Billboarding the Iraqi Disaster
As you read this, we’re four years from the moment the Bush administration launched its shock-and-awe assault on Iraq, beginning 48 months of remarkable, non-stop destruction of that country … and still counting. It’s an important moment for taking stock of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Here is a short rundown of some of what George Bush’s war and occupation has wrought:
Nowhere on Earth is there a worse refugee crisis than in Iraq today. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some two million Iraqis have fled their country and are now scattered from Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran to London and Paris. (Almost none have made it to the United States, which has done nothing to address the refugee crisis it created.) Another 1.9 million are estimated to be internally displaced persons, driven from their homes and neighborhoods by the U.S. occupation and the vicious civil war it has sparked. Add those figures up – and they’re getting worse by the day – and you have close to 16% of the Iraqi population uprooted. Add the dead to the displaced, and that figure rises to nearly one in five Iraqis. Let that sink in for a moment.
Basic foods and necessities, which even Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime managed to provide, are now increasingly beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis, thanks to soaring inflation unleashed by the occupation’s destruction of the already shaky Iraqi economy, cuts to state subsidies encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the disruption of the oil industry. Prices of vegetables, eggs, tea, cooking and heating oil, gasoline, and electricity have skyrocketed. Unemployment is regularly estimated at somewhere between 50-70%. One measure of the impact of all this has been a significant rise in child malnutrition, registered by the United Nations and other organizations. Not surprisingly, access to safe water and regular electricity remain well below pre-invasion levels, which were already disastrous after more than a decade of comprehensive sanctions against, and periodic bombing of, a country staggered by a catastrophic war with Iran in the 1980s and the First Gulf War.
In an ongoing crisis, in which hundred of thousands of Iraqis have already died, the last few months have proved some of the bloodiest on record. In October alone, more than six thousand civilians were killed in Iraq, most in Baghdad, where thousands of additional U.S. troops had been sent in August (in the first official Bush administration "surge") with the claim that they would restore order and stability in the city. In the end, they only fueled more violence. These figures — and they are generally considered undercounts — are more than double the 2005 rate. Other things have more or less doubled in the last years, including, to name just two, the number of daily attacks on U.S. troops and the overall number of U.S. soldiers killed and wounded. United Nations special investigator Manfred Nowak also notes that torture "is totally out of hand" in Iraq. "The situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein."
Given the disaster that Iraq is today, you could keep listing terrible numbers until your mind was numb. But here’s another way of putting the last four years in context. In that same period, there have, in fact, been a large number of deaths in a distant land on the minds of many people in the United States: Darfur. Since 2003, according to UN estimates, some 200,000 have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan in a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign and another 2 million have been turned into refugees.
How would you know this? Well, if you lived in New York City, at least, you could hardly take a subway ride without seeing an ad that reads: "400,000 dead. Millions uniting to save Darfur." The New York Times has also regularly featured full-page ads describing the "genocide" in Darfur and calling for intervention there under "a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel."
In those same years, according to the best estimate available, the British medical journal The Lancet’s door-to-door study of Iraqi deaths, approximately 655,000 Iraqis had died in war, occupation, and civil strife between March 2003 and June 2006. (The study offers a low-end possible figure on deaths of 392,000 and a high-end figure of 943,000.) But you could travel coast to coast without seeing the equivalents of the billboards, subway placards, full-page newspaper ads, or the like for the Iraqi dead. And you certainly won’t see, as in the case of Darfur, celebrities on Good Morning America talking about their commitment to stopping "genocide" in Iraq.
Why is it that we are counting and thinking about the Sudanese dead as part of a high-profile, celebrity-driven campaign to "Save Darfur," yet Iraqi deaths still go effectively uncounted, and rarely seem to provoke moral outrage, let alone public campaigns to end the killing? And why are the numbers of killed in Darfur cited without any question, while the numbers of Iraqi dead, unless pitifully low-ball figures, are instantly challenged — or dismissed?
In our world, it seems, there are the worthy victims and the unworthy ones. To get at the difference, consider the posture of the United States toward the Sudan and Iraq. According to the Bush administration, Sudan is a "rogue state"; it is on the State Department’s list of "state sponsors of terrorism." It stands accused of attacking the United States through its role in the suicide-boat bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. And then, of course — as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in the London Review of Books recently — Darfur fits neatly into a narrative of "Muslim-on-Muslim violence," of a "genocide perpetrated by Arabs," a line of argument that appeals heavily to those who would like to change the subject from what the United States has done — and is doing — in Iraq. Talking about U.S. accountability for the deaths of the Iraqis we supposedly liberated is a far less comfortable matter.
It’s okay to discuss U.S. "complicity" in human rights abuses, but only as long as you remain focused on sins of omission, not commission. We are failing the people of Darfur by not militarily intervening. If only we had used our military more aggressively. When, however, we do intervene, and wreak havoc in the process, it’s another matter.
If anything, the focus on Darfur serves to legitimize the idea of U.S. intervention, of being more of an empire, not less of one, at the very moment when the carnage that such intervention causes is all too visible and is being widely repudiated around the globe. This has also contributed to a situation in which the violence for which the United States is the most responsible, Iraq, is that for which it is held the least accountable at home.
If anyone erred in Iraq, we now hear establishment critics of the invasion and occupation suggest, the real problem was administration incompetence or George Bush’s overly optimistic belief that he could bring democracy to Arab or Muslim people, who, we are told, "have no tradition of democracy," who are from a "sick" and "broken society" – and, in brutalizing one another in a civil war, are now showing their true nature.
There is a general agreement across much of the political spectrum that we can blame Iraqis for the problems they face. In a much-lauded speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Sen. Barack Obama couched his criticism of Bush administration policy in a call for "no more coddling" of the Iraqi government: The United States, he insisted, "is not going to hold together this country indefinitely." Richard Perle, one of the neoconservative architects of the invasion of Iraq, now says he "underestimated the depravity" of the Iraqis. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Democratic frontrunner in the 2008 presidential election, recently asked, "How much are we willing to sacrifice [for the Iraqis]?" As if the Iraqis asked us to invade their country and make their world a living hell and are now letting us down.
This is what happens when the imperial burden gets too heavy. The natives come in for a lashing.
The disaster the United States has wrought in Iraq is worsening by the day and its effects will be long lasting. How long they last, and how far they spread beyond Iraq, will depend on how quickly our government can be forced to end its occupation. It will also depend on how all of us react the next time we hear that we must attack another country to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction, "spread democracy," or undertake a "humanitarian intervention." In the meantime, it’s worth thinking about what all those horrific figures will look like next March, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, and the March after, on the sixth, and the March after that…
Put it on a billboard — in your head, if nowhere else.
Copyright 2007 Anthony Arnove