Of the many liberal supporters of the Iraq war, only a stubborn few insist they are still convinced, even vindicated; George Packer, in The Assassin’s Gate, described his meetings in 2002 with the writer Paul Berman- the inspired, French-speaking “generalist”, a historian of the modern left, who placed Saddam’s regime in the same category as Stalin’s. Berman supported bush’s wars- against al Qaeda terror, and also against Ba’athist terror- because he viewed the modern middle east through the lens of the 1930s. The utopia-driven cruelty of Islamist theocrats, and the secular tyranny in Baghdad, were variations on the same political nightmare. Iraq, Berman was saying, would be the tomb of fascism.
Packer listened, in partial agreement, to the grim comparisons, and after another, quite different, meeting, this time with an antiwar organizer, he observed the debate on Iraq was based on a choice of analogies: the opponents mentioned Vietnam, and dubious pretexts that later proved downright false. The supporters mentioned world war II, and sometimes Bosnia. By the end of the first chapter of The Assassins Gate, recounting his talks with Kanan Makiya, and his curious visit to ‘peace’ rallies, Packer explains he supported the war. Reluctantly, nervously. Out of instinctive revulsion at tyranny.
By the end of his chronicle, published after the first Iraqi elections and in the midst of a brutal insurgency, he says the war and its outcome have shown him the danger of abstract blueprints. Ideas, infused the thinker’s certitude, can bring lethal consequences when actually acted on. The neoconservative vision, replacing a monstrous regime with a working democracy, making this one democracy a model for all its neighbors, had all the appealing trademarks of a grand theory- and like many a grand theory, it didn’t work, or even though it worked partially, it came with a much too horrible cost. In his tortured reflection on Syria, published in the new Yorker a month ago, a fictional, generic liberal asks himself dueling questions: Did you see the videos of those kids? This time we have to do something. But, he replies to himself, have you forgotten Iraq? Not for a minute.
Packer, ten years ago, had written of the ‘conservative’ tone of the antiwar movement- its dearth of disgust, or even awareness, about totalitarianism. But if the war in Iraq had been just, it had also been disastrous- disastrously planned and carried out, disastrously prolonged. And yet all signs to the contrary, we have forgotten Iraq, quite quickly. In remembering a single lesson from 2003- intervention against tyranny can mean long entanglements- we have forgotten the multitude of lessons from 1991.
One of the early stages of the counterinsurgency, unfolding in 2004, when the war was barely a year old, began in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, pitting the Shia Mahdi army against American troops. The surprise at facing a massive insurgency was painful enough, but this particular battle was uniquely surreal. Muqtada al Sadr’s father and grandfather, both respected clerics, had been murdered by the Ba’athist regime for dissenting from the pulpit. Najaf itself, in 1991, had been the scene of a desperate uprising, crushed by tanks and helicopter gunships. It was no exaggeration, and no distortion, to say that the American invasion, viewed, in Najaf as a liberation.
Was viewed as a liberation, but not for long. Because relief at liberation, profound as it was, had to compete and be reconciled with bitterness at a past betrayal. George Bush senior had encouraged Iraqis to rebel, to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside”; this brief sound-byte encouragement, heard in Najaf and Karbala and also in Kirkuk and Erbil, had been interpreted as a call to arms and a promise of help. The troops that had freed Kuwait, it was thought, would use their force in Iraq itself.
We’d betrayed rebels before, of course, with similar consequences. The Cuban dissidents who’d participated in the Bay of Pigs, hoping to free their country from a regime of gulags and firing squads, had expected, till the very end, the American air support they’d been promised. For much of the 1950s, the CIA had trained, and funded Tibetan rebels; then in 1959 when they actually started fighting, they were faced with what james Roberts calls “cowardice and betrayal” from Washington. ‘The parallels with the bay of pigs”, he writes are ‘eery’ and ‘shameful’-
“Air support and airdrops of supplies could help trapped men fight their way
out of desperate situations. In both cases, when the freedom fighters were at
their moment of greatest peril, the Kennedy administration chose to abandon
If Cubans and Tibetans have good reason to resent America- for help withheld and commitments betrayed- the harm done in 1991 should cause no shock, and much reflection. The modern middle east, unlike Tibet and more so than Latin America, has a dominant political memory based on colonial powers, and their misdeeds. Anti-Americanism is not as reflexive as we’re told, because the mythical ‘Arab street’ is not as monolithic as we’re told (and why do we never hear about the Persian street or the Kurdish street?). But Iraq and its eastern neighbor, whose borders were drawn by foreign diplomats, have an understandable suspicion of great powers, and their intentions. Even if that suspicion has been converted into a political orthodoxy, used by state-controlled media to make tyrants look like patriots, the memory of colonial mandates is real and relevant.
Bush, senior, proved that America was just like its allies, indistinguishable from the old empires of Europe. it fought wars for its own advantage, it stated its values, and betrayed them, it courted allies (or rebels), sought their trust, and deserted them.
We paid the price for that past betrayal in 2004, in the streets (or battlefields?) of Najaf. The liberators could not be trusted. The appeal of an armed ideologue, like Muqtada al-Sadr, was at least in significant part a product of memory. There were two guilty parties in 1991: the old dictatorship, and the Americans who had vowed to end it; the soldiers killing the rebels, and the other soldiers, looking on. We still had troops in southern Iraq, a few hours drive from Najaf, when the Republican Guard retook the city, and decimated it.
Whether Assad should go, according to most Americans, is not our business. Well, so be it. But we should’ve said so from the start. Instead we said, ad nauseam that Assad had lost legitimacy; that we supported the opposition, if not in deed, at least in spirit; and that, disinterested as we were in active involvement, there was a red line, a certain atrocity, that we wouldn’t forgive.
Fouad Ajami, describing Obama’s faith in Rouhani, says the well-meaning president is “lost in the bazaar.” Political systems can be sorted by nature and policy, but beyond basic categories- free, unfree, or partly free- a country’s political culture is as unique as its culture, and just as complex and obscure to the distant observer. Montazeri and Khatami are not household names in America. The reluctance to trust elected leaders, especially when they talk about wars; the venom and shame attached to the word ‘hawk’; the past debates about Iraq (and before that about Bosnia)- are part of the baffling unique puzzle of American politics. Our Syria policy, then, fits in an obvious mold- prudent caution, the Vietnam syndrome. Not everyone will see it this way.
The president has sold his policy- or his aversion to having a policy- as the calm maneuver of statesman and would-be peacemaker. The American people believe him, the Syrian people don’t. Mohammed Dallah, a refugee from Ghouta who escaped across the border to Jordan, was asked by a British journalist what he thought of the deal with Putin: “America has a responsibility to launch strikes to prevent the killing by Assad. Obama has a Nobel Prize”, he added. “but he does not deserve it because he has not responded to so many deaths.” A rebel fighter in Allepo, talking to a reporter on Skype, said: “we’re on our own. I always knew that, but thanks to Obama’s shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well.”
Obama’s shameful conduct. There’s nothing much to add to that.
Welcome to Imagining the Future - Tomorrowscity.com
Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog! Take a second to peek around and check out some of my previous posts. Of course, I would love to find out what you think as well, so make sure to comment. See you around!