Well that surge really is coming along nicely, ain’t it? The latest news reports suggest that there is open fighting in both Basra and Baghdad, with at least fifty dead, and no suggestion that the Iraqi government, still less US forces, have any sort of control. Maybe it’ll die down in a day or two, or flare up to the next level – no-one really knows. And as far as the American public is concerned, it’s really going to have to draw in US troops for anyone to start paying much attention.

The uprising in Basra – as it may turn out to be – fits no easy theory being sold to the US public about the war. For starters it’s a Shi’ite uprising, which is being put down – or purportedly so – by soldiers from the Iraqi army, which is overwhelmingly Shi’ite in character. Secondly, it’s not a straight counter-attack by the Mahdi Army, under Al-Sadr, who is continuing to observe the cease-fire which has been the principal reason why casualty rates have gone down so significantly over the period of the surge.

No, these are independent militia groups based round Basra, who’ve basically been running the joint since the British surrendered and retreated a year ago. Basra was a separate Shi’ite province under the Ottoman empire and as Iraq’s only port (the British carved out Kuwait as a pseudo-country in the 1920s, to restrict Iraq’s access to the sea) has always been a distinct focus of power.

In the emerging oil-based kleptocracy that is Iraq, port control is pretty crucial to getting your cut, and the militias aren’t going to go without a hell of a fight. Even if this bunch is driven out, the militia group within the Iraqi army that defeats them will simply take over the franchise. Everyone needs the oil money to buy the weapoons they’ll use to fight the turf wars likely to erupt as soon as the US drop their unsustainable 160,000 troop presence.

The fact that even Al-Sadr can’t control these groups is indicative of the big lie – or entire chrestomathy of such – on which the continuing occupation case is based. That is the delusion that there is such a thing as the Iraqi government, the Iraqi army, the Mahdi army, etc etc – rather than a set of loose coalitions which occasionally find it useful to pretend to the notion of a higher unity.

“Al Qaeda in Iraq” – that branded set of Sunni and foreigner cells, whom John McCain thinks is run by Iran (which is like thinking that Ian Paisley gets his orders from the Pope, and then proposing to stay in Northern Ireland for a century) – is the least of factors here, with good reason to keep out of this intra-Shi’ite fight.

So what will the dwindling band of pro-war barrackers say? The Bush administration gives all indication of not caring much. Bush himself, a draft-dodger who hid in the National Guard and was AWOL from that, noted that he envied the young men and women serving in Afghanistan. Dick Cheney, who, like Karl Rove, had “other priorities” than serving at the time of Vietnam, remarked on the occasion of the 4,000th American service death that it was an all-volunteer force, and that the greatest burden lay on the shoulders of the President.

If you wanted to characterise the US public reaction by contrast, then only a washboard rendition of Dazed and Confused would cover it. Even Americans who think the war was pretty much a disaster from the start will offer up all sorts of opinions drawn from the idea of American exceptionalism, soundbites on the news, or JC Penney Americana clothing ads.

The most bizarre of these – which I keep hearing — is the idea that to back out now would be to mean that all the lives lost hitherto had been in vain, as if throwing more bodies on the pyre would somehow assuage the Gods. However, I suspect that even this position is on its last, gangrene-afflicted legs.

If American forces are drawn back into a series of turf wars – especially with the Sunni gangs they’ve latterly armed – then I suspect some sort of threshold will be passed. Ideology, the imaginary relationship to real conditions, once it finally collapses under the weight of undeniable evidence, falls like the Wile E Coyote treading air over a cliff. The war has had so many justifications that they now serve only to outline its futile, meaningless character all the more. That its Australian defenders are reduced to bleating about “prescience” and “hindsight” seems to indicate that we’ve reached that stage earlier than the States.

Many Americans cannot let go of the war, simply because it’s a keystone of American identity. Most of its supporters saw it as a simple rerun of WW2 (or a romanticised version of such), one that would wipe the stain of Vietnam. Instead it confirmed the latter as rule rather than exception – the US lacks the unity and purpose to impose its will. But more ruinously for American self-image, it leads to the conclusion that the country has been on the wrong track – strategically and morally – since the 1980s.

Charlie Wilson’s War — the film about the alcoholic, manic depressive, corrupt Congressman who has claimed much of the credit for funding the mujahadeen in Afghanistan –sought to portray that episode as a valiant initiative to be salvaged from the mess that followed it. It’s almost always right to support national liberation struggles against imperial power, whatever nasty beliefs the resistance in question may hold, but consider the question strategically from the US point of view.

Had the US allowed the USSR to occupy Afghanistan, set up puppet Marxist governments and impose a secular state, what would the place have been like once the USSR broke up? (suggestions that the Afghan defeat was crucial in the break up are vastly overrated). Would it have been more like the central Asian Soviet Republics – despotic, but part of modernity, and certainly no safe haven for the Bin Ladens of this world? Would the lack of such a playground have limited the power of Pakistan’s ISI secret police, who, protected by successive “friendly” Pakistani governments, more or less brought the Taliban into being? Would 9.11 even have happened?

The dark thought for American strategists is that they have got it all wrong over the past decades, and helped bring an enemy into being who has drained their blood and treasure, before the real global tussle – against India and China – has really started. How do you admit that to yourself, without having a nervous breakdown?

So the search for a logic, a reason for all this continues. McCain’s latest argument is that the US has to stay in Iraq to prevent civil war and genocide – a shift from the “surge is working” rhetoric to accommodate the recent, erm, violence. Really? Get in the middle of a nine-way fight between forces whose only belief in common is that THEY HATE THE US? That makes sense?

Of course it doesn’t. But McCain has to say something. And he can get away with much at the moment, could demand the annexation of Mars and Swedish as the national language before the Democrats noticed over the noise of a self-destructive, self-rending that may well go down in political history as the ultimate death of some sort of liberal-left. What is most indicative of their deep dysfunctionality is that both Obama and Clinton, as each has accused the other of, have taken their moves from the Karl Rove playbook – and then applied it to their own party. It’s the political equivalent of an end-stage auto-immune disease, all the mechanisms developed to destroy foreign bodies turned in on oneself.

By now the manoeuvres have fallen to the emptiest self-parody – witness Hillary’s comment that the fact that she lied, and was caught, about being under sniper fire in Bosnia, was an indication that she was “human”.

Chutzpah in excelsis, but by now there’s something just awful and repellant about it all, the Democrats having committed one of the great political squanders of all time, compared to which even al-Maliki’s green zone municipal authority displays a unity of purpose.

Peter Fray

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