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What would George Orwell say about the US withdrawal from Iraq?

By Hannah Gurman

As the Second World War drew to a close, George Orwell looked back on the various prognoses of war and peace that had emerged in recent years:

“All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way,” he observed. “People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”

Over the next several years, Orwell would elaborate a dystopian vision of the emerging Cold War, a vision in which warring superpowers would use distorted and self-serving political rhetoric to battle each other and their citizens.

In recent weeks, we have reached another historic juncture. The Iraq War, or at least the American military’s role in it, is drawing to a symbolic close. To mark this moment, the U.S. Ministry of Information has put its spin machine in high gear. Orwell would have had a field day with this one. He could not have invented a more Orwellian tale than the actual story of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Here is the official version, championed in its earlier moments by Bush, Petraeus, and other congressional hawks, and now trumpeted almost as loudly by the White House and State Department: Violence is down. Iraqis are finally (it’s about time, guys) taking responsibility for their own security. The March elections were a great step forward. Iraq, we can safely say, is on the path to a brighter future.

This story marks the last chapter in the surge narrative that took root in 2006, a narrative in which General David Petraeus is credited with turning the war around. Proponents of this story know better than to declare victory, a word that has largely fallen out of the official lexicon. But the word success, which has taken its place, is everywhere. And while it doesn’t quite afford that nationalist sense of superiority to which Americans have long been accustomed, success does provide a certain contentment and satisfaction over a job well done. It allows for that perennial optimism that never quite goes out of fashion in the American way of war.

It is telling though not surprising that Obama chose a military audience to deliver his official remarks on the nominal end of America’s seven-year occupation of Iraq. Like all American, and especially all Democratic presidents, Obama rarely misses a moment to pay tribute to the troops — perhaps the only thing that no loyal American can question regardless of how unjust the wars America fights may be. “As we mark the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq,” President Obama declared, “a grateful America must pay tribute to all who served there.”

There is nothing fundamentally new in this story. It is just the latest version of a longstanding nationalist narrative in which, no matter how the story begins, the U.S. always ends up on the right side of history. For the most loyal devotees of this narrative, even Vietnam is not an exception. Were it not for that cheap congress, those pesky journalists, and those traitorous anti-war activists, they insist, we would’ve won that war too. Never mind that we had allied ourselves with a corrupt government that cared little about the people of Vietnam. Never mind that the enemy saw this as just the latest in a decades-long war against foreign occupiers. Never mind that, as Daniel Ellsberg has said, we were not just “on the wrong side” of this war. “We were the wrong side.”

As with the hawk’s version of Vietnam’s ignominious conclusion, the tale of America’s withdrawal from Iraq is characterized by contradictions, half-truths, and huge blind spots. It is a story told by officials with jobs and reputations to protect. It is a myth bought and sold by Americans who want to believe in a benevolent image of their country in the world. And most important of all, it is a fairy tale that systematically elevates the good news about Iraq and avoids any talk of the long-term devastation this war has wreaked on the people there.

In recent months, as the deadline for troop withdrawal has neared, Ambassador Christopher Hill has become a more visible prop in the administration’s official spin machine, deflecting any arrows aimed at the armor that is the official success narrative. When NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked him whether Iraq might still collapse, Hill said that he looked at the situation “in pretty optimistic terms.” That’s easy for Hill to say. He is leaving Iraq this month to become the dean of the international relations program at Denver University.

The success story is a bit harder to feed to the Iraqis who actually experience the realities on the ground in Iraq, and who, unlike Hill, will continue to face these realities on a daily basis. In an interview on Al Jazeera’s “Inside Iraq” television show in April, Jassim Al-Assawi challenged the ambassador’s rosy assessment of the March parliamentary elections, pointing out that a number of elected ex- Baathist officials had been denied seats in parliament. When questioned about the legality of this measure, as well as other serious problems of Iraqi governance, Hill tried to convince his interviewer that he was not the Iraqi government. “I’m just the US ambassador,” he said. “I’m not the prime minister” of Iraq. “I’m not a judge in Baghdad.”

Good thing. Because, according to the most recent Brookings index of Iraq, 135 of 869 judges in Iraq have been removed on charges of corruption. Overall, when it comes to corruption, Iraq ranks 176 out of 180 countries. Thus, it should come as no surprise that nine billion dollars of oil revenue intended for reconstruction has gone missing.

Of course, the state of Iraq’s political and judicial institutions has never been the strongest thread in the success narrative. The security story, on the other hand, is ostensibly on firmer ground, and has therefore figured prominently in the official version of the story. Here’s Obama on the progress of security in Iraq:

Today – even as terrorists try to derail Iraq’s progress – because of the sacrifices of our troops and their Iraqi partners, violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years. And next month, we will change our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces. In fact, in many parts of the country, Iraqis have already taken the lead for security.

In this effort to play up the security achievements of Iraq, Obama bracketed the spikes in violence in recent months and used the word terrorist to avoid the deeper and more complex political history of both the Sadrist and Sunni insurgencies.

There is no denying that violence is down from its highest levels, and that is a good thing. But the Ministry of Information distorts all reality when it suggests that the Iraqi army and police are ready to “take the lead” in maintaining this security. As of December 2009, there were 664,000 Iraqi security forces. This reflects only the number of authorized personnel, however, and is not an indicator of operational readiness.

In September 2009, the Iraqi Army had close to 250 battalions. But only about 50 of them were deemed capable of planning, executing, and sustaining counterinsurgency operations on their own. The rest were either completely incapable or required assistance from coalition forces. This isn’t news to Iraqi military leaders. Lieutenant General Babker Zerbari, Iraq’s most senior military officer, has said that his security forces won’t be able to take the lead until 2020 and has asked the US to delay its planned withdrawal.

While the weavers of the success story have distorted the security situation in Iraq, they have hardly said a peep about the disaster that is Iraq’s infrastructure and essential services. As of February 2009, 80 percent of the population still lacked access to sanitation services, 55 percent lacked access to potable water, and 50 percent still had serious electricity shortages. As late as May 2010, Brookings estimated that 30,000-50,000 private generators were making up for shortages in the national grid.

Healthcare is also in dire straits. New studies reveal soaring cancer rates in Fallujah and other cities that were heavily targeted by U.S. forces. This news comes against the backdrop of a mass exodus of doctors from the country. Twenty thousand of Iraq’s thirty-four thousand registered physicians left Iraq after the US invasion. As of April 2009, fewer than 2,000 returned, the same as the number who were killed during the course of the war.

The shortage of doctors in Iraq is just one facet of the much bigger population displacement as a result of the war. As of January 2009, there were still 2 million Iraqi refugees living outside of the country, and as of April 2010, there were 2,764,000 internally displaced people living in Iraq.

    “War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.” –George Orwell, New Statesmen (1937)

In 2002, the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” group predicted that the toppling of the Saddam regime would usher in a period of great economic boom. That turned out not to be the case, at least not initially. Iraq’s instability kept multinational corporations out of Iraq for awhile, but in recent years, that’s been changing. In 2008 and 2009, Foreign Direct Investment went up tenfold in Iraq. Not surprisingly, officials have been framing this as great news for the country. In 2009, the website of Operation Iraqi Freedom proudly advertised that the governor of Anbar was named FDI magazine’s “Global Personality of the Year.” What the website does not advertise is that the huge oil and natural gas companies competing for Anbar’s natural resource wealth have little interest in helping the people of Anbar, but are instead focused on their bottom lines. That entails plans for using cheap foreign labor from China and other countries. It is unlikely that anything more than a small portion of their earnings will actually trickle down to ordinary Iraqis.

The oil and gas companies are not the only ones who will profit from the postwar order in Iraq. The United States military and defense industry will make out well too. Despite claims to the contrary, this is not the end of the US military presence in Iraq. In addition to the several bases that will remain active, housing the soldiers and private contractors whose titles will change to advisors, there will be an indefinite state of dependency on US-manufactured weapons and technology. Defense companies, such as ARINC will continue to make hundreds of millions providing Mi-17 helicopters and other military hardware and logistics to Iraq.

While the Ministry of Information does not advertise the reality of America’s enduring military presence in Iraq, it is quick to announce a civilian “surge” in the country. Along these lines, officials have been boasting about the massive US embassy in Baghdad. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said Ambassador Hill, “its one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space. I mean it’s huge.” Indeed. At 104 acres, it is the largest U.S. embassy in the world. In addition to six apartment buildings, it has a luxury pool, as well as a water and sewage treatment plan. Stop for a second and reflect on these last two amenities. They give you some measure of what American officials really know but aren’t saying about the state of drinking water and sanitation in Iraq. The State Department has requested a mini-army to protect this Fortress America — including 24 Black Hawk helicopters and 50 bomb-resistant vehicles. Again, stop for a minute and ask yourself what this says about security in Iraq. This shadow army says a lot about what American officials really think about the state of security in Iraq.

    “Who Controls the Past Controls the Future. Who Controls the Present Controls the Past” –George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

Given all the damage that remains in Iraq, it is no wonder that some Iraqis are confused and angry at the rosy pronouncements about Iraq’s path to progress. Without masking his hostility and frustration, Jassim Al-Assawi pressed ambassador Hill to explain why, despite all the problems Iraq is currently experiencing, he remains so optimistic. After waxing poetic about the heroism and drive of the Iraqi people, Hill simply insisted, “There’s no going back, only forward.”

This last statement encapsulates what is perhaps the most important function of the success narrative. All this talk about moving forward is also an insistence on not looking back, especially not to 2003. The U.S. has sought to control the past of the Iraq War by rejecting and effectively erasing it, willfully marginalizing the very act that got this whole story going in the first place. The Bush administration needed to scratch 2003 out in order to minimize its own role in the destruction of Iraq and the suffering of its people. Now, the Obama administration has picked up the eraser in order to convince everyone that this is a “responsible” withdrawal.

No matter how much the U.S government erases the past or predicts the future of Iraq, ordinary Iraqis will continue to face the more messy and complicated realities of the present. I dare Obama and everyone else in the spin machine to go to Iraq and look a child in the eyes. A child who, seven years after the US invasion, still lacks adequate housing, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, and education. Now, tell that child that the war in Iraq was a success.

Hannah Gurman is an Assistant Professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.


What Israel means to me

By David Shasha*, April 30, 2010

Over the years there has been a constant spate of books containing the testimonials of American Jews proclaiming their teary-eyed and deeply emotional love of the state of Israel. These books are part of the larger program of Israeli Hasbarah, the form of advocacy that seeks to assert the total primacy of Zionism as the centerpiece of Jewish life the world over.

In order to establish what Israel means to me as a Jew, the first thing I need to do is figure out what it means to other Jews and how that relates to the reality of the Jewish past.

American Jews have been conducting a romantic affair with an Israel whose contours are outlined in two recent movies: In Adam Sandler’s comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, we find that the American Jewish love affair with Israel is based on an almost erotic identification with the perception of Zionism and Israel as a form of revenge fantasy. Sandler’s Zohan is a figure whose sexual potency rests in his skill as a Jewish superhero, a man who kills Arabs to defend the Jewish people. Similarly, Tarantino’s Nazi-era fantasy is a phantasmagoria of violence in the name of Jewish self-doubt and an inferiority complex.

These fantasies bring to mind the idealist aspects of the original Zionist program and its rejection of traditional Jewish identity. The Israeli scholar Oz Almog has examined this rejectionism in his book The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew:

The Zionists greatly admired the physical beauty of the native, the “Jewish Gentile” who had been anointed king of the new Israel, and they contrasted him with the ostensible ugliness of the Diaspora Jew […]. Writers of this era […] described the native as a robust youth with “gentile” characteristics, a kind of Jewish muzhik, or Russian peasant — strapping, self-confident, and strong-spirited, as opposed to the stereotypical Diaspora Jew, who was pale, servile, and cowardly.

Especially prominent in descriptions of the native are his masculine vitality and health and his alienation from Judaism. The criteria are European-Christian ones, which have their source in ancient Greece and Rome […].

The paradox inherent in Zionism is the way in which it creates the “New Jew” by rejecting what it perceives to be the “Old Jew.” In both cases, the understanding of what it means to be Jewish is based on a completely Eurocentric model; the decrepit Diaspora Jew is seen in terms of the Shtetl Jew who is isolated from the general world, while the ideal Israeli Jew — typified by the Zohan and by the vengeful Jews of the Tarantino fantasy world — is seen as an uber-Gentile.

From a Sephardic perspective this transformation of Jewish identity has very real consequences. As Almog argues later in the book:

The Oriental immigrants, like all other immigrants, were perceived by the Israeli establishment as in need of a cure for the Diaspora disease from which they suffered, a cure that would turn them into Sabras. But in the case of the Oriental immigrants, the usual differences between the natives and the immigrants were supplemented by the cultural differences between East and West. The Yishuv leadership, and the Sabras after them, treated the Oriental immigrants with a mixture of affection, compassion, condescension, and arrogance — the products of the combined ethoses of ingathering the exiles and rejecting the Diaspora. The common wisdom regarding the acclimatizing of Oriental Jewish youth to their new country was that they should discard the Oriental culture, which the establishment considered backward, and ascend to a higher cultural level by adopting the characteristics of the Sabra and the more advanced Western culture.

For the traditional Jew, not just for Sephardim, the state of Israel represents a profound rejection of a millennia-old Jewish identity. The psychological impact of all this is formulated in the irrational American Jewish identification with Israel as the existential center of all Jewish life. Having rejected the traditions of the past, based on the religious values of Torah and Halakhah, contemporary Jews have recreated a religious culture based on the rituals and demands of the Jewish state and Zionism.

In typical Ashkenazi fashion, this new Zionist religion is authoritarian and draconian in its demand for conformity.

Two current examples — just in time for last week’s commemoration of Israeli Independence Day — are the Anat Kamm affair and the ongoing demonization of South African judge Richard Goldstone. Kamm has been charged with leaking confidential military documents to the press, while Goldstone continues to be vilified for the report that he prepared for the United Nations on the 2009 Gaza incursion. Kamm is currently under house arrest in Israel while Goldstone has found himself pressured from attending his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.

These two stories speak to the demands of the new Judaism which has replaced the Torah of Moses with the new Torah of Zionism. Had Kamm and Goldstone eaten a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur, they would not find themselves in the trouble they are now in. Rather than judging Jewish behavior in traditional religious terms, the new Zionist imperative seeks to control human behavior and speech by setting out a series of protocols regarding the way in which we see and speak about Israel. This regime is controlled internally by the Jewish community, which determines who is “one of us” and who is not.

The actions of Jews like Anat Kamm and Richard Goldstone speak to the Jewish tradition of self-examination and the idea of justice in a wider sense. The Talmudic tradition teaches that Jews must not allow other Jews to act in ways that violate standards of morality. This tradition extends to the Jewish court as well. Far from exonerating the court as infallible, the Talmudic tradition discussed the ways in which justice could be violated due to judicial error or malice.

But today Israel represents a reversal of the old moral codes. In its ethos is found a cruelty and meanness that is reflected in the way Jews conduct their discourse. Destroying individual Jews who are critical of Israel is seen as a positive commandment of the new Judaism. At the epicenter of this ideology is a pathological paranoia regarding anti-Semitism which often marks the Arab as the primordial enemy of the Jew.

Castigating Arab Jews for their native culture has led to a profound crisis in Sephardic civilization. Sephardim have been transformed by Ashkenazi Zionism into Arab-haters and as witnesses to the barbarity of Arabs and their culture. This has led the Sephardim to reject their traditional past and the wisdom of their Sages, many of whom were immersed in the Arab culture.

Gradually, Zionism has eroded the traditional Jewish past and replaced it with a new identity construct that mimics the authoritarian aspects of rabbinic culture even as it rejects its valuational content. Ironically, the secularization of Jewish tradition has led to a renewal of fundamentalist Orthodoxy in both Zionist and non-Zionist variations.

The Zionist religious Orthodoxy is well-described by Karen Armstrong in her classic book The Battle for God:

The extreme religious Zionists and members of Gush Emunim were also ready for a fight. They were rebels, mounting what they saw as a revolution against secular nationalism on the one hand, and Orthodoxy on the other. Life had changed drastically for the Jews. They felt there was no need for Jews to be constricted by traditions belonging to the Diaspora, because the messianic age had begun.

The irony here is that the standard articulations of Jewish tradition in its liturgy and religious calendar remain in force. A new messianic age has yet to be formally articulated in the liturgy. Anti-traditionalism is a paradox that lies behind the Settlement movement and allows it to become a part of the larger project of an anti-Jewish Zionism.

In the end, those who are on the receiving end of the Israeli whip understand all too well the pressures that have been placed on Jews to conform: Israel is the new God, the new revelation from on High, and all those who reject its commandments are to be excommunicated from the community, marked as Jewish heretics who deny the new order.

For Sephardim, what Israel means at present is not only the ongoing destruction of their culture and heritage and the near-complete triumph of Ashkenazi Judaism, but the requirement that Sephardim bear witness to their own cultural impotence and corruption.

What Israel means to me at the moment is the fact of Jews persecuting other Jews for speaking out and affirming the traditions of the past, of being “Old Jews” rather than “New Jews.”

* David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. This article previously appeared at The Huffington Post and is republished here with the author’s permission.