The Soft Bigotry of Loose Adulation

How do you say “gifted” in Arabic?

3:55 p.m.: Thursday morning, President Bush greeted the people of Iraq on their TV screens. “You are a good and gifted people,” he told them as Arabic script appeared below his face. I don’t know Arabic, but I’m sure the translation didn’t convey what Bush means by “gifted.” He doesn’t mean exceptional. He means ethnic.

If you’re black, Hispanic, or a member of some other group often stereotyped as incompetent, you may be familiar with this kind of condescension. It’s the way polite white people express their surprise that you aren’t stupid. They marvel at how “bright” and “articulate” you are. Instead of treating you the way they’d treat an equally competent white person—say, by ignoring you—they fuss over your every accomplishment. When James Baker and Brent Scowcroft do their jobs, it’s a non-story. When Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice do the same jobs, it’s a newsmagazine cover.

This is the seventh time Bush has used the word “gifted” during his presidency. Once he was reading from a script at an arts award ceremony. Two other times, he was referring to black people: Bill Cosby and Martin Luther King Sr. On the other four occasions, he was talking about Iraqis or Palestinians. All Iraqis and Palestinians. What, in Bush’s eyes, makes Iraqis and Palestinians so gifted? The fact that they can run functioning societies.

Of course, if you’re gifted, you’re probably talented as well. In Bush’s view, Iraqis are talented. So are Hispanics. Chinese are “talented, brilliant, and energetic.” Russians have “entrepreneurial talent.” Irish-Americans have “industry and talent.” Cubans have “determination and talent.” According to Vice President Dick Cheney, South Koreans are “a peaceful and talented people.” Bush thinks there’s “plenty of talent amongst the Palestinians“—so much, in fact, that “if we develop the institutions necessary for the development of a state, that talent will emerge.” Maybe then they’ll be able to read Bush’s road map.

No wonder Bush gave the Iraqis a pep talk. They’re underprivileged, at-risk, and challenged. They lack self-esteem. They need to be told that they’re capable, despite what others may say. Even Tony Blair is patting them on the back. “You are an inventive, creative people,” he told them in a televised message accompanying Bush’s remarks. I wonder what the Arabic phrase is for “hand me the remote.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

7 p.m.: American troops have seized Baghdad. Saddam’s henchmen have fled. Iraqis are rejoicing in the streets. Vice President Dick Cheney and other authors of the war plan are crowing we told you so. I’ve got an I-told-you so, too. But it isn’t about winning the war. It’s about winning wars without killing thousands of people.

Three weeks ago, based on early reports from Iraq, I suggested that war against repressive regimes no longer necessitates massive casualties. Opponents of the war fired back. Some argued that war was always immoral; others argued that this war was hasty or unjust. All agreed that the immorality of war was based on the immorality of killing. Now that Baghdad has fallen, here’s my question to peaceniks: Are you against killing, or are you against war? Because what happened in Iraq suggests you may have to choose.

The precision of military technology is constantly improving. So are the speed and breadth of mass media, which in turn make public relations crucial to military success. As a result, the rate of civilian casualties is declining from war to war. According to the Vietnamese government, 2 million North Vietnamese civilians and 2 million South Vietnamese civilians died in the Vietnam War. Human Rights Watch estimates that in the Persian Gulf War, “the total number of civilians killed directly by allied attacks did not exceed several thousand, with an upper limit of perhaps between 2,500 and 3,000 Iraqi dead.” In the Kosovo war, HRW identified “ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths during the seventy-eight day bombing campaign. Some 500 Yugoslav civilians are known to have died in these incidents.”

There are no official civilian death figures for the current war, but estimates in today’s newspapers range from 600 to 1,100. That includes people killed or used as shields by Iraqi troops. The number of civilians killed by errant coalition bombs or missiles could be half of that. It could be less; it could be more. Either way, it’s well below the figure for the Gulf War and way below the figures for previous wars.

Compare this to the number of people Saddam has killed at home and abroad. According to the Federation of American Scientists, in the Iran-Iraq War, which Saddam started, “[E]stimates suggest more than one and a half million war and war-related casualties. … Iran’s losses may have included more than 1 million people killed or maimed. The war claimed at least 300,000 Iranian lives.” HRW says Saddam’s slaughter of the Kurds included “the mass murder and disappearance of many tens of thousands of non-combatants—50,000 by the most conservative estimate,” and “the use of chemical weapons against non-combatants in dozens of locations, killing thousands.” Then there was the invasion of Kuwait, and the annihilation of Shiites in Iraq’s southern marshes. According to HRW, “Numbering some 250,000 people as recently as 1991, the Marsh Arabs today are believed to number fewer than 40,000 in their ancestral homeland. Many have been arrested, ‘disappeared,’ or executed.” As for Saddam’s current kill rate, HRW reports, “It is not possible to determine with certainty the number of people executed by law or government order in Iraq each year. For the past two decades and with depressing regularity, the reported figures for those executed have run into the hundreds each year and, in some years, have reached several thousand.”

Simply put, the number of innocent people who are dead because we ousted Saddam is dwarfed by the number of innocent people who are dead because we didn’t. The use of American force is on one side of the ledger, and mass killing is on the other. Trends in military and media technology make this dilemma increasingly likely where belligerent murderers rule. You can keep your hands clean, or you can keep many more people alive. It’s up to you.

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

1:50 p.m.: Here’s what George W. Bush and Tony Blair promised at their news conference in Northern Ireland today. First, we’re going to get out of Iraq so that Iraqis can govern themselves. Second, we’re going to stay in Iraq so that Iraqis can govern themselves.

“It’s important for the Iraqi people to continue to hear this message,” said Bush. “We will not stop until they are free. Saddam Hussein will be gone. … We’re not leaving. And not only that; they need to hear the message that we’re not leaving after he’s gone—until they are ready to run their own government. I hear a lot of talk here about how we’re going to impose this leader or that leader. Forget it. From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country.”

If this position confuses you—they can run the country, but we aren’t leaving—join the club. Bush, too, looks confused. He’s a black-and-white guy. He likes to talk about good and evil, freedom and tyranny, principles and focus groups. When these things come together in the same person or idea, he gets flummoxed. In postwar Iraq, he’s up against a paradox. Freedom requires us to get out. And yet, for a time, freedom requires us to stay.

The get-out part is obvious. The tricky part is understanding why and how long we have to stay. The first reason is to stamp out the bad guys. Bush noted that in Basra, “The presence of the Royal Marines is providing enough comfort for people to begin to express their own opinions. They’re beginning to realize freedom is real.” Iraqis aren’t going to breathe easier just because Saddam’s loyalists dumped their boots and hid their guns. They need assurance that the bad guys won’t regain power. The good guys have to stay long enough to provide that assurance.

The second reason is to establish order. Eight weeks ago, Bush recalled that after World War II, “We did not leave behind occupying armies. We left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom.” Freedom isn’t the absence of rules. It depends on rules. Without rules, new tyrants grab power. Constitutions lay down those rules, parliaments clarify them, and armed officers enforce them. No arms, no enforcement, no rules, no freedom.

I’ve been digging up famous quotes about wolves lately, so here’s another. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln observed, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty.” From the sheep’s point of view, the trick is to keep the shepherd around long enough to get rid of the wolf but not so long that the shepherd starts to see you as a mutton chop.

How long should our troops stay? Here a negativist answer: Freedom survives where power is checked. The job of American and British troops is to make sure Saddam’s thugs are gone. The job of the United Nations is to make sure American and British troops are gone. And the job of the Iraqi people is to set up institutions stable enough to convince all of us that we can get out without having to go back in. If Bush’s neocons or Blair’s neoliberals hold out for anything better than that, things can get much, much worse.

Monday, April 7, 2003

8:45 a.m.: First Syria’s president pledged to “stand beside Baghdad” against the current U.S.-led invasion. Then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he had “information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles.”

Now come two more reports of Syrian military aid to Iraq. Last Thursday, the Chicago Tribune reported that according to a deserting Iraqi soldier, “100 Lebanese and Syrians were gathering in As Samawah [in Iraq] and planning suicide operations against Americans.” An American officer couldn’t confirm the claim but told the Tribune, “We did hear a lot of these guys mention Syrian soldiers.”

This morning, the New York Times adds that at one of the Iraqi presidential palaces captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad during the past 24 hours, “half a dozen Syrian soldiers were found, one of them hiding in a refrigerator, military officials said.”

As Slate noted last year, Syria is undemocratic, supports terrorism, has weapons of mass destruction, violates human rights, has invaded its neighbors, and has violated a biological weapons treaty. Now evidence of its complicity in Iraq’s defense is growing. I don’t want a war with Syria. But Syria sure is acting as though it wants a war with us.