by John Cheney-Lippold
Sunday’s New York Times had a series of articles marking the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” victory speech on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. The title of the collection, “How to See This Mission Accomplished,” seems fit more for a motivational-speaking seminar than a critical intervention in the discourse of war. It gestures to the inadequacies that riddle the mainstream media’s analysis of the war in Iraq.
And then you begin to read the articles.
The Times asked nine “experts” on military affairs to each write a short blurb on the “significant challenges facing the American and Iraqi leadership today and to propose one specific step to help overcome that challenge.”
Of the nine:
Three currently hold positions with the deliriously hawkish American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Seven supported and/or participated in the war from its infancy.
Four currently support the U.S. occupation of Iraq without any mention of a troop reduction.
Winning in Iraq, or meeting some ambiguous and movable notion of success, is the key objective for six of the nine authors. Anne-Marie Slaughter (the only woman deemed expert enough to write on the topic), Marine officer Nathaniel Fick and retired Army Gen. Paul Eaton were the notable exceptions. Yet past this glaring division, the mere questioning of Bush’s five-year-old rhetoric was apparently too much for the panel, which readily latches onto a binary opposition for the war in Iraq: success or failure, with failure slyly positioned as moral defeat and thus surrender to terrorism and Islam.
One must ask, how can a panel of “experts” include anyone on the AEI payroll? How “expert” can someone who calls for the continued occupation of Iraq possibly be? Shouldn’t being so wrong in endorsing what has been called the biggest foreign-policy mistake in U.S. history earn an automatic ejection from the New York Times Op-Ed desk’s Rolodex? And how can “experts” so sheepishly accept the premise of the Times’ question without even once engaging the word imperialism? (The hilarious “anti-imperialist” Frederick Kagan, resident scholar at the AEI, did cryptically refer to the use of Iraqi oil revenue to repay U.S. expenses as having “a tinge of imperialism”– as if the war itself wasn’t already fully saturated with the stench of empire.)
These sages of geopolitical militarism are endowed not just with space in the nation’s “paper of record,” but a badge of expertise that further confuses the actual debate about the war. Whether we succeed or fail is of little importance to the Iraqis themselves. Both formulations are rhetorical turns that refer not to the goodness of the war effort but to the various stages of obfuscation used by the Bush administration to show Iraqi “progress” (the purple-thumbs imagery from the country’s 2005 election being the media’s visually darling example).
The framing of solutions to the war through the lens of “success” intentionally ignores the important questions that really get under the skin of seven of the panelists who saber-rattled their way into the role of expert as crowned by the Times and too many others. If we care at all about the Iraqi people, the group that should be at the heart of any analysis about the war and how to end it, we need to turn away from those U.S. interests that pushed us to war in the first place and disregard the silliness of any question about the “challenges” the U.S. faces in Iraq — as if challenges to imperialism were ever a bad thing.
What does success in the New York Times framework really mean if not maintenance of the U.S. imperial occupation in Iraq? If we believe that invading Iraq was wrong from the beginning, an opinion this panel’s majority clearly does not hold, “winning” this imperial war must be held problematic. But if the seven panel members who at least tacitly argued for the invasion of Iraq, some of them vehemently so before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, believe the war to be good and worth fighting, success is then just another way of retooling imperial activities to better respond to the challenges that a strong indigenous insurgency poses to the occupying coalition forces.
The critiques against those who led the U.S. to war and have kept us there for the past five years are largely dull stabs against the procedures of how war in general is fought. Underlying but instrumental questions around illegality, empire and American hegemony are not just ignored by the media but also chastised as marginal, allowing the administration to continue an unpopular, expensive and disastrous war without serious resistance from all sectors of the population. Ending war is not done through progressive adjustments to the challenges of imperial strategy, but instead through a resounding denial of any justification for our presence in the region and an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces. … Yet that seems to not be “news that’s fit to print.”
John Cheney-Lippold is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California where he studies the political economy of the Internet.