here are distinct Iraq realities, like computer menu options, available for public display in the weeks ahead of the U.S. presidential elections. The first, sold by Baghdad’s installed leaders and Washington policy-makers, promotes vague optimism in the face of bloody evidence to the contrary. The current rash of chaos, say political physicians, is the work of a desperate minority — anarchic “outsiders” — destined to lose influence in coming months and years. Democratic elections, though imperfect in times of turmoil, will establish fundamental order, and given time, will gradually heal social rifts and beget economic and social prosperity. Patience, persistence and resolve are paramount.
This view is fostered by writers like Max Boot of the Los Angeles Times, who treats Iraq as if it were a pre-domesticated Dakota that wishes to play by the right rules but can’t (or won’t) dust off its local copy of the Constitution. “Despite all that’s gone wrong so far,” Boot suggested in a recent column, “Iraq could still go either way. (In one recent poll, 51 percent of Iraqis said their country was headed in ‘the right direction’; only 31 percent felt it was going the wrong way.)”
Boot might as well be talking about Detroit, not Baghdad, since the idea of polling a nation parsed by American troops and beset by a civil war knee-deep in foreign marauders falls somewhere between P.T Barnum and suburban daydreaming.
Where mentioning Iraq and polls in the same thought may be of help, paradoxically, is in locating American cultural mythology. As narrated by Washington, the Iraq story is a morality tale about outlaws, badlands, and double-dealing sheriffs. When the sheriffs grow stronger, assisted by federal marshals, the badlands, and the bad, will be eliminated. Sound government will emerge and generations of children will remember the transformation and celebrate its overseers.
Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, gladly acknowledged this middle class fable in addressing the U.S. Congress, sounding like the resolute state governor of an outlying territory wracked by unrest. With Bush (and Boot) in mind, he used civics lesson language — unity and elections, gratitude and firmness, law and order — to reinforce an illusory brotherhood between two nations that have nothing in common but that one invaded the other, adding a complicated slum to Washington’s white man’s burden enterprise. (“Americans are simply not competent imperialists,” writes the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.)
The second reality is only slightly distanced from the first, and is managed, erratically, by Democratic contender John Kerry. In its latest upgrade, the Kerry line holds that the Boot-Bush view is naïve and absurdly optimistic. Terrorists and outlaws are winning in Iraq, and unless a convention of nations gathers to stop them, great global woe lies ahead. Bush, says Kerry, lives in a dream world. Kerry, says Bush, is a doubting John of dubious courage.
Yet the truth about Iraq, insofar as one exists, doesn’t belong to Bush, Kerry or Allawi, whose political and personal lifespan is in perpetual jeopardy. And it certainly does not belong to legends of benevolence.
Until Hussein’s ouster, Iraq, like most of its Arab and Persian neighbors, was a harsher version of Josip Broz Tito’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious Yugoslavia, glued together through nationalism, collectivism and coercion. Hafez al-Assad, whose son now rules Syria, murdered Muslim rivals by the tens of thousands in Hama and Aleppo. Hosni Mubarak runs an Egypt democratic in name alone. Iran, both under its nominally benevolent shah and now Shiite custody, has been unforgiving. The Gulf States and Saudi Arabia brook little dissent from threateners. Kuwait, “freed” from Saddam in 1992, is yet another brass knuckle outpost.
None of this is new, or even news.
Startling, though, is the way in which American myth-making, its goals and rhetoric, its Allawis and otherwise anointed proconsuls, have ironically created the conditions for a distempered state similar in tone to 1980s Lebanon. Institutionally cruel under Saddam, Iraq is now contested between putative democrats (invaders and natives) and feral terrorists, a 21st century-style Spanish Civil War nation marred by third-party intentions, good and bad, populated by citizens — shocked, and in awe of their misfortune — who have seen their lives descend from oppression to enfeeblement.
The deliverers of freedom will loathe and refute this, howling in syncopated defense of nation-building. But in a Baghdad remote from middle class indulgence, where a yearning for order outweighs stunted democracy and big-power imperatives are meaningless, nostalgia for the dictator, for a dictator, may outweigh the “right direction” view, which remains, yet again, a myth-vista.
But no one in the America Bush calls “safe and secure” dares undertake such a sampling, lest it prove that good intentions have failed and scold its presumptuous creators.