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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Notes on Iraq, and on America

Avery guest-blogging for Rodger
Update: some fixes due to earlier errors & lost content

1. Salvadoran Option?

Last January the media briefly sputtered to life with reports about a Salvadoran Option in Iraq. The idea, as gingerly reported by the toadyish Newsweek, was as follows:
Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers.
Now we are confronted with the horrific death toll that has officially reached over 500 since the new Iraqi government was announced on May 6. Scores of these have been exhumed bodies that, all along, we’ve been told were Iraqi national guard and security forces, and suspected sympathizers, massacred by insurgents.

But why are we not connecting these two specific dots? There have been stories about factions within the Iraqi security forces, and according to NPR (Note: audio file), the wife of a survivor the other day said that her husband had been taken away by security forces. Obviously, insurgents might be dressing up as members of security forces; but maybe this is the Salvadoran option? Do we have any reason to have confidence in either the media's competence to pursue this story, or the intentions of either the Iraqi government or the US occupation? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question.) Remember, according to the Newsweek article, “many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal." John Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras at the time, was the ambassador to Iraq until he was named the national intelligence director. (Another argument for the International Criminal Court.)

2. Unquestionably Worse Off?

Last week the UN Development Program released an Iraqi living conditions survey.

According to the official press release, the survey found:
grave deterioration in living standards in the country over the past 25 years, with Iraq now suffering from some of the region’s highest rates of joblessness and child malnutrition and continuing severe deficiencies in sewage systems, electric power supplies and other essential public services.

Unemployment among young men with secondary or higher education stands at 37 percent
• Even though most Iraqis are now connected to water, electricity or sewage networks, supplies remain unstable and unreliable
• Almost a quarter of children between the ages of six months and five years suffer from malnutrition
• More young people today are illiterate than in previous generations
• Just 83 percent of boys and 79 percent of girls of school age are enrolled in primary school.

The survey compares today to 1980, the eve of the horrific Iran-Iraq war (in which the US and Canada, among others, sold arms to both sides). But I don’t think the data permit inferences about any specific trajectory between then and now; that is, one would not expect to find a straight downward line from 1980 to 2005 in terms of employment, nutrition, etc. So the survey does not answer whether Iraqis are worse off now than on March 15 of 2003, the day before Bush sent in the bombers. What it does show, however, is that the period since May 1, 2003—the day that Bush-leaguers declared victory—has failed utterly to deliver the benefits that the self-proclaimed humanitarians who supported this war now hold up as their justification.

In general, Americans do not really know what it would be like to live under a dictator. This is both good and bad. It’s good for obvious reasons. It’s bad, first of all, because we have no reference point against which to compare the carnage, terror, military occupation, lack of basic services, sectarian violence, and general uncertainty of life in Iraq today. So when rightwing blowhards proclaim (and centrist hem-and-hawers “admit”) that Iraq, or the world, is unquestionably better off today than under Saddam, Americans in general simply lack any way to know if this is true. How do you compare living under dictatorship to living under a reign of terror and foreign military occupation? Hard to say. Somehow, objective criteria seem not to be quite up to the job.

The second reason that our lack of any sense of what it would be like to live under dictatorship is bad is that we also have no way to understand the degree to which our own public and political lives have deteriorated in the direction of dictatorship. At some point, when the secret search-warrants and library record-searches and no-fly lists and torture chambers and shadow detentions and court-packing and lack of habeas corpus and militarization of daily life and elections without paper trails get bad enough, we can no longer confidently say that this is a free country, because we have no basis for confidence that we would know if it weren't.

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