The Coalition Provisional Authority, that suitably-Orwellian institution, led by Paul Bremer, formally handed over power to Iraqis on June 30th, 2004. It built up its own slice of history, which they’ve decided to leave online for posterity, of press releases, documents, and other paraphenalia.
Looking through the press releases, speech transcripts, and odd-ball announcements, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The overriding sense is of a loose collection of idealists, diplomats, the military, and naive officials struggling with the creation of a new country from the shattered remains of the old one. They bore all the weight of the lack of planning and Utopian visions coming from Washington, without the benefit of knowing how it would all soon develop into a grotesque nightmare.
Hindsight endows near-perfect clarity on us as we peer back into recent history. So it would be unfair to judge the CPA too harshly, knowing what we do today about Iraq. But it does seem appropriate to me to review just exactly how cock-eyed and half-witted the whole reconstruction effort really was, through this one small prism.
One thing that struck me repeatedly is the similarity between the CPA’s press releases and those of a typical communist country, such as North Korea’s wonderfully inept news service. There are the same inane positive news stories about footballs for children, and concerts, and ribbon-cutting for new power stations. And the same tone of rosy-tinted optimism fuels their endeavours. The veneer they both attempt to put on the morass they preside, or presided, over is tragic and quite painful to watch.
First, there were the definitive announcements, the high-moral tones, and proud boasts:
Torture is now illegal, under any circumstances. There are no “special police” and no mukhabbarat. There are no “special prisons” and no “special courts”.
Paul Bremer, July 2003
Quite what Mr. Bremer thought Abu Ghraib was is beyond me. Of course, once the insurgency cranked up, the “under any circumstances” meant “unless they are insurgents”. And are not the hundreds of rag-tag militias roaming central Bagdhad not “special police” forces? Indeed, General David Petraeus right now is actively encouraging citizen militias in Sunni areas all over Iraq, to tackle Al Qaeda. Mr. Bremer’s statement seems more like an opportunistic swipe at Saddam Hussein than an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq in 2003. But, worse, it has left a hostage to fortune. What the Iraqi’s were promised was not delivered.
Knowing what we know today about the missing billions of dollars, the misspent reconstruction funds, and the other fiscally irresponsible activities, it is quite sobering to see a press release from October 2003 called Iraq Releases Fiscally Responsible 2004 Budget:
Consistent with responsible fiscal policy this budget does not rely on increased borrowing, printing money, or foreign assistance.
When you review the North Korean’s official press releases, you get the endless announcements about art displays and concerts. It is impossible to parody the format: it is so excruciatingly cloying and inappropriate. But the CPA attempted their own version: Iraq National Symphony Orchestra Performs in Washington.
“What you are about to hear,” Powell told the audience, “is the music of hope, the sweet, sweet sound of freedom.”
My eyes water when I read this. This is cringe-worthy, at the best of times. Let’s compare it to the North Korean agency’s press release for October 7th, in praise of an art exhibition in Britain:
On display in the venue of the exhibition were Korean paintings, oil paintings, everlasting jewel paintings and panoramas and other art works and handicrafts showing the undying feats and noble traits of President Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the ever-victorious history of the WPK, the struggle of the army and people of the DPRK for the building of a great prosperous powerful nation and the true picture of Songun Korea.
This is more than a coincidence. When politics gets mixed up with cultural expression, the results are comical at best. At worst, they are propoganda attempting to draw a veil over the real reality of life on the ground. Powell should have resisted the temptation to lax lyrical over the “sweet, sweet sound of freedom”.
Back in Iraq, we had endless stories of firemen receiving boots, children warmed by new clothes, and free footballs, and the opening of new power stations. But on the scale of inappropriateness, the Beautiful Baghdad story tops the list. Quite what the residents of Baghdad thought about the 1st Armored Division painting murals or cleaning up parks, when that same division came back months later to bomb it to pieces, I presume they were suitably shocked.
If there is a lesson to learn about all of this, it is that democracies should stay out of the business of issuing communist-like press releases. It makes them look foolish, incompetent, and out-of-touch. Worse, it looks like they didn’t know what they were doing and that would be criminal, wouldn’t it?