Frank Rich: Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad

Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad
Published: September 24, 2006

IT’S not just about torture. Even if there had never been an Abu Ghraib, a Guantanamo or an American president determined to rewrite the Geneva Conventions, America would still be losing the war for hearts and minds in the Arab world. Our first major defeat in that war happened at the dawn of the Iraq occupation, before ‘detainee abuse’ entered our language: the ‘Stuff happens!’ moment at the National Museum in Baghdad.

Three and a half years later, have we learned anything? You have to wonder. As the looting of the museum was the first clear warning of disasters soon to come, so the stuff that’s happening at the museum today is a grim indicator of where we’re headed in Iraq: America is empowering the very Islamic radicals this war was supposed to smite. But even now we seem to be averting our eyes from reality on the ground in Baghdad.

Our blindness back in April 2003 seems ludicrous in retrospect. As the looting flared, an oblivious President Bush told the Iraqi people in a televised address that they were ‘the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.’ Our actions – or, more accurately, our inaction as the artifacts of that great civilization were carted away – spoke louder than those pretty words. As Fred Ikle, the Reagan administration Pentagon policy chief, puts it in Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, ‘America lost most of its prestige and respect in that episode.’

That disaster might have been mitigated if our leaders had not dismissed the whole episode as a triviality. But Donald Rumsfeld likened the chaos to the aftermath of a soccer game and joked that television was exaggerating the story by recycling video of a single looter with a vase. Gen. Richard Myers defended our failure to intervene as ‘a matter of priorities’ (we had protected the oil ministry). Lt. Gen. William Wallace, countering a wildly inflated early claim by a former museum employee that 170,000 artifacts had been destroyed, put the number of objects still unaccounted for at ‘as few as 17.’ (The actual number was closer to 14,000.)

The war’s many cheerleaders in the press fell into line. In keeping with the mood of the time, administration enforcers like Charles Krauthammer and Andrew Sullivan damned Mr. Rumsfeld’s critics as fatuous aesthetes exploiting a passing incident to denigrate the liberation of Iraq. In a column in Salon titled ‘Idiocy of the Week’ (that idiot would be me), Mr. Sullivan asked rhetorically who was right about ‘the alleged ransacking’ of the museum, Mr. Rumsfeld or his critics? ‘Rummy, of course. He almost always is.’

Of course, dear old Rummyss what-me-worry take on the museum was the tip-off to how he would be wrong about everything that would follow: he reacted with exactly the same disdain and indifference to the insurgency happening under his own nose and to Abu Ghraib. There would be a hasty corrective to the looting, at least: a heroic Marine Reserve colonel, Matthew Bogdanos, commanded a team that ultimately tracked down a bit more than a third of the vanished objects. (It was too late to rescue tens of thousands of additional treasures in Iraq’s National Library and National Archives, both also looted and torched.) But Mr. Rumsfeld’s ‘Stuff happens!’ proved indelible because it so resonantly set forth an enduring theme of the occupation: that the Americans in charge of Iraq were contemptuous of the local populace to whom they were so grandly bequeathing democracy and other fruits of civilization.

The cavalier American reaction to the museum looting was mimicked in the $22 billion reconstruction effort, an orgy of corruption and waste that still hasn’t brought Iraqis reliable electricity. In a new account of the civilian nation-builders in the Green Zone, ‘Imperial Life in the Emerald City,’ Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post details how L. Paul Bremer III and his underlings enlisted cronies and apparatchiks rather than those who might actually know anything about the country’s people or their needs. Thus we saddled Iraq with Bernie Kerik, G.O.P. fund-raisers and politically connected young ideologues chosen over more qualified job applicants who knew Arabic. They saw Iraq as a guinea pig for irrelevant (and doomed) experiments, including an antismoking campaign and an elaborate American-style stock exchange. Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book, while nonfiction, is as chilling an indictment of America’s tragic cultural myopia as Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel of the American debacle in Indochina, The Quiet American.

Our public diplomacy efforts were equally tone-deaf to Iraqis and their neighbors. In the early going, the State Department hired a Madison Avenue whiz who made sunny TV testimonials about America’s love of Muslims. These ads won no hearts or minds, but wasted tons of money and even more valuable time. Now this job belongs to Karen Hughes, the presidential flack, whose patronizing photo-op tour of the region last year earned mostly ridicule.

Our broadcasting outreach there is supervised by a longtime Karl Rove pal, Kenneth Tomlinson, who last month was found by State Department investigators to be using his office – literally – to run a ‘horse-racing operation.’ One of Mr. Tomlinson’s thoroughbreds is named Karzai, in supposed honor of the Afghan president. If that’s his idea of lifting America’s image in the Muslim world, he might as well be on Al Jazeera’s payroll. On Wednesday, ABC News reported the bottom line of such P.R. misfires: a confidential Pentagon survey found that 75 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims support the insurgency, up from 14 percent in 2003.

Speaking before the United Nations last week in what may be the run-up to our new war, Mr. Bush was still on his battle-for-civilization kick, flattering Iranians much as he has the Iraqis. ‘We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization,’ he said. All Iranians have to do is look to the Baghdad museum today to see that such words are worth no more now than they were in 2003.

It’s symbolic of the anarchy throughout Iraq’s capital that the museum’s entrances are now sealed with concrete to keep out new hordes of killers and thieves. But the violence, which seems to spiral with each declaration of a new security crackdown, is old news. More revealing is the other half of the museum’s current plight: it is now in the hands of Iraq’s version of the Taliban. That sad denouement is another symbol, standing for our defeat in the larger war of ideas.

The museum changed hands in August, when Donny George, its longtime administrator and the chairman of Iraq’s official antiquities board, fled the country fearing for his life and for the treasures in his care, both at the museum and the country’s many archaeological sites. Mr. George is a Christian and had good reason to fear. The new government minister placed in charge of the museum, a dentist, is an acolyte of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose goal is to make Iraq a fundamentalist theocracy. To Mr. Sadr and his followers, the museum’s legendary pre-Islam antiquities, harking back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, are infidels’ idols to be sacked.

You might think, given Mr. Sadr’s radicalism, that he is a fugitive terrorist on the lam as, say, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was. After all, Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is a font of death squads at the heart of the sectarian warfare; he’s an enthusiastic ally of Hezbollah besides. But he is instead a major player in the ‘democracy’ we have installed in Iraq, controlling at least 30 of 275 seats in the Parliament and six government ministries, including the power centers of transportation and health.

Back in 2004, the Americans made plans to take down Mr. Sadr, but as Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the coalition authority in Baghdad, writes in his book ‘Squandered Victory,’ those plans were shelved for ‘various reasons, including political calculations in Washington.’ American forces arrested some Sadr aides last week, but such periodic skirmishes notwithstanding, his influence continues to grow. He is a crucial ally of the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who would not be in office without his support. In the past few days, both Tony Snow and Condi Rice have been reaffirming that the administration has what the secretary of state called ‘enormous confidence’ in Mr. Maliki, despite Washington chatter to the contrary.

One of the first Westerners to warn strongly of the dangers of someone like Mr. Sadr was Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the legendary archaeologist, explorer, author and British political officer who masterminded the unlikely cobbling together of the modern Iraq state after World War I. She warned that a Shiite theocracy in the new country would be ‘the very devil.’ As it happened, it was also Bell who created the Iraqi National Museum in 1923.

The fortunes of her museum, once considered the finest in the Middle East, have been synonymous with the fate of Iraq ever since. That’s because, like any such national institution, it is not merely some building that houses art but a repository of a country’s heart and soul. That America has stood helplessly by as Mr. Sadr folds the museum into his orbit of power is as ominous a predictor of what lies ahead in this war as was our callous reaction to the looting of 2003. For all of America’s talk of stamping out a ‘murderous ideology’ and promoting civilization and democracy in Iraq, we are now handing the very devil the keys.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

I remember very clearly when I heard the news that the museum had been looted. I was absolutely ill. Heartsick. If there had been any doubt in my mind that the Iraq adventure was a tragic debacle (and there wasn’t much — maybe about five minutes when I got punked on the Saddam statue incident), that doubt was obliterated by the looting of Iraq’s heritage, and Rumsfeld’s unbelievably callous, cavalier dismissal.

September 24, 2006 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

Richard – the root of all this lies within the Bush team’s very basic attitude. It can be summed up thusly: “Who cares what you think?”

It is not that Bush et. al. doesn’t care about the Iraqis. It is that they do not care about anyone. It is part of their basic ruling class education where all people are seen as servants and they are seen and treated as the masters.

100 million people in the streets world wide protesting the Iraq war? Who cares what they think? Lawsuits over illegal detention and rendition? Who cares? Global warming and increasing violent weather? Who cares what they think? A major American city destroyed in a hurricane? Who cares what they think?

The results of that thinking can be clearly seen in our current standing in the world.

September 24, 2006 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

The media as a whole now seems willing to report on how “bad” the Iraq situation has been, post Saddam.

But even the alternative media still shies away from
presenting detailed comparisons of Iraq under Saddam vs. the current nightmarish situation.

Under Saddam, Iraq had one of the best levels of medical care and education in the middle east. Women were encouraged to earn university degrees and to work in professions of their choice. Saddam oversaw a secular state, not an Islamic theocracy. Iraq was a bulwark against a rising tide of Islamicism in the region, and a counterweight to Iranian power there.

With Saddam gone, Iran’s power has greatly increased, womens rights are now threatened,
every sector of Iraqi society is disintegrating.
professionals and businessmen are fleeing to avoid being kidnapped for ransom, or killed in sectarian violence. Sunnis and Shia who once got along well enough (intermarriage was common) are now bitter enemies operating murderous, torturing militias terrorizing each others’ populations.

Yes, Saddam is a war criminal who victimized Kurds and Shia when they challenged his power.
When his power was not being opposed he would more or less leave people alone.
(also, no fly zones helped the Kurds escape his wrath).

Just prior to the invasion of Iraq, Saddam was not on any major killing spree. He didn’t need to be. the Shia had been cowed, the Kurds protected by the no fly zone. It was safe for Iraqis to walk the streets. Life was good so long as you didn’t cross Saddam. And Saddam was pretty much contained prior to the war.

Yes, ultimately, Iraq and the middle east would have been better off with a more humane, less tyrranical Iraqi leader than the criminal Saddam, but this was not the way or the time to rid the world of him.

The middle east , Iraq, and the West are all worse off post Saddam than before the war.
Al Qaida – and the terrorism threat – is stronger than ever (BECAUSE of the war), Iraq’s society has been severely damaged and may never recover, theocratic Iran (of the “axis of evil”), and Islamicism in general, has expanding influence, now that Saddam no longer
is there as a secular counterweight.

Why aren’t we seeing honest media assessments suggesting the world WITH Saddam was safer than the world is now WITHOUT Saddam, as unpalatable as that may be.

Another inconvenient truth?

September 25, 2006 @ 1:42 am | Comment

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