It was only after I had been in Baghdad for a month that I found what I was looking for. I had traveled to Iraq a year after the war began, at the height of what should have been a construction boom, but after weeks of searching I had not seen a single piece of heavy machinery apart from tanks and humvees. Then I saw it: a construction crane. It was big and yellow and impressive, and when I caught a glimpse of it around a corner in a busy shopping district I thought that I was finally about to witness some of the reconstruction I had heard so much about. But as I got closer I noticed that the crane was not actually rebuilding anything—not one of the bombed-out government buildings that still lay in rubble all over the city, nor one of the many power lines that remained in twisted heaps even as the heat of summer was starting to bear down. No, the crane was hoisting a giant billboard to the top of a three-story building. SUNBULAH: HONEY 100% NATURAL, made in Saudi Arabia.
I've been in New York a week now, watching the city prepare for the Republican National Convention and the accompanying protests. Much is predictable: tabloid hysteria about an anarchist siege; cops showing off their new crowd control toys; fierce debates about whether the demonstrations will hurt the Republicans or inadvertently help them.
What surprises me is what isn't here: Najaf. It's nowhere to be found. Every day, US bombs and tanks move closer to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, reportedly damaging outer walls and sending shrapnel flying into the courtyard; every day, children are killed in their homes as US soldiers inflict collective punishment on the holy city; every day, more bodies are disturbed as US Marines stomp through the Valley of Peace cemetery, their boots slipping into graves as they use tombstones for cover.
Last month, I reluctantly joined the Anybody But Bush camp. It was “Bush in a Box” that finally got me, a gag gift my brother gave my father on his sixty-sixth birthday. Bush in a Box is a cardboard cutout of President 43 with a set of adhesive speech balloons featuring the usual tired Bushisms: “Is our children learning?” “They misunderestimated me”—standard-issue Bush-bashing schlock, on sale at Wal-Mart, made in Malaysia.
Yet Bush in a Box filled me with despair. It's not that the President is dumb, which I already knew, it's that he makes us dumb. Don't get me wrong: My brother is an exceptionally bright guy; he heads a think tank that publishes weighty policy papers on the failings of export-oriented resource extraction and the false savings of cuts to welfare. Whenever I have a question involving interest rates or currency boards, he's my first call. But Bush in a Box pretty much summarizes the level of analysis coming from the left these days. You know the line: The White House has been hijacked by a shady gang of zealots who are either insane or stupid or both. Vote Kerry and return the country to sanity.
There is a remarkable scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Lila Lipscomb talks with an anti-war activist outside the White House about the death of her 26-year-old son in Iraq. A pro-war passerby doesn't like what she overhears and announces, "This is all staged!"
Ms. Lipscomb turns to the woman, her voice shaking with rage, and says: "My son is not a stage. He was killed in Karbala, April 2. It is not a stage. My son is dead." Then she walks away and wails, "I need my son."
Watching Ms. Lipscomb doubled over in pain on the White House lawn, I was reminded of other mothers who have taken the loss of their children to the seat of power and changed the fate of wars. During Argentina's "dirty war," a group of women whose children had been disappeared by the military regime gathered every Thursday in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires. At a time when all public protest was banned, they would walk silently in circles, wearing white headscarves and carrying photographs of their missing children.
Good news out of Baghdad: the Program Management Office, which oversees the $18.4 billion in US reconstruction funds, has finally set a goal it can meet. Sure, electricity is below prewar levels, the streets are rivers of sewage and more Iraqis have been fired than hired. But now the PMO has contracted with British mercenary firm Aegis to protect its employees from "assassination, kidnapping, injury and" — get this — "embarrassment." I don't know whether Aegis will succeed in protecting PMO employees from violent attack, but embarrassment? I'd say mission already accomplished. The people in charge of rebuilding Iraq can't be embarrassed, because, clearly, they have no shame.