A Tale of Two Cities: Baghdad and Baghdad

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the last bastion of neocon fantasy, carried a delightful essay today by an brilliant young fiction writer, Colin Powell. Powell wrote of an imaginary kingdom where "society was on the move" and the "hard work" of closeted (but not gay) Americans had produced the rudiments of a "peaceful and prosperous democracy." What’s not to like about such a Garden of Eden, or dare I say (in poor taste) such a garden of Babylon? The problem was, Powell’s writing was completely fictitious, because he pretended to speak as an expert on the mysteries of Baghdad today, not Babylon yesterday.

Earlier I had received a horrific assessment of conditions in Iraq from my colleague Robert Fisk writing for the Independent of London, and being interviewed on the Amy Goodman show. Fisk’s Baghdad is a virtual charnel house, where the innocent are sent to slaughter with the metronomic monotony of an Iowa beef packing plant.

To paraphrase Dickens, Baghdad today is a Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Is Baghdad the shining city of the fiction writer Colin Powell? Or is it Hades of Robert Fisk? In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in between.

In a few days, I return to Baghdad, for my fourth trip to Iraq since the fall of Saddam (but where is the rascal?). In many ways, the city has gone from bad to worse.

The city was open and hopeful in April. Americans were reaching out, expecting to be welcomed. Today Americans build ever-larger security zones (including the "Green Zone" of Paul Bremer, which I satirized as the "Emerald City" in June). How can we be winning if we are building bigger barricades? Obviously, we are not winning. Powell’s quickie trip to Iraq, inside a massive security bubble, no more qualified him to know the streets of Baghdad than I know what goes on in the private offices of the State Department.

But even Governor Howard Dean admits that having made an insane policy choice to invade Iraq, we are stuck with the consequences, and with the need to work our way out of the morass. So it is not enough to criticize Powell. We have to analyze what the reality is. We need the "streets smarts" that Bronx-born Powell seems to have lost.

No one mourns the passing of Saddam’s regime, except the ever-popular (in the Bush imagination) "leftover loyalists" of Powell’s fiction. Our problem today is not Saddam’s leftover loyalists but rather our own disillusioned Iraqi supporters. Bush & Co. have done everything wrong that would be done wrong. They are continuing to do wrong.

The way to peace and prosperity in Iraq lie not through more fortifications, higher barricades, and Gurkha guards. The way to success, or at least successful disengagement, is through trust, openness and removal of barriers to contact between Baghdad and its temporary suzerains. We need to expose ourselves to more risk, more openness, not less. Bremer has been wrong from the start, and he is still wrong, in seeking to fortify himself inside his Emerald City (or, if you prefer, "Fort Apache"). Because we have zero tolerance for casualties, we expose our men and women to greater risk, not less.

It is basic freshman football. Players who are afraid of getting hurt, get hurt. Players who play with gusto usually end up safer.

I saw the two cities of Baghdad evolving in June. I walked the streets freely. I also saw Bremer building barricades. I saw Iraqis rebuilding their own nation, right under Paul Bremer’s nose. Construction was restarting. People were on the move. Markets were full. A cautions hope was returning. I expect to find more, not less, economic activity, more building, more economic activity, not less, when I am back in Baghdad.

And, strange as it seems, there will be more hope below the surface, not less. The very incompetence of the Americans ensures their stay will not be a long one. Our enemy is not Jacques Chirac. Our enemy is the pasty-faced warmongering weenies in the Pentagon (Wolfowitz & Co.) who thought invasion was a video game, not a real world risk for American foreign policy, and who dismissed our men in uniform when warned them of the dangers ahead.

Thus, Powell is partially right for the wrong reasons. Powell speaks the truth, by accident. Iraq is improving.

On the other hand, Fisk is also spot on. Conditions are worsening. Efforts to attack the "loyalists" of Saddam have reduced America’s loyalists to tears, and frustration. If anything, the occupation of Baghdad has been worse than Viet-Nam, not better. In Viet-Nam we always maintained the ruse of a "host country" and "host government." There is no such pretense in Baghdad.

But, back again to the streets. Things are improving. The bottom line: today there are two parallel worlds in Iraq. They exist right on top of each other, and are oblivious to each other (sort of like a New York neighborhood). There is the insane world of occupation, fear and self-encirclement. And there is the world of evolving freedom, where people shorn of a bloodthirsty dictatorship are gradually returning to normal.

I have been promised a delicious dinner in Baghdad, in a neighborhood apart from the fortified hotels and cantonments of Bremer-Powell land. People can buy food, live quietly, and try to gradually resume normal lives. There is danger, yes, but all those police who are being trained will do something, sooner or later. This evolving "city" of progress exists in the same space as the disastrous "city of occupation" of Bremer and his imperium.

How will it end? Badly for Americans, Less badly, and possibly tolerably well, for Iraqis. I have always opposed the war as an act having no basis in American national self-interest. I never saw what Bush saw in his invasion obsession. But I also do not see the hopelessness that others see for Iraqis. American taxpayers are getting the boot, but if we do spend $50 billion in Iraq, some of it will do some good. Opening the doors to commerce, ending the silly U.N. sanctions, all of these will help children and families go on to a better, more normal life.

My guess: Iraq will defeat Precedent Bush for reelection. He is in a quagmire worse than President Johnson’s. Johnson, at least, existed in a world where the media effectively did not exist, and news film had to be sent to Hong Kong to be processed. Today, everything is live and on the scene. Bush’s disaster cannot survive instant analysis and the Internet, but neither will Robert Fisk’s.

The two cities will continue to exist until the Americans depart. This will not be Germany or Japan. We will not be in Iraq fifty years from now. We will be on our way out closer to fifty weeks from now. Today two cities; tomorrow a free Iraq. Free of Saddam, and free of Bush and his neocon adventurers. Wall Street Journal take notice.