Sunday, June 11, 2006

Tomgram: John Brown Helps the President Address the Nation

The press tells us that our "thrilled" President was "conservative" or "carefully guarded," or expressed "cautious optimism" in responding to the death of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, the small-time thug, beheader, fomenter of Sunni/Shia civil war, and all-around violent extremist who became an American poster boy for terrorism in Iraq. Who had even heard of him until, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, "he was denounced in 2003, by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN Security Council as the link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda."

Zarqawi was the most minor of minor figures, used by the Bush administration mainly as bogus "evidence" of the Saddam/al-Qaeda connection until he made himself conveniently available to step into the explanation gap left open after Saddam had been captured and things in Iraq only got worse.

His face filled the screen in life and death malevolently and photogenically. He looked the villain -- particularly useful for an administration focused on a Manichaean world of good and evil, governing a country that tends to like its enemies straight-up and, if at all possible, personified in a single face. So it didn't take long before Zarqawi was America's most-wanted man in Iraq.

As far as we can tell, he never actually controlled more than a few hundred to a thousand Iraqis and foreign jihadis (though he may have trained others in Iraq, which in the wake of the American invasion has indeed become the President's "central theater in the war on terror," for mayhem elsewhere). He was, as Megan Stack of the Los Angeles Times wrote, more "looming image" than military commander. But his great skill, like that of his al-Qaeda betters, lay in creating his own outsized image and in imagining the brutal attack or slaughter of civilians that would, by its nature, draw the camera and magnify his importance.

The Bush administration helped inordinately, putting a $25 million dollar reward on his head, crowning him the "prince" of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Karen de Young and Walter Pincus put it this way in the Sunday Washington Post: "[Administration] magnification of his role and of the threat he posed grew to the point that some senior intelligence officers believed it was counterproductive."

Now, he's dead and, in death, he's gotten the kind of news attention once devoted to Saddam (who was, at least, a significant regional figure to be reckoned with). On the night his death was announced, CBS prime-time news was typical in devoting almost every moment of a half-hour newscast scoured of actual news to his death alone, as it otherwise might have done only for a major world figure. The full "news" to be gleaned from that half hour was evident in the first fifteen seconds: Zarqawi is dead.

Our papers are filled with discussions of whether or not, after so many Iraqi "turning points" that weren't, this one is. Our "cautious" President nonetheless hailed Zarqawi's death as "a victory in the global war on terror" and spoke -- in one of those plagiarized Churchillian phrases his speechwriters favor (perhaps because they transport us out of the ugly present and back into a version of World War II once seen in movie theaters) -- of how this might represent "an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle." This is "cautious" only compared to a President who, as late as November 2005, used "victory" fifteen times in a single speech on Iraq. One "victory" to a speech is indeed something of a victory deficit for him.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

1 comment(s):

Enjoyed a lot! »

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:05 AM  

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