On the last day of 2006, Mark Grimsley linked to a post by "Riverbend" on Baghdad Burning, remarking that, "like that old E.F. Hutton commercial," "when Riverbend talks, people listen." I'm sure some do, but personally I've never understood why. I read some of Riverbend's stuff in back in the summer of 2003; I wasn't particularly impressed then, and this post only serves to reinforce my initial reaction. Mercer Human Resource Consulting conducts an annual Quality of Living Survey of over a hundred cities worldwide, "based on an evaluation of 39 criteria, including political, social, economic and environmental factors, personal safety and health, education, transport, and other public services." In the 2006 survey, Baghdad ranked lowest for the third year running, scoring 14.5 on the index (for the sake of comparison, Brazzaville, which ranked second lowest, received a score of 30.3). Now, if you want an extensive and detailed description of what makes Baghdad the worst major city in the world to live in, Riverbend delivers. If, on the other hand, you want a reasoned analysis why this is, or what could be done to improve the situation, reading Baghdad Burning is a waste of time.
The post in question is a case in point. After describing the horrors that most citizens of Baghdad faced in 2006, Riverbend states:
The Americans have done a fine job of working to break it [Iraq] apart. This last year has nearly everyone convinced that that was the plan right from the start. There were too many blunders for them to actually have been, simply, blunders. The 'mistakes' were too catastrophic.
From the context, it's evident that Riverbend herself also subscribes to this view. She then goes on to ask "but why? [...] What does America possibly gain by damaging Iraq to this extent?" That is, of course, the $300bn question, since credibility of the notion that it was the United States government's intention from the outset to irreparably destroy Iraq as a civil society is dependent upon a plausible answer being given. Here, Riverbend disappoints, falling prey to the tendency, all too common in the Middle East, of concocting conspiracy theories for the sake of viewing the world through a lens of victimhood. This involves attributing everything which is amiss in Iraq to deliberate malice on the American's part, and thus glossing over failing which might be laid at the door of Iraqi nationals themselves.
She mentions the car bombs, the ethnic cleansing, the fact "that daily almost 40 corpses are found in different states of decay and mutilation," but fails to acknowledge that these things are the work of Iraqis. One can lay some blame at the Americans' door for failing to provide a level of security sufficient to prevent these atrocities, but not for actually perpetrating these acts. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the world view of Galal Dowidar, editor-in-chief of Al Akhbar, an Egyptian national daily, who claimed in September 2004 that kidnappings in Iraq attributed to insurgents were actually being carried out by "agents working for the American occupation" in order to "demonstrate the barbarism of Arabs and Muslims and so justify Washington's war on Iraq and its war on purported 'terror'." Riverbend doesn't go quite that far, but does take a Chomskyite view, in which nobody ever does anything bad except at the instigation of the Americans.
The people the Bush administration chose to support and promote were openly and publicly terrible- from the conman and embezzler Chalabi, to the terrorist Jaffari, to the militia man Maliki.
The overall statement—that the US has lent some degree of support to some extremely dodgy characters—is entirely justified, but the examples are poorly chosen. In the case of Chalabi, it was widely reported in 2003 that the State Department and the CIA thought he was a bad choice; he was favored only by the Department of Defense (then still headed by Donald Rumsfeld), and even that support was cut abruptly in May 2004. Jaafari was not the Americans' choice for prime minister; out of the potential candidates produced by the United Iraqi Alliance, they would have preferred Adel Abd al-Mahdi of SCIRI. Maliki, like Jaafari, was the choice of the UIA. Despite their flaws, both men hold the distinction of being the only two prime ministers Iraq has ever had with anything even resembling a democratic mandate, which fact alone obliges the US to grant them some measure of support.
Also, if one criticizes the administration for making bad choices in whom to back, one implies that there were better alternatives available. If so, it would be helpful to name some of those possible choices. The problem is that, given Saddam Hussein's tendency during his rule to have any potential rival eliminated, it is highly doubtful whether there are many Iraqis who possess the qualities required to hold political office, i.e. competence, popular support, integrity, and vital signs. Especially the last two seem to be mutually exclusive; any Iraqi would-be political office-holder who is not willing to surround himself full-time with armed thugs tends to wind up dead, which explains why Abdul Majid al-Khoei has been dead for almost four years and Muqtada al-Sadr is not. So even though the Bush administration seems incapable of backing the right people, we have to consider the possibility that, due to circumstances beyond the administration's control, the right people no longer exist, and the administration has to work with what's available, even if that is the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel.
So what does Riverbend come up with as an answer to the aforementioned $300bn question?
My only conclusion is that the Americans want to withdraw from Iraq, but would like to leave behind a full-fledged civil war because it wouldn't look good if they withdraw and things actually begin to improve, would it?
It's just too idiotic for words.
For starters, this "conclusion" fails to address, let alone explain, why the United States invaded in the first place. You don't squander $300bn, three thousand of your troops' lives, and incalculable amounts of political capital, both at home and abroad, to utterly trash a county just for the hell of it. Secondly, how does it make sense that the most oil-hungry nation in the world would want to leave the country with the third largest crude oil reserves in the world (9.7%) in a state of civil war, making oil production impossible, and possibly destabilizing surrounding oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia (largest oil reserves, 22.1%), Kuwait (fourth largest, 8.3%) and the UAE (fifth largest 8.2%)? Even if you believe the invasion of Iraq was only about seizing oil reserves—"blood for oil"—you understand that this is inconsistent with a goal of "lots of blood and no oil to show for it."
Thirdly, does anyone honestly and rationally believe that the situation in Iraq would spontaneously improve following an American withdrawal? That suddenly the Sunni paramilitaries would stop mass-murdering Shi'ites and vice-versa, and that everyone would kiss and make up and forgive the massacres and bombings of the past four years, melt their Kalashnikovs into plowshares, and focus on building A Better Iraq for Tomorrow™? Riverbend (and many soi-disant left-wing commentators in the Western world) may mock the dispute whether what is going on in Iraq right is or is not civil war, but I think that's a legitimate question. The term "war," in all its permutations, involves two groups of belligerents trying to kill each other. In Iraq, by contrast, we have the equivalent of two street gangs murdering people who live on the other gang's block or are distantly related to members of the other gang, but who are both too cowardly to fight each other because that way, their members might get hurt, Allah forbid. Especially if the Americans chose to intervene in such a rumble by opening fire on everybody with an AK and ski mask regardless of sectarian affiliation, which they probably would and rightly so. No, better to stick to dragging civilians down alleys and murdering them; that's what makes you a man.
Fourthly (if that's still a word), what is to prevent the diabolically cunning American PR machine from crediting an improvement in the wake of an American withdrawal (if that were to ever happen) to the US government? Isn't it obvious? The US withdrew when it knew it would no longer be needed, mission accomplished (again), etc. And thanks to American mind control, we'd all believe it, right? Surely, if you're so weak-minded that the Americans can convince you to murder your next-door neighbors—which you would never do of your own accord, after all—they can convince you that they left because they'd achieved what they said they came to do.
It's a truism to say that, the more stressful the situation one finds oneself in, the more difficult it is to distance oneself emotionally from that situation in order to make an objective assessment. This why in times of stress we seek advice from friends, counselors or therapists, in the hopes that they may notice something we, being too close to the matter, have not. Riverbend is, without a doubt, in one of the most stressful situations on the planet; as a result, while I have no doubt she can convey accurately what is happening around her, I question her ability to explain why it is happening.