, Denis Halliday, with Phyllis Bennis of IPS. The same circuit has been traveled more recently by Hallidayıs successor and co-resignee from the UN, Count Hans Von Sponeck, generally drawing audiences of the young and already converted.

Academia remains a sanctuary, though increasingly one besieged by the diktat of corporate sponsorship, and undermined from within by the inroads of re-invigorated and widely advertised CIA recruitment drives among students and faculty alike. It remains nevertheless the case that, as one member of the MERIP collective puts it, "oppositional academics can indeed play a more public role in influencing the wider public and by extension the affairs of state. Such a profile-raising process can also help secure the funding required to allow the academy to set its own agenda, without undue interference from either regional governments or sources that may compromise free academic enquiry and pursuit."

Oppositional academics continues, against all odds, to exist in the United States, in large part sustained and invigorated by an increasingly politicized younger generation of post-Seattle anti-corporate globalization activists, young people who are deeply committed to environmental protection (and, for instance, US ratification of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty), and ­ not to be discounted in an age of renewed international activism around the issue of AIDS and access to pharmaceuticals world wide ­ sexual minority and reproductive health rights. Given the climate in the country ushered in by the Bush administrationıs installation to power, the coming years will be more interesting on college campuses than those of the past, quiescent decade ­ one of sanctions and silence.