Saturday, April 6, 2013

Baghdad Bob got it mostly right

The conventional wisdom is an awesome thing.  When you are on the side of it, it doesn't matter at all if you have facts or reason on your side.  You can say damn near anything and no one will ever call you out.  But get on the wrong side of the conventional wisdom and suddenly you are forced to defend 2+2=4. And there was no better example of this being true than the example of Iraqi spokesman Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf during the USA invasion of his country—the guy who came to known to the American public as Baghdad Bob.

Sahaf would go on television and say something historically and militarily obvious like you cannot occupy a country of 26 million people who hate your guts.  The USA response to Sahaf was utter ridicule—he obviously did not understand how freaking powerful we were.  Ha. Ha. Ha.  Guys like Leno thought he was so funny they were almost reduced to tears of laughter.

Before someone reminds me that we are seeing the power of state propaganda I would tell you a story of a friend.  He is reasonably skeptical and understands the power of manufactured consent.  Not long after the Invasion of Iraq had gotten under way, I listened as he wondered aloud if the great tragedy was that because toppling a government was now so easy, we now would be tempted to try it in many more countries.  I tried to settle him down by reassuring him that Napoleon had proved pretty conclusively that getting to Moscow was damn easy compared to staying there.  When we get to Baghdad, we will soon discover we are just some rowdy tourists who cannot read the street signs or buy the simplest things in the markets because we don't speak the language.  Even our best-intentioned acts will annoy the locals.  We will get hungry and our tanks will run out of gas and suddenly we will be strangers in a very strange land.  Easy?  Please be serious. The point here is that the convention wisdom that turned Sahaf into an object of scorn in the West Wing of the Bush White House was feeding my friend's dark visions of USA in the world.

But lest you think that we learned anything about mistrusting the conventional wisdom because of our disaster in Iraq, watch otherwise sentient beings scramble to come up with more novel ways of passing an austerity agenda in spite of the global failure of anything that even smacks of austerity.

'Baghdad Bob' and His Ridiculous, True Predictions

Ten years later, Iraq's insane-sounding information minister turns out to be quite the soothsayer.


In March of 2003, Saddam's Minister of Information was everybody's favorite inadvertent comedian. Sporting a kicky black beret and delightfully bombastic lexicon, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf appeared on TV daily to predict American failure and deny the Baghdad invasion--sometimes even as U.S. tanks appeared behind him. "He's great," President George W. Bush said of Sahaf, admitting that he occasionally interrupted meetings to watch Sahaf's briefings. "Someone accused us of hiring him and putting him there. He was a classic."

Sahaf became the subject of T-shirts, mugs, adoring websites, a pop song, and an action figure. Besides adding levity to news cycles otherwise filled with fuzzy green explosions, Sahaf represented everything that made Iraq's invasion seem not quite like a real war. Wars are serious, and this guy was adorable. Even if you opposed the Iraq invasion, you had to admit it's hard to respect a government whose official mouthpiece told a reporter, "Shock and awe? It seems that we are the awe on them. They are suffering from the shock and awe, okay?"

Sahaf stuck to his post--and his story--until the day before Baghdad fell. Then he surrendered to American forces, was interrogated and promptly released, suggesting a lowly spot on the Ba'ath party totem pole. He surfaced in Abu Dhabi in July of 2003, gave a couple of interviews, and settled into obscurity.

"My information was correct, but my interpretations were not," he explained.

But in retrospect, the opposite seems truer. Sahaf had bad information, sure, but several of his more ludicrous predictions have since come true--some in the ways he meant, and, more chillingly, some in ways no one (else) could have foreseen.

Sahaf's nickname, "Baghdad Bob," now denotes someone who confidently declares what everyone else can see is false--someone so wrong, it's funny. But when read beside the eventual cost of America's decade in Iraq, "Baghdad Bob" isn't so funny anymore.


"The crook Rumsfeld said yesterday that they are hunting mass destruction weapons in Baghdad and Tikrit, and yesterday I replied to that cheap lie."

"I assure you that those villains will recognize, will discover in appropriate time in the future how stupid they are and how they are pretending things which have never taken place."


As a 2012 CIA study concluded definitively, Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Nor did Iraq have 18 mobile laboratories for making anthrax and botulism, as Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed before the United Nations in February 2003, nor had Saddam Hussein recently tried to buy large quantities of uranium from Africa, as President Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address. A decade of war was based on things that had never taken place.


"They are trying to say that the Iraqi is easy to capture, in order to deceive the world that it is a picnic... One day, they [will] start facing bitter facts."

"The decisive battle is throughout Iraq. They do not know in what mud they are wading."


In 2002, Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board,wrote in the Washington Post, "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps."

Adelman was right that beating Hussein's military power would be easy-ish, though it took longer than George Bush Sr.'s 100-hour incursion in 1991. What Adelman didn't realize--and Sahaf did--was that occupation, not invasion, would be the bitter pill. Result: not a picnic.


"How can you lay siege to a whole country? ...We are in our country, among our kith and kin. ...Faltering forces of infidels cannot just enter a country of 26 million people and lay besiege to them! They are the ones who will find themselves under siege."

"Are they not going to find themselves besieged by the people of the countryside which they have to cross in order to reach Baghdad? Civilians will be busy. The grassroots of the Ba'ath Party will be busy attacking them.

"The simple fact is this: they are foreigners inside a country which has rejected them. Therefore, these foreigners, wherever they go or travel, they will be rained down with bullets from everyone. Attacks by members of the resistance will only go up."


Sahaf wasn't just right about the fact that Iraqis would reject American invasion. He was right about how. As predicted, troops were most vulnerable when in transit, especially from "the people of the countryside," thanks to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Of the more than 6,600 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost exactly as many were killed by IEDs as by firefights. "After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan costing more than $1 trillion, U.S. troops continue to die and be maimed by a weapon that can be cobbled together with spare parts costing less than $30," journalist William Levesque wrote in the Tampa Bay Times in 2012.

And the warning that resistance attacks would "only go up"? Well, they came down eventually--about five years later. But in 2003, the year "major combat operations" officially began and ended in Iraq, 486 American servicemen and women died there. By the time the last U.S. tanks rolled out of Iraq in 2011, the grassroots resistance Sahaf predicted had taken 4,474 American lives. more

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