During his final year and a half as lord of misrule, Saddam Hussein liked to joke that Iraqis should win the contract to rebuild the World Trade Center since they had so much experience at reconstruction after the Gulf War of 1991. As events unfolded, something like the opposite happened. The military-industrial complex that recently destroyed so much of Iraq will now be hired to repair the damage. Few Iraqis this summer believe that the postwar contractual arrangements are a coincidence. “You encouraged the looting and burning after you got finished bombing,” a maintenance worker at the Baghdad Polytechnic Institute told me, “so you could get paid for putting it all back up again.”
When the war began in March I was in Hanoi, where the US Embassy helpfully sent a fax to “American citizens in Vietnam” warning of the danger posed by “armed conflict with Iraq.” “Remain vigilantly aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile…. This Public Announcement is being updated to alert Americans to an increased potential for anti-American violence,” and on and on. Since Vietnam is neither a Muslim country nor one where threats against Americans have occurred–it is only a country we invaded a few wars ago–the conclusion was inescapable that the government knew how widely unpopular its action would be. Intellectual isolationism had led to global unilateralism, with the British as the tail of the kite. September 11 had both scared and emboldened us into the second of our new blitzing wars.
Dry, blazing, ignited Iraq is a country whose capital does not loom over its landscape but instead shimmers up out of the desert as though it may or may not eventually materialize. As soon as I arrived in the second week of July it was apparent the country’s needs are so simple as to be alliterative: security, services and structure are the mantra, the liberté-égalité-fraternité of this proposed revolution from despotism to something resembling a representative distribution of power. There was still only sporadic electricity, the water was polluted and Baghdad was considered so dangerous Americans were warned not to go out at night and never to go anywhere without a driver and translator. “This is a rule,” an American said to me the day I arrived. “Don’t break it.”
Yet there was something else, even more obvious than danger though easily overlooked in the rush to keep up with unfolding crises, that quickly became clear. Between most Americans and most Iraqis is a gulf more unbridgeable than the nearby Persian Gulf itself, both in terms of worldview and self-recognition. Like Americans, Iraqis have all kinds of opinions, but almost all of our new subject citizens have such utterly different concepts from ours of words like “freedom,” “liberation” or even “country” and “national identity” that to speak of these where they are concerned is to court major misunderstanding before we have even begun. “Democracy,” of course, has been pounded out of shape on the postwar anvil.