Sunday, February 04, 2007

After Saddam, Nobody left to blame

With Saddam out of the way, the U.S. will have nobody left to blame for the looming catastrophe in West Asia

Sukumar Muralidharan

There is a personality trait that George Bush, president of the U.S.A., has never been able to shake off. As governor of the state of Texas, he won great eminence as the most prolific executioner in the U.S., sparing nobody who had been convicted under the state’s infamously lax judicial processes from an experience of the after-life. This quirk has lived with him since and is so strongly manifest at times that it could well be a pathological condition requiring professional assistance.

Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq who for all of a quarter-century, survived the adversities of war, neighbourly hostility, and the most brutal regime of economic sanctions ever devised, was on November 5, 2006, sentenced to die on the gallows. The date of the verdict was chosen with deliberate attention to the midterm elections to the U.S. Congress on November 7. It was in media parlance, designed to dominate the “news cycle” before the balloting began, to enable Bush to gather a rich harvest of votes from a U.S. populace grateful for the imminent demise of a dictator.

The U.S. electorate though, proved cussedly ungrateful and Bush went down to ignominious defeat. Shortly afterwards, the boy-president was administered a stern rebuke from a group of elders in the business of international geopolitics, who told him that quite contrary to his blithe predictions of imminent victory just weeks before, the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating”. The Iraq Study Group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, who has loyally served Bush senior through election campaigns and wars, also reprimanded junior for his reckless, go-it-alone strategy, strongly urging him to bring major players in the region, like Iran and Syria, into the endeavour of pacifying Iraq.

Bush’s response was not to heed the advice of elders, but to fall back once again on the gratuitous excitement afforded by the spectacle of a judicial murder. On December 30, after an appeals process that failed to meet the most rudimentary standards of judicial fairness, Saddam Hussein was hanged in a dank and dinghy chamber in Baghdad. The Eid Al-Adha observance was just beginning for the Sunni Muslim faith and the timing of the execution was a deliberate cultural affront, confected by the U.S. masters and a narrow clique within Iraq’s Shi’a community, intent on revenge for real and imagined indignities suffered under Saddam.

Even those who retained some residual faith in the bonafides of the Iraqi government, thought the decision to make a public spectacle of a hanging rather bizarre, though in the final instance, they were willing to grudgingly accept it as a well-intended effort to establish that a page had been turned in a nation’s tortured history.

The plot though, went awry when the man expected to play the part of the criminal brought to justice, refused to play by the script. The official video released soon after the hanging, showed a man who went to his death with the dignity of a warrior. And a cellphone video recording – put into circulation on the internet shortly afterwards with the suspected complicity of the Iraqi government – gave a new definition to the term “gallows humour”. It showed the deposed president cordially engaging his hangmen in mutual insults as he stood with a noose around his neck, unequivocally emerging with the advantage in the exchanges, until the trapdoor opened up under him.

As the import of the unauthorised video began to sink in, the Bush administration authorised senior officials to go public about its efforts to defer the execution till after the Eid observance, so that questions about legal process could be answered. And as a puppet regime’s actions turned into an international public relations disaster, U.S. officials – anxious to avoid renewed obloquy – went public with their perception that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki “never fully explained his urgency in carrying out the death sentence”. But the U.S. had ostensibly been reluctant to stand in the way of a sovereign decision by the Iraqi government to put the former president out of the way.

Less than a fortnight afterwards, Bush returned to form after that brief interlude of concern for Iraqi sovereignty. In defiance of the popular mood in the U.S. and the explicit objections of the Iraqi government, he ordered another 20,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in a final gambit to save his war enterprise from an ignominy greater than Vietnam.

The new U.S. force deployments would be tasked with securing Baghdad, in league with police and army personnel to be mobilised by the Iraqi government. No catchy name has yet been coined for the new phase in the evolving disaster. But Bush’s final throw of the dice strongly brings to mind his bravado from just months before, when he announced “Operation Together Forward”, a military campaign undertaken in association with Iraqi forces, to finally clear Baghdad of all its irksome insurgents.

Then as now, Bush had a trophy to display in gratification of his most sordid instincts. He had for long put down all the troubles in Iraq to the Al Qaeda operation ostensibly headed by the Jordanian born Ayman Al-Zawahari. Following Zawahari’s elimination in June 2006, Bush made a hugely hyped visit to Baghdad to link hands with Maliki and celebrate the new trophy he had added to his ample collection. In a radio address following his return home, Bush assured the U.S. public that Maliki was a leader who could be trusted to act in the best interests of Iraq. By “embedding” military teams in “Iraqi army and police units”, he announced, the U.S. would assist in the final transition to peace and harmony by “improving” command and control and “rooting out” corruption.

Operation Together Forward got off to a rocky start and was quickly returned to the drawing board for serious reassessment. It was then relaunched and abandoned soon afterwards, since Maliki seemed uninterested in keeping his side of the bargain. Rather, his main priority seemed to be to save the Shi’a militias, especially the Jaish-Al Mahdi led by his clerical patron, Muqtada Al-Sadr, from the intrusive attentions of the U.S. military force.

This much indeed was recorded by Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor to the U.S. President, in a top secret report filed early in November, after an extended series of interactions with Maliki. But the U.S. has no other horse to back in Iraq. And if it wants to return a semblance of order to the country, it needs necessarily to recruit the goodwill of neighbouring states like Iran and Syria.

Needless to say, this is an admission of failure that is completely contrary to Bush’s fundamental instincts. And he has responded to the looming certainty of defeat the only way he knows – by escalating the threats against Iraq’s neighbours. Thus has it come to pass, that much like the catastrophe of Vietnam, which spilled over national boundaries to embrace Cambodia and Laos in its malevolence, Iraq too seems on the verge of sparking off a full-fledged regional war. And this conflagration will, if anything, be infinitely more traumatic, not merely for West Asia but for the whole world.

No comments: