As the World Burns

Alexander Cockburn eviscerates Operation Iraqi Fiefdomand Christopher Hitchens, the barstool bombardier

As dispatches from the frontlines of Operation Iraqi Freedom reveal increasing confusion and even pessimism about the war on Iraq, more people are turning to Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn is one of the few journalists—from the left or right—who didn't merely oppose the war but predicted the sort of disaster now unfolding on live television. In the past week, daily readers of Counterpunch.com, the political newsletter Cockburn co-edits with Jeffrey St. Clair, have doubled from 40,000 to 80,000. A prolific author, Cockburn is also a regular columnist for The Nation magazine. We caught up with him at his home in Northern California, shortly before he travels to Chapman University and UC Irvine, where he'll speak about the war on April 9 and 10, respectively.

OC Weekly: The U.S. and British militaries predicted that once Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way, the Iraqi people would rise up against Saddam Hussein. What's going on?Alexander Cockburn: It has become clear that almost nothing coming out of British and American forces can be taken at face value. For example, the British claimed there was an uprising in Basra. This turned out to be untrue. They have claimed successes in cities from Umm Qasr as far north as An Najaf. Yet, in fact, they now admit they do not control or have safe access to any Iraqi city, including Umm Qasr, at night—and you can practically see Umm Qasr from Kuwait City. They said that a 1,000-vehicle force of Republican guards was heading south two nights ago. They now admit that was completely untrue. In fact, some reporters are now saying the Iraqi daily briefings have a closer relationship to reality than what American or British military officials are putting out. One of the primary stated objectives of this war is to bring democracy to Iraq. Is there any chance that's going to happen?

No. I think, from any sane point of view, all U.S. options look terrible. In the short term, you'll find many off-record quotations from Pentagon sources who believe they face months of dangerous—and, in public-relations terms, disastrous—guerrilla warfare in cities. The only way an army wins guerrilla warfare in a city is to destroy the city house by house. At the worst, they get caught and badly mangled with blows at their extended lines of communications, since it will be weeks before the Fourth Infantry Division arrives as backup. After that, they will pulverize the place with B-52s and house-to-house fighting and will be trying to control an area far larger than that under U.S. military control in South Vietnam back in the early 1970s.

The idea of imposing democracy from outside was always a pretty nutty proposition, but after what has happened so far, it would be like claiming that Air Marshall [Nguyen Cao] Ky becoming president of South Vietnam was the consequence of a democratic plebiscite. So now Americans will be lodged in the Islamic heartland. Is this going to reduce the threat of terrorism? Let's note that Randall Beers, the White House terror chief, resigned on March 19, seemingly on the grounds that the attack on Iraq was a huge setback for the war on terrorism.

Has the anti-war movement had any effect on our policy?

I think it has had a huge impact. The fact is that the largest demonstrations in the history of the world took place across the world through February and early March. That had a great deal to do with the humiliating failure of the U.S. to rally more than three other countries, Britain included, for the final vote in the Security Council they had to abandon. Those peace demonstrations made it far easier for Germany and France to take the position they have, which in turn made it easier for Russia and China. But above all, those world demonstrations played a powerful factor in heartening the Turkish people in the vast protests that prompted the Turkish parliament to deny the U.S. Turkey as a jumping-off point for an attack from the north. That in turn had a huge effect on the military situation in Iraq.

So you don't share the concern recently cited by Todd Gitlen, David Corn and Marc Cooper that the anti-war movement is being marginalized because it's being organized by far-left political groups?

When people like Cooper and Corn and Gitlen were writing these old-fashioned McCarthy-ite pieces about how the anti-war movement had Marxist-Leninist nuts at the core, I asked what were the credentials of people like Cooper, Corn and Gitlin. The answer is from any decently radical point of view that they have very little radical credentials. But more important, if you look back, someone has to start the organizing somewhere. Even if you think they are all Marxist-Leninst-bonkerists, the Workers World Party (WWP) has a perfect right to organize demonstrations.

Not every one who goes to a rally organized by ANSWER is going to believe everything the WWP says is doctrine. The same thing is true of the 1960s. The anti-war movement got going in large part through organizing efforts made by Trotskyites and Maoists. By the time you got to the Pentagon demonstrations in the late 1960s you had a vast movement and not many of them were carrying pictures of Mao Tse Tung or Trotsky or even Frida Kahlo, god damn it. Movements sort themselves out with out being micromanaged by Todd Gitlin.

What can the peace movement accomplish now that fighting has begun?
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