Sunday, May 16, 2004


Tom Englehardt nails it:

There's a simple calculus here -- and it applies whether you're talking about abusing prisoners or sending tanks into holy neighborhoods in Shiite Iraq: In a political context, when nationalist feelings have been aroused, brute force widely and brutally applied, whether to get information from prisoners or to suppress visible enemies, is simply adds oil to the flames. The results are bound to be a wider rebellion. To take but an example, thousands of Iraqis, many Sunnis, have been kept in the coalition's prisons under exceedingly oppressive conditions without charges or explanation. Between 60-90% of them were arrested "by mistake" (according to U.S. military authorities). Now, the new commandant of Iraq's prisons (and former commandant of our Guantanamo prison complex) Gen. Geoffrey Miller has decided, given the uproar over Abu Ghraib, that significant numbers of them are to be dumped out onto the street, hardened, embittered, angry, oppositional. Well done, coalition forces!

This is, in fact, the most essential principle of any asymmetric rebellion against a force of overwhelming power. It's exactly the principle of all Asian self-defense techniques from Tai Chi to Judo. Use your opponent's power against him. Instead of blocking it with whatever you have, simply toss him further in the direction he lunged. Thus, al-Sadr cleverly holed up with his forces in Iraq's two holiest cities, and his "army" (really an ill-organized militia, a pottage of armed, angry, unemployed young men) in turn set up camp in or near holy sites, mixing in with the local populace.

This, of course, has driven the American occupiers completely nuts (and since they're already reasonably crazed, that says a good deal). Our President spoke of this just the other day when he took his national security "team" to the Pentagon to give Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld a "vote of confidence." He began that endorsement oddly indeed: "Mr. Secretary," he said, "thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for your leadership. You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror…" I'm sorry… but courageously? From the Pentagon? I could think of a lot of adjectives that a President might use in support of his secretary of defense, but it tells us something indeed that George imagines Don's acts as "courageous." Or perhaps he was just impressed by his appearance before a congressional committee not completely cowed for the first time in years.

In any case, with the courage of his Pentagon chief under his belt, it wasn't long before the President was complaining that "the enemy in Fallujah is hiding behind an innocent civilian population, and calculating that our coalition's use of force will alienate ordinary Iraqis." It's a fascinating statement actually, because it suggests a certain understanding of how the dynamic in Iraq is unfolding. As was true of American officials in Vietnam, he and his advisors clearly consider the enemy cowardly for acting in this way. Far more logical and "courageous" -- from an American point of view -- would be for the Iraqi rebels to step out into the open and fight "like men"; and, as in the brief war last year, be slaughtered like so many dogs from the air and at long range by our overwhelming firepower. Instead -- as our leaders see it -- the rebels hide behind women and shrines. And so they do. Most effectively. The President then concludes -- and here's where we move from at least a whining grasp of the situation into the world of fantasy: "Yet every day our troops are responding with precision and discipline and restraint."

Well, no, actually, we've killed a lot of civilians, destroyed numerous buildings, including in the last few days hotels in Karbala, and alienated tons of Iraqis.


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