PBS Documentary on Iraq


posted to www.marxmail.org on October 10, 2003


Last night PBS aired a Frontline documentary that marked the first retreat from its lockstep support for US wars of aggression since 9/11. You will also be able to view the entire show on the website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/truth/) starting on October 11. Titled "Truth, War and Consequences", it was basically a liberal "tragic mistake" interpretation such as the kind that cropped up in the 1960s when things turned sour in Indochina. In fact the website has a section titled "What Went Wrong".


By "wrong" PBS does not mean the same thing as in the sentence: "Insider trading is wrong". By "wrong" they mean that something has backfired, for example the decision to overrule Jay Garner's plan to hire former Iraqi soldiers to repair roads and other infrastructure. Once these soldiers found themselves unemployed, they naturally resorted to violence. The PBS documentary never once asks the question of whether the US had the *right* to invade and overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein.


The most useful aspect of the documentary is that it allows Ahmad Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, who are featured prominently, to hoist themselves on their own petard. For example, when Frontline interviewer Martin Smith, who is also credited as writer, asks Chalabi if there is any connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, Chalabi says of course. He has evidence of this and gave it to the USA. When Smith, who has the demeanor in these interviews of a Catholic schoolboy confronting a pedophile priest, asks if he can see it, Chalabi says he cannot. All in all, it has the impact of a better "Sixty Minutes" episode.


There is a telling moment in this documentary that makes the Iraqi resistance understandable. Shortly after a decision has been made by the US to crack down on looting, we see an army patrol that has captured a perpetrator who has a bunch of stolen wood on the top of his aging car. While they dress him down about the evils of looting, a tank rolls over his car reducing it to rubble. Afterwards, GI's "high-five" each other as if the car were a prop on "Fear Factor". Later, Frontline learns that the man is a taxi driver and that the car was his sole means of income.


Makiya is a real piece of work, as we put it in the USA. He appears rather disillusioned with what has happened in his native country but cannot make the connection between the US invasion and all that has gone wrong. This Brandeis professor is effusive in his praise of George W. Bush but blames just about everybody else in his administration for lacking the president's commitment to democracy.


Makiya has often been described as an ex-Trotskyist. This morning I examined an online version of his "Republic of Fear" to detect any whiff of Marxism. This is what I found:


All of this development highlights a dilemma whose underpinnings in our century arise within the communist tradition. The Russian experience has deeply affected all thinking on the relationship of political freedoms to development in backward countries irrespective of political persuasion. The contradictions were most paradigmatically expressed in the thought of Leon Trotsky. In his trenchant attack on Stalinism, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky sought an explanation of the Stalinist phenomenon taken from outside its own peculiar distinctness and history of development. He wrote of the despotism of the new state as being an outcome of "the iron necessity to give birth to and support a privileged minority" in conditions of backwardness and how "the power of the democratic Soviets proved cramping, even unendurable, when the task of the day was to accommodate those privileged groups whose existence was necessary for defense, for industry, for technique and science." The sense is of a transcendent causality maybe beyond the capacities of human intervention, through which today's freedoms have to be sacrificed in the interests of progress. This did not come from an economist, academician, or armchair revolutionary; it came from a leading intellect and political actor of the Russian revolution who had himself been cast aside by the "iron necessity" of the course it later took.


What was for Trotsky a wrenching universal and personal dilemma, which he could only resolve by holding fervently onto the idea of world revolution, was transformed in the nationalist withdrawal and accelerating parochialism of all subsequent revolutions into an immutable law of the historical process, one that had been proved by the Stalinist experience. Invariably the ideology that captures this quality of imperial economic necessity in the Third World is the carping on about the "falsity" of bourgeois freedoms and the universal tendency to dislocate the realm of "true" freedom from the political to the social and economic domains. All later revolutions of this century (China, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria) and all post-World War II nationalisms (Nasserism, Peronism, Ba'thism) have reaffirmed to one degree or another the apparently stringent objectivity of the choice: development or freedom?


So evidently Makiya did at least read Trotsky. Whether he understood him is another question altogether. The freedom pole of the development/freedom polarity referred to above needs to be elaborated on. What does Makiya mean by freedom? It appears that this is the freedom to organize political parties, to put out newspapers--in other words the sort of freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. It does not address social and economic freedom, however. If a nation does not have the freedom to develop its resources for the national good, then what use does civil liberties have? If Egyptians lacked the power to nationalize the Suez Canal or if Cuba could not expropriate the landed gentry, then true freedom would have eluded them no matter the trappings of formal democracy. But once private property is attacked, such countries inevitably find themselves threatened by imperialist war and blockade and are often required willy-nilly to impose somewhat draconian political norms. If they don't, they risk going the route of Allende's Chile or Sandinista Nicaragua.


These questions constitute the cutting edge of politics today. Since the USA poses as a defender of "freedom" against all sorts of totalitarian dungeons from Cuba to North Korea, it is crucial that the left comes to term with this freedom/development contradiction. Elements of the left, including the social democratic Dissent Magazine that publishes Makiya, fail to understand that the USA has ulterior motives when it presses for parliamentary democracy. It sees this governmental form as a necessary first step in privatizing state property. This is what happened in Yugoslavia and it is about to happen in Iraq--that is unless the heroic Iraqi people stop the invaders in their tracks. Unless the left can see things in class terms, it will inevitably serve as cheerleaders for US imperialism as Makiya does, no matter his Trotskyist background.