The shooting war in Iraq lasted a mere three weeks. As usual (see Panama, Grenada, Iraq I, Afghanistan), the First World trounced the Third, losing fewer than 150 combatants; Iraqi dead, officially uncounted, number approximately 10,000. The outcome was predicted by all but the Iraqi Information Ministry. We’re Number One. But was it worth even that small number of American dead? The bio-chemical threat turned out to be just that, and when it failed as a deterrent, the Iraqis did not use it against the invaders. So far, in fact, no war-justifying WMD have been found. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell claimed to be convinced of the threat, but they were relying on very flimsy evidence. The search under the desert sands goes on, and perhaps something will be found, American and British credibility being at stake.
The rush to war was billed as necessary because of the danger those illegal weapons posed to the security of the United States. But now administration officials are beginning to admit that they exaggerated the threat. They “wanted to make a statement,” and Saddam Hussein “had all the requirements to make him, from their standpoint, the perfect target” (ABC News, April 28). Though lying to the public and flouting laws and international agreements should make the officials ashamed, it has had the opposite result. They are puffed up with hubris at the great victory and brag about the salutary “shaming effect” the defeat should have on the Arab world (Wolfowitz interview, The Washington Times, April 29). Perhaps they ought to be more careful about creating victims.
Consider the Western reaction to shame: the humiliations of the Vietnam debacle or September 11, 2003, or the Holocaust. The defeated failed the ultimate test of manhood; they were unable to protect those in their care. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell still suffer the sting of the U.S. bug-out from Saigon in 1975. The shock and awe of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington deeply wounded President Bush and his government. And Jewish leaders swear they will never allow anyone to forget what happened to them at the hands of the Nazis. Having been brought low does not make one generous and forgiving. Quite the opposite; the abused often become abusers. The bitterness and resentment the Arabs feel for the humiliations they have suffered in Iraq and Palestine should be understandable. But we act as though they are essentially different from us and will be improved by such experiences.
Many U.S. mistakes were made in the chaotic follow-on to the fighting in Iraq. One of the Pentagon’s most humiliating errors was to allow the sacking of the city of Baghdad and the plundering of not only the antiquities museum, the Ottoman archives and the Quranic library, but government ministries, banks and even hospitals (the Oil Ministry was protected by U.S. Marines). The Bush administration had been warned by archaeologists and museum curators to expect this looting; similar mob violence had occurred after the 1991 war. It is still not clear why the cultural treasures of several ancient civilizations were left so vulnerable. Although a few of the national museum’s precious objects have now been returned, most are either stolen or shattered, the great books reduced to ashes.
A news photo of a weeping museum official standing among the shards of the past brought home the tragedy of the Iraqis’ loss of history and identity. I had met her on a trip to Baghdad in 1986. A tour of the museum was impossible, as the exhibits had been packed away for safekeeping. She suggested that we visit the ruins of Babylon in East Berlin, where Prussian archaeologists had taken them at the turn of the twentieth century. She herself had earned a doctorate at the Humboldt University near the Pergamon Museum, in which some of the ancient city stands reconstructed. Officials of the Bismark monarchy, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Communist Empire and the Bundesrepublik have all taken good care of them. Works of art can live a long time in the absence of vandals and fanatics or indifference, carelessness and neglect.
Now what? Will the United States do a better job at nation building than at art historical preservation? The omens are not encouraging. President Bush may think he has ended the war by declaring victory, but that is beyond his control. Wars only end when the defeated accept defeat. It is still an open question whether the Iraqi people will decide that the Americans have set them free or become their jailers. Their response will take time to prepare and may contain unpleasant surprises.
The Pentagon apparently had no plan beyond the military phase in Iraq, except for the airlifting of a few eager expatriates back into the motherland. Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now with the National Defense University who wrote a prescient article on Iraq’s future for our winter issue (Vol. IX, No. 4), was quoted by Robert Dreyfuss in the May 1 American Prospect: “[The Pentagon brass] haven’t a clue as to what’s going on. . . .They don’t have plans for a transition in place, they don’t know where the money is going to come from, they don’t have any organization. And they just don’t know anything about Iraq.”
The new American bosses in Baghdad must have been a bit shocked, even awed, by the mixture of ecstasy and rage in the faces of the Shia flagellators during the religious rites at Kerbala in late April – a reminder of how much Iraq has in common with the Islamic republic next door (see articles inside by Samii and Kamrava). Speaking of the Shia, the Israelis have a Shiite problem in southern Lebanon that is in need of attention. So it’s “on to Damascus,” according to Wolfowitz of Arabia (Maureen Dowd’s epithet for the Pentagon’s idea man).
With Saddam gone, the mess in the Middle East could be cleaned up, say Tom Friedman and other purveyors of conventional wisdom, if only one last Arab tyrant would step aside. Then President Bush could – really, really this time – get tough with Ariel Sharon. But is it only the Old Man who is responsible for the destructive rage of his people? Or is it the embittered, abject Palestinians who refuse to yield until they get their land back? Will the new Roadmap lead to anything but a cul-de-sac? To get a sense of the domestic constraints on U.S. foreign policy, be sure to read the discussion of “Is the Two-state Solution Still Viable” (page 1).
Many of the articles in this issue deal with the encounter between the West and political Islam. Two of them (Okruhlik and Wedeen) were prepared for a conference in October 2002 at the University of Maine organized by Bahman Baktiari, professor of international relations, and cosponsored by the university’s Cohen Center and the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks. It was a great meeting; something was at stake, and avoiding war was still considered possible. The wisdom of the American adventure in redesigning the Middle East will be debated at such conclaves for many years to come.