Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Freedom is fear, democracy is tyranny, up is down

The George Orwell Award for the Debasement of Political Language is hereby presented to Nuru Kamal al-Maliki, the latest prime minister of Iraq, who addressed a joint session of Congress today, and who was honored with the requisite multiple standing ovations as he recited various Orwellian talking points cadged from the tattered Bush administration playbook.

How he and his White House patron think they can sway the American public with this kind of rhetoric -- at this late stage of the tragic game, with Iraqi bloodletting again on the upswing -- is anybody's guess. The latest Gallup poll shows that 62 percent of the public is turned off to President Bush's handling of Iraq, and it's implausible that Maliki's remarks today will spark joy in the streets.

In domestic political terms, Bush should be downright grateful that the press coverage these days is being dominated by the Israel-Hezbollah fighting, which has pushed Iraq off page one. I would bet that relatively few Americans are aware that far more Iraqi civilians have been killed (roughly 1400) during the past two weeks in their increasingly sectarian war than in the hostilities further west. As veteran political analyst Larry Sabato emailed today, "The near black-out of news on Iraq can only help the White House. Were it not for the bombs falling on Beirut and the rockets raining down on Haifa, the nearly unprecedented carnage throughout the blood-soaked nation of Iraq would surely be leading the news. Bush owns Iraq, and GOP (congressional '06) candidates would surely suffer from the chaos, just as they have been doing for a year or more."

But over the long haul, the Iraq story will reassert itself. And it will be hard for the administration to mask the fact that Maliki -- ballyhooed by the Bush team as a symbol of the new democracy, and viewed by the team as perhaps our last, best hope -- has already failed in his initial mission to tame the rampant sectarian violence around Baghdad.

The so-called Operation Enduring Freedom is out, to be replaced by some sort of Plan B, which we can probably call Operation Unending Crisis. And this plan, naturally, requires the participation of more U.S. troops, to buttress the overmatched and inadequately prepared Iraqi forces. Translation: we can probably shelve those Pentagon scenarios about U.S. troop reductions this autumn; it doesn't sound like the beleagured GOP congressional candidates will get a political gift out of Iraq on election eve after all.

But here's how Maliki, in his congressional address, nailed down the Orwellian award:

1. He declared that "Iraq is free." I guess that's true, if you define freedom as fear. Life around Baghdad has become steadily more oppressive, since the supposedly glorious June day when the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. All reports indicate that 100 civilians a day are being killed by sectarian gangs, Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly segregating themselves into respective ethnic enclaves, and some death-squad militias are gaining strength because they are protected and aided by the Interior Ministry of the new "democratic" government.

2. Which brings us to Maliki's declaration that Iraq now has "a fully-fledged democratic government," with "multiple political parties." I guess that's true, if you define democracy as tyranny. Sunni citizens are being terrorized by the militias allied with the Shiite-run Interior Ministry. That ministry supposedly reports to Maliki, who informed the congressmen today that "it is your duty" to help him pacify Iraq. But pacifiying Iraq is a bit of challenge, because the "fully-fledged democratic government" now includes freely-elected armed Shiite fundamentalists -- people such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the most powerful (and freely-elected) Shiite party, and who intends to set up armed vigilante squads to protect Shiiite residential enclaves.

3. Which brings us to Maliki himself. He came to power largely because he had the support of his ethnic "base" -- which includes the aforementioned armed Shiite fundamentalists. In his speech today, he repeatedly assailed "the terrorists" and the "extremists who value no life," and recited the old Bush theme about how"Iraq is free, and the terrorists cannot stand this." His implication, of course, was that "free" Iraqis are battling murderous insurgent outsiders, but not even the Bush administration seems to buy that one anymore; as Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said yesterday, "This isn't about terror. This is about sectarian violence." In essence -- although Hadley didn't say it -- Maliki's Iraqi allies are actually feeding the ranks of "the terrorists."

4. In George Orwell's 1984, the government of Oceania was adept at empty sloganeering, conjuring images of a bright -- albeit distant -- future. Maliki threw out a few lines of his own ("peace, prosperity, and hope...liberty, hope, and equality"), as he insisted that the first steps toward that future are already being taken. For instance, "we are making great economic strides." I guess that's true, if "great strides" in the economy and quality of life are defined as striding backward. The latest economic statistics, available in Washington, show that the unemployment rate -- pegged at between 25 and 40 percent -- has barely budged since late 2004; that domestic oil production remains lower than the prewar peak; that Baghdad residents have less potable water and less daily electricity than they had, prewar.

Maliki did say, at one point, that "the journey has been perilous, and the future is not guaranteed." That sounds about right. And perhaps it is unfair to focus too much on Maliki; he is merely the latest byproduct of the troubled American mission in Iraq. Indeed, I'd give the candor award to a U.S. military colonel who is quoted in Fiasco, Thomas Ricks' new book on the war. This colonel, assessing his own government's handling of Iraq since 2003, described it as "pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck."