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Billboarding the Iraq disaster By Anthony Arnove
won't see, as in the case of Darfur, celebrities on the American Broadcasting
Co's weekday television program Good Morning America talking about their
commitment to stopping "genocide" in Iraq.
Why is it that we are counting and thinking about the Sudanese dead as part of
a high-profile, celebrity-driven campaign to "Save Darfur", yet Iraqi deaths
still in effect go uncounted, and rarely
seem to provoke moral outrage, let alone public campaigns to end the killing?
And why are the numbers of killed in Darfur cited without any question, while
the numbers of Iraqi dead, unless pitifully low-ball figures, are instantly
challenged - or dismissed?
In our world, it seems, there are the worthy victims and the unworthy ones. To
get at the difference, consider the posture of the United States toward Sudan
and Iraq. According to the Bush administration, Sudan is a "rogue state"; it is
on the State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism". It stands
accused of attacking the US through its role in the suicide-boat bombing of the
destroyer USS Cole in 2000.
And then, of course - as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in the London Review of
Books recently - Darfur fits neatly into a narrative of "Muslim-on-Muslim
violence", of a "genocide perpetrated by Arabs", a line of argument that
appeals heavily to those who would like to change the subject from what the US
has done - and is doing - in Iraq. Talking about US accountability for the
deaths of the Iraqis the US supposedly liberated is a far less comfortable
It's okay to discuss US "complicity" in human-rights abuses, but only as long
as you remain focused on sins of omission, not commission. The US is failing
the people of Darfur by not militarily intervening. If only the US had used its
military more aggressively. When, however, the US does intervene, and wreak
havoc in the process, it's another matter.
If anything, the focus on Darfur serves to legitimize the idea of US
intervention, of being more of an empire, not less of one, at the very moment
when the carnage that such intervention causes is all too visible and is being
widely repudiated around the globe. This has also contributed to a situation in
which the violence for which the United States is the most responsible, Iraq,
is that for which it is held the least accountable at home.
If anyone erred in Iraq, we now hear establishment critics of the invasion and
occupation suggest, the real problem was administration incompetence or
President Bush's overly optimistic belief that he could bring democracy to Arab
or Muslim people, who, we are told, "have no tradition of democracy", who are
from a "sick" and "broken society" - and, in brutalizing one another in a civil
war, are now showing their true nature.
There is a general agreement across much of the political spectrum that we can
blame Iraqis for the problems they face. In a much-lauded speech to the Chicago
Council on Global Affairs, US Senator Barack Obama couched his criticism of
Bush administration policy in a call for "no more coddling" of the Iraqi
government: The United States, he insisted, "is not going to hold together this
Richard Perle, one of the neo-conservative architects of the invasion of Iraq,
now says he "underestimated the depravity" of the Iraqis. Senator Hillary
Clinton, Democratic challenger in the 2008 presidential election, recently
asked, "How much are we willing to sacrifice" for the Iraqis? As if the Iraqis
asked the US to invade their country and make their world a living hell and are
now letting Americans down.
This is what happens when the imperial burden gets too heavy. The natives come
in for a lashing.
The disaster the United States has wrought in Iraq is worsening by the day, and
its effects will be long-lasting. How long they last, and how far they spread
beyond Iraq, will depend on how quickly the US government can be forced to end
It will also depend on how all of us Americans react the next time we hear that
we must attack another country to make the world safe from weapons of mass
destruction, "spread democracy", or undertake a "humanitarian intervention". In
the meantime, it's worth thinking about what all those horrific figures will
look like next March, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, and the March
after, on the sixth, and the March after that ...
Put it on a billboard - in your head, if nowhere else.
Anthony Arnove is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (American
Empire Project, Metropolitan) and, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of the
People's History of the United States (Seven Stories).