The Mess in Mesopotamia

The Mess in Mesopotamia

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Not long before the bombs and missiles began to rain on Baghdad, three men from the Iraqi opposition in exile were summoned to the Oval Office to meet their putative liberator. As they later explained to friends and associates, they found the experience a little unnerving in view of President Bush’s ignorance about the country he was preparing to invade. He was intrigued, for example, to learn that Iraqi Muslims are divided between two branches of Islam, Shiite and Sunni. The rest of us have come to expect such vacuity, but in fact most Americans are not that far ahead of the chief executive in general knowledge about Iraq. Hence Joseph Braude’s little book, The New Iraq, could fill a useful function, given its plentiful supply of interesting facts and observation on what is now our colony. Where else, for example, are we likely to learn that the Iraqis commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957 to build Baghdad’s first opera house (the job was canceled after a coup), that the early Mesopotamian ruler Sargon of Akkad started life as a landscape gardener, or that the hit series on Iraqi TV in the 1990s was Wolves of the Night, the saga of a Baghdad gang in which the individual members were portrayed as “ordinary people responding to extraordinary hardship by doing what they must to get by.”

Close examination of his text indicates that Braude, despite frequent travels to the region as a management consultant, has apparently never actually been to Baghdad, a fact he artfully elides. Nevertheless, his diligent offshore researches have yielded a portrait of the country as it existed before George Bush began liberating it that is a lot more interesting than reports at the time from most Baghdad-based correspondents.

Early on, Braude quotes Edward Said to the effect that Americans “are profoundly unaware of the society that has persisted beneath Saddam’s vast shadow.” Like Saddam himself, the outside world persisted in casting all of Iraqi society as a reflection of the dictator, ignoring the degree to which he had failed to stamp it into conformity. Followers of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani outside Iraq e-mailed their requests for guidance to Iran, whence they were smuggled across the frontier to Najaf for consideration by the Shiite sage, whose answers were smuggled out again to the nearest point where they could be translated onto the Internet. In Basra, meanwhile, there flourished a snake charmer who made magical ointments and potions out of venom–a vestige of an ancient Mesopotamian cult.

No less pertinently, Braude points out that the Iraq that evolved under the privations of the 1990s was not “the Iraq that émigrés from the 1960s, and 1970s remember…a country enriched with oil and legitimate business and employment opportunities for most of its citizens.” Sanctions-era Iraq was a country of 600,000 war widows, many of whom joined the stream of prostitutes that emerged as one of Iraq’s principal exports in this period. It was also the land of “the cats of the embargo,” as the local profiteers who fattened on the cruel economics of the UN blockade were known.

Braude’s apparent sensitivity to the impact of the embargo on Iraqi society is all the more curious given his respect for various hawks who not only supported the sanctions policy but actively campaigned for the catastrophe of the US invasion and occupation. New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, for example, a fanatical Zionist who never met a cruise missile aimed at an Iraqi he didn’t like, is fawningly eulogized in the acknowledgments for “his prescient comments and advice…a source of constant strength.”

Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton, even in his dotage a malign inspiration for the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, gets a kiss on the hand for helping the author “formulate new hopes for the future of the Middle East through the prism of its rich history, literature and cultures.”

Recent events in Baghdad have of course insured that the prism of Iraqi history, literature and culture has suddenly become a lot less rich, thanks to the destruction of the national museum, library and archives under the invaders’ indifferent gaze. So much of the Iraq described in this book has been swept away in recent months that it seemingly belongs to another age, not least because of the author’s breezy prescriptions for the country’s reconstruction. The army? Let it be the “university of the nation,” promoting “normative frameworks…needed in the new Iraq, including the values of pluralism and entrepreneurship.” The economy? Let Iraq have a free-trade agreement with the United States in the same manner as Jordan; foster a class of technocrats by training young people to prosecute software counterfeiters. Privatize everything.

This is all reminiscent of an editorial in The Economist (former owner of Braude’s employer, Pyramid Research)–confident, flippant and mostly irrelevant. Doubtless the reason Braude is popular with the likes of Lewis and Peretz is that they, even more than he, had little idea of what an invasion of Iraq would actually mean both for its inhabitants and the invaders. So far as one can tell, the neocon faction that fomented this war actually believed their own propaganda. At the end of last year Professor Lewis’s eager pupil Paul Wolfowitz, for example, actually stated that Iraqis would welcome Americans to Baghdad as the French had welcomed liberators in Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and deeply unpopular inside Iraq, would be the Iraqi de Gaulle. Given the many Chalabi-associated names littering Braude’s long list of acknowledgments, the author spent time in the same fantasy land–“There is every expectation that…waves of surrender will greet American troops and their allies in a 2003 confrontation.”

Today, the ugly reality is plain for all to see. Cholera is spreading in the cities, and what may have escaped in the looting of the Iraqi equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control does not bear thinking about. Electricity has still not been properly restored; the last rations distributed by Saddam’s government are running out. The occupiers’ casualty lists are lengthening. Apart from the eviction of Chalabi from the sumptuous quarters he had appropriated in Baghdad, there is no good news.

A distraught Iraqi friend wrote to me recently, reflecting that “there is a saying in Iraq equivalent to the saying ‘What’s the use of closing the barn door after the horse has gone,’ which says ‘What is the use, now that Basra is in ruins?’ But Basra is in ruins.” It sounds as if Basrans, like other Iraqis, will be rejecting advice from anyone who took part in the ruining.

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