Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is the author of The Clinton Wars (THE GARDEN, 15/06/06):
Months before an air strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, US military commanders and intelligence officers in Iraq tried to persuade the office of the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the White House to “degrade” his inflated image; they resisted, ultimately for “domestic political reasons”, as a military source told me.
President Bush’s statement a week ago said Zarqawi was “the operational commander of the terrorist movement in Iraq”, and that his death the night before was “a severe blow to al-Qaida”, but added that “we can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him”. Superficially sober, Bush’s remarks conflated the lone wolf Zarqawi with al-Qaida, though Zarqawi had taken on the al-Qaida label as self-proclaimed grandiosity and the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had denounced him, and with the entire Sunni insurgency, with which Zarqawi had been in conflict.
If Zarqawi’s killing was a new version of Saddam Hussein’s capture (“We got him!”), Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday was “Mission Accomplished” in a business suit. Six months after the Iraqi election, with the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, at last having appointed defence and interior ministers amid sectarian civil war, Bush said: “They themselves have to get some things accomplished.” One thing Bush was trying to accomplish was a reversal of his own fortunes. Zarqawi’s death had provided a convenient platform for the unfolding of his scripted theatre featuring the midnight flight to Baghdad and repeated references to September 11 – but no new initiatives for a political solution.
President Bush, in a speech on October 7 2002 making the case for invading Iraq, first introduced Zarqawi to the world as exhibit A in Saddam’s “links to international terrorist groups … We know that Iraq and al-Qaida have had high-level contacts that go back a decade.” (A CIA report made public in October 2004 found no evidence of any “links” between Saddam and Zarqawi, who in any case did not operate in Iraq until after his release from a seven-year sentence in a Jordanian prison in 1999).
Since the rise of the Iraqi insurgency, US military intelligence has been directed to build up Zarqawi’s profile as its leader through a psychological warfare (“psyop”) effort. On April 10 the Washington Post reported on internal documents about this psyop that “list the ‘US home audience’ as one of the targets of a broader propaganda campaign”. According to a 2004 briefing the goal was “villainise Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response”. One military intelligence officer involved stated that Zarqawi’s followers were “a very small part of the actual numbers” of insurgents, but this had little bearing on the programme.
In a new documentary, Meeting Resistance, insurgents explain their motives and actions, from the first days of the insurgency until now. “I began to see something … that we had become an occupied country,” says one. Some express their hostility in 2004 to Zarqawi as an obstacle to unity against the occupation but not as an impediment to the insurgency’s popular growth. “Whether Zarqawi is captured dead or alive has no impact,” says an insurgent.
Bush’s latest effort to foster belief in a “turning point” may trap him within his own psyop. Until he successfully includes the Sunnis in the political process and creates a new internationalised diplomacy, he remains narrowly circumscribed by the consequences of his accumulated failures. Burdened by years of misjudgment, disinformation and delusion, he has again raised expectations, which may lead to deeper disillusionment within the “US home audience”.