United States President Barack Obama’s up-to-the-last-minute secret Iraq drop-in was as virtual as a Nevada-based Predator drone pilot’s visit to the tribal areas in Pakistan. Iraqis have every reason to say the president did not see Iraq – but the Pentagon in Iraq.
The date couldn’t be more pregnant with meaning. Baghdad under Saddam Hussein fell to the US Marines Corps under George W Bush exactly six years ago this Thursday – light years of death and devastation ago. To prove his point, made rhetorically in Ankara at the Turkish parliament, that “the United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam”, Obama could have hit the definitive home run by going to Firdous Square and delivering a rousing speech to real, flesh-and-blood suffering Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’ites alike. Meeting a joyous 600 among the 139,000 US troops still occupying Iraq doesn’t even come close.
From the minute Air Force One landed at Baghdad International at 4.42pm local time this Tuesday, the whole stunt spelled out “security ops”. Air Force One only touched down after the whole airport was shut down. Amid ultra-hardcore security, Obama met with General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, entered a SUV and stepped down at Camp Victory, the top US military base in Iraq, which happens to be contiguous to the airport. Not even a glimpse of real-life, messy, dangerous Red Zone Baghdad.
Obama was then supposed to board a helicopter to visit the Green Zone citadel. But even the Green Zone was deemed a supreme security risk. According to White House spin, the trip was canceled because of a “sandstorm”. Instead of flying to the Green Zone, Obama was greeted with a no-risk wait for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s motorcade to visit him at Camp Victory. The highway linking the Green Zone to the airport was, of course, totally blocked.
So no Red Zone Obama – not even Green Zone Obama. It was Pentagon Zone Obama all the way. The president happened to arrive in Baghdad for this gated community photo op – or victory lap – after his European grand tour one day after “Black Monday”, when six coordinated bombs in Shi’ite neighborhoods killed 34 people and wounded more than 100. Wasn’t the “surge” of Bush and General Davis Petraeus – essentially a bribing scheme of Sunni Arab guerrillas – a “huge success”, as Republicans and US corporate media had been spinning for months?
Well, not really. Not when al-Maliki’s majority Shi’ite coalition government is shoving droves of Sunni leaders of the Awakening Councils in jail; not when “national reconciliation”, heavily spun by Maliki’s minions, is a myth; not when you remove a blast wall or two from a Shi’ite neighborhood and immediately afterward Sunni guerrilla outfits see an opening for a car bomb spree.
The potential for explosion had always been there; it had become invisible only for US corporate media. It was one thing for strands of the Sunni guerrillas to collaborate with the Petraeus surge/bribing scheme in expelling a few obnoxious al-Qaeda jihadis from a few areas in 2007. It’s another thing to pledge allegiance to a government they despise (they call them “the Safavids” – a reference to a Persian dynasty).
Under these circumstances, for Obama to speak of “political progress” sounded a bit of a stretch. (“It’s important for us to use all of our influence to encourage the parties to resolve these issues in ways that are equitable. I think that my presence here can help do that.”) Obama, for all his charisma, is still the president of an occupying power.
Now, about that overseas contingency …
Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’ite alike, are extremely suspicious of the Obama administration’s – and the Pentagon’s – plans to maintain a “residual force” of up to 50,000 US troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, not to mention more than 70,000 mercenaries of all stripes.
And what are they supposed to make of these Obama words for the occupying troops: “You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement.” Is this Obamaspeak for the classic Bushspeak: “We’ll bomb you to democracy, whether you like it or not?”
Iraqis will be even more suspicious of the new, humongous, $534-billion Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2010. (It’s bigger than the last budget of the Bush era, and that does not even include the “emergency supplements” for Iraq and Afghanistan.) Talk about military spending as a stimulus package.
Moreover, this new, Robert Gates-proposed counter-insurgency-crazy Pentagon only goes to show that the “Long War”, the former “global war on terror” – which the White House and the State Department now refer to as Overseas Contingency Operations – remains the framework of the whole US national security strategy. And Obama abides by it.
Once again in Ankara, Obama stressed, “The United States will remove our combat brigades by the end of next August, while working with the Iraqi government as they take responsibility for security.” But he also stressed, “Iraq, Turkey and the United States face a common threat from terrorism. That includes the al-Qaeda terrorists who have sought to drive Iraqis apart and destroy their country.” Obama insists on bundling all the myriad groups of the Sunni Arab resistance to US occupation as “al-Qaeda”. No informed citizen in Iraq, Turkey or all over the Muslim world will fall for it.
It also doesn’t help that Obama in his Ankara speech said, “Peace in the region will also be advanced if Iran forgoes any nuclear-weapons ambitions.” For all the administration’s overtures to unclench the fists in the US-Iran relationship, Obama keeps implying that Tehran is carrying out a nuclear weapons program – something that the US intelligence establishment itself has admitted on the record is not true.
The Bush administration’s record of “hateful ideology” remains imprinted in the psyche of hundreds of millions of Muslims everywhere. Virtually every opinion poll from the Maghreb to the Middle East and South Asia still reveals deep misgivings regarding the way the US sees Muslims.
A rhetorical change is more than welcome. But enough photo ops or victory laps in the US “empire of bases”. Action does speak louder than words. As much as Obama can go to real Strasbourg and real Istanbul, the time has come to go to the real Kabul, the real Tehran and the real Baghdad.