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August 25, 2004

Bush's Unwilling Poster Children

by Juan Cole

From Bush press conference on Tuesday:

"QUESTION: You're not going to Athens this week, are you?

BUSH: Athens, Texas?


QUESTION: The Olympics in Greece.

BUSH: Oh, the Olympics. No, I'm not.

QUESTION: Have you been watching?

BUSH: Yes. It's been exciting.

QUESTION: Did a particular moment stand out?

BUSH: A particular moment?

I liked the – let's see – Iraqi soccer. I liked seeing the Afghan woman carrying the flag coming in.

I loved our gymnasts. I have been watching the swimming. I have seen a lot."

He had earlier said,

"[Y]ou know, we've got a great record when you think about it. Led the world in the war on terror. The world is safer as a result of the actions we've taken. Afghanistan is no longer run by the Taliban. Saddam Hussein sits in a prison cell. Moammar Gadhafi has gotten rid of his weapons. Pakistan is an ally in the war on terror.

"There's more work to be done in fighting off these terrorists. I clearly see that. I understand that we've got to use all resources at our disposal to find and bring these people to justice."

Bush in these remarks continued to try to exploit the presence of Afghanistan and Iraq at the Olympics for his presidential campaign. The problem is, he has a different definition of "freedom" than do the people of whom he is speaking.

The Bush campaign is defining freedom as the absence of indigenous tyranny. Thus, they claim to have liberated 50 million persons (25 each in Afghanistan and Iraq) since Sept. 11, insofar as they overthrew the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

But to date, no one in either country has been freely and openly elected by the popular electorate. The U.S. has more or less appointed the governments of both countries (in consultation with other international actors). Even one Iraqi cabinet minister admitted last spring that the then Interim Governing Council was no more representative than had been the Ba'ath government.

The Western press often confuses a government that reflects the composition of the country with a "representative" one. Thus, the Interim Governing Council had and the new national advisory council has representatives from all over Iraq, and some journalists have said the council is the most representative body Iraq has had since 1958. But this allegation ignores the undemocratic way in which it was chosen.

As for Afghanistan, the Bush administration simply turned it back over to the pre-Taliban warlords who had fought the Soviets in alliance with the U.S. and then had fallen to squabbling when the U.S. walked away, reducing much of the country to rubble. Herat province is ruled by Ismail Khan, Mazar by Abdul Rashid Dostum, etc., etc. Even really bad guys like Abu Sayyaf have their fiefdoms in the Pashtun areas (although he broke with the Taliban, it would be hard to distinguish his ideas and style of ruling from theirs). This is not to mention the revival of the poppy trade, which fuels heroin smuggling to the tune of $2 billion a year, nearly half Afghanistan's gross national product.

The parliamentary elections scheduled for summer, 2004, in Afghanistan have been postponed until at least spring, 2005. Presidential elections are to be held this fall, but American-installed Hamid Karzai has enormous advantages of incumbency. These advantages recently spurred his 23 rivals to call for his resignation, threatening a boycott of the elections if he declines. There is widespread voter registration fraud.

The human rights situation is infinitely better now than under the Taliban, but the Bush administration has reneged on its pledge of a new Marshall Plan and massive reconstruction in Afghanistan. What little economic progress there has been has mostly derived from individual entrepreneurs, and some of it derives from smuggling and drugs (which have a way of backfiring as economic engines of growth because they cause so many other problems.) Getting rid of the Taliban is not the same as bringing democracy to Afghanistan. We have yet to see if that is even feasible.

Most Iraqis would define liberation as the end of the American military occupation and their ability to choose a government of their liking. It seems highly likely that the Iraqi elections scheduled for January 2005 will be postponed for a good long time, allowing caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to consolidate his power (though whether the ongoing resistance to the occupation will allow him to do so is in doubt).

Liberation as self-determination is not in evidence in either Afghanistan or Iraq. That is why the Iraqi soccer team spoke out against Bush. Samples:

"Talking to Sports Illustrated, Iraqi midfielder Salih Sadir expressed dismay at being used in Bush's re-election propaganda: 'Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign. He can find another way to advertise for himself.'

"'My problems are not with the American people; they are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything,' Coach Adnan Hamad added. 'The American Army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium and there are shootings on the road?'

"Ahmed Manajid, whose cousin was an insurgent killed by U.S. soldiers, went even further, saying he would 'for sure' be fighting the occupation as a member of the Iraqi resistance were he not playing soccer."


"One of the team's midfield players, Ahmad Manajid, accused Mr. Bush of 'slaughtering' Iraqi men and women. 'How will he meet his God having slaughtered so many? I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that make them a terrorist?' he said."


"Hamad said: 'One cannot separate politics and sport because of the situation in the country right now.'

"He said the violence which continues to afflict Iraq, more than a year after Bush declared major combat there was over, meant the team could not fully enjoy its success.

"'To be honest with you, even our happiness at winning is not happiness because we are worried about the problems in Iraq, all the daily problems that our people face back home, so to tell you the truth, we are not really happy,' he said."

So, the Bush definition of "liberated" and the Iraqi definition are two entirely different things.

Given that the Bush administration has turned Iraq into a failed state and a country in flames, the condition of which is far worse than the U.S. public is allowed to know, it is quite outrageous that Bush should be trumpeting Iraq as an achievement. That he is doing so in connection with the Olympics is just tacky and probably illegal.

Will any of the Iraqi soccer players get interviewed on U.S. television?

comments on this article?

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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