Spend a couple of hours as I did one day last week meandering through the ‘Byzantium – Faith and Power’ exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and you will come away overwhelmed. A lot of religious iconography on display, much of it delicate and dazzling examples of the art of a place and a period circa 1261-1557. While reading the inscriptions and background notes, I was struck by the grand sweep of the history of the region around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is as if the drama now being tragically played out in what was once Mesopotamia has occurred many times before and keeps repeating itself. The Byzantium itself, the Crusades, the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, all co- mingled and left an imprint on the region. The invasions, the occupations, the repression and the upheavals, were carried out under the banner of high ideals and lofty missions. Yet their driving forces were always less than inspiring and their conduct involved great cruelty and suffering.
The central fallacy that brought about the current war in Iraq and has kept it going is that it is our mission there is to deliver ‘democracy’ to the Iraqi people, as a preclude to bestowing it on all the other countries thereabout. If the neo-conservatives have been successful at nothing else, selling this lie has been an achievement. There’s been a near consensus on this score. Those on the Right have argued that it is a worthwhile, even holy mission, while on the Left, commentators (or a good portion of them, anyway) have asserted that it is a mission impossible (‘democracy cannot be imposed from outside’). Yet this war has never been about democracy. One has only to look toward formerly Soviet Central Asia where we are encouraging, rewarding and arming despots to see how hollow the claim is. No promise to bring democracy there, only guns, soldiers and military bases.
Nor is the war in Iraq about any ‘clash of civilizations.’ No matter how much crusaders like President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and their Armageddon-minded religious fellow travelers might actually think there is something holy about their mission, there isn’t.
My favorite ant-war demonstration placard is the one that reads: ‘Why is our oil under their sand?’ That’s what this war is all about; it is what has largely shaped U.S. policy in the Balkans, Central Asia and the Middle East for decades now.
Acceptance of the silly notion that the reason young men and women from our country, and untold thousands of Iraqis, are daily dying needlessly has something to do with bestowing democracy has contributed to another fallacy that now serves to extend the war and the carnage, an argument why we cannot do the wise and proper thing and get out now. This is the idea that the U.S. must remain in the country for years, if not decades, to see this alleged process of democratization through. It just another version of the old colonialist mantra: these people can’t be trusted to run their own affairs.
The idea that the Iraqi people are ignorant of the virtues of majority rule and not prepared for self- government reflects nothing so much as imperialist arrogance. The Iraqis have a long political history. They have struggled for democracy in the past and have a tradition of political parties that mirror the political trends that exist in most other countries. The Iraqi Bath Party itself was at one point a progressive force in Iraqi and the politics of the region. Saddam Hussein rose to power over the tortured bodies of the Baathists, communists, socialists and revolutionary democrats who stood valiantly in his path and who have organized against repression and religious sectarianism and division for three decades, in exile and underground. The Iraqis are quite capable of running their own affairs – free of tyrants and occupiers from afar.
One hardly reads a commentary on Iraq these days without encountering foreboding warnings of ‘civil war’ should the so-called coalition forces leave. So what? We can hope that the Iraqis – Arabs and Kurds — will be able to settle their internal affairs without violent upheaval. But that’s not a foregone conclusion. We couldn’t. The United States was hardly free from England when it became embroiled in a lengthy and nasty civil war. It determined the nation’s character and future. Indeed, if the wrong side had won, I might be a slave today. Who is to say that there will not arise an Iraqi leader who declares the nation indivisible and presides over a tumultuous struggle to keep it united?
The point is: the future of Iraq is the Iraqi people’s business, not ours or that of anyone else in the Anglo coalition. We have no right to preside over and shape Iraq’s political development. The idea that the U.S. or any other government should send troops half way around the planet to deliver another people from ‘evil’ is Crusader stuff, and the Iraqis and the other people of the Middle East and South Asia will resist it now just as they resisted it the first time around.
The reason U.S. military spokespersons continually harp on the presence of hardly-ever-produced ‘foreign forces’ in Iraq – a claim parroted by the pliant U.S. news media — is to distract from the reality of an obvious mass popular resistance to the occupation. Likewise, the allegation that the only people trying to drive the occupiers out of the country are elements of the old regime or tools of meddlesome neighboring countries. The fear in Washington is that the struggle being waged against the occupation forces will appear as a legitimate battle for national liberation and thus draw encouragement and support from others in the world.
As long as resisters were considered only ‘remnants of Saddam’s Revolutionary Guard’ or ‘foreign fighters’ somehow ‘linked to al-Qaeda,’ progressives had to, in principle, adopt a stance somewhat akin to ‘a plague on both houses.’ That moment has passed. With the rise of the popular resistance, led by people who were, or would have been, Saddam’s victims, U.S. and British military forces are increasingly viewed as battling the Iraqi people – just as the U.S. ended up fighting against the people of Vietnam. We weren’t defending lofty ideas then and we aren’t now.