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Bush's mad mess
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 09 - 2005

The costs of the war in Iraq came into sharp relief for the Americans in August, with two far-reaching crises for the Bush administration, writes Anthony Arnove*
The first crisis to rock America began with an act of anger and frustration. Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed outside Baghdad on 4 April, 2004. She travelled to Crawford, Texas, disrupting United States President George Bush's five- week vacation, to demand he explains what "noble cause" her son's death had served.
"I don't know where Crawford is," Sheehan told a meeting of Veterans for Peace the day she left for Bush's encampment. "But I don't care, I'm going. And I'm going to tell them, You get that evil maniac out here, because a Gold Star Mother, somebody whose son's blood is on his hands, has questions for him. And I'm going to say, okay, listen here, George. Number one: I demand, every time you get up and spew the filth that you're continuing the killing in Iraq to honour my son's sacrifice, honouring the fallen heroes, by continuing the mission, you say, 'except Casey Sheehan'. And you say 'except for all the members of Gold Star Families for Peace', because we think not one drop of blood should be spilled in our families' names. You quit doing that. You don't have my permission to use my son's name."
"And I'm going to say, And you tell me what the noble cause is that my son died for. And if he even starts to say 'freedom and democracy', I'm going to say, you tell me the truth. You tell me that my son died for oil. You tell me that my son died to make your friends rich. You tell me my son died so you can spread the cancer of Pax Americana, imperialism in the Middle East. You tell me that. You don't tell me my son died for 'freedom and democracy', because we're not freer. You're taking away our freedoms. The Iraqi people aren't freer, they're much worse off than they were before you meddled in their country. You get America out of Iraq, you get Israel out of Palestine, and you'll stop the terrorism."
The effect of Sheehan's trip to Crawford was electric, galvanising the widespread anti-war sentiment that existed throughout the country but which had not been effectively organised by the anti-war movement. Thousands of people from across the country, including other military families emboldened to speak out by Sheehan's stand, came to Texas. Solidarity rallies were organised in dozens of cities. Suddenly the anti- war movement was headline news. Sheehan and other anti-war activists were invited onto television and radio programmes that had systematically ignored them.
Sheehan inspired an opposition outraged by the lies used to sell the war to the public ("Iraq has dangerous weapons of mass destruction," "we will be greeted as liberators," "the occupation will pay for itself," "the resistance will stop once we capture Saddam Hussein,") but unsure of what it could do to make a difference. As historian Howard Zinn observed, "often a protest movement that's already underway -- and the present anti-war movement was underway even before the Iraq war began -- gets a special impetus, a special spark, from one person's act of defiance. I think of Rosa Parks and that one act of hers and what it meant."
Until Sheehan set up Camp Casey in honour of her son, anti- war forces had been largely quiet and disorganised, despite the fact that a majority of those polled in the United States believe the invasion of Iraq was a "mistake". In a Gallup poll on 9 August, 33 per cent of respondents said they supported withdrawing all US troops "now", and 23 per cent supported bringing some of the troops home. These sentiments are remarkable in light of the failure of the anti-war movement to articulate a clear "out now" position, in large part because of its close ties to the pro-war Democratic Party.
The Democrats have been completely toothless, believing that, in the words of two Washington Post reporters, "success in Iraq at this point is too important for the country." "We need more troops in Iraq now," Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant editorial board recently. Meanwhile, Democratic leader Joseph R Biden Jr of Delaware asserts that the Democrats will use force "without asking anyone's permission".
Sheehan's stand briefly forced Bush out of his vacation compound, though he refused to meet her. Bush travelled to previously unscheduled pro-war rallies in the right-wing citadels in Utah and Idaho. In an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City, Bush for the first time referred to the deaths of 1,864 US soldiers in Iraq and the 223 soldiers in Afghanistan. "Those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East," Bush declared, "are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States."
But Bush was compelled to face a second crisis upon his return from his public relations tour to the Midwest. Bush waited two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and large stretches of Louisiana and Mississippi in late August before he cut his vacation short, and returned to Washington DC, at first only flying over the devastation below. His response, like the response of the state and federal governments to the tragedy caused by the hurricane, was almost universally seen as being too little and too late.
The world's richest country proved completely useless in the face of the tremendous flooding caused by Katrina's impact. The largely poor and Black people of New Orleans, whose neighbourhoods were hardest hit, had no way of leaving the city. "There's nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C- rations. Nothing for the last four days," reported NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbada. "They just left us here to die," said Debra Ann Spencer-LeBeau, one of those sent to the Super Dome in New Orleans, where people had none of the necessities they had been promised.
To those suffering people, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said, "the Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time, if we just wait."
The scenes of horror that unfolded on television shocked the nation. But Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster. It was a social disaster in every respect, from the elevated ocean levels and temperatures caused by global warming that fuelled the storm to the fact that the federal government ignored numerous warnings about the dangers posed by New Orleans' inadequate infrastructure. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," President Bush proclaimed, but countless studies had predicted exactly that. After Federal Emergency Management Agency officials toured Asia's tsunami devastation, "New Orleans was the No. 1 disaster we were talking about," notes former FEMA official Eric Tolbert.
The people of Louisiana and New Orleans were also quick to point out that 6,800 National Guard troops who could have been on hand to help with relief efforts, as well as helicopters and other badly needed equipment, were instead in Iraq.
The shameless response of Washington to Hurricane Katrina and to Sheehan has sparked a mood of rebellion in the country. Bush's popularity ratings have sunk even lower in recent weeks, and a timid press has started to show rare backbone in discussing the failures of the relief effort. And many people are making the connection between the crisis in New Orleans and the one in Baghdad.
"George Bush doesn't care about black people," popular hip-hop performer Kanye West said during a live television benefit for the victims of the hurricane. "I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food." NBC deleted his quotes in its West Coast broadcast of the benefit, but millions connected with West's sentiments, which circulated on the Internet and were turned instantly into a popular t-shirt.
Even the insipid pop singer Celine Dion was moved to ask, in a conversation with CNN's Larry King, "how come it's so easy to send planes in another country to kill everyone in a second, to destroy lives" but not to help people who are affected by a hurricane? "There are people still there waiting to be rescued and for me it's not acceptable. I know there are reasons for it. I'm sorry to say I'm being rude but I don't want to hear those reasons. You know, some people are stealing and they're making a big deal out of it. Oh, they're stealing 20 pairs of jeans or they're stealing television sets. Who cares? They're not going to go too far with it. Maybe those people are so poor, some of the people who do that are so poor they've never touched anything in their lives. Let them touch those things for once. The main thing right now is not the people who are stealing. It's the people who are left there watching helicopters flying over their heads and praying."
We are at a critical moment in US politics. On 24 September, Sheehan and many more anti-war voices will descend on Washington DC, to protest against the war. But it will take much more than one weekend of protest to end the bloody occupation of Iraq. Democrats are waiting in the wings to turn the political crisis Bush is facing to their advantage, but they have nothing to offer as an alternative. Anti-war forces need to break their ties to the Democrats, and pursue an independent course.
It is also vital that anti-war voices forcefully challenge the new version of the white man's burden argument that has led significant numbers of people who opposed the invasion of Iraq to now support continued occupation in the name of "protecting" the people of Iraq from civil war or of "securing democracy". Not having found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- the first big lie of the invasion -- the United States has turned to a new big lie: George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Negroponte, and their friends are bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. But democracy has nothing to do with why the United States is in Iraq. The Bush administration invaded Iraq for reasons of power politics having to do with long-established imperial interests in the Middle East -- the same reasons they backed Saddam as he carried out the worst of his crimes against the Iraqi people, the Kurds and Iranians (crimes that were later used to justify going to war against him in 1991 and removing him from power in 2003).
The US occupation, rather than being a source of stability in Iraq, is in fact the major source of instability, and of ongoing suffering. And the United States is not preventing a civil war from breaking out. In fact, Washington is pitting Kurds against Muslims, Shia against Sunni, and faction against faction to influence the character of the future government, and is also arming various militias, thereby increasing the chances of civil war.
Does the US government have an obligation to the Iraq people? Absolutely. An obligation for the crimes Washington supported for years when Saddam was an ally. For arming and supporting both sides in the brutal Iran-Iraq war. For the devastation of the 1991 Gulf War. For the use of depleted uranium munitions, cluster bombs, and bunker busters. For the devastating sanctions. For the invasion of 2003, and the humiliation and destruction and deaths that caused. But the only way to begin to meet this obligation is to withdraw immediately -- not six months or six years from now, but today -- and to pay reparations.
And we should demand that the soldiers who are brought back from Iraq be sent, without their guns, to rebuild the levees and homes of the people whose lives have been shattered by Hurricane Katrina.
* The writer is the editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War (South End/Pluto) and the forthcoming Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New Press).


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