Unembedded Thoughts on the Great Patriotic War

Several random thoughts crossed my mind while watching the much-heralded fall of Baghdad. First, Saddam Hussein would have made a great poker player. He was holding no cards, but he bluffed the United States and the world successfully for 12 years. At the same time, he unwittingly exposed the emptiness of the Bush administration's precipitant war-first foreign policy. It turned out the man was no threat, after all, to any but his own people. At this writing, the infamous weapons of mass destruction, which provided the prime justification for our unprovoked invasion, are nowhere to be found. Even should a few turn up, they were obviously not used against coalition forces and constituted little real danger.

Then, there is the issue of the journalistic coverage of the war. To anyone examining both US and foreign news reports, it appeared that two different conflicts were taking place. On the day Baghdad fell, for instance, American broadcasts were filed with unadulterated triumphalism and jingoistic self-congratulation, while foreign broadcasts focused on civilian casualties and the emerging humanitarian crisis in prostrate Iraq. To uniformed and "embedded" (In bed?) American correspondents, the victory over a third-rate power akin to Spain in 1898 was entirely a one-dimensional military saga featuring heroic deeds and technological prowess. Reporting "collateral damage" was regarded by our aspiring Richard Harding Davises as a nonstarter; civilians were deemed worthy of notice only if they were happily welcoming the troops.

Also manifesting itself during the course of hostilities was the curious psychic similarity of George W. Bush to his missing nemesis Saddam Hussein. In many respects, they were mirror images of one another, possessing egos as big as all outdoors and a common damn-the-consequences operating style. Saddam believed he was a figure of historical destiny -- a latter-day Saladin, the hero who delivered Arabs from the Crusaders in the 12th century; he viewed himself as chosen by fate to revive pan-Arabism throughout the Middle East or go down fighting as its martyred defender.

The president evidently sees himself in a similar light -- as a figure of destiny. He is the missing third Blues brother, entrusted with a mission from God. His fundamentalist Christianity and American exceptionalism have set him forth on a modern crusade to eradicate evil from the world; in Iraq, he played King Richard the Lion Heart to Saddam's Saladin. Too bad these two couldn't have squared off in individual combat and saved everyone a lot of killing and destruction.

Now that victory on the battlefield has been secured, one offshoot of the Bush messianic impulse is apparently to be the imposition (after a decent interval of colonial military rule) of Western-style democracy, or some variation thereof, on Iraq. Democratic government was one of the implied aims of regime change, and Iraqis will get it whether they want it or not. There's just one problem: Real democracy must grow from within; it can't be imposed from without. And it takes time. Turkey, the one true Muslim democracy in the Middle East, is only now coming into its own as a self-governing, pluralistic state, 80 years after Kemal Ataturk created the modern Turkish republic on paper. The Iraqis will learn, moreover, that democracy is no guarantee of American favor, if they resist hegemonic dictates. Just ask France.

So, now comes the difficult part. George W. Bush is stuck, as if to Uncle Remus' tar baby; he will learn the hard way why the world's foreign-policy experts regard the modern incarnation of ancient Mesopotamia as the Yugoslavia of the Middle East. American occupiers will have to mediate between Kurds, Turkomans, Arabs, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and a variety of competing tribal interests. (For a sense of the possibilities, recall the chaotic scene in Damascus, Syria, at the climax of the film "Lawrence of Arabia," as Lawrence attempts to impose democratic self-government on the victorious but disparate and feuding Arabs.)

There's more. Assume Bush administration officials get what they are wishing for (publicly, at least), a democratic Iraq. Islamic scholar Seyyed Nasr points out that since Iraq is 60% Shiite Muslim (the more fundamentalist branch of Islam), introducing some version of Western-style democracy will inevitably crate a problematic Shi'ite state. Secularist Saddam Hussein, whatever his other faults, was the Marshal Tito holding the country's warring ethnic and religious factions in check. Stand by for turmoil and disorder. Meanwhile, our conquering legionnaires will have to cover their backs against the likelihood of roving bands of unpacified Iraqi nationalists carrying on an anticolonial guerrilla war, perhaps for years to come.

Postwar reconstruction is another matter the Bush imperialists have blithely glossed over. Having broken Iraq, they will have to fix it, including Baghdad, the city we partially destroyed -- the Vietnam-village analogy is inescapable -- in order to save. Rebuilding (and occupying) costs will gradually, steadily suck American taxpayer dollars down a dark and bottomless fiscal hole. The White House has already obtained $75 billion from Congress just to fund its sorry enterprise for the next six months, money that could have ameliorated any number of desperate domestic ills.

Our states, in particular, are in their worst financial crisis in a half-century, cutting programs and facing a combined budget deficit expected to reach $80 billion this year. Another interesting development: the US State Department reportedly has postwar plans to provide universal health care for all 23 million Iraqis. That's a laudable, high-minded ambition. Unfortunately, no federal funds exist to provide the same for the American people.

There's a reason for this disconnect. George W. Bush's Iraq war was premised on the fundamental conservative belief that America is a perfected society with no remaining internal problems of its own, that we can afford the luxury of remaking the world starting with the Middle East. This is a false assumption by comfortably situated individuals wearing social blinders, and an accounting is coming due. The fatal flaw in the grand Republican imperial design is that foreign adventures prevent any serious attention to unfinished business at home. It's a dilemma as old as history, one on which our friends the British, the previous century's great imperialists, could ruefully recite chapter and verse.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine

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