Tom Engelhardt: Bush's Trip to Baghdad Shows More Evidence of Imperial Folly

Roundup: Historians' Take

Tom Engelhardt, writing in (Nov. 27, 2003):

The ritualistic presidential trips abroad of this administration were all flipped on their head yesterday when the President visited"Iraq" (or at least the beleaguered American version of it at Baghdad International Airport). Previously on his imperial peregrinations, he had imposed his"bubble" world on whole cities -- from Manila to Sydney to London -- shutting them down and buttoning them up, emptying them of anything like normal life as he passed through their streets and institutions untouched. Yesterday, on his two-hour turn-about at Baghdad International, he shut himself down, slipping out of his house in an unmarked car, sending out such complex and heavily preplanned disinformation that he reputedly fooled his own parents, who arrived at the Crawford ranch for a Thanksgiving meal with their missing son. He then rode a blacked-out Air Force One into Baghdad International, shut down the airport till he left, and was gone in the twinkling of an eye.

Phil Reeves of the British Independent commented in an aptly titled piece, The turkey has landed:

"The administration will be hoping that the video images will help erase memories of a not dissimilar staged event on 1 May in which the President landed on an American aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq had been won. As the violence has worsened, that day has come to haunt the White House. This time, wearing a US army jacket, he told the troops that America 'stands solidly' behind them, and to whoops of approval that the US military was doing a 'fantastic job.'"

I have no doubt - based on watching TV last night - that this political coup de theater will briefly pump up support here for the President (or at least that ephemeral category of presidential existence, his"job approval rating"), but since the stealth visit was phantasmagoric and changed nothing in Iraq -- as opposed to"Iraq" -- I'm ready to make a small wager of my own. Some months down the line these triumphant propaganda photos, meant to replace"Mission Accomplished," will look no better than the strutting-the-flight-deck ones do now, and will be no less useful to the other side in the presidential race. (Keep these photos Democrats!) It was perhaps typical of the event that Bush strode out from behind some curtains on the introduction of L. Paul Bremer, saying,"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," but evidently never ate a bite.

His rallying speech to the troops was surprisingly retread-Vietnam in tone -- all that talk about them"testing our will," us not"retreating" ("we will prevail"), not"running" ("They hope we will run") and especially that classic Vietnam line,"You are defeating the terrorists [it would, of course, have been" communists" back then] here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our own country."

It would be interesting to see what Lyndon Johnson said on his surprise visit to Cam Ranh Bay back in October 1966. I'll bet some of the lines and phrases would have been almost exact duplicates. (Johnson, after all, used to talk about fighting the communists in Vietnam rather than on the beaches of San Diego.) LBJ broke off an Asian tour to fly in and out of the giant base at Cam Ranh Bay which, like Baghdad International, was a little fortified version of America and he, too, spent just 2 ½ hours in country.

I don't know whether there were any of"our" Vietnamese present when Johnson arrived, but there were evidently members of our appointed Iraqi Governing Council locked in with the troops when Bush appeared because the President mentioned them and commented that he was"pleased you are joining us on our nation's great holiday. It's a chance to give thanks to the Almighty for the many blessings we receive." (I doubt he was referring to Allah.)

And then, he assured the troops, just before boarding his stealth jet back to Crawford,"We will stay until the job is done." They, of course, will have to stay. Need I say more, except that such words are soon likely to feel sour indeed. There are, after all, other realities creeping up on this administration. Just a few days ago, for instance, the widow of a soldier slain in Iraq refused to join other relatives of those who had died at a Fort Carson (Colorado) meeting with the President )."I have a lot of harsh feelings for the president right now," [Johnna] Loia told The Pueblo Chieftain."I contemplated going, but right now I think I'd find it hard to be respectful… I would want to know why he decided to go to Iraq and why he felt that the war was justified… In my eyes, I don't feel it was justified at all."

Actually, this"unmarked,""blacked out" visit to Baghdad tells us a great deal -- none of it particularly good news for them -- about where the Bush administration is today as well as about where the arrogance of power can lead mighty nations. After all, this administration is filled with men who imagined the President's first entry into Baghdad as a truly triumphal event. (Remember those flowers that were to be strewn in the victor's path?). If you want to check out the fullness of their fantasy, don't miss Juan Cole's"Informed Consent" website.

Another problem for the administration: In our world, propaganda can't just be confined to your own side. The President may get a bump in the polls here, but the very nature of his trip, his inability to visit Iraq rather than"Iraq," his stealth journey, and so on can only be a form of aid and comfort to the enemy. His trip can't but be a sign to them of their own success to date. The problem for George Bush is that it's not as easy to black out the parts of the world you don't want to know about as it is to black out an airplane. As the Independent pointed out in the piece quoted above:

"News of the visit only broke in the US after Air Force One had taken off from Baghdad and was on its way home. And no sooner was the visit made public in Baghdad, than the city was shaken by the sounds of conflict repeated loud explosions, gunfire and ambulance sirens."

And, of course, another American died from a roadside bomb this morning.

The folly that lurks in imperial arrogance is that it naturally walls you off from other realities, even in a sense from the existence of other places beyond your particular vision of them. This has taken a particularly striking form in Iraq, a country we invaded so blithely convinced of our power to rule over events anywhere on this planet that we hardly bothered about specific Iraqis. It wasn't just the lack of translators who could speak Arabic among the occupation forces, or of specialists in the region (they were left behind because they were associated with the reviled State Department when the Pentagon was riding high), or the junking of all the State Department's prewar planning for the occupation (same reason), but also our inability even to imagine that individual Iraqis had wills that might successfully oppose ours.

Who woulda thunk it: Iraqis actually live in Iraq with ideas of their own about how their world should be shaped. The imperial imagination, even when it soars, is still a distinctly limited creature.

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