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A level that they tolerate

What Iraqis want

In response to the new Lancet report [pdf] on post-invasion deaths in Iraq, George W Bush said:

I don’t consider it a credible report, neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died and it troubles me and grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.

According to the most recent polls of actual Iraqis, however, including one conducted by the State Department, strong majorities of them do not actually tolerate the current “level of violence”. In fact, they state clearly that they want US-led forces to leave, because this would “make them feel safer and decrease violence”.

The ascription of toleration or even voluntariness is not new, of course. It is often claimed, as it was in May by Paul Keetch MP in Parliament, that the US-led forces are in Iraq “at the invitation of the democratically elected government”, which is a good trick, since that government did not exist in 2003 when the armies, or so we are to understand, gratefully accepted a non-existent invitation from a non-existent body of people.

It is even possible to claim, in flat denial of what Iraqis are actually saying to interviewers, that they do not merely tolerate violence but gladly give up their lives and those of others for the cause. Notice how George W Bush above began to say “they’re willing to –” and then stopped himself, toning down his half-made claim of willing to one of mere toleration. But what was he going to say? What are Iraqis willing to do?

A clue might reside in a recent statement by Condoleezza Rice, as reported by the author of a State Department news release, “Rice Defines ‘Successful Outcome’ in Iraq”, of August 31:

Many Iraqis striving for a unified government have lost family members to terrorists; nonetheless, she noted, “they’re willing to sacrifice for it.”

Right: they’re willing to sacrifice. Indeed in many ways, Iraq is a triumph of the will: no one there lacks for it, whether the “coalition of the willing” or the heroic Iraqis “willing to sacrifice”. Most Iraqis do not regret the passing of Saddam Hussein, having said in previous polls that overall his “ousting” was “worth it”. (Those killed during the course of his “ousting” were not available for comment.) But that kind of hindsight evaluation does not, as the newer polls show, translate into a continuing “toleration” of violence, or a “willing[ness] to sacrifice”. The concept of sacrifice here invoked is one of a noble gesture, but only as long as someone else is doing it.

  1. 1  Leinad  October 12, 2006, 11:27 am 

    Might one posit a relationship between this unspeak and the “pathology of terrorism” unspeak that gave us the ‘surgical strike’, and the description of the insurgency as ‘cancerous’? Together they seem to posit Iraqis as patients on an operating table. Wincing under the bright lights, gritting their teeth as Bush and Blair don facemasks (Hi, everybody!) and roll up their sleeves, apologising all the while for the lack of proper anaesthetic and talking hurriedly, trying to reassure. ‘It’ll all be over soon, don’t worry’, ‘This might sting a little’, to the mother; ‘He’s so brave, your boy!’.

    Of course, usually people choose to go to doctors, not the other way around.

    P.S. Ludens homo: check ears for loud whooshing noise.

  2. 2  homo ludens  October 12, 2006, 1:27 pm 

    Apart from the bunkered geezers at the MOD there appears to be only two schools of thought on Iraq:

    1. It was a bad idea from the start

    2. It was a good idea but we made a bit of a dog’s dinner of it

    With regard to Saddam Hussein, do you think he meant well but made a bit of a hash of things too?

    Since his trial has descended from pantomime into farce and since the Americans took over running things I have come to appreciate his good points. I understand, for example, that he was a vegetarian and liked playing the flute in his spare time.

  3. 3  Leinad  October 12, 2006, 3:21 pm 

    I understand, for example, that he was a vegetarian and liked playing the flute in his spare time.

    That tidbit tips the scales for this ethical being: shoot the maniac right now, before it it’s too late!

  4. 4  Cardinal Ratzinger  October 12, 2006, 4:13 pm 

    When I heard that clip of Bush’s speech on the news last night, I laughed. I did not just smile wistfully in acknowledgement of his skill at Unspeak. My thorax moved in a genuine and involuntary spasm of the kind that would have registered on appropriate medical machinery, if I had been wired to any. There is not a lot of laugh at, of course, in the death of 655,000 people (indisputably at least 400,000). But black humour can be an appropriate sanity-preserving response in the face of such industrious killing. What shook the laugh out of my ribcage was the barefaced dishonesty of the statement. Perhaps it is so blatant as not to qualify as “Unspeak”?

    By using “toleration”, Bush is implying that the Iraqi population had actively chosen to be invaded. The carnage was a price they had chosen to bear. There is even a hint in Bush’s statement that: why hell, if they hadn’t been so keen on the idea, maybe we would not have done it.

    The press corps should have heckled him. It called for wild, trouser-wetting, armpit-clutching hoots of derision. But that’s not how the game is played. We have to give equal airtime to politicians both in the UK and the US so that they can mumble about unrepresentative sample sizes and academic bias. And yet still the upholstery of power seems to give them enough credibility to be effective in discrediting the researchers at John Hopkins. Anybody versed in the epidemiology of death, or just the rudiments of polling, would I am sure rather trust the professional body-counters, than a small clique of politicians, who have shown no interest in evidence-based analysis.

    As ever I am sure I am preaching to the converted.

  5. 5  Steven  October 12, 2006, 4:31 pm 

    Greetings, Your Holiness. You are surely preaching to the converted most of the time, but your latest flip-flop about unchristened babies and Limbo has me rather worried.

    Perhaps it is so blatant as not to qualify as “Unspeak”?

    It’s a fair observation. Perhaps the rhetoric of Bush and his chums will gradually slide entirely out of the ambit of this blog and into a realm that would more accurately be called just “lying”. That would be a shame.

    I love your phrase “the upholstery of power”. It speaks to me of evilly delicious-smelling leather chairs.

  6. 6  The Inside Of My Head » Spreading democracy!  October 12, 2006, 5:12 pm 

    […] Update: George Bush denies the figure (video). Unspeak picks apart the denial. […]

  7. 7  Cardinal Ratzinger  October 12, 2006, 6:23 pm 

    Flip-flops, my son, are very similar to the footwear worn by the first apostles. I don’t think they are fitting for metaphorical use. Humour has its proper place.

    As for armchairs: the Japanese novelist, Edogawa Ranpo, wrote a short story about a man who is so infatuated by a woman who has spurned his advances, that he has himself sewn into her armchair. Unfortunately she sets it on fire, if I remember rightly, in a fit of inattention with a discarded cigarette.

    When I posted my previous bull, I was not thinking of that allusion. Nor of course should you.

    Ex cathedra……

  8. 8  Cardinal Ratzinger  October 12, 2006, 6:40 pm 

    Going back to the discussion.

    Homo Ludens: even the dominant opinion in the MOD was that the Iraq excursion was always likely to be a disaster. It was not their idea, just as it wasn’t the FO’s. (Or at least I have never had a private conversation with anybody in the UK military who thought it was a good one.)

    Don’t forget the dominant paradigm for the British army has been their experience in Northern Ireland, numerous hidden little wars in which counter-insurgency specialists were unofficially deployed, and before that the retreat from empire. Plus: they had watched the French get themselves into a horrible mess over Algeria.

    Still, they have sworn loyalty to the executive, which these days is just Blair and a few policy advisers.

  9. 9  homo ludens  October 12, 2006, 9:15 pm 


    I don’t think shooting vegetarians would be ‘tolerated’ in any civilised country although flautists may be a different matter. Of course during the time of Saddam’s regime it was only the toughest prisoners in which all the usual torture techniques had proven ineffectual that were treated to Saddam’s flute playing. After that, in most cases, it was an early lunch for all concerned.

    Hi Cardy

    Sadly I don’t have your connections as far as the MOD is concerned and must, perforce, rely on the ‘official line’. But forgive me if I sound a little sceptical. I think you’ll find that anyone of any seniority in the MOD would have little truck with a representative of popery and a johnny-foreigner too. I note also that they have yet to cure you of your non sequitars. I seem to recall that the MOD were rather keen on the whole caper. Didn’t the MOD go to some lengths to gag and traduce poor old Dr Kelly who was clandestinely informing the BBC that much of the WMD story was, and I quote, ‘complete crud’?

    I would acknowledge though that an increasingly weasly element within the MOD who now realise what a bad idea the whole thing was are trying hard to do that most dastardly of things, namely, to blame it on the other guy. And, incidentally, if there is a dominant paradigm in the MOD nowadays it is probably American in origin.

    Although we only burn effigies on November 5th I would still take it as a salutary warning, mate. This is the land of the pros.

  10. 10  Steven  October 12, 2006, 11:26 pm 

    Well, MoD in the narrow sense of the idiot Hoon was on message, but military types were leaking their opposition to a war already in March 2002:

    Britain’s military leaders issued a stark warning to Tony Blair last night that any war against Iraq is doomed to fail and would lead to the loss of lives for little political gain.

    The Cardinal is surely right in saying the war was not MoD’s or FO’s idea. We know whose idea it was. Although His Holiness’s story about the man stitching himself into a leather chair will give me nightmares, nightmares that I no doubt deserve.

    This is the land of the pros.

    Protestants? We are very ecumenical here. I prefer to think you mean The Professionals, as in Bodie and Doyle.

  11. 11  Cardy Ratzinger  October 12, 2006, 11:57 pm 

    Hoon’s nickname in the MoD was “Buff”. Think of it as a substitute for Geoff, and it becomes less of an endearment.

    Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, it is reported tonight , is calling for British troops to withdraw from Iraq. As Nick Robinson puts it, that for a serving officer in his position “is quite extraordinary.”

    Rattle. Pram. Out of. Long time coming. Hidden fury.

    I wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour in my own organisation, mind you.

  12. 12  homo ludens  October 13, 2006, 12:28 am 

    Ecumenical? Are you talking about Coca-cola?

    Obviously the MOD is a broad church and like all churches it has its dissenters.
    Hoon? As with Dr Kelly and his team of specialists Hoon was clearly not in the loop even within his own department – this embarrassment became obvious during the Hutton Inquiry but, oddly, Hoon himself remained unphased by this. In fact I have suggested elsewhere that Hoon may be computer-generated. It seems like the only plausible explanation.

    The suggestion that Hoon was ‘on-message’ and dragged a reluctant MOD into the Iraq War along with Blair on a white charger is fantastical to put it mildly. Blair’s subsequent political survival may owe a lot to an establishment consensus that on more than one occassion has covered his arse (I mean ‘lying’ arse). That there was a broad consensus on Iraq cannot be seriously doubted both across Whitehall, and within the MOD itself. The Brits may have given up Empire with the greatest of reluctance but they have jumped with the greatest of alacrity onto the American bandwagon. They are now joined at the hip. Truly an ‘American vassal’ to quote General de Gaulle. I suspect that Iraq was one of those defining moments in history at least from a British perspective. Either the British went with Europe or they went with the Americans. And that I think is where we find ourselves today – slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. And I said all that without mentioning even once the British independnet nuclear deterrent.

  13. 13  Steven  October 13, 2006, 12:47 am 

    I fear the suggestion of a broad pro-war consensus at MoD or even “across Whitehall” is the fantastical one. The picture that emerges from the books by Cook, Philippe Sands, etc is very much one of Tony dragging a reluctant establishment behind him, much as we hope the evidently progressive Cardy will do.

    Surely if Hoon was computer-generated he would look more handsome, in a Manga style?

    I’m very glad you managed not to mention Trident, though.

  14. 14  homo ludens  October 13, 2006, 1:15 am 

    The ‘picture that emerges’??
    Come on Steven make your argument not a reference to someone else’s.
    The really big question is: just how dependent are we on the Americans for our status, prestige, power, defence, security, and intelligence?

    Answer: inextricably.

  15. 15  Steven  October 13, 2006, 9:13 am 

    I’m merely referring to the facts so far as I have been able to understand them by reading numerous accounts of what actually happened.

    I agree with your answer to the really big question, which is a different point altogether.

  16. 16  Mike  October 13, 2006, 10:48 am 

    Still, they have sworn loyalty to the executive, which these days is just Blair and a few policy advisers.

    I’ve always been curious about this. Don’t they actually swear loyalty to the Crown, and isn’t the monarch the Commander-in-Chief? I’ve always wondered what would happen if Liz actually thought, deep down, that the whole thing was a bad idea and issued the order to withdraw. I’d have to think that the vast majority of the British public would rally to her defence, and Tony would be left stammering, ‘But, but, but…’

    Or, it might wind up just like To Play the King, and Tony would be Ian Richardson, and that would be that.

    Or, maybe, deep down, she thinks it is a good idea, and that’s why she’s never said anything.

    Anyway, it’s fun to think about.

  17. 17  Andrew Brown  October 13, 2006, 1:55 pm 

    Poking around for illumination, I found this priceless paragraph from the Observer of March 10 2002:

    The Prime Minister gives every appearance of being willing to risk the lives of British troops in a war he believed should not be fought. His Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary didn’t believe it was justified either. His generals have warned against it as noisily as serving officers can. His diplomats and spies have found no excuse for it. But if and when America tells Britain to send its soldiers into Iraq, Tony Blair will comply with alacrity. What is there left to say about such a man?

    The writer, of course, was Nick Cohen.

  18. 18  Steven  October 13, 2006, 3:10 pm 

    Mike: there are readers more expert on these matters than I, and I hope they will arrive with a more informed opinion, but my understanding is that if Queenie were ever to exercise her theoretical power in defiance of the Prime Minister’s wishes, it would amount to constitutional suicide.

    Andrew: it is pleasing to be reminded of Nick Cohen’s remarkable flip-flop.

  19. 19  Cardy Ratzinger  October 13, 2006, 6:41 pm 

    Homo Ludens: in view of the storm that has been generated today as a result of Dannatt’s criticsim don’t you think an element of “contrition” might be in order? Only a small one mind you.

    I was hoping you would read all the commentary, and exclaim, “Oh, I see, they did not like it either.”

    The suggestion that Hoon was ‘on-message’ and dragged a reluctant MOD into the Iraq War along with Blair on a white charger is fantastical to put it mildly

    The rhetorical flourish at the end of that sentence does nothing to support the substance of your allegation. Cohen got it right in 2002. Every journalist talking to the military during Telic 1, (the Iraq War) (of which I was one) knew that most were at best mistrustful and ambivalent about the whole enterprise. But they had to appear to be confident; positive thinking is essential Dutch courage for any poor bastard has to risk their life for a cause not of their choosing. From the end of 2003, when it became apparent that their efforts at peace keeping were even less welcome than they had first feared that they might be, the attitude consolidated around the old military trope: this might be a terrible, shameful activity, but we can retain our honour by trying it do as professionally as possible. It’s those politicians who got us into this.

    Dannatt, has decided that the charade can’t go on. The fact that he has spoken in the way he has, reveals two things: first, it underlines just how deep and long-festering the military establishment’s antipathy to the whole enterprise has been, and secondly how fearful they are that the prime minister has centralised too much power to his own office. The subtext of Dannatt’s actions are something like: I know this is going to cause a constitutional fire-storm, but Tony Blair’s inability to tell the truth about what has happened in Iraq threatens to fatally damage the prestige of the military and the UK’s standing in the world. As an institution the military (and other sections of the civil service) is more important to the health of Britain’s constitution, than insubordination to an elected Prime Minister.

    That is a big deal. Amazing even. He is saying that politicians have to follow checks and balances and that they can’t be allowed to politicise the civil service in the ways that threatens its impartiality.

  20. 20  homo ludens  October 13, 2006, 9:06 pm 

    Ratzo, you’re back! And a damn good thing too.

    Steven seems to have acknowledged that there is substance to my answer to the ‘big question’ which sort of undoes his argument in a way.

    The implication of my answer to the ‘big question’ is that a broad consensus (within, for want of a better word, the establishment) backed the Iraqi Invasion because it was perceived to be in the British National self-interest to do so. This was certainly true in Whitehall, true in the JIC, and true for much of the upper echelons of the MoD. Of course the Army Commander-in-Chief is not the MoD and vice versa. Dannatt is especially concerned about current Army morale and the future implications for the British Army of a prolonged involvement in the ongoing quagmire that Iraq has become. He makes this fear for the future of the Army and its reputation quite explicit in his article. He also makes reference, echoed again by Blair, of the political reality of any pullout of British troops being tied to the Americans. In fact Blair has baldly stated that he agrees with every word of Dannatt’s article. And I have repeatedly said the same – that the British went in because they had to go with the Americans and they will only leave when it is politically convenient for the Americans to have them leave.

    You might even conclude from the above that TB deserves a certain sympathy for his ‘inability to tell the truth’. If a consensus had formed which decided that not to go with the Americans on the Iraq adventure would jeapordise vital British interests then it would fall to the politician’s lot to sell this to a reluctant public. Clearly Blair had little choice but to make a case to the British public for going to war which, though convincing, would be an entire fabrication. It was an emotive appeal in true populist fashion that worked on latent fears and argued a certain moral imperative. Obligingly the mainstream media picked up the banner as programmes like Panorama produced alarmist documentaries about Saddam’s ‘mental instability’, his ambitions for world domination, and his likely soon acquisition of nuclear weapons which naturally combined with his mental state would constitute a direct threat not only to the region but to us all. Thus Blair’s ‘doing nothing is not an option’ message. It was an eloquent and persuasive argument that helped forge a significant consensus even amongst broadsheet journos. But Blair’s problem would always be that the reasons he gave to the British public to sell a deeply unpopular, not to mention illegal, war were never his real ones. If the rats are leaving the sinking vessel currently then I can’t help feeling even at least a little soupcon of sympathy for the old lying bastard.

    Me and contrition, by the way, are not even on speaking terms nowadays. It’s a little bit of Nietzsche that rubbed off in the library. Contrition is strictly for the religious.

  21. 21  Steven  October 13, 2006, 9:42 pm 

    Homo, there is of course an extremely large difference between saying that in general Britain is dependent on the US for status etc (your shatteringly illuminating Big Answer), and saying that that the MoD, FO etc were actually in favour of invading Iraq, which, as I and Cardy keep pointing out apparently to no avail, is demonstrably false.

  22. 22  homo ludens  October 13, 2006, 10:27 pm 

    I am saying that the MoD,FO etc were in FAVOUR of doing what was in the British national interest which IS demonstrably true AND at the time meant invading Iraq with the Americans… aint yer been paying attention yer great narna?

    But I agree we avail little here.. I am tired, so, so damned tired. It’s time I had me Horlicks and went to bed.

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