American and European intellectual elites were not moved to action when 182,000 Kurds — a people who trace their history back more than 3,000 years — were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein.
The chattering classes hardly flinched when Saddam drained the wetlands of southern Iraq, destroying the environment of the Marsh Arabs and, with it, a 5,000-year-old way of life.
But now they’ve got their dander up: Iraq’s antiquities have been vandalized.
That the Iraq National Museum was looted is, of course, a tragedy. But isn’t it curious that the same people who now insist that U.S. Marines should have used lethal force to protect cuneiform tablets were, just a few weeks ago, arguing that only non-military actions were appropriate to stop Saddam’s looting of billions of dollars worth of oil wealth — not to mention his mass murders of ancient peoples?
Those now expressing outrage are careful not to assign blame to the looters themselves. (That may prove more difficult if it turns out that professional thieves were primarily responsible for the heist.) Nor are they looking for “root causes” in the damage that might have been done to Iraqi civil society by a dictator who for 30 years taught that the law was whatever appeared above his signature.
Rather, as the authors of an op-ed prominently displayed in the New York Times on Thursday put it: “The American and British forces are clearly to blame for the destruction and displacement of [Iraq’s] cultural treasures.” Echoed former Ambassador Peter Galbraith: “The U.S. allowed this to happen.” (I don’t recall Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia, speaking up as strongly in 1992 when the National and University Library and the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo were burned to the ground by Serb rockets.)
Let’s try to put the sacking and the elites’ response in context.
Opponents of regime change in Iraq could not conceal their disappointment when Baghdad did not turn out to be another Mogadishu, when instead of attacking U.S. troops, Iraqis welcomed them, waved homemade American flags, told the “human shields” they were “wankers” who should get out, and even kissed portraits of President Bush.
And it wasn’t just the Loony Left and the Pro-Appeasement Paleoconservatives who bemoaned Iraq’s liberation. Many members of the Elite Liberal Establishment enthusiastically joined in.
Youssef Ibrahim is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times — you can’t get much more Elite Liberal Establishment than that. I happened to appear with him on To the Point with Warren Olney (a Public Radio International program, broadcast on National Public Radio stations — O.K., so that’s even more Elite Liberal Establishment).
As pictures of Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad were being broadcast to the world, Ibrahim pronounced what was taking place a “day of complete Muslim and Arab catastrophe.”
“Baghdad is not just any place,” he explained. “It is a pillar of Arab culture. It was the seat of many Muslim empires and glory days and … for a country like this to fall under a new regime which is called American occupation is a profound trauma for both Arabs and Muslims.”
He threw in for good measure that it was the obviously the “intention of the neoconservatives in Washington” to turn Iraq “into a private gasoline pumping station.”
Are such views the product of ignorance or anti-Americanism? Is Ibrahim unfamiliar with the pains that have accompanied liberations in the past — from France to Italy to Romania to Russia? Or does he believe it is better to live under oppression, to suffer poverty, torture, and rape, than to be liberated by a people so vulgar that they eat at McDonalds, watch American Idol, and elect George W. Bush as their leader?
The challenges ahead in Iraq — and in the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds — are enormous. They will only be made more difficult by the those who called 12 years of indulging Saddam a “rush to war,” who called three weeks of combat a “quagmire,” and who now imply that the sacking of a museum vitiates the liberation of a nation from Baathist tyranny.
For whatever reasons, too many prominent Americans wish for America’s failure — and claim to find evidence of it everywhere they look.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.