Friday, January 28, 2005

Colors to the Mast

The one unarguable virtue of Ted Kennedy's speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is that it nails his colors to the mast. He wants America to begin pulling immediately out of Iraq after the elections. Going in the first place was in his view a mistake, a strategic dead end in which the Janaury 30 election is a compounded error; another step on the road to another Vietnam. (Hat tip: the Command Post)

President Bush has left us with few good choices. There are costs to staying, and costs to leaving. There may well be violence as we disengage militarily from Iraq and Iraq disengages politically from us, but there will be much more violence if we continue our present dangerous and destabilizing course. It will not be easy to extricate ourselves from Iraq, but we must begin. ... 

We all hope for the best from Sunday's election. The Iraqis have a right to determine their own future. But Sunday's elections are not a cure for the violence and instability. Unless the Sunni and all the communities in Iraq believe they have a stake in the outcome and a genuine role in drafting the new Iraqi constitution, the election could lead to greater alienation, greater escalation, greater death - for us and for the Iraqis. ...

A new Iraq policy must begin with acceptance of hard truths. Most of the violence in Iraq is not being perpetrated - as President Bush has claimed - by "a handful of folks that fear freedom" and people who want to try to impose their will on peopleā€¦just like Osama bin Laden." The insurgency is largely home-grown. By our own government's count, the ranks of the guerillas are large and growing larger. ...

The first point in a new plan would be for the United Nations, not the United States, to provide assistance and advice on establishing a system of government and drafting a Constitution. An international meeting - led by the United Nations and the new Iraqi Government -- should be convened immediately in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East to begin that process.

A less famous personage, Chaldean Bishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, asserted the contrary in an interview which garnered only scant attention.

Q: Will elections on January 30 be meaningful despite the constraints of ongoing violence?

Bishop Sako: Yes, because the current government is provisional but, after the elections, it will be the result of popular vote. Iraqis have the opportunity to choose their leaders, those they prefer. The elections are something immense and new. Nothing of the kind has happened in the past 50 years: first because of clashes and revolts, then due to 35 years of dictatorship. There has never been freedom of expression. But now, anything is possible: If there are people and parties arguing and clashing, that is because they are free to do so. Now, Iraqis must learn to discuss in a civil manner. But the people of Iraq have never been trained for coexistence; they have always lived in the midst of violence: three wars, a dictatorship, 13 years of embargo. This is why freedom is not used in a responsible way and problems arise.

Q: How many people will turn out to vote next Sunday?

Bishop Sako: The televisions news is saying 80%. There are, of course, people who are frightened by threats, but I say that achieving normality has its condition, and this condition is the election process. I can say that many people will cast their vote on Sunday.

Q: The Iraqi elections don't seem to be very popular in the West, with Western media. How do you account for this skepticism?

Bishop Sako: Just yesterday the Pope asked the media to help people understand the reality of things. The media is a big problem in Iraq: a lot of lies and provocations are being written and broadcast. It's enough to think of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya that are misinforming a great deal, in what amounts to utter fanaticism, which even Iraqi Muslim leaders themselves have condemned. These television broadcasters are continuously trying to spark violence against the Americans and even against Iraqis. They are throwing terrorism and resistance into the same pot, but to me there is a clear difference. Resistance is something noble; but two days ago a car bomb exploded at a wedding -- 20 people died. Now I ask: Is that resistance? Those 20 victims were Iraqis, innocent men and women: Was that an act of resistance? Is attacking a church or a mosque an act of resistance?

Q: Archbishop Casmoussa of Mosul was kidnapped last week and, upon his liberation, asked that the Americans withdraw. What do you make of that?

Bishop Sako: I think Archbishop Casmoussa said what he did because he's thinking of his situation in Mosul: With a very large Sunni majority, the city is almost entirely against the American presence. But if the Americans leave Iraq today, there will be civil war between Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, Muslims, Christians. This is clear. For this reason, it is better that Americans not leave now. There will soon be a new national government; an army and police force is taking shape. Step by step a revival plan is going forward, but it is not the result of some kind of magic. The U.S. must stay on until Iraqis can take command of the nation. For the moment, they can't do this, the necessary structures are not yet in place.

It is probably fair to point out that Bishop Sako is also nailing his colors to the mast, a fact more impressive because he will have to live with the consequences of his analysis. This is not the place to comment on Kennedy's speech, merely to observe that his words should not be forgotten. They should be memorialized, and if, as is expected, a large percentage of the Iraqi people go down the path he has declared a cul de sac despite his dire warnings; and participate in a 'joke' as Juan Cole put it, he should be reminded of it, not out of spite, but out of justice, the same whose consequences will overtake George Bush if the contrary happens; whose tide will overtake Bishop Sako and his parishioners should he prove wrong.

And perhaps for the first time in history, Ted Kennedy's words will not be forgotten. The emergence of the Internet has closed down the "memory hole" within which the former apologists of Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein could hide their bad advice and from which they could emerge at whiles to offer new sage advice. The term 'memory hole' itself was coined by George Orwell who used it to describe the mechanism through which the media manipulated historical memory. One of the tenets of the Party in Orwell's 1984 was that "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past", and the key to achieving mastery over history was the liberal use of the 'memory hole'.

The book's hero, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth rewriting and falsifying history. The Ministry writes people out of history -- they go "down the memory hole" as though they never existed. The Ministry also creates people as historical figures who never existed. ... O'Brien, a member of the inner Party, pretends to Smith that he is part of the Goldstein conspiracy against Big Brother. He asks Smith what he would most like to drink a toast to. Smith chooses to drink a toast, not to the death of Big Brother, the confusion of the Thought Police, or Humanity, but "to the past." ...

Because of his experience in the Spanish civil war that media reports of the conflict bore no relation to what was happening, Orwell developed a great skepticism about the ability of even a well intentioned and honest writer to get to the truth. He was generally skeptical of atrocity stories. ... It should be noted that Orwell worked for the BBC for a time, and the Ministry of Truth is modeled to some extent on the BBC. Orwell noted that the BBC put out false hate propaganda during World War II, and controlled history by censoring news about the genocidal Allied policy of leveling German cities by saturation bombing. Orwell's beliefs about the control of the past, including the recent past, also derived from his experiences in the Spanish civil war, where he found that "no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain for the first time I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts."

Unfortunately for someone, whether it be Senator Kennedy, Bishop Sako or George Bush, a monolithic media no longer controls collective memory. Recently Max Boot reminded Seymour Hersh of his past writing and what little resemblance it bore to events. If Iraqis, in defiance of present-day O'Briens, can drink a toast to the future, it is due in part to the new-found power to stand once again upon the past. To all the custodians of the memory hole one can say, 'Who acts in the present controls the future. Who manufactures fantasy becomes the past.'