Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iraq In the Season of Symbolism

As symbolic gestures go, it's hard to beat the Iraq war.

Before I get to the main event -- the hollow symbolism of President Bush's "surge" strategy -- veteran journo Andrew Cockburn tells the farcical story of the new Iraqi flag that never was in his terrific book, "The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq."
The new design -- a blue crescent over two parallel blue stripes and a yellow band -- was whipped up by an artist living in London at the request of a culturally blind member of Paul Bremer's Provisional Authority. But then weren't all of these chuckleheads culturally blind?
The new flag was stillborn. Many Iraqis though that it looked too much like the Israeli flag. (Ouch!) But the big problem was that they were quite proud of the flag that they already had, the one that drapes the simple wooden coffins being carried through the streets of Baghdad and other cities with a numbing regularity.

This is where I turn over the program to another veteran journo, Christopher Hitchens, who notes that as symbolic gestures go, it's hard to beat the bungled hangings of Saddam Hussein and then his half brother.

But wait, Hitch says in a terrific Slate essay alluded to in my imperial presidency post above. You just can't beat Bush's plan to escalate the war in order to end it:
"The critical thing about the much-bruited surge is that it, too, belongs in the all-important realm of the symbolic. A few thousand extra troops in Baghdad and in Anbar are of scant use in themselves, unless they in some way represent a commitment to stick to Iraq no matter what. And if the Iraq to which they stick is in fact symbolized by Maliki's surly confessional regime, then the United States is not baby-sitting a civil war so much as deciding to take part in it. The president conceded as much when he said that new patrols in Baghdad would not be determined by sectarian calculations: Such an assurance would not be necessary if the contingency itself—or the symbolic perception of it—was not so strongly present in people's minds. In these conditions, it's almost perfect that the Democrats have been discussing a symbolic vote against the surge (you cannot beat these people for moral courage), while our new secretary of defense seems to believe that what the surge really symbolizes is a renewed determination to hand over to the Iraqis and start drawing down—as near to a flat contradiction in terms as you could wish."

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