Saddam's Execution Was a Gargantuan PR Disaster

"The president's view is that in the absence of a U.N. endorsement, this war will become 'self-legitimating' when the world sees most Iraqis greet U.S. troops as liberators. I think there is a good chance that will play out." -- Thomas Friedman, New York Times, March 2003

I thought of Thomas Friedman over the weekend as I watched the United States proudly gallop into its 9,598th consecutive gargantuan p.r. fuckup in Iraq, better known to the rest of the world as the execution of Saddam Hussein. In fact, I thought specifically of the above-mentioned column of Friedman's, written right on the eve of
the initial invasion almost four years ago.

It was in that particular column ("D-Day," March 19, 2003) that Friedman long-windedly lamented President Bush's failure to secure broader international support for his invasion, which he feared would detract from the legitimacy of the operation. This was a blow to the Iraq war effort, in Friedman's mind (excuse me: in what passes for Friedman's mind), but in that "D-Day" piece of his he said that we could all still make things work in Iraq -- all we had to do, he said, was to "turn these lemons into lemonade."

Lemons into lemonade! That line has been stuck in my head throughout this war. It would be absolutely impossible to find a better example of just exactly why we should never have gone into Iraq.

Remember that this war was cooked up by American bureaucrats, people who know an awful lot more about bowling than they do about Islam. True, there were a few genuine lunatics involved in dreaming up the invasion -- that crazy fraternity of neocon academics, wannabe revolutionaries who spent the whole 1990s bitter about Clinton and wired on coffee and Goldwater biographies, waiting for their Big Chance. Those people came up with the specific details of the Iraq plan (when, where, ostensibly why) and it's doubtful that anyone else but a lunatic could have dreamed up those particulars, since their logic generally eludes the sane and the normal.

But the engine behind this entire escapade was really the great mass of ordinary Beltway apparatchiks and media creatures who cheerfully assented once the idea squirted out of Bush's mouth. You're talking about a bunch of half-bright golfers from the Virginian suburbs, people raised on Archie comics and fuzzy patriotic platitudes and old saws gleaned from William Holden war movies and their postwar corporate-executive Dads. They went for the war because people they trusted told them it was a good idea, and some of them even ended up running parts of the operation, either in Iraq or in positions of responsibility here at home.

Tom Friedman is the oracle of this crowd, the tormented fat kid with a wedgie who got smart in his high school years and figured out that all he had to do to be successful was shamelessly and relentlessly flatter his Greatest-Generation parents, stroke their outdated prejudices, sell them on the idea that the entire aim of the modernization process is the spreading of their amazing legacy through the use of space-age technology.

So he goes into America's sleepy suburbs with his seventies porn-star mustache and he titillates the book clubs full of bored fifty- and sixty-something housewives with tales of how the internet is going to turn Afghanistan into Iowa. The suburban guys he ropes in with a half-baked international policy analysis -- whats "going on" on "the Street," as Friedman usually puts it -- that he cleverly makes sound like the world's sexiest collection of stock tips: "So I was playing golf with the Saudi energy minister last week, and he told me..."

This is just a modern take on the same old bullshit rap that traveling salesmen all over America have been laying on wide-eyed yokels at 99 Steak Houses and Howard Johnsons hotel bars for decades: So I was having lunch with Jack Welch at the Four Seasons last week when I heard about this amazing opportunity... And these middle-manager types who live in Midwestern cubicles or in the bowels of some federal bureaucracy in Maryland eat it up; they buy every one of Friedman's books, treat his every word like gospel, and before you know it they're all talking about Israeli politics and "the situation" in Yemen or Turkey or wherever like they're experts.

And so this is how we got where we are. You get a whole nation full of people who spend 99% of their free time worrying about their lawns or their short iron game, you convince them that they know something about something they actually know nothing about, and next thing you know, they're blundering into a 1000-year blood feud between rival Islamic groups, shooting things left and right in a panic, and thinking that they get make it all right and correct each successive fuckup by "keeping our noses to the grindstone" and "making lemons out of lemonade."

The whole war has been characterized by this kind of behavior. The Americans continually make ghastly mistake after ghastly mistake, and they keep responding to their mistakes by digging down and seeking the aid of the same homespun American pseudo-folk wisdom that got them into this mess in the first place. Our foreign policy initiatives in the area resemble attempts to mend fences with a neighbor whose lawn has been mussed by bringing him a tuna casserole cooked specially by wifey; only in Iraq, when casserole-presenting Dad ends up with his eyes gouged out and his skull charred black, hanging upside down from a telephone wire and impaled on the shards of the casserole dish, the neighborhood committee convenes and... decides to bake a bigger casserole.

This is what I was thinking about this weekend, when the U.S. and the news media "celebrated" the hanging of Saddam Hussein by wallpapering the planet with video images of the execution on New Year's Eve. The execution was a complete and utter fiasco. When what is supposed to be a p.r. coup for the United States devolves into a situation where a crowd of Shia fanatics is chanting "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!" under the swinging feet of a new Sunni martyr, something has gone horribly wrong.

Not only did Saddam's execution serve notice to the entire world that the United States has essentially become the easily-manipulated muscle for Shiite extremists in Iraq, but it infuriated the entire Sunni world by its timing -- the execution coincided with the Islamic holiday Eid.

Moreover, the U.S. even managed to alienate Shiites around the world by intervening in the execution process -- not enough to stop or slow the execution, mind you, but just enough to take Saddam's body away from the Shiites and force them to deliver it back to Saddam's home city or a "decent burial."

Now we've pissed off both the Shiites and the Sunnis and gotten both sides markedly more pissed off with each other (not just in Iraq but around the world), and we've done so by accelerating the execution of a prominent Sunni politician whose fate was the one card the United States was really holding with a Sunni minority already
deeply upset at being made the subjects -- at the end of an American bayonet -- to a Shiite-led government.

Not only that, but the execution put the finishing touches on the "Democracy lesson" we've supposedly been giving the Iraqi people, who, thanks to this move, still have yet to experience a government where a leader can leave power without losing his life. That is some interesting-tasting lemonade, I must say.

Rhetorical question: if you're going to offend the earth's entire Sunni population by letting a Shiite mob hang a prominent Sunni politician on a Muslim holiday -- on television on a Muslim holiday -- why bother interfering in the burial question? Seriously, why? To curry favor with the Sunnis? Because it's "the right thing" to do? What kind of deranged lunatic hangs "the Sunni sword" at the end of Ramadan and then tries to make up for it with the world's Sunnis by allowing a "civilized" burial? "We will all become a bomb," is how one Palestinian responded to this latest act of decency and goodwill on the part of the United States.

I'm not saying Saddam Hussein deserved to live. Fuck Saddam Hussein. The point is that his execution is a symbol of America's cultural blindness. America has one gear in its head: Saddam was a monster and a mass-murderer, so he should be executed and everyone should love us for doing it. Right? I mean, who doesn't like a tuna casserole?

Friedman, it must be said, predicted that we might have such troubles. Nearly four years ago, he came up with a clever way of phrasing what he meant, saying that the Bush team needed an "attitude lobotomy," that it needed to "get off its high horse" and "start engaging people on the World Street, listening to what's bothering them, and also telling them what's bothering us." He also said that we needed something like the Marshall Plan, something that was "both a hand out and a hand up." This was "D-Day for our generation," he said.

That was our attitude on the eve of war -- we sounded like we were preparing for a sales conference in Memphis, not a Middle Eastern bloodbath. It was like nobody in America noticed that all this catchy talk about high horses and handouts and hand ups was completely meaningless to anyone except the sloe-eyed residents of the American suburbs, people raised on this language of corporate memos and canned efficiency slogans and pep talks. If George Bush had gone on al-Jazeera after the invasion and promised to "get off his high horse," the Arab world would have stared back in amazement. What horse? What the fuck is he talking about? Why does this man invade us and then start talking about a horse? Are these people crazy?

That didn't happen, but it might as well have, because we're still doing basically the same thing. This isn't a pile of lemons we're dealing with, and there's no way to make it into lemonade. This is the Middle East, a place populated with Muslim people, and we know absolutely nothing about them and have no business being there. There's no horse to get off and no one here is looking for a hand out or a hand up. They just want us to get the fuck out of there. How long is it going to take for people to figure this out?

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