September 15, 2007

The Iraq of a Grasshopper's Dream

It's one theory of reality: nothing actually exists as we imagine it. We and everything else in the Universe are simply artifacts in the dream of a grasshopper sleeping in a warm meadow in another universe. We move through his dream, live our lives within his dream, perish when his dream says it is time for us to go, and vanish into the nothingness we were before he began dreaming us. It might seem unlikely, but you cannot disprove it. We have no way, in considering an ontological argument, to transcend the severe limits of our own consciousness. Cogito, ergo sum? Or I am only to the extent I think I am?

I don't know whether Bush really believes what he is saying about Iraq because I can't inhabit his consciousness. I would say that he seems an unusually obdurate man; it would be good, just once, to see him abandon the staged situations, the Q&A with handpicked interlocutors, and really engage in an argument with someone, maybe on the floor of the Senate, where the conversation goes back and forth and we actually have an opportunity to gauge the empirical basis for these things he says. Bush is so relentlessly controlled in format. No one ever has the chance to delve deeply into his premises or analysis. Is he afraid and insecure? Does he buy that far into his own arrogance?

I'm not trying to be arch or condescending here. I sometimes feel for the guy, I have to say. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was not the worst thing a world leader has ever done. Hussein was an immensely cruel and insanely barbaric tyrant. Despite pictures of Saddam shaking hands with Rumsfeld in the early Eighties, Hussein should always have been our natural enemy. We should not have countenanced his despotism, and it is too bad that our addiction to oil forced us to do business with him. Yet Bush ordered an invasion into a culture that is vastly different from America, and about which he knew little. He operated on the basis of naive assumptions about the essential similarities among people everywhere, an insular and provincial ignorance which typifies many American attitudes about the rest of the world. Maybe he was right to hope the Shia would not only forgive the Sunni for the depredations of the Saddam years, but would let the disputes about the rightful place of Ali in the line of caliphates dating from the 600's go too, all for the sake of peace and prosperity in Iraq. Wishing didn't make it so. He needed to understand that clearly in 2003 and he didn't. He unleashed an unrelenting Hell in Iraq.

I wonder if he understands that this Iraq he talks about, from all reports, must be in a state of near anarchy. Extrapolations of the 2006 Lancet study, undertaken with the assistance of epidemiologists and statisticians at Johns Hopkins, place the number of violent deaths in Iraq, over and above baseline expectations, at more than one million Iraqis. Add to this number the two million internally displaced Iraqis (victims of sectarian and ethnic cleansing and refugees from violence) and two million Iraqis who have left the country (many of whom were the country's professional, business and economic elite) and you reach a number which represents 20% of the Iraqi population at the time of the invasion. If the same thing happened, proportionally, in the United States, a total of sixty million people would be displaced, driven out of the country or murdered. Then consider the well-documented stories that chronic shortages of electricity, gasoline, water and basic services, such as garbage collection and medical treatment, torment those who are still there, and that unemployment affects at least half the populace.

How can Bush talk about Iraq, give a speech on national TV, without mentioning any of these incontrovertible facts? How can he possibly talk about "success" in Iraq? His Iraq may exist in the dream of a grasshopper, or in the reverie of a boll weevil chewing away on cotton on a farm somewhere in central Texas, but it doesn't exist in the Middle East.

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