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Thursday, May 13, 2004

Bollettino

(fifth in the series)

I don’t know a lot about Iraq. I can’t name one single Iraqi singer or song. I don’t know the name of one Iraqi tv show, actor, or novelist.

I share space in this cloud of unknowing with 99.9% of the American public.

However, I have read a few library books. I have read a few magazine and newspaper articles. I have a fair memory. I have Google. And, mostly, I have a pretty good nose for sophistries, the lacuna in stories, and special pleading.

Now, in the current occupation of Iraq, there is one general and significant difference between the Iraqis and the Americans: the Americans can withdraw. When the Americans go, the Iraqis will have to live with whatever situation (in the creation of which they have mostly acted as junior partners) is left behind. Since the point of this series is to envision withdrawal, I thought it best to knock hard against three myths, as I see them, about Iraq.

1. The ungrateful/abused Iraqi

When Fred Barnes, the editor of the Weekly Standard, made his sahib’s tour of Iraq this spring, he came back with stories to delight the senses. Much as Lincoln Steffens, setting foot on Ukranian soil in 1930, was ravished with the scents and sounds of the future, so, too, Barnes, coming upon newly painted school houses, electric wiring, and entrepreneurial Iraqi exiles, saw that “Iraq worked.” There was, however, a big green fly in the ointment – the Iraqis. Frankly, Barnes revealed, after all we’d done for them, they weren’t grateful.

Sahibs hate a vulgar streak of ingratitude among the bearers.

The liberal hawks have been, well, more liberal. Liberals are a nurture, not nature kind of people. The liberal idea is that the Iraqis are abused. David Aaronovich might not have started this theme, but he went through it pretty early in the game, right after it appeared that there was an insufficiency of flowers greeting the liberators. Why the hesitancy? Surely it is because Saddam, the bad father, beat the Iraqis, the good children, until they hid from the social workers under the looted furniture.

These are the most overt acts of rhetorically infantilizing the Iraqis. More subtle versions were on display throughout the Mission Accomplished months last year. NPR was especially prone to radio shows about U.S. soldiers teaching the poor, clueless Iraqi security people, with their adorable stumbling English (imagine, they didn’t know English!) all about democracy. Never mind that the security people in the Bronx and L.A. might have benefited from similar lessons – the real irony here, of course, is that the classroom should have been reversed. The Iraqis should have been teaching the American GIs how to enter an Iraqi house, how to distinguish one Iraqi holiday from another, etc., etc. As we now all too painfully know. At the time, though, the Iraqis were seen as something like the Noble Indian, to whom we were imparting the benefits of the alphabet. The Noble Indian, however, had the decency to vanish, inexplicably, into the reservation; we can now call them Native Americans and feel proud of our sensitivity in a Kevin Kostner-ish kind of masculine way. The Iraqis, on the other hand, have vulgarly survived.

This is all an echo of what Said wrote about in Orientalism: ‘Formally the Orientalist sees himself as accomplishing the union of Orient with Occident, maily by asserting the technological political supremacy of the West. History in such a union is attenuated if not banished.”

So perhaps it is necessary to say some things about Iraq such as even I, an ignorant American, such have been able to gather over the last couple years.

For instance, Iraq has been a nation longer than either Israel or Saudi Arabia. Its unity has suffered the shock, in the last three decades, of three devastating wars. At the same time, Iraq has gone through periods of quite exceptional prosperity – especially in the seventies, when the price of oil surged. That price of oil benefited the country partly because the Iraqis were the leading contributors towards the constitution of the Middle East’s only successful international organization, OPEC. Even under a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis were able to put their infrastructure back together after the first Gulf war faster than the Americans have been able to do it in the past year.

They are not, in short, savages, either noble or ignoble. Nor are they abused children or ungrateful teens. According to people in the oil business, in fact, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil was one of the most competent in the world before the sanctions.

The image of Iraqis as a people who cannot do things for themselves count, since they serve as a sub rosa justification for the complex economic arrangement that the CPA has arrived at with its country. On the one hand, there is the enormous American generosity – a flow of funds unmatched since the Marshall plan. On the other hand is who controls the funds – the CPA. It is the defense department that still, a year on, has final say on all the major contracts. It is as if a man came to your house, tied you up, gave you birthday presents, and played with them before your eyes.

There is one gift, however, above all the others, that the Bush administration got right. That gift is debt relief. In fact, if Iraq could get out from under the crushing burden of the debts contracted under Hussein, as well as the war reparations, the country wouldn’t need American beneficence. Like any country endowed with a vast natural resource that the state contracts out, Iraq could once again borrow the money it needed to rebuild the infrastructure in the way its government wanted. It shouldn’t be necessary to lecture conservatives on the vices of welfare, but apparently, in the case of Iraq, they have made a large exception to all conservative principles.

If we are envisioning an exit, then, the first thing to envision is the transfer of economic power to an Iraqi government.

Next post: The Kurds.

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