Saturday, December 17, 2005

Weekend reading: Patrick Cockburn in New Left Review

Crooked Timber is not a left-leaning site. A lot of smart moderate and conservative people have posted there. So when you catch a link to New Left Review at least one eyebrow goes up. It is referred by Chris Bertram.

Okay then, I'm off to another pile of weekend reading. It's getting worse. This time it's twenty pages printed out. Whew!

Oh, I forgot. What is it?
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been against the war in Iraq from the jump. He is being interviewed by somebody from New Left Review. (I see no attribution yet. One may be there, but it doesn't matter. Content is more important than attribution.) If an English academic (...was once on the editorial committee of New Left Review, before resigning, along with nearly everyone else. These days I find the description 'egalitarian liberal' fits me better than 'socialist') speaks respectfully about an Irish journalist that journalist must have earned some measure of respectability.

I admit to being out of my league here. I was a history undergraduate who claims to have run out of money before getting a shot at graduate school. But truth be known, it was the GRE that scared the fool out of me and helped me leave academia and go to work. I'm old enough now to know that there are a good many fools walking around with strings of letters behind their names, as well as a lot of clever people who barely finished school with a scrap of anything. There's a lot to be said for self-education. But I digress...

All I know about Cockburn is what I read in Wikipedia. But I have done enough homework about Iraq to know that what he says in this interview is solid as a rock. Intelligent people can disagree about serious subjects, despite what both patriots and traitors would have one believe. (How else would our current president be permitted to hold public office? I rest my case.)

Here are a couple of snips that caught my eye:

I first went to Iraq in 1978, and I’ve been there I suppose fifty or sixty times. Sometimes for as long as three months, at other times for a fortnight or so. In all I have spent a bit more than half my time in Iraq since the Occupation. I was there before, during and after the invasion, initially based in Kurdistan since I couldn’t get a visa to Baghdad, because I and my brother had written a book on Iraq in the nineties. So when the us-led attack began, I was in the North. I was in Kirkuk and Mosul when they fell, and as soon as the road south was open, I drove down the main highway from Arbil to Baghdad. By the time I left the city, looting was still proceeding apace. The Information Ministry was being set on fire as I set off to Jordan, thick clouds of smoke rising over Baghdad and driving west you could already see all these battered little white pickups, which are very typical in Iraq, loaded with loot, going along the main highway and then turning off the road to Ramadi and Fallujah. of the surprises of the resistance is just how swiftly it developed. I think this has never quite been explained. The speed with which it took off was very striking. The Americans were starting to suffer casualties as early as June, within a couple of months of the invasion. Occupations often do lead to resistance against them, but it’s difficult to think of another example of it happening so quickly. After the British captured Baghdad in 1917, it took three years before the rebellion against them started. During the Second World War, the resistances in Europe or Southeast Asia all took much longer to get going than the present insurgency in Iraq.
Just after the fall of Saddam there was also an enormous influx of cars, particularly second-hand vehicles. But a huge number of these were stolen, and then taken off for sale in Kurdistan or Iran. To cross the street in Kurdish towns became a hazard—you risked your life, with shepherds who’d just bought a car for $600, which had been stolen in Baghdad, driving around, wondering which way to turn the wheel. The initial complete breakdown of all rules led to a certain economic activity. For example, if your car was stolen, you could go to the main stolen car mart, which at that time was in Sadoun Street, and get a reduction if you were trying to buy back your own car. It was very unwise to make a fuss, because the vendors were all armed; and you needed to get there quickly, before it was sold on to Iran, or taken to Kurdistan. [This came to an end toward the end of 2003 as violence made the place more dangerous...]
Question: Iraqi infrastructures were steadily deteriorating under the impact of sanctions. Have they remained about the same, or altered since the Occupation—supplies of electricity and water, particularly?

Answer: Electricity has got worse in Baghdad. After the Gulf War, Saddam was able to get the electricity system working again quite effectively, although the power stations had been heavily targeted by American missiles and bombs. After the Anglo-American invasion, this didn’t happen, and Iraqis now invariably tell you this shows that the Americans are either incompetent or sabotaged the grid on purpose. Actually, there are a number of reasons for this failure by the Occupation. To begin with, when the Americans stormed into the country, contracts for various projects to increase electricity supply had been signed, or were about to be signed, by the Baath government. These were all ignored by Bremer, and fresh contracts were signed with American companies, which meant that nothing very new was built for a couple of years....In the first winter most Iraqis probably didn’t expect things to get that much better. But we are now heading into a third winter, and electricity has recently been two hours on, four hours off in Baghdad. All public or other buildings of any size—ministries, hotels and the like—have to run massive generators of their own. In the streets you see lots of small, generally Chinese-made, generators that will power a lamp or a television, but aren’t enough for deep-freezers or even fridges, which in a country as hot as Iraq means that people can’t store food. So they have to buy food on a daily basis, which is more expensive than buying it when it’s cheap and keeping it in the fridge or the deep-freezer. Water supplies have intermittently been poor, and almost all the water is tainted. Over the last year, there have been sudden complete breakdowns, of a week or ten days, when there is no water in different parts of Baghdad, probably the result of sabotage. Overall, the quality of the water is particularly bad in southern Iraq, but most people don’t have supplies of clean water anywhere, which is one of the reasons that the death rate, particularly among babies and small children, has been so high for the last fifteen years.

Uh, this is pretty candid stuff. I would love for somebody with credibility to counter what he says with different information. There is a sharp disconnect between this description and the rosy picture that is being fed to the media by military and political leadership in charge. Schools and toys here and there are one thing, but infrastructure failures on this scale are a lot more important.

Further into the piece he gets into politics. The discussion is too dense for me to scan and digest, but I will get back later with some impressions.

Here is one final snip:

...the dislike of ordinary Shia for the Occupation isn’t that much less than that of ordinary Sunni. You may have a Shia political elite that is prepared to cooperate with the us, but in the long term I don’t think the Shia as a whole will, and it seems unlikely the religious hierarchy would. The Americans are too different, and nobody actually wants to be occupied. So it’s not 70 or 80 per cent support, it’s really only the Kurds who are long-term allies of the Americans and even they must be chary of ending up as faithful Gurkhas in a us imperium. I think Iraq has been a disaster for the Americans, because in 2003 they said that they would do the exact opposite of what they did in 1990–91, when Bush Senior vested enormous efforts in constructing a coalition against Saddam and holding it together. Two and a half years after his son’s invasion, the us only controls pockets of Iraq and it’s suffered 17,000 dead or wounded in the army. The Americans said that they could win a clear military and political victory in Iraq and this they have very visibly failed to do.

I may or may not get back about this. The stuff I post here is not of much interest to my readers as much as it is to me, and putting together a lengthy summary post is too much trouble for too little response.

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