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Gunning for the Prize (cont’d)

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Iraqi Army’s setback in Basra: a Tet offensive moment?

In terms of elite opinion and how they interpreted the Iraq government’s military setback in Basra [where in early April 1,000 Iraqi troops and police quickly deserted and some joined al-Sadr’s militias, U.S. air support was required], do you think it was anything like a Tet offensive moment, where leading policy makers and media figures in the U.S. recognize that the war is unwinnable and too costly?

I don’t think it was anything like the Tet offensive [when National Liberation Front forces in South Vietnam launched a surprise offensive in 1968, seizing dozens of cities and attacking the U.S. Embassy for several days]. It could never be interpreted sensibly in the U.S. and has been kind of wiped out of history. What happened with the Tet offensive, there was no historical parallel…

…I can”t think of any popular uprising against an invasion that comes close to Tet. Yet you can’t discuss it in those terms in the United States. The only question asked was, did the U.S. succeed?

The real issue is what it means to have a population so organized to such an extent against an overwhelming military force. Well, U.S. business leaders could figure it out for themselves, and Tet did make them understand.

There was another factor: the U.S. had pretty much accomplished its mission. Contrary to Iraq, the U.S. didn’t need to conquer Vietnam because of its resources or strategic position or anything like that. But they wanted to ensure that it didn’t create a model of successful independence for, say, Indonesia, which did matter, or for other nations of South Asia, including ultimately Japan, the super-domino, as it was called by Asia historian John Dower…

So the other “dominoes” were already protected? [U.S. policymakers defended the war in Vietnam with the “domino theory,” whereby stopping the insurgency in Vietnam was called vital to prevent the rest of Asia from “going Communist.]

The domino theory is constantly revived because it is correct. People ridicule it, but they’re ridiculing the public version designed to frighten people. The public version is that Ho Chi Minh or Daniel Ortega [Sandinista leader of Nicaragua] or someone is going march on the U.S. and rape your grandmother. That’s the public version.

But the domino theory does apply to independent nationalism, which Henry Kissinger called a “virus” that can infect others, leading them to be independent of the U.S., so you’ve got to watch out. Independent or “radical” nationalism means that they don’t follow our orders. So independent nationalism must be stamped out. That’s the rational version of the domino theory. It’s the basis for almost every intervention.

Now Iraq is totally different. You can’t destroy it [in terms of oil resources], it’s much too valuable. Iraq is a prize, much too valuable to be just an example. It is to be a client state in the world’s oil producing region. Iraq has maybe the world’s second-largest oil reserves in the world. It’s a real prize, totally different than Vietnam. Pulling out would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy. That’s why neither of the political parties is seriously contemplating it.

Vietnam was an entirely different matter than Iraq. And the American business community understands that too.

With Iraq, the reasons have been clearly stated, but you don’t find discussion of this in the press. It’s there if you take a look at the Bush-Maliki Declaration of November. Maliki is the prime minister of Iraq even though he doesn’t rule much beyond the Green Zone. Patrick Cockburn describes Maliki’s government as “universally loathed.”

The agreement is an interesting one. It essentially says that the U.S. can maintain a military presence there as long as it wants, including the military bases, huge ones. They aren’t built to be dismantled. It includes what’s called an embassy in Baghdad, which is actually a city inside a city. That also is not being built to be dismantled. The U.S. forces are to be there indefinitely, protecting Iraq from external aggression and insuring its internal security. Well, the only threat of external aggression is from the United States, except for maybe Israel, but that’s not what they meant. “Internal security” means maintaining a client state like Russia in Chechnya.

If a government happens to get in that asks the U.S. to leave, the U.S. will still stay to protect internal security, and you know what that means. The agreement goes on to say, rather brazenly, that the economy must be open to foreign investment, privileging U.S. investors. [Editor’s note: Exxon, Mobil, Total and BP are now negotiating for no-bid concessions on Iraqi oil.] A pretty brazen statement of imperial goals. What they’re saying is that you have to let outside powers exploit your resources, with the U.S. in the lead. Now that’s a more extreme criticism of the U.S. invasion than the anti-war movement produced, and it’s coming from the White House.

In fact, Bush underscored it in January with one of his famous signing statements. Bush said that he won’t accept any legislation that bans a permanent US military presence in Iraq or constrains U.S. exploitation of resources. No more debate…

[Editor’s note: However, there are growing signs of powerful Iraqi opposition to U.S. presence beyond Dec. 31.]

Will Democrats end the war?

Q. If Barack Obama wins the presidential election, where will we wind up in Iraq? [Obama supports “withdrawal,” but wants to carry on diplomatic and humanitarian functions, plus enough forces to guard them, plus an embassy the size of the Vatican City, the Baghdad airport, and U.S. bases.] In effect, Democrats are talking about a pretty considerable force remaining, are they not?

Their proposals are pretty vague, but pretty much like the Democratic proposal passed a year ago by Congress. It was analyzed by a U.S. general, Kevin Ryan. He called that essentially a “re-missioning” of the war, [not a withdrawal].

Taboo topics

One of the issues you talk about considerably in Failed States, Perilous Power, and What We Say Goes is that there are some taboo topics in the U.S. media regarding the Iraq War. One of the them is the toll of Iraqi civilians caused by the U.S. occupations, estimated at around one million by the Opinion Research Business’ survey of households.

The most recent estimate I’ve seen is about 1.03 million extra deaths in Iraq, by what are probably conservative estimates because of areas where the pollsters couldn’t go.

“How many were killed?” is the wrong question. When we talk about our enemies, we ask, “How many have died for which they are responsible? How many are dead due to things like starvation that they caused?” But the media aren’t looking at that in Iraq.

For someone like Pol Pot, we would be asking how many have died because of his policies.

Another taboo topic is public opinion in Iraq, which is something that you have studied a lot in terms of polling results. [The unpopularity of the U.S. and its troops reached 90 percent in 2004 among Iraqis, as Chomsky notes in Failed States]. Why are these taboo topics?

What we should ask is, should Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz be put on trial for war crimes?

Why not? The Iraqis seem to think so. The Iraqis believe that the U.S. is responsible for the sectarian violence and atrocities, and that it should get out. That means that the Iraqis are following the principles of the Nuremberg judgment.

We hanged Nazis as war criminals on the basis of their aggression. Aggression is called the “supreme international crime,” encompassing all that follows. Therefore, why don’t we apply the Nuremberg principles to ourselves? The question is so deeply hidden that it would be incomprehensible to the educated classes [in America].

To answer your question: George Orwell gave the basic explanation in the unpublished introduction to Animal Farm that was found in his papers after his death. He writes that the book satirizes totalitarian societies, but that his readers should recognize that in free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. That results in part from the fact that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And in part because if you’re well educated, you have instilled in you an unquestioning acceptance of the words of the powerful. Oversimplified, but essentially accurate.

[Editor’s note: This interview took place April 8, 2008.]

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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