"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On a day when the Bush administration was talking about dropping its halfhearted attempt to enlist the United Nations to help create order in Iraq, Clare Short, a former member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet and one of Britain’s most popular politicians, was in Washington to implore America to work with the world.
“The Middle East is more unstable and dangerous than ever it was,” says Short, who resigned her job as Britain’s secretary of international development in May, furious at the way America and Britain had let civil society in Iraq implode after the war. “There’s a deeper sense of anger, injustice and the likelihood that young people in that region are joining terrorist organizations in bigger numbers than ever before.”
The region can only be saved with international cooperation, she says. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon: As the New York Times reported Wednesday, “The Bush administration has run into such stiff opposition at the United Nations Security Council to its plan for the future government of Iraq that it has pulled back from seeking a quick vote endorsing the proposal and may shelve it altogether.”
This news is especially painful to Short, who says that Blair promised that he’d ensure that America turned over Iraq’s postwar resurrection to the U.N., which she believes is the only agency that can help Iraqis create decent lives for themselves. Indeed, it was that promise which kept her in Blair’s cabinet throughout the war, despite her opposition to attacking Iraq without U.N. authorization. Although she called Blair “reckless” and threatened to quit during the run-up to the invasion, she chose to remain in the hope of helping the international community rebuild Iraq.
Short has extensive experience aiding war-shattered countries, having worked on the reconstruction of Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Afghanistan. She’s a lefty who, as a member of Blair’s cabinet since 1997, has proved pugilistic when humanitarian ideals are at stake — her hawkishness on Kosovo led some to dub her “bomber Short.” In England, she’s famed for both her obstreperous candor and, in the words of the Independent on Sunday’s Emma Soames, “a heart that is not so much bleeding as haemorrhaging for her fellow men and women, combined with an intellect guided by deeply held opinions.” Though she opposed the way the Iraq war was launched, she clearly wants Iraq to succeed.
Yet when Blair proved either unwilling or unable to force the United States to be any more multilateralist after the war than before it, she quit. In her resignation letter to Blair, she wrote, “As you know, I thought the run-up to the conflict in Iraq was mishandled, but I agreed to stay in the Government to help support the reconstruction effort for the people of Iraq. I am afraid that the assurances you gave me about the need for a U.N. mandate to establish a legitimate Iraqi government have been breached.”
Though she’s no longer in Blair’s cabinet, she’s continuing her campaign to try to secure U.N. authority over Iraq’s rebuilding. This week, she’s in the United States to brief Congress about the reconstruction of Iraq and the need for internationalization. Her message is that money alone can’t fix Iraq — to do that, she says, America needs to learn that it needs other countries. She spoke to Salon by phone from Washington, D.C.
What are you going to say when you testify before Congress?
I’ve been invited to come and talk about the situation in Iraq. My view is that the situation is very dangerous for all concerned. Leaving aside the differences we’ve all had about how we got to war and the negligence of the failure to provide for Iraq afterwards, people shouldn’t be divided. The people of Iraq are suffering. American troops are losing their lives. America is spending an enormous amount of money and yet Iraq is doing less well than it could do if it could get enough stability to restore its own industry and develop itself.
Right now, it’s in danger of getting worse, and we all need to unite to get out of this mess. The only way to do it is to give the United Nations the roll of helping Iraqis form a government — first an interim government, and then a constitutional process leading to elections. I’m not saying you should scrap the Coalition Provisional Authority, but the authority should be handed over to the United Nations to build on. Then America would have more in the international community coming in to help.
If not, I see years of America being bogged down with lots of costs, lots of loss of life and an even more unstable Middle East, which is bad for everybody.
Are you going to give Congress any advice about the president’s request for $87 billion to finance reconstruction? Should the release of any of that money be made contingent on America seeking United Nations cooperation?
I don’t think it’s for me to tell Congress how it should vote, but for the U.S. and the world, we’re in a very dangerous situation. If the $87 billion goes through, it will be even more the following year and even more after that, with the danger of continuing loss of life. under the current arrangement, there might be bits and pieces of support from other countries, but it won’t be much at all. America will be carrying the major burden in a way that is worrying for America and for the stability of the Middle East and the people of Iraq.
But isn’t there also a danger that America won’t be willing to contribute enough? After all, there’s already talk on both the left and the right about bringing the troops home, and complaints about funding Iraqi schools and roads instead of American ones. Are you worried that America will refuse to meet its obligations toward Iraq?
If America was to just pull out it would humiliate itself. I don’t think it would just pull out and leave chaos. It wants an exit strategy. The right exit strategy is international cooperation in helping Iraq as quickly as possible to take care of its own future. In order for an exit strategy to work, America needs to ask the U.N. to help it. Walking away is not an option, but I’m sure pressures will grow if costs grow and loss of life grows.
What about Britain? The British people never supported the war, and they feel that Blair betrayed them by getting them involved. How long are they going to support keeping their troops there?
We’ve got less troops in Iraq, about 10,000, and they’re in the south where there’s not as much conflict. We’ve lost some troops, but not as many, and although it’s costing us money, it’s nothing like the massive costs the U.S. is paying.
In Britain, the feeling is that the prime minister should have insisted on acting internationally, and that he deceived the country. Troops and costs aren’t as big issues to us as they are to the U.S.
Given that he didn’t believe Iraq was an imminent threat, why did Blair go to war, anyway?
There are six points that he supposedly wrote down and was working with throughout the crisis. He never shared them with the Parliament or his cabinet. But one of them, apparently, was that after Sept. 11 it was inevitable that America would go to war in Iraq. It would be better if they went through the U.N., but it would be very dangerous if they went alone, so Britain would have to go with them. I don’t understand this logic. I don’t understand why if America makes a mistake Britain doing it with them would make it any better.
He has said that the danger of America is that it becomes isolationist, so we have to remain engaged with America. But then his logic fails completely, because by that logic, to stop America from being isolationist, Britain will always do whatever America says.
Britain’s role should have been to say that if you do this right and go with the United Nations and keep the international community involved, we will be your strong supporter, and this time we will deal with Iraq and not let pass another 12 years of sanctions and suffering for the Iraqi people.
If America had had no allies, the American people would have had more doubt, and they might have taken more time and done it right. We didn’t have any leverage to correct mistakes. That was Blair’s error, and he lost the support of his country. It’s a tragedy for everybody.
Can it be salvaged? Right now, we seem as far away as ever from real international cooperation. Just today, the New York Times reported that the White House might drop attempts to get a United Nations resolution supporting American efforts in Iraq.
It seems the United States isn’t willing to give enough authority to the U.N. The international community should be willing to unite, allowing the U.N. to play its proper role. If America isn’t willing to concede that, there isn’t going to be much international support for rebuilding Iraq. There will be limited legitimacy for the coalition presence in Iraq and the danger of ever-growing resistance, which is against everybody’s interest.
The only way to turn it around is to raise more voices in the U.S. to say, ‘Come on, we’re being foolish. We’ve got to make whatever concessions are necessary to get the international community to come and help us.’ At the moment, we don’t have that willingness. The White House is taking over [Iraq's reconstruction] from the Pentagon, showing they’re worried about the situation. But then other American voices are saying it’s not as bad as everybody thinks. Meanwhile lives continue to be lost and Iraq isn’t stable enough to develop on its own.
How willing would other countries be to commit resources to Iraq even if the U.S. did make concessions? Aren’t some leaders driven by a personal animus toward Bush, and a desire not to do anything that would help him get reelected?
The world is not acting in that shallow political way. Everyone knows the Middle East is so dangerous right now. The U.S. asked Pakistan and India to come in with troops, but both considered it and said no because their own public opinion would be so hostile without a U.N. umbrella. Public opinion across the world will only think it’s right to come and participate and provide troops if it’s run by the U.N. They’re not willing to come in to back up an American strategy that they opposed.
But there are problems with foreign troops as well. Right now, there’s a controversy over bringing Turkish troops into Iraq. Should the United States welcome the opportunity provided by Turkey to internationalize the occupation and bring in Muslim soldiers, even if the Iraqis don’t want them?
The Kurds in the north, who very much supported the war and the American occupation, are very fearful of Turkey because the Kurds in Turkey are very heavily repressed. The Kurds are very nervous that the Turks will intervene. It’s another dreadful complication. It’s better not to have Turkish troops there, because there’s too much complex politics and history. It’s a further destabilizing development.
You quit not because of the war, but because of the mishandling of the postwar situation. Britain has a lot of experience in battle-scarred countries. Why didn’t Blair force the United States to be more responsible about postwar planning?
Blair was under so much pressure. He made contradictory promises — he promised Bush that Britain would be behind him, and he promised the people of Britain that we’d go through the U.N. He was enormously strained, and terribly relieved when the war happened and was over. He stopped tending to what would happen afterwards. I think he thought, “Oh well, the Americans must be taking care of this.”
I was telling him and my department was telling him how important it was to prepare and get things right. We’d worked on Afghanistan, East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone. The U.N. was preparing to move. So was the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The Pentagon just became utterly arrogant. Because the U.N. had not done what America wanted and had not voted for war on the date they wanted, they just did not work with them to make proper preparations. ORHA [the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] was only put together a couple months before the war started. The Pentagon started believing their own propaganda, that the streets would be lined with cheering Iraqis waving flags at the incoming troops, that it would all be simple. People working in the U.N. with the sanctions regime and the oil for food program knew it wouldn’t be simple, but no one asked them to help.
Does Blair have any leverage to push the United States toward cooperating with the U.N.?
The State Department and the Foreign Office talk, and Blair and [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw have said they want a second U.N. resolution, but it doesn’t look as though the U.K. has enough leverage to get the U.S. to come to a position where the international community would support it. Britain’s influence internationally is much less now than it was before. We’re seen as a U.S. poodle, so you might as well talk to the poodle’s master.
If the situation in Iraq doesn’t change soon, what scenarios do you foresee? Is there a danger of civil war, or a protracted quagmire?
The parallel I fear is what happened to Britain in Northern Ireland. We went to Ireland in 1969 after the [Catholic] civil rights movement. The British troops went in and they were cheered. Within a year, the Irish Republican Army was born as a nationalist movement against the occupation, and it began attacking troops.
At the moment in Iraq, attacks are coming from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, probably from some elements of al-Qaida, and from individuals who’ve had members of their family killed. The danger is that the whole thing turns into a national resistance. Then it becomes even worse.
The British people have been far more angry over Blair’s distortions in leading the country into war than Americans have over Bush’s lies. Do you see that changing at all? Might the scandal over Ambassador Joseph Wilson turn into something akin to the uproar over David Kelly, whose death prompted a government inquiry into Britain’s pre-war intelligence?
Some U.S. citizens say to me that there’s a real parallel. There’s the same distrust and the same investigation. What seems to be happening, on a slightly later time scale, is the same doubt is taking place, the same growing feeling that people weren’t told the truth. In addition to that, the continuing loss of life of U.S. troops seems to be causing a severe reaction here. Iraq isn’t going to go away. It’s still sitting there in its chaos.
How important is it for the future of the world that Bush is defeated in 2004?
That’s for the people of America to decide. But it’s really important for the future of the world that the American people face up to mistakes that were made over Iraq. Even America needs a strong international community and a U.N. that’s working. All this talk of preemptive power and no need for international law is bad for America. America needs to not make those errors again, otherwise we’re going to get growing chaos.
We must make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)