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Little Caesar's Quicksand

by William Greider Saturday, Jul. 19, 2003 at 8:29 AM

On C-Span radio the other morning, I heard a Vietnam combat veteran earnestly worrying that our troops in Iraq might be "hand-cuffed." He had heard a rumor about rubber bullets that upset him. Another caller made the point more angrily "For every American who gets killed, they should take 20 Iraquians (his term) and hang them from lamp posts." This, he explained, is how the Klingons from Star Trek would handle it.

Little Caesar's Quicksand

Leave aside the growing doubts and dissent about Iraq, the explosive problem facing Bush is how to manage the emotional distress of his bellicose supporters. The White House propaganda performed brilliantly during the run-up to war, producing varying rationales for invasion that floated past us like soap bubbles (as each bubble popped, another came along to replace it). But, now that Americans are getting randomly shot and maimed, domestic opinion about the nature of this "triumph" is taking on a darker flavor, including a thirst for vengeance.

On C-Span radio the other morning, I heard a Vietnam combat veteran earnestly worrying that our troops in Iraq might be "hand-cuffed." He had heard a rumor about rubber bullets that upset him. Another caller made the point more angrily "For every American who gets killed, they should take 20 Iraquians (his term) and hang them from lamp posts." This, he explained, is how the Klingons from Star Trek would handle it.

Then I got an email from a right-wing friend, a learned man with a Ph.D. in history: "We need a tough-minded Patton or MacArthur in full dress uniform...Follow the Roman rule: haul those people off in slavery and burn down the country...For every ten Americans slaughtered, burn down whole villages."

These savage responses -- barbaric self-indulgence given that the U.S. invaded this foreign country without provocation -- should not be dismissed as entirely irrational. Many people feel personally injured -- and betrayed -- by what's happening in Iraq because they were led to support the war by a series of melodramatic lies. They became emotionally invested in what they were told to believe. The Iraqi dictator was to blame for 9/11. Saddam could wipe out London in 45 minutes (as the first poodle put it). Saddam has amassed killer toxins and nuclear weapons to supply the terrorists threatening our country. Saddam is a tyrannical killer and this will be a high-minded war of liberation, opening a democratic future for Iraq, nay, for all Arabs in the Middle East.

If one believed in those claims three or four months ago, it is not unreasonable to feel cheated by events (only Saddam the beast has been confirmed). Yet, for many Americans, it is easier emotionally to blame the liberated and ungrateful Iraqis than to confront the deceitful propagandists in official Washington. This unstable emotional brew is what Bush and his political lieutenants now have to manage and very carefully if they wish to avoid getting pulled deeper into the mire. The president's taunting bravado -- "bring 'em on" -- may or may not frighten the jihad irregulars in Iraq but it definitely pumps up yearnings for retribution back home.

Whatever unfolds in Iraq, Bush's political imperative is to get this story off the evening news, out of the main headlines, well before his reelection contest starts next year. He cannot do that by agitating popular taste for blood or by staging Israeli-style raids on Arab villages, satisfying though the assaults might be to some. The presidential dilemma is how to retreat artfully from what he started without diminishing the macho-man reputation. It is the classic dilemma colonialist powers often faced in hostile colonies. The empire can't stay, but it can't get out, not with it mighty honor intact.

Imperialist conquest is not a philanthropic enterprise -- my historian friend is quite right about that -- and this is the central contradiction in Bush's brave, new foreign policy. Many in America's governing elites seem to have forgotten the ugly truth and millions of citizens bought into the supposed altruism of waging an aggressive war (reassured by the essays in leading newspapers by Brit expatriates extolling the glories of their empire). Angry confusion is what happens when a country goes to war on false premises, when the political opposition is too faint-hearted to ask tough questions, when the mass audience is deluged by well-crafted propaganda. If things go badly, the patriotic fervor can turn ugly.

Big Caesar, the original Julius, conquered for honest reasons. He wanted the real estate and resources for Rome and for keeps, not to improve the conquered. He routinely slaughtered thousands of captured troops or enslaved them (accepted practice in his day that also enhanced Rome's security). The Romans were great builders and modernizers, their armies spread culture and language. But Caesar did not blather on about freedom and self-government. With or without elections, no Iraqis will be allowed to govern that country unless Washington approves. America rules Iraq until its troops are out.

Let me be the first to resurrect the fabled Aiken "peace plan" enunciated by Senator George Aiken, Vermont Republican, during the terrible years of Vietnam: "Declare victory and get out." Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been spared in Indochina if LBJ or Nixon had had the courage to follow Aiken's advice. My hunch has always been that Bush intended a prompt exit from Iraq along those lines -- say anything, do anything, whatever it takes to extract the bulk of American forces before the next presidential campaign is underway. Change the subject so American voters can think about something else. If that sounds excessively cynical, it seems to have worked with Afghanistan.

I do hope Bush finds the wisdom to embrace the Aiken plan (and that he executes the withdrawal deftly enough to sedate the angry couch warriors). Yes, Iraqis would be left with a broken country and vulnerable to fratricidal civil conflicts, maybe an elected government of Islamic theocracy. But it is their country, not ours. And many lives would be spared, theirs and ours. Democracy means people get to make their own mistakes. Spread the word.

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