I’ve been occupied with organizational issues for the past week, but I didn’t want to let it pass without highlighting a passage in column by Max Boot that appeared last Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times. It’s just a passage, mind you, and very short at that, but, to me, it offers a useful and frankly damning insight into the colonialist and frankly racist assumptions that underlie neo-conservative thinking. Of course, Boot, a former editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, and near-constant presence on Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, is a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative hawk, somewhat incongruously perched at the influential Council on Foreign Relations where he is mostly surrounded by the kind of realists and liberal internationalists who dominated U.S. foreign policy until 9/11.
Here’s the passage. It appears in a column entitled “Accept the Blackwater Mercenaries” that both defended Blackwater and (entirely reasonably) called for greater oversight of security contractors operating in Iraq and elsewhere.
“Take the Sept. 16 incident, in which at least 11 Iraqis were killed and which was the impetus for a House hearing Tuesday. Blackwater says its employees fired in self-defense after being attacked. Iraqis claim that the Blackwaterites fired indiscriminately and without provocation. There is no reason to assume — as so many critics do — that the more damning version is true, especially because the harshest condemnations have come from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, a notorious hotbed of sectarianism.” [Emphasis added]
The problem I have with this passage is simply this: there were reasons to assume that the more damning version of the Nihoor Square incident (or massacre?) were true at the time Boot wrote his column. All of the Iraqi witnesses and victims — and there were many — interviewed by U.S. mainstream journalists after the incident described the Blackwater shootings as unprovoked and indiscriminate, at least so far as they could determine. Moreover, the Iraqi assessments were confirmed by subsequent U.S. military reports, according to a detailed Washington Post account that appeared October 5, admittedly after Boot had published his column. Indeed, the only accounts — so far as I am aware — that backed Blackwater’s version of events have been provided by Blackwater staff.
So how is it that Boot can so easily dismiss the credibility of the accounts of the Iraqis who were caught up in or witnessed the mayhem? I’m not arguing that their accounts — and the conclusions of the U.S. military reports — are necessarily totally accurate. But why assert that “there is no reason to assume” that the Iraqi accounts are untrue when the evidence adduced by generally reliable U.S. reporters up to the moment that Boot wrote his column pointed strongly in favor of the Iraqis’ version? The phrasing suggests that Boot does not consider Iraqis credible, at least when they are describing alleged bad behavior by American troops or contractors. Or am I reading too much into this?
Now, Boot goes on to suggest that their lack of credibility may be due to the fact that the “Iraqi Interior Ministry, a notorious hotbed of sectarianism,” issued the harshest criticism. But I don’t understand the relevance of this point. First, the testimonies came from civilian eyewitnesses, as well Iraqi police, who are presumably under the ministry’s jurisdiction, and soldiers, who are not. And it seems that the fear and contempt provoked in Iraq by Blackwater and other foreign-led security contractors runs across sectarian lines. They appear to be broadly hated and resented by Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike. Now, if Boot had written “anti-American” in place of “sectarian,” the relevance of his subordinate clause would have been a bit stronger, even if the totality of the evidence known at that time still pointed toward the same conclusion. But let’s assume for a second that the the Interior Ministry was the only source. It’s still part of a government supported by Washington that came to power in a democratic process which, according to Boot’s previous writings, is one of the important reasons we went to war and remain in Iraq. What would be its motives for lying about what had taken place, particularly in view of its continued deep dependence on U.S. support.
I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but, as a writer myself, I try to pay close attention to words in order to gain clues about motivation, prejudice, and worldview. As the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002), Boot, like most neo-cons, sees the aggressive masculinity of Theodore Roosevelt and the early American Imperialists, as a model for the “new American Century.” And, like other imperialists through history, he makes assumptions both about the benevolence of U.S. intentions and hegemony and the ingratitude and untrustworthiness of those who have the good fortune to be brought under U.S. rule.
Again, it’s just one passage, but I believe that it — like the repeated assertions by neo-cons, such as Charles Krauthammer, Reuel Marc Gerecht, etc. that power is the only language that Arabs (and Iran) understands — offers a helpful insight into the very undemocratic and colonialist mentality that underlies much of the movement’s thought.