UnderCurrents: A Symbolic Moment That Went Sadly Wrong

Friday July 02, 2004

Since drama in real life does not come with a sound track—nor promos to get you in the proper frame of mind to interpret what is to come—its true import is often lost on us in the fleeting moments of the actual experience. That is even more true in these days of Internet blogs and 24-hour cable, where a gaggle of honkers following the parade rushes to interpret—the latecomers helpfully providing interpretations of the initial interpretation—so that we come away with our common sense numbed, all remnants of our own initial impressions irretrievably lost. 

And so it was this week with that brief, but telling, Baghdad minuet, America returning sovereignty to the Iraqis, with Mr. Bremer bustled out the door and onto the plane, coattails a-flapping, all before the last, sad sound of the summer band had cleared our ears. 

So let us take note of the moment, quickly, before it is lost to memory. 

What we witnessed behind the Green Line this week was a defeat—a resounding, embarrassing full-frontal defeat—for the administration of George W. Bush. And any attempt to label it otherwise is pure spin. 

For the Bushites, the Gulf War, the Sequel, was fought in anticipation of two historic moments…some cynics might call them “photo opportunities.” The first anticipated moment was actually a collection of victory visions—American tanks rolling unimpeded along the Tigris River roads, drivers grinning, all thumbs-up; the cheering crowds greeting U.S. soldiers along the way as town after town fell to our advance; the triumphant entry into Baghdad itself; the toppling of the statue of Hussein-the-dictator’s humbling capture in the spider hole—all culminating in the fighter-jet flight, the pilot suit, the strut across the deck of the Lincoln, hurrahs from the thousand sailor throats, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED waving from the battlements. 

The second anticipated moment for the Bush administration was to be the transfer of power to a free Iraq. Here the United States was to show it was a world power unlike all other world powers—dynastic Egypt, imperial Rome, and colonial Europe never gave up their territories without a struggle, and absent insistent demand. But the United States would be different and in one telegenic moment—Marines at attention, U.S. and Iraqi flags snapping side-by-side, and with a simple, symbolic handshake the powerful U.S. envoy passing over to the new Iraqi president the reigns of power. Here, our little brown brothers. Join us in the circle of freedom. A photograph for the ages, for both political posters and history books. 

In calling this an anticipated photo op, I do not mean to be disparaging. It is in such encapsulated moments—some merely symbolic—that humans mark our history. While the soldiers on each side had their own personal memories, for most Americans the end of the U.S. Civil War is marked in two recorded events: Lee bending over the little table in the Appomattox Courthouse study, putting pen to the papers of surrender—and, only a few days earlier, Lincoln walking amidst cheering crowds of former African captives through a fallen Richmond down to the Confederate capitol building, setting himself, just to see how it fit, in the chair where Jefferson Davis had so recently ruled. Little John-John saluting at the funeral of his president father. The flag-raising at Iwo Jima. The firehoses and police dogs at Birmingham, the horses and police-clubbings at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The last helicopter rising above the roof of the embassy at Saigon. King thundering at the Washington Monument. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin seated at Yalta, the Last Great Alliance of East and West. Snapshots of recorded history. How humans mark our way through time. 

But some of these events come with no anticipatory fanfare and so we were all initially caught off guard, when the moment of transfer actually came. I was flipping channels while I cleared old files off the computer—not really paying much attention to what was happening on the television screen—and for a little bit I was not quite sure of the headline crawling below the talking head. “U.S. Transfers Power To Iraq.” “While the scheduled date for this transfer was actually two days from now,” the on-the-scene reporter was explaining, “the new Iraqi government was already in place, and so the Bush administration decided there was no need to delay. One of the considerations was that—in moving up the transfer of power two days early—the administration would thwart the anticipated buildup violence leading up to that event.” 

The transfer itself was not broadcast live for security reasons, we were told, and reporters were put under a shroud of military-imposed silence, forbidden to announce the event until Ambassador Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, had the chance to flee the country. 

And so we have lived long enough to see the ignominy of the official representative of the United States—the pre-eminent military power of our time—ducking and running for cover from those whom the president continues to call, dismissively, “thugs.” And all the Marines and Tomahawk Missiles and fighter bombers were not, apparently, enough to protect him. 

It is all only symbolism, of course. Though the non-Christian “heathen” rage in Fallujah and Najarif and the suburbs of Baghdad, they have no power to cross the so-called Green Line. Unlike Vietnam in the days of Tet, there is no room-to-room fighting along the polished hallways of the American Embassy. The danger was never that violence would interrupt the ceremony of the torch-passing itself, but that the violence outside would overshadow it…that it would be the horrific rather than the handshake that the networks would cover. And so, with a growing pan-Arabic, pan-Muslim insurgency spreading like burning oil across the sands of Iraq, the Bush administration decided to cut it short, hustling to the airport lest the plane take off without us, tossing the keys over the counter on our way out of the hotel. 

It is only symbolism, of course. 

But a potent, powerful symbolism, nonetheless—an encapsulated moment of the American experience in Iraq. And it did not go nearly the way the Bush administration had planned.