Hard News by Russell Brown

Dumb and dumber

So, having killed who knows-how-many-hundred Iraqis, created tens of thousands of refugees and flattened whole neighbourhoods, the US military command is now to hand over Fallujah to a group of officers from the Iraqi Army it disbanded only last year. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.

Having backed off a conflict it didn't need to enter and could not truly win, the US must now watch the gunmen of Fallujah celebrating their "victory". Leaving aside questions of right or wrong, this has just been overwhelmingly stupid

That all this has happened in pursuit of the unknown killers of four security guards almost defies belief. I'm actually pretty much over the fact of the invasion. It has happened, and Iraqis deserve the chance to make a future for themselves, for better or worse. Perhaps, if the strategy hadn't been so riven with arrogance and ideological blindness, it might have worked out. Perhaps it still might, in some sense.

But to justify the policy, the coalition governments had to build up quite a head of righteousness. And that righteousness has come back to bite them now that they have, inevitably, failed to live up to their own billing as high-minded liberators.

Typically, Seymour Hersch at the New Yorker has provided a thorough examination of the official report on what went on at Saddam's old prison at Abu Ghraib, and dismisses the idea that it was hidden to commanding officers (he also casts doubt on Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski's self-serving claims to have raised the alarm):

Under the fourth Geneva convention, an occupying power can jail civilians who pose an “imperative” security threat, but it must establish a regular procedure for insuring that only civilians who remain a genuine security threat be kept imprisoned. Prisoners have the right to appeal any internment decision and have their cases reviewed. Human Rights Watch complained to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that civilians in Iraq remained in custody month after month with no charges brought against them. Abu Ghraib had become, in effect, another Guantánamo.

As the photographs from Abu Ghraib make clear, these detentions have had enormous consequences: for the imprisoned civilian Iraqis, many of whom had nothing to do with the growing insurgency; for the integrity of the Army; and for the United States’ reputation in the world.

Amnesty International has weighed in on the unpleasant realities of the new Iraq as well.

"Our extensive research in Iraq suggests that this is not an isolated incident. It is not enough for the USA to react only once images have hit the television screens".

Amnesty International has received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition Forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention. Many have told Amnesty International that they were tortured and ill-treated by US and UK troops during interrogation. Methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation; beatings; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities.

Riverbend reports from Baghdad:

All anyone can talk about today are those pictures... those terrible pictures. There is so much rage and frustration. I know the dozens of emails I’m going to get claiming that this is an ‘isolated incident’ and that they are ‘ashamed of the people who did this’ but does it matter? What about those people in Abu Ghraib? What about their families and the lives that have been forever damaged by the experience in Abu Ghraib? I know the messages that I’m going to get- the ones that say, “But this happened under Saddam...” Like somehow, that makes what happens now OK... like whatever was suffered in the past should make any mass graves, detentions and torture only minor inconveniences now.

Diana Wichtel wrote a good column about local blog culture for the Weekend Herald, noting Gordy's poetry competition. The curiously lame winning entries are here if you're interested. I actually thought the funniest thing about the whole business was his wildly precious reaction when a few contributors to the competition had some fun at his expense (or, in Gordy-world, when he received "an unrelenting stream of personal abuse from Brown's readers" - he seems to have no sense of irony whatsoever.) As usual, his anger stems from the world not behaving as he believes it ought to, and he's loading all the anger on me in the hope that might make him feel better.

Meanwhile, lots of people seem to be remembering what a bad idea they thought Iraq was all along. The cover story in The American Conservative magazine is headed The Best of Bad Choices:

The administration’s Iraq policy is in shambles. Iraq has become a geopolitical humpty-dumpty that America cannot put back together, and the time has come for the United States to withdraw.

In the same issue, Pat Buchan contributes Fallujah: High Tide of Empire?

Kautilyan notes identical sentiments in the Wall Street Journal from retired US general William E. Odom, of the conservative Hudson Institute, former director of the National Security Agency under Reagan:

Following the planned June 30 handover of nominal sovereignty, Iraqis may go to the polls and vote. But the result, Mr. Odom explains, will resemble theocracy more than liberal democracy. As televised images of Iraqis cheering attacks on U.S. troops suggest, it's not likely to be anything Americans would consider worth the war's cost in blood and treasure.

"Anybody that's pro-American cannot gain legitimacy," he says. "It will be a highly illiberal democracy, inspired by Islamic culture, extremely hostile to the West and probably quite willing ... to fund terrorist organizations." The ability of Islamic militants to use Iraq as a beachhead for attacks elsewhere may increase.

But can't U.S. troops there tamp down such hostile activity? Well, yes, he says -- at a cost of rising hostility to the U.S. throughout the region.

"It probably will radicalize Saudi Arabia, [and] it could easily radicalize Egypt," Mr. Odom says. Violence yesterday between security forces and terrorists in Syria hinted at what may come, heightening dangers for Israel and the U.S. Iran might agree not to stir trouble among fellow Shiites who are 60% of Iraq's population -- provided the U.S. eases its hostile stance toward Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Yet the stakes, in Mr. Odom's view, are much bigger. The longer U.S. troops hang tough, he reasons, the more isolated America will become. That in turn will place increasing strain on international economic and security institutions that have undergirded the emergence of "America's Inadvertent Empire," as Mr. Odom's latest book calls it. "I don't know that the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, [or] NATO can survive this," he says.

Goodness. These hand-wringing, Guardian-reading, me-too "western pop-intellectuals" are everywhere these days, aren't they?

A couple of people sought to admonish me for Friday's comments about Tariana Turia, but I think I was right. As she admits in the Herald this morning, she began the year promising not to even vote against the foreshore legislation, let alone resign and force a by-election:

In January she said the only "honourable" option for her was to abstain when the bill was debated in Parliament.

"I'm not prepared to cross the floor and vote with people who would do us worse harm."

To be fair, almost everyone involved in this issue (not least Helen Clark and her government) has had a change of mind or two. But what has annoyed me lately is Turia's habit of saying one thing to Radio Waatea and another thing to the rest of us. She seemed to say last week, as a minister, both that she would and she wouldn't join the hikoi.

On the matter of resignation from her ministerial warrants she said to Willie Jackson last week that "I haven't done anything wrong, and usually people resign because they have done something wrong. They've either been drink-driving or not quite told the truth in a way the public would expect." But at the same time she was telling the mainstream media she fully understood the meaning of collective Cabinet responsibility; which was that if she intended to vote against the policy she would have to either jump or be pushed. The idea that she has been singled out for punishment could hardly be further from the mark. It's been her decision to make.

That said, she did acquit herself well on Morning Report today, handling the tricky question of whether she supported a separate Maori assembly within Parliament (yes) when it was put to her. But you'd have to say her claim that her people looked favourably on the National Party for all it had done for them was, politically speaking, just a bit too cute.

So Turia will contest the Te Hauaurau by-election as in independent, rather than as a member or the new Maori party many of her backers feel she should lead (she's, er not committing). But no other major party will turn up - leaving her vulnerable to accusations that's she's wasting public money. What kind of a turnout she is likely to have to generate to ensure her own credibility is unclear, but with the hikoi underway, she may do quite well.

Interestingly, she used the word kotahitanga - "to make one" - on the radio this morning. That was the catch-cry of the hikoi of 1984; which was undone at the last, when Tainui's representatives appeared to set themselves apart from the other walkers at Waitangi. The fault lines won't be in the same place this time, but it would be a leader of genius who could keep the many strains of Maori aspiration together in one political movement. This is the core problem of any Maori party.

Intriguingly, Helen Clark, who declined to appear on Morning Report this morning, sounded positively unburdened when she talked to Matt and Chris on 95bFM this morning. Perhaps two can play at passive-aggressive politics. "We're not devoting any more attention to her any more," she declared, cheerily, of Turia. She won't be attacked - overtly anyway - but she won't be sheltered any more either. She'll have to make her own luck from now on.