While reading the transcript of Obama’s speech at Fort Bragg, meant to signal the end of the Iraq War, three words dominated my mind as I sought to find adjectives that best described the speech – “lies,” and “more lies.” That the speech was filled with lies, from falsifying the achievements of the Iraq war to concealing the sentiments that Senator Obama had displayed in 2002, should be obvious to anyone who has followed anything other than the White House press releases on this subject. However, as I thought about the speech over the next couple of days, I realized that there was more to this speech than just the lies it was peddling. In fact, the speech is representative of the kind of myth-making that all corporate bodies engage in for the sake of assuring themselves that their sacrifices were not in vain. As I see it, it is naive to criticize President Obama’s speech simply as misleading and hypocritical. That it surely is, but as critical observers of contemporary politics in the U.S., I think we need to ask a further question – why would such false statements be made in the first place? Collective self-delusion, even if practiced on a regular basis, is not witnessed publicly as often. Thus when we are confronted by it, it is to our benefit to analyze it as a social-fact.
But before we do that, we should also spend some time appreciating the fabrications and obfuscations contained in Obama’s speech. Let us begin with half-truths that the President fed his audience. First off, the fact that the troops are leaving Iraq is not President Obama delivering on his campaign promises to end the Iraq War. It is the result of negotiations that took place in the last months of 2008. It was during the press conference held after the signing of this pact between the Iraqis and the Americans, that President Bush famously became the (missed) target of Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s shoes. Secondly, the statement that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” needs to be modified on at least two counts. First, our troops are not “leaving,” rather they are being asked to leave. We have to withdraw them because the “self-reliant” Iraqis are refusing to continue with the immunities accorded to these troops. And it should also be noted that this is despite the efforts of the Iraqi Prime Minister. If he had the ability, he would have willingly helped re-negotiate the terms of the agreement in order to extend the troops’ stay in Iraq. Next, though combat troops may be exiting Iraq, private armies will still be responsible for providing security for American diplomats. The exact numbers of these contractors is unknown, their history is hardly inspiring, and their accountability nebulously coordinated between the State Department and the Iraqi courts. Similarly, about 740 Americans will remain behind to train the Iraqi forces, and the number of American employees in the world’s largest embassy, with a budget of $6 billion, could be as large as 18,000. All of this hardly qualifies as leaving Iraq. Thirdly, when President Obama recalled the costs of this war he only remembered the physical harm visited upon the Americans troops (wounded – 30,000 + fallen – 4,500). He conveniently disregarded other facts that might have described the Iraqi experience of this war, such the 4.5 million orphans in a population of 30 million. Neither could he remember the total number of soldier suicides, nearly equal to a quarter of all soldier deaths in Iraq, let alone the ones who outnumbered the troops killed in the combat.
In addition to these half-truths, one could also point to other facts that Obama chose to ignore in their entirety; such as the killings of Haditha, the tortures of Abu Ghraib, and the gang-rape of Mahmudiyah. And if that is too far back in the past, maybe we could ponder President Obama’s silence about the Hussein-esque leaderswe are bequeathing to Iraq? But maybe it is better to focus on the errors he committed than the inconvenient details he forgot. And indeed there were quite a few of them. The most glaring
mistake was his assertion that the fight in Fallujah was driven by the same principles as those animating the American Revolution. He even asserted that the battle of Fallujah delivered “justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.” So far, the best argument for connecting the fighters in Fallujah with Al-Qaeda has been the claim that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his associates were hiding in Fallujah. However, that is still a far cry from holding them responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Nor does it even begin to make sense of the fact that armed confrontations began in Fallujah before it was alleged that the city had become a refuge for Al-Qaeda fighters. The only way these assertions make sense is if we assume the Iraq was already teeming with Al-Qaeda operatives before the war began. But, these fanciful imaginings of the Bush administration have already been laid to rest. Yet, somehow Obama still managed to claim what President Bush had already denied five years ago. According to Bush, “nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack…the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize…Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.” On the other hand, it could be said that Obama’s comments were referring to the post-invasion increase of Al-Qaeda recruits in Iraq. But, if that is the case, then the President is not really talking about the “Iraq War.” Instead, Obama is celebrating the troops’ achievements in the Global War on Terror, which in the case of Iraq was conjured ex-nihilo by the American military’s illegitimate presence in Iraq. And regardless of how loudly he proclaims the end of the “Iraq War”, the “War on Terror” is far from over.
These kinds of statements by the President go a long way in reinforcing the global perception that the Obama administration is even more hawkish than the Bush administration in its desire to abuse the traumatic memory of 9/11. It seems, the only difference between the two administrations is to change their modes of engagement. Whereas Bush favored the deployment of overwhelming force, Obama prefers to use the drones. Whereas Bush legalized torture, Obama hid it from the public view and continues employing it. It might even be correct to say that between the two, Obama’s methods are more nefarious by virtue of being enshrouded in secrecy. And specifically in relation to the Fort Bragg speech, the characteristically misleading nature of Obama’s statements is probably best captured by the following contrast. While the President (presumably depending on a report filed by the United States Forces in Iraq) quotes the deputy governor of the Anbar Province as thanking the U.S. forces for bringing peace to their province, a Reuters report informs us that on the same day as the presidential speech, a crowd in Fallujah celebrated the exit of American troops by burning U.S. flags under the leadership of another deputy governor of Anbar. And instead of thanking the U.S. troops, this deputy governor remembered the fighters of Fallujah as martyrs. Such contrasts, between the accomplishments of the U.S. troops, as told from the perspective of their Commander-in-Chief, and the reactions of the Iraqi civilians underscore the arbitrariness of the President’s measure of success in Iraq.
Obama just asserts the “fact” of achievements without ever showing what the success consists in. In his words, “indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq – all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering – all of it has led to this moment of success.” All of it, he says! If success was so easily achieved and so blatantly obvious, why does he only offer the vague generalizations of leaving “America stronger and the world more secure,” and Iraq “with a representative government that was elected by its people,” as the sole achievements of the American invasion? It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is not much to show in the first place, and that is the reason why Obama is so hesitant to tell.
However, none of the above still gets us any closer to why President Obama must proclaim the Iraq War as an unconditional success, even at the cost of fabricating obvious lies. The answer to that question is provided by Obama, when he states that “the most important lesson that we can take from you [the troops] is not about military strategy – it’s a lesson about our national character.” The story that the President wants to tell in this speech is not just a story about the Iraq War, it is a story about the nation. In ridding the Iraq war narrative from the burden of its failures, its illegitimacy and its dire consequences, Obama recalls that perennial feature of the American national character – the myth of American exceptionalism – and etches it further into the national character. Americans, according to this myth, are only responsible for bringing the torches of liberty to the dark shores of serfdom. The same mythic elements animate the rhetoric of the President when he states that:
Because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny. That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.
Upon appreciating this point, one realizes that Obama is not just “telling lies.” Rather, as its President and Commander-in-Chief, he is performing as the arch narrator who lends continuity to the story of America, even if this continuity is gained at the cost of coherence. For the President does not seem to realize that in making the troops look like selfless benefactors of Iraq he is also undermining the legitimacy of the claim that the Iraq War was an effort to “make America stronger.” Furthermore, when we realize this, the other elements of the myth fall right into place. Insofar as this is a story of America, it must include America’s forefathers and its most cherished symbols. As Obama goes on to say:
And let us never forget the source of American leadership: our commitment to the values that are written into our founding documents, and a unique willingness among nations to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity. This is who we are. That’s what we do as Americans, together. The war in Iraq will soon belong to history. Your service belongs to the ages. Never forget that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries –- from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you –- men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar, and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.
The Iraq war will turn into history and the American warrior will live on, eternally in the minds, hearts and memory of the American people. What happened in Iraq and what is happening there now was and is merely a happenstance of history, belonging in college books and conversations over cooling coffee. But the American soldier? His service, embellished with virtuous words and stripped of any wrong doing and ill, must be brought forth into us, made part of our beings and Americaness. With this speech, President Obama creates a myth of the Iraq War as it should be remembered in the collective American mind. This is not necessarily how it will be remembered or how it should be remembered for those of us unwilling to succumb easily to such braggadocio – but it is how the war ‘ends’ for Americans. It is how the war ends in high school history books. The war ends with this belief – widely held or not – that the efforts were not in vain, that Iraq is a better place today than it ever has been and that the American warrior returns home with his head held high, having completed his mission. The deaths of thousands of American soldiers, of hundreds and thousands of Iraqis and the crumbling of countries, economies and governments cannot be reduced to having been a mistake which resulted in great failure.
To admit such truths would not be exceptional. It would be self-destructive.Filed Under fort bragg, iraq war, obama