That Old 'Saigon Feeling'


The news that former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld realised that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster and the public needed warning that expectations should be lowered  is both predictable and depressing. If the top level of the US Administration knew things were so dire, at what point were we going to be told?


Of course, we don’t need Rumsfeld to tell us what we already know. War-time governments are never the best source of unfiltered truth. Instead, we must turn to journalists, many of whom have been missing-in-action during the ‘war on terror,’ preferring to echo government spin and accept the language of invasion and occupation.

The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn is a notable excep tion. His recent essay ‘ Iraq Nears the œSaigon Moment  ‘ outlined the fundamental problems with the US-led disaster in Iraq:

Iraq may be getting close to what Americans call ‘the Saigon moment,’ the time when it becomes evident to all that the government is expiring. ‘They say that the killings and kidnappings are being carried out by men in police uniforms and with police vehicles,’ said the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari with a despairing laugh to me earlier this summer. ‘But everybody in Baghdad knows that the killers and kidnappers are real policemen.’

It is getting worse. The Iraqi army and police are not loyal to the State. If the US Army decides to confront the Shi’a militias it could well find Shi’a military units from the Iraqi Army cutting the main American supply route between Kuwait and Baghdad.

Cockburn’s latest book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso Books, 2006) is a startling examination of ‘Coalition’ mismanagement, corruption, imperial arrogance and stupidity. He depicts a superpower that was simply incapable of or unwilling to understand the nation they were invading. He offers an early example:

One place where the US might have hoped for a sympathetic hearing was among the brokers on the Baghdad stock exchange. But in 2003 control of the exchange was given to a 24-year-old American whose main credential for the job was his family’s contributions to the Republican Party. He allegedly failed to renew the lease on a building housing the exchange, which consequently stayed shut for a year.

This observation is reminiscent of the Washington Post ‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran , whose book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Random House, 2006) details life in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Take this excerpt as an example:

None of the succulent tomatoes or the crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US Government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the United States: made-in-the-USA. Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes at the breakfast table helped boost morale.

This American contempt for the Iraqi people reappears in Cockburn’s book over and over again. ‘The Iraqi people were expected to play a spectator’s role in forthcoming events,’ he writes. He recalls dining with an ‘influential’ American journalist before the 2003 invasion. The journalist told Cockburn ‘of America’s radical plans for reshaping Iraq and I responded mildly that ordinary Iraqis might object. œWho cares?  he replied contemptuously. œWho cares? ’

Thanks to Bill Leak

This arrogance infected the vast majority of the commentariat and US allies. After a seemingly swift military victory in Afghanistan, Iraq was deemed a ‘slam-dunk.’ Tony Blair and John Howard would almost certainly have believed that the war would be over quickly and victory declared.

Cockburn reminds us that the Iraqis, not unlike most peoples, did not want to be occupied for any period of time, so any goodwill that might have existed for the Americans virtually evaporated overnight. From the first days of the invasion, signs of an insurgency were clear but the Americans didn’t want to hear about it. Generals on the ground and the Bush Administration couldn’t understand how the Iraqis couldn’t be eternally grateful for being ‘liberated.’ Such delusions filled endless columns in the Western media, as any number of supposed Middle East ‘experts’ pontificated on this grand, new democracy in the heart of the Arab world.

Cockburn tries to explain why this was so. He concludes that the Americans just didn’t trust the Iraqis to run the show. The colonial mindset started from Day Zero. Cockburn explains:

Within weeks [of ‘liberation’], Iraqis found they were being ruled by a classic colonial occupation. Young Americans, whose only credentials were their links to the Administration, poured into Baghdad. The country became a feeding trough for politically well-connected American companies and individuals. No money could be spent without an American counter-signature. In one mental asylum patients did not eat for a day because the appropriate American could not be found to permit the spending of US$360 on food.

In such an environment, violent resistance is born. The failure of the US to deal with looters in the wake of the taking of Baghdad reinforced the impression in many Iraqis’ minds that Washington didn’t care about them. The attitude towards the Coalition collaborators, such as Britain and Australia, was similar.

Life under American occupation was materially worse than during Saddam’s reign. Essential services were not restored (and in many cases still remain below pre-war levels). How could Iraqis feel pleased with the American presence when they barely received a few hours of electricity a day? Cockburn explains that the ‘US Administrative apparatus was more incompetent, bureaucratic, corrupt and divided than most Iraqis imagined.’ Iraqis had simply expected Americans to be able to deliver, but ‘they had an exaggerated idea of the power of the US, which few of them had visited, based largely on movies seen on television or on videos.’

The Occupation is a superior piece of reportage because it forensically pulls apart every stated reason for the Iraqi invasion and occupation, and it is light on rhetoric. The bare facts are damning enough. While some major figures in the media still insist that the Coalition should ‘stay the course’ (including the editor  of the Wall Street Journal ), the vast majority of commentators recognise the calamitous failure of the Iraq mission.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.