Monday, July 7, 2014

Iraq and the Lessons of History: If You Want to Go Back in Time, John McCain

Iraq is in deep trouble.  ISIS and crises abound.

But the let’s-go-back-in-time . . . I-was-right-you-were-wrong crowd make me a little crazy here in the United States as they scream their school-yard analyses before any fool who will give them air time.

1. The desire to go back in time is a waste of . . . time John McCain and others who yell loudest about how ‘we’ (translate the United States military) should not have left Iraq are like those who challenge my pacifist leanings by demanding to know whether I would have killed Adolf Hitler if I had the chance.  It seems so obvious to me, but just in case it’s slipped the attention of the would-be time travelers:

a. We cannot go back in time.  And no one – no one – knows what they could have, should have, would have done.  All we know is what we did or did not do.

b. If we’re going to engage in hypothetical time travel, we actually get to pick when to go back to.  So to the Hitler hypotheticalists, I usually reply that if I’m going to time travel with World War II and the Holocaust in view, I’m not traveling to Hitler’s bunker.  I’m traveling instead to the treaties of post-World War I.  Or to Hitler’s infancy and childhood, when his maniacal character was no doubt formed.  If I’m allowed the magic of changing the past, I’m changing the economic wasteland of post-World War I Germany.  Or the colonializing madness of that same time period.  Or the life of a then-anonymous small boy and his family.

c. if we’re going to time-travel Iraq, I’m going first to when George W. Bush is president in the U. S., toying with invading a country under the cover of the events of September 11, 2001.  Or the same U. S.’ earlier support of a tyrant named Saddam.  Or the installation by the West of a non-native king.  Or the creation of something called Iraq in the first place as a fiction suited and well-suited for the purpose of the exploitation of the natural resources of the region.  (World War II is not the only thing Europe has to answer for).

2. I don’t have the answers and neither does John McCain.  I’ve been to Iraq far more frequently and spent far more time with the peoples of that country than John McCain.  No one is beating down my door for answers.  Nor should they.  This is not my country and I do not have the answers for Iraq.  Neither do John McCain nor the others of his ilk.  And call me silly, but I’ve long understood that if someone doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation, maybe they should just be quiet.

3. Next time we go nation-building (and sadly, it’s fairly predictable we will), perhaps we should pay more attention to the ‘small’ things – they matter.  Mr. McCain and others allow their focus to be drawn to the obvious: the presence of a military threat in Iraq.  It is real.  And their attention is understandable, if a bit late.  But here’s the thing: the problems that make a collection of folk like ISIS possible are legion.  And none of them were deemed of much importance at the time (recall the aftermath of World War I, where the world began the long reaping of the insanity that is the Middle East today).  They include:

a. cookie-cutter global thinking that led in the first place to the creation of a nation (Iraq) out of a collection of territories or tribal regions.  The United States should be able to understand regional or local loyalties: after all, we fought a civil war over that very thing as north and south lined up and border regions foundered in mixed loyalties.  Robert E. Lee resigned his commission with the United States Army in order to serve with his beloved Virginia.  Whoever said that all politics is local knew whereof he spoke.

b. the rights you give up on behalf of someone else today will bite them and you tomorrow.  During the strange time when the United States determined that Iraq should have a constitution, there were long and strong and important wranglings over its content.  I actually listened to a gentleman on television – retired CIA – state regarding women’s rights that it was no big deal to throw women under the bus in Iraq’s constitution – after all, he said (I paraphrase), Iraq’ll just be where the U. S. was before the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in the U. S.  It was said dismissively.  It was said with no thought to the cost to the women who made that reality change.  It was said with no understanding that in his own beloved United States, before the franchise for women, women were much as they are around the world today, unable to own property in their names, presumptively disqualified to have custody of their children in the event of divorce, hampered if allowed at all to engage in commerce, viewed as inherently incapable of making important decisions like who should be their president, and locked in to violent marriages with virtually no recourse societal or legal.  The United States apparently agreed with this man whose name I cannot recall and the women of Iraq were relegated once again to virtually no voice as Sharia law was constitutionally enshrined in Iraq.

c. Every parent learns, to their chagrin, when they teach their children resistance in any form, sooner or later, will be used against them.  So it is everywhere; so it has been in Iraq.  Thus Maliki’s position as leader of this would-be nation leads inevitably to the events of today as he fails to grasp the lessons of his own recent history.  Put another way, we cannot be surprised when the oppressed become the oppressor.  It happens time and again.  Mr. Maliki had (many legitimate) axes to grind.  But in the grinding, he becomes the thing he so hated.  And the cycle continues.  The United States did the same thing: hating being attacked on our own shores, we attacked others on theirs and claim surprise at the lack of gratitude over the legacy of the dead.

d. Self-interested exploitation rather than genuine economic development yields predictable results.  Iraq is land rich in resources, yet many of its people live in gross poverty.  There is literally no reason save the greed of the powerful for this.

I could go on: wilful cultural ignorance; the unwillingness to listen to anyone with a contrary voice; mass detentions of young men for the crime of being young men; surrendering our own values to the crucible of war; teaching the ways of war rather than teaching the ways of peace; the naivete of the many soccer-balls from home mini-projects; the failure to even consider the inevitable chaos that occurs when war comes to town; failure to understand or address currency, commerce, and economics in a very different culture; ignoring the imams; raining money on the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong times in order to buy a little space for our soldiers; failing to address every-day policing in a sane way; treating civilians like problems rather than solutions; using military rather than police philosophies with the civilian population (killing the man on his roof rather than finding out why he’s on the roof in the first place); becoming the monster we came to unseat.

No, Mr. McCain, you and I stand too far away to offer much, if anything, in the way of wisdom when it comes to Iraq.  But if you insist on talking about what we should have done, let us begin not with our guns but with our presence.  Let us begin not with the last few years, but with the last century.

You may have forgotten that history, but I assure you, the Iraqis have not.  


  1. Bravo, Beth! The first statement of Paragraph "d" could be said about the United States today.
    It's amazing how so many politicians assume they know how to "fix" the problems of other countries, while ignoring and failing to act on so many of the problems our own country faces.
    Add "history teacher" to your resume.. Great piece.
    Peace with an "a",

    1. so true - the exploitation of resources and the people in proximity to them is saddening if hardly surprising - which is part of the sadness, this not being surprised. Sigh. Hugs and peace, Beth