As George W. Bush paints images of his toes in the bathtub and portraits of his beloved dog Barney, it's hard not to humanize the man. Who'd a thunk he had an artist somewhere inside him. The work is, well, a bit primitive, but it's nice to look at. He doesn't show up in public much, but the other day he was photographed in the audience with a bunch of delighted African women while his wife Laura and Michelle Obama spoke about the empowerment of women. Unlike his vice president from the dark side, he seems determined to avoid commenting on war issues.
Meanwhile, Iraq (here, we should pronounce it I-Rack) has become a charnel house once again. Iraq was the sovereign plaything Mr. Bush and his cronies used to turn him from an aimless deer in the headlights into a bully war president. W's plaything is now being overrun in the west and north by a band of psychopathic religious killers. In the corridors of Washington power and in many editorial rooms the war drums are beating again and, as is always the case, truth is going down for the count.
ISIS extremists have overwhelmed the tough Kurdish Pesh Merga troops, and we're bombing people again in Iraq. The Obama administration no doubt had visions of a Vietnam-style endgame rout in process. Never one to fear predictability, war-monger-in-chief John McCain says Obama's bombing is not enough. We're also dropping food and water to Iraqis of the Yazidi ethnic group holding out and starving on the barren Sinjar Mountain, which is on the edge of the Kurdish area of Iraq. ISIS has taken control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.
I'm a 30-year veteran of the antiwar peace movement, and this horrific mess taxes my limits. It's like watching the apocalypse unfold or, like 100 years ago at the start of World War One, realizing those in charge are vane, plutocratic, incompetent bozos who don't give a rat's ass about life. The issue is not what's good for ordinary Iraqis; it's what's good for America. What's good for Israel. What's good for those on top of the heap who don't want to lose the power they've accumulated. And don't ask how they accumulated it.
Meanwhile, that embarrassing debacle in Iraq is unraveling badly. It was all eerily predicted in the final pages of Thomas Rick's book on Bush's Iraq War called Fiasco. Thanks to our much-vaunted shock and awe invasion and, the Murder Inc. reality behind "the surge," an insurgency evolved in Sunni Anbar Province that has now transformed into a true monster.
General Stanley McChrystal tells about coming into Anbar and seeing what a mess things were and how he turned it into an effective intelligence analyzing and assassination program that eventually blunted the Anbar Sunni insurgency. He's proud of how he made the intel process so rapid that a special ops team would go on a raid at 9 PM, do its dirty work and take all laptops and cell phones back to headquarters where their innards would be analyzed by 11 PM, providing information that allowed them to set up three more raids before dawn arrived -- before the first intel capture was even known. These special ops teams would either kill a target or capture it. Interrogation locations were secret; torture was certainly utilized. It worked magnificently.
Insurgent Anbar militias witnessed how effective this system was in killing its leaders and go-to guys that many of them came in from the cold and took the dollars offered as an option. Meanwhile, their anger simmered.
I was in Iraq in 2004 as a cameraman on a documentary, and I'll never forget an English-speaking Iraqi following me as I video-taped damage to some university buildings. He seemed authentically interested in me as an American. He was very helpful and made me feel secure. At one point, he looked at me as if I was a naïve child and said, "You know, John, all Iraqis will lie to you." He looked into my eyes to see if I understood. I've pondered that for the past 10 years. What he meant was that we Americans had no clue how really screwed up Iraqis were psychologically, having gone through the truly horrific Iran-Iraq War and lived under a ruthless gangster regime like that of Saddam Hussein for so long. Directness and honesty had been purged from their character. He seemed to be saying sociopathy was the norm.
So it's easy for me to understand how opportunist Sunni insurgents in Anbar began to kiss the ass of the American occupiers to avoid the highly sophisticated US killing program and to get some of the money being hosed into Iraq. These insurgents would bide their time and let the chaos the United States introduced into Iraq do its work.
Alternative history is an established genre these days. Think Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America in which a fascist Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940.
So what if the Florida vote count in 2000 had not been halted by the Supreme Court's shamefully political ruling for George W. Bush. Suppose a mature mourning patience had prevailed after 9/11. What if Al Gore had become president? What if either Bush or Gore, instead of the invasion folly, had decided for a smarter containment policy vis--vis Saddam Hussein? What if a more peace-oriented state of mind had prevailed in Washington? There would no doubt have been bumps in the road. But, what's important, we would have avoided the Iraq debacle that keeps on giving.
But this is journalism, not fiction. We live in the world that is. One always hopes people learn from their debacles, but in the case of the United States -- and since it's in a full-fledged war mode, let's add the 51st state of Israel to the pot -- the lessons learned are too often the wrong ones. Instead of wisdom leavened with compassion, we get the same knee-jerk patriotic rush to warrior mode that got us in the mess in the first place. For insight into this, read an account by Gabor Steingart, publisher of Germany's leading financial newspaper, Handelsblatt. He writes about Chancelor Willy Brandt's talent for avoiding war and instilling sensible alternatives that work. "The first step is what Brandt called 'compassion', i.e. the ability to see the world through the eyes of the others," Steingart writes. He's talking about what our American militarist right sees as a lethal third rail to be avoided at all costs.