One of the many rarely spoken reasons why conservatives in Washington
won't let us leave Iraq is the old notion of civilizing a primitive nation.
Last week, on the precious real estate of the right's flagship, the Wall
Street Journal editorial page, Iraq war-hawk Sen. Joe Lieberman (D?-CT)
let slip another unspoken reason why we remain in Iraq more than two and a half
years after achieving our stated goal of "disarming" Saddam Hussein.
that the Iraqis are on the brink of transitioning "from
the primitive, killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing
nationhood." That is, "unless the great American military that has
given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn."
It's noteworthy that Lieberman portrayed the old government as "primitive,"
despite the fact that we were talked into attacking Iraq because it had what
President Bush called the "deadliest" weapons "known to mankind."
They were, presumably, quite modern.
And that fits
reality. Iraq under the Baathists was many things, but primitive wasn't
one of them. Before two decades of infrastructure-smashing war, Iraq was considered
to be as advanced as many countries in Western Europe. Its universities were
the envy of the Arabic world, as was its health care system, which featured
the most modern hospitals in the region.
Lieberman contrasts this "primitive" Iraq with the "modern"
self-governance that the "great American military has given them."
If this strikes a familiar note with students of history, it should. In earlier
iterations, the notion that the West had an obligation to drag their primitive
charges into the present was embedded in the "civilizing missions"
undertaken by the French and British in India and Africa, it was in the White
Man's Burden invoked by Kipling and the "Hamitic
Myth" favored by German intellectuals to justify its colonial possessions.
Even the Portuguese, the poorest, least educated, least powerful of the European
colonial powers cooked up an ideology known as "Lusotropicalism"
to justify keeping its African possessions into the 1970s.
All of these ideologies shared two things in common: the idea that the people
they were subjugating were primitive -- the "natives" were frequently
portrayed as children in contemporary art of the times - and the claim that
what may have seemed like exploitation backed by the gun, was in fact a wholly
beneficent attempt to bring the poor, brown people in question a taste of "modernity."
In 1839, six years before he coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in
calling for the U.S. to annex Mexican Texas, well-known columnist John L. O'Sullivan
wrote that America
had been chosen for the "blessed mission" of subjugating those who
"endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts,"
because only America "is destined to be the great nation of futurity."
We can call the modern iteration in Iraq, as expressed by Lieberman (and many
others), simply "American exceptionalism."
Believing in our unique ability to "modernize" and "democratize"
Iraq has a clear danger: it precludes our strategic elites from considering
the idea that the country might best be served by letting Iraqis try to hammer
out a home-grown solution to what has become an enormous mess.
A few weeks ago I caught up with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), one of Congress'
most outspoken opponents of the Iraq invasion. His predictions about the consequences
of our Iraq policy have, unfortunately, been proven correct at every turn.
McDermott's analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq is as far from
the apocalyptic "clash of civilizations" tripe peddled by the Liebermans
of the world as one can get. He asked me, "Why don't we ever assume that
the Iraqis love their families and prefer to live in Peace? Why do we assume
they just want to kill each other?"
I asked him what he would do to extricate the United States from Iraq. He didn't
hesitate before responding: "I'd encourage the Iraqis to convene an atwa."
The atwa is an old and venerated system of dispute-resolution practiced in
the region for generations. McDermott learned of the tradition during a recent
trip to Jordan from influential Iraqis who had the means to flee the violence
that's plagued Iraq since the United States' attack.
The process is, as the Iraqis say, "hutwa bi hutwa" -- "step-by-step."
It begins with a ceasefire. Then respected leaders on both sides negotiate a
series of mutual obligations that bridge the divide between the parties. Instead
of the kinds of treaties favored by the West in which a "winner" wrenches
concessions from a "loser," the atwa's great strength for a situation
like the one plaguing Iraq today is that the process saves face (for more, read
McDermott's essay, "Atwa
in Iraq: A Tale of Two Villages").
That's vital. While our media obsess about those largely mythic "foreign
fighters," by most serious accounts it's the humiliation of the Sunnis
at the hands of predominantly Christian invaders closely allied with Israel
that remains the go-juice of the insurgency.
Combine that with the extraordinarily difficult process of sharing the profits
of Iraq's immense oil wealth and throw in Sunni and Kurdish fears of a government
emerging that might become a puppet of Tehran, and Iraq is crying out for a
home-grown solution along the lines of the atwa.
But it won't happen because of American exceptionalism. As McDermott said:
"it has to be an Iraqi solution, we can't just convene an atwa ourselves
or call for one publicly. To have legitimacy it has to come from them."
Two weeks ago, a group of over a hundred Iraqi leaders - Shi'ites, Sunnis and
Kurds -- met in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League. They demanded a
U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, throwing a lifeline that George W. Bush might have
used to extricate the United States from his tragically developing "legacy."
While the initiative was supported by Iran, the European Union, the United
Nations and Russia, it was flawed. The U.S.-backed transitional government led
by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari excluded a number of parties from the talks,
most importantly those led by former Baathists. Al Jazeera reported
that the "agreement between the interim Iraqi government and the Arab
League to exclude" those groups had "triggered widespread resentment
among some Iraqis."
But whatever its flaws, the Cairo conference represented a step towards Iraq
gaining real, rather than Fox News-style, sovereignty. Yet the United States
would have none of it. The administration largely ignored the initiative. The
day after the conference wrapped up, State Department Spokesman Justin Higgins
was asked about the Iraqis' request for a U.S. withdrawal and his response
was Foggy-Bottom-speak for "go screw." He said, "The coalition
remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve security and stability
as they rebuild their country." Whether they like it or not, "We will
stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer," Higgins
The administration's reluctance to allow a truly Iraqi solution to develop
is mostly about not losing
control of Iraq's political economy. But it's also about stubborn American
exceptionalism. The idea that we're dealing with "primitives" who
can't resolve their own conflicts is nothing new. Jim McDermott pointed out
that after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, "the Arab League asked for time
to negotiate an atwa. George Bush refused, and the first Gulf War began."
What else, besides the deep-seated belief that we're culturally superior to
the locals could lead so many to believe that our presence on the ground is
by definition a net plus for the country's stability? After all, those backwards
Iraqis have only their knowledge of the region's history, their familiarity
with the country's competing cultures and an understanding of all the key players
to guide them.
Only an ideology like American exceptionalism could lead so many to conclude
that the only country that can bring Iraq to "modernity" is the one
that spent the past 15 years bombing it "into
the stone age."
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.