A New Pseudostate

What have we created in Iraq, and what does it say about our own union?

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Finally, the week of “transition” has come. The rolling of drums (or is that the boom of mortars?), the handing over of what our President insists is “complete, full sovereignty” to an “Iraqi government,” the moment for which this whole war was supposedly fought (once, at least, that every other conceivable reason fell away). Quite literally a year late and a dollar — give or take a few billion — short, Iraq reenters the world with its sovereignty weighed down and constrained by 97 L. Paul Bremer-inspired occupation administration “legal orders” that, for years to come, are meant to control practically all Iraqi acts from who can take part in elections to how you drive your car (two handed, no horns except in “emergency situations”). In a piece at TomDispatch, Adam Hochschild considers the ragged “pseudostate” we’ve just constructed in Iraq in the context of the history of pseudostates and the hubris that invariably lies behind their creation.

I just want to suggest that while the Bush administration, faced with unexpected resistance — ever wider, ever deeper, ever more violent and horrific — has spent the last year or more planning, bungling, and fumbling to bring its Iraqi pseudostate into existence, it has also given birth to another pseudocreation: a pseudo-opposition.

Here, for instance, is a passage, you’ll rarely see in the American press. In a piece for the Independent, the British journalist Patrick Cockburn writes, “The rebels are nationalist and religious. The US always appears to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism.” As a term, nationalism has long been oddly wielded in the United States. Americans are almost never described (here) as nationalistic. We are “patriotic,” and patriotism, it turns out, is an almost purely American trait. On the other hand, over recent decades, other peoples, particularly in the non-western world were seldom patriotic, they were nationalistic; and those among them who fought for sovereignty and power never patriots, but at best nationalists. Nationalism in our American world has long had a distinctly pejorative quality. It brings to mind not the flag, mom, and apple pie (nor the flag, mom, and shish kebob), but a force over the edge, slightly unhinged, fanatical, dangerous; something, at best, to be managed. That’s the way it’s been here for a long time.

But here’s the curious thing in the Iraq situation, we have become, if anything, more patriotic than ever in our own self-description, but they have become nothing at all – or rather they have been only “former Baathists,” “bitter-enders,” “foreign fighters.” (Note that no mainstream American reporter would ever call Americans in Iraq “foreign fighters.”) They are religious fanatics, al-Qaeda supporters, terrorists. With a few honorable exceptions — Los Angeles Times reports,, for instance, have recently begun to deal with Iraqi nationalism — nationalism as a term has largely disappeared from our media, even though without it you can’t begin to understand what has happened, even though the urge for one’s own unoccupied, unfettered country still rules the earth and drives masses of people to lengths that even fierce religious fundamentalism can seldom take them. Nationalism, independence, sovereignty — these are near religious phenomena (as is “patriotism,” after all) and not to acknowledge them frontally assures that your analysis will make next to no sense.

And yet in the Bush administration and in much of our mainstream media, where “full sovereignty” has been established and an “Iraqi government” already anointed, the Iraqi opposition outside Shiite areas is said to consist just about solely of dedicated former Saddamists and the al-Tawhid followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a modest-sized terrorist group we link to al-Qaeda. Are both of these groups factors of significance? Certainly. In fact, it’s increasingly clear that Saddam and his generals did far more planning for the post-war period than did the Pentagon and the White House. In a piece filled with chilling bravado, Alix de la Grange in the Asia Times on-line reports on an interview with three former high Baathist military figures who brag about their future victory and claim, “The Americans have prepared the war, we have prepared the post-war.” Paul Wolfowitz, in his own perverse way, said as much the other day. According to Julian Borger of the Guardian:

“Paul Wolfowitz… denied US forces were facing an insurgency in Iraq. ‘An insurgency implies something that rose up afterwards … It is a continuation of the war by people who never quit,’ he told NBC television.”

Zarqawi also is all too real, though both he and the Bush administration seem eager to take (or give) credit for almost anything that happens in Iraq. In this way, the Bush administration has proved to be a vast publicity and advertising machine for his previously modest organization.

But none of this would matter if former Baathist officers and small numbers of foreign terrorists were all that the administration was up against. Blaming the resistance only on them (“‘Can a thousand or so dedicated terrorists bring down a society?’ one of President Bush’s senior advisers on the issue asked on Friday afternoon. ‘It is a laboratory experiment.'”) means skipping the most crucial factor in play: The opposition of people everywhere on Earth to having their lands occupied. And so, out of perfectly real but very partial elements, the administration has created a pseudo-opposition all-too-appropriate for our pseudostate. It means nothing for the new American military commander Gen. George W. Casey Jr. to say, for instance, in response to a question from Sen. John McCain, “It is certainly not how I envisioned it to be, senator. I think the insurgency is much stronger than I certainly would have anticipated.” Not, at least, if “the insurgency” is imagined as simply a Baathist-al-Qaeda amalgam (with perhaps some Shiite fanatics thrown in) — that is, the administration’s nightmare version of its prewar lies.

It’s almost as if, as resistance to an occupation by nearly 150,000 Coalition troops and thousands of for-hire warriors rises, the image of who is involved has been shrinking. This last week for the first time the resistance graduated to what our media started calling an “offensive” (“…the insurgents demonstrated a new level of strength and tactical skill that alarmed the [American] soldiers facing them.”) And modest, ragged, and mindlessly destructive as it often was, shades of the Vietnam-era Tet Offensive were already dancing in American pundits’ heads; in a Congressional hearing, the Vietnam-era phrase, “a security quagmire” could again be heard; and elsewhere inside the Beltway an adaptation of a famous post-war phrase came into sight, “the Iraq Syndrome” — the “fear” of confronting “the next threats to American security because the first exercise of President Bush’s pre-emption policy cost so much blood and billions in treasure,” as David E. Sanger put it in the New York Times today.

But while fears grow ever larger in Washington, the “insurgency” has morphed into an al-Zaqawi-all-the-time affair in administration pronouncements and in our media. To read a few sensible things about Iraqi nationalism, you generally have to look beyond our media borders. Here, for instance, is a passage from a very balanced Peter Beaumont piece in the British Observer on Iraqi prospects at the moment (Fearful Iraq sets out on journey to the unknown):

“While it is commonplace to blame all the violence on the al-Zarqawi network of jihadist fighters, it is a claim that does [not] stand up. The majority of anti-coalition acts are still being committed by Iraqis, largely from the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad, whose agenda is shaped by a hatred of an occupation they believe is not really ending this week. Unlike the forces ranged against them, it is a resistance — as its members made clear when it was still possible to talk to them — that has no policies or political agenda or vision for a future of Iraq beyond the expulsion of foreign forces.”

Similarly the Australian journalist Paul McGeough, who has followed the Iraqi resistance as closely as it’s possible for a western reporter to do, writes the following for the Sydney Morning Herald (Deadly messages from a tide of insurgency):

“In Baqaba, north of Baghdad, fighters wearing yellow headbands claimed to be followers of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But a one-dimensional analysis of the insurgency through the prism of foreign terrorism is a mistake. The Iraq insurgency has more than enough bombs and guns – and a seemingly limitless reserve of willing fighters – but its greatest asset is the sympathy and co-operation of enough ordinary Iraqis, without which the American military might stamp it out in a matter of days in a gun-for-gun, man-for-man contest.”

As Adam Hochschild makes so clear in a piece available at TomDispatch, the hubris of the Bush administration led us deep into what perhaps we’ll soon begin to call the Pseudostate Syndrome from which a pseudo-opposition has unsurprisingly arisen, leaving us in a fantasy-land from which perfectly real results will flow, including possibly the turning of Iraq into a charnel house.

Additional commentaries by Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com.


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