Shadowland: Freedom's Just Another Word

I can tell you the week the United States lost the war in Iraq. It was 18 months ago. Baghdad had fallen with almost no resistance. The dictator Saddam Hussein had fled. A U.S. Marine draped an American flag over the tyrant's statue and then Symbolic Saddam was dragged to the ground, proclaiming Iraq's freedom with a photo op.

Freedom. What could that mean to Iraqis? Many things. What did it mean? Looting. Baghdad, which surrendered virtually intact, was soon torn apart by mobs of scavengers sacking government buildings, pillaging the great museums, ransacking the struggling hospitals, vivisecting the electrical guts of the national infrastructure just to strip copper from the wiring. Meanwhile the American soldiers on the scene stood by, and watched, and did nothing, because nobody told them to do otherwise and, anyway, there weren't enough of them on the ground to impose order.

When asked that week about the chaos sweeping Baghdad's streets, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a simple explanation. "Freedom's untidy," he said. "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here."

Iraqis are still waiting for that last part, and their hopes are fading by the day.

That same week, Rumsfeld's deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, the man with the grand plan to remake the Middle East as a bastion of democracy, couldn't give the Senate a very good sense of how that would happen now that the great moment of liberation had arrived. "Democracy is a messy thing," he explained.

Did these guys have any idea what they were talking about then? Do they now? The question's worth asking as we hear President George W. Bush repeat his mantra "freedom is winning," despite all the indications to the contrary. You'll probably hear him say something like that many times in tomorrow night's debate with John Kerry. A common joke around Washington has it that if you ask the president about the weather, he'll tell you "freedom is winning." More seriously, on the day the second of two American hostages were beheaded in Iraq last week, he stood beside Ayad Allawi, the U.S.-appointed ruler of the country and said, "We're sickened by the atrocities. But we'll never be intimidated. And freedom is winning."

This is not a statement of fact, of course. (Unpleasant facts are defined by this administration and some of its sycophantic media as "bias.") The president's one-liner is a well-honed campaign message to an American nation in denial, a placebo of hope for an electorate that doesn't dare admit to itself how bad things are or how dire the future is likely to be if we continue to stay this course. As one State Department veteran puts it, "a snake-oil salesman has to find people who want to buy snake oil." For Americans right now, the Bush message goes down easy, and it will almost certainly be enough to win him re-election.

So let's look at the kind of freedom we can expect for Iraq, and America, in the next four years.

The most critical freedom for all of us right now is freedom from fear, and despite the Bush administration's promises, neither Iraqis nor Americans are likely to enjoy much of that in the coming term.

Freedom from fear is what the Iraqis hoped we were bringing them when we rolled into Baghdad last year. They'd spent 35 years living under Saddam's malevolent eye, knowing he could jail them, torture them, slaughter them whenever he saw fit. But they were unsure about American intentions. The United States had betrayed their hopes many times before, and at terrible cost. So the solid citizens of Iraq watched as the statue fell, and they waited. What they got was anarchy. And Defense Department flippancy: "Freedom's untidy," "Democracy is a messy thing."

"The message we sent to the Iraqis," says an American member of last year's post-invasion transition team, "was that we've done what we had to do. Saddam's gone. We're not really interested in the Iraqi people." Inaction spoke louder than words. "Urban riots, if you don't get them under control, they spread like a forest fire. The Iraqis looked at what was happening and said we didn't stop it because we didn't care. The sense of utter indifference on our part was chilling."

Anarchy set the stage for insurgency, which doesn't require a supportive population so much as a passive one that declines to side with the occupiers. "After the looting, nobody was going to stand with us then," says the same U.S. official, "because we didn't stand with them."

Since that week in April 2003, Iraqis in Baghdad and the other major population centers of the country have seen their fears growing day by day. They are afraid of the insurgents. They are terrified by criminals and kidnappers. They are also afraid of the Americans and the rest of the occupation forces. While more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died, more than 10 times that many Iraqis have been killed, and the only people clearly winning freedom are the holy warriors coming in from other countries. As one of them told me last summer, "Iraq is now paradise for the mujahedin."

Will Iraqi elections in January solve this problem? No. The elections are yet another artificial deadline or milestone declared by the U.S. government largely so it will have something to tell the American public. Since the summer of 2003 we've heard repeatedly that if there's an increase in violence, it must be because the insurgents want to undermine some great new American accomplishment just over the horizon. The through-the-looking-glass logic is that the more successful we are, the more violent the opposition becomes. But, then, the event passes, and the killing just keeps getting worse. The death of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay in July 2003 did nothing to stop what was then an insurgency in its early stages. Neither did the capture of Saddam himself in December 2003, as the rebellion continued to spread. Neither did the supposed transfer of sovereignty in June, which was followed by the appearance of no-go zones for U.S. troops in much of the Sunni heartland.

As NEWSWEEK has reported in detail, it's doubtful the Iraqi elections will happen on time, if at all. And if they do, they're not likely to be credible. "Nothing's perfect in life," Rumsfeld told the Senate last week. "So you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet."

Wrong again. The most likely course of events in the years to come will be a rapid disintegration of Iraq, with the Kurdish north ever more independent, the center of the country--including much of Baghdad--a virtual no-go zone and the mullahs in the south, by design or default, positioning it as a new Shiite Islamic Republic. All those trends are well advanced already, and partial elections in the north and the south will probably hasten the outcome. But many more Americans will die before the administration declares "parts of former Iraq are winning freedom."

In the United States, it's doubtful we've been haunted by such a collective sense of fear since the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts in the early 1950s. There was a real threat then, but there was also vicious demagoguery based on calculated hysteria. So, too, today.

The events of three years ago were a terrible shock. Terrorists do want to attack us, and they do need to be fought. But the artificial hysteria I found when I was back in America over the last month contributes nothing positive in a battle that has to be waged in a real world full of gray areas and seeming contradictions. The fact is, allies do not cooperate just because you tell them to. Dictators do not pose a clear and present danger just because you think they might. People do not feel liberated just because you say they are. They won't love you for intentions. They will judge you by your actions.

It would be satisfying to report that the Bush administration in a second term will take off its ideological blinders and favor expertise over ideology when dealing with the fight against terrorists and the uphill battle to stabilize a unified Iraq. But the trend is in precisely the opposite direction. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and the chickenhawks who flock around them are set to stay. The few weak voices of reason like Secretary of State Colin Powell are expected to leave. So are many of the old pros at the State Department, the CIA and in the military, who are tired of being ignored and wary of implication in further disasters. "This administration wants ideological purity," says one ambassador who served until recently in a sensitive Middle Eastern post, "and it will get it."

Yes, democracy sure is a messy thing. People eventually get so fed up with fear, they'll accept the word of almost anyone who claims he can make it go away. They're so afraid of losing, they'll buy the line they're winning, no matter what. They want so badly to feel free, they'll sacrifice countless liberties, and thank the government that made them do it.

In the U.S.A., what this means is that the second term of the Bush administration will most likely have a real mandate to populate the bureaucracy at all levels with political appointees and civil servants loyal to its vision, embracing its logic, accepting its hallucinatory rhetoric. George Orwell had the key words about right, describing the party slogans of another time, another place: "WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

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