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History Lesson

IT WAS DURING the 1930s that the director-general of the Iraqi Ministry of Education addressed an assembly of schoolboys with the message that "the nation which does not excel in the manufacture of death with iron and fire will be forced to die under the hoofs of horses and the boots of foreign soldiers." Iraq did excel in the manufacture of death--brilliantly. But, aside from its pathetic excursions against Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and Saddam Hussein's disastrous eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s, Iraq's power of mass murder was riveted mostly on its indigenous populations. As Elie Kedourie points out in his magisterial essay, "The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect" (a chapter in his newly reissued collection, The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies), the erstwhile Iraqi monarchy, comprising Sunnis installed by the British in 1921, celebrated its full independence a decade later with "a massacre of the Assyrians carried out by the Iraqi army."

That fate was not reserved only for the Assyrian Christians. Soon, the almost powerless Shia majority; the Kurds, who are not Arabs but constituted the second-most populous group in the country; the Turkmen; the Jews, who, until their expulsion in 1951, were actually a plurality in Baghdad; the cross- denominational Yezidis; and other irrepressible tribes all underwent similar experiences. The British sometimes used air power to assist in the subjugation of those who did not want to live under the rule of a Sunni king and who resisted the idea that Iraq should be the center of a Sunni-based pan-Arabism. Something had to give, and, in the end, it was the king--who gave his life.

And what a regicide it was! The grisly end of the monarchy in 1958, with the slaying of the royal family and the murder of the prime minister--who, caught fleeing on the street in female attire, had his body shredded by the mob--was a prophecy of the brutality to come. This was not a fundamental change in Iraqi governance. It was a change of face, but the aims were even more brutal, and the ways turned out to be even more ruthless. The model was first Nazi, then Stalinist. In the Arab world, there are the monarchies and then there are the revolutionary republics, always in mobilization, always tending toward the totalitarian: Saddam's Iraq, vanguard but dynastic Syria, Qaddafi's almost comic-book rule in Libya, genocidal Sudan, and Algeria, the mythic jewel in the crown of national liberation and of the "nonaligned" that turned out to be fake- -a killer dictatorship like the other Third World revolutions that engaged the ardors of idealistic Western youth four and five decades ago.

AMID ITS SANGUINARY history lies the uncomfortable truth that Iraq was not ever, and is not now, a nation or a nation-state. Saddam's pretensions to national and pan-Arab grandeur were enforced solely by his regime's competence—it's the only real one—in the manufacture of death. The polity that he and the Baath party ruled with such cruelty faithfully echoed Mesopotamia's savage past. Those who shed the most blood with the least scruples come out on top—that is what the history of Iraq teaches. So Saddam inflicted a sullen silence on his divided enemies: silence or death. It should therefore be not at all surprising that, when Saddam was toppled, Iraq's historically warring factions would take up their old positions—this time against both their traditional adversaries, whom they hate, and their liberators, whom they, at a minimum, do not trust.

Alas, we Americans do not naturally look to history for cautionary lessons about the future. Had we done that, our post-Saddam expectations would have been different. But we didn't, and so we couldn't anticipate that the various peoples of Iraq, understandably apprehensive about anyone in power, would not take our good intentions for granted. Nor did George W. Bush have the appetite to question whether he was leading the country and our hearty band of willing allies into a straight-out struggle for Iraqi freedom or a more costly and more intricate meliorist mission--his is not an especially inquiring mind. More significantly, America had been spoiled by the ease of the interventions in Bosnia and Afghanistan, which may have seduced us into expecting nothing less in Iraq. (No doubt, this later triumph also focused the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships on what their fate might be in a post-Saddam future, but now, hearing the anti-Bush, antiwar clamor, they must be breathing more easily.)

Of course, in a way, the United States had been preparing itself for this conflict for some time. That is why it associated itself with Iraqi democrats, inside and outside the country, for more than a decade before the 2003 invasion. It is also why, in 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which called for the overthrow of Saddam (although, predictably, President Clinton did nothing to give the law effect). The spirit of the brave Iraqi dissenters was encompassed in a document called Charter 91 (a reference to the Czech liberation movement Charter 77), which was drafted by Kanan Makiya (well-known to New Republic readers) and signed by many others. It begins with a stunning Jeffersonian declaration: "People have rights for no other reason than that they exist as individual human beings." It continues: "Rebuilding civil society means elevating the principle of toleration into a new public norm soaring above all ideologies." To be sure, our Iraqi friends appear to have exaggerated to us their strength in the country--perhaps purposefully, perhaps because many of them, being long in exile, had lost intimate contact with the realities of the country they loved--and we have paid in weakened credibility. But there is no dearth of Iraqis who believe in the principles of Charter 91: the secularists, the feminists, the pious but tolerant Sunni and Shia, the Christians, the Kurds. Whatever America's errors of commission or omission, in battle and since, these are our axiomatic allies.

Unfortunately, given the demography and cartography of the country, our natural comrades are simply not enough. We will have to make accommodations with less tolerant groups. Iraq's final constitution will be less Jeffersonian than Charter 91—or even the existing constitution, which is already being modified. But surely it is a victory for our ultimate intentions that the thuggish Shia theologian Moqtada Al Sadr seems to have been persuaded that the present government he had relentlessly "mocked," as The New York Times put it, is the best he can hope for. If his Mahdi "army" stops shooting, the active resistance to the new order, however imperfect, will be left to the old Baathists and their more zealous Sunni confreres--a minority of a minority, more fearful of the Shia they had oppressed for generations than they are of the Americans. Still, they can cause much pain to the whole country. Their modus operandi, after all, is not just targeting foreigners or, for that matter, government officials and Iraqi men in uniform. Their favored tactics are to detonate explosives in a marketplace or to bomb a school bus, murdering civilians of any and all persuasions indiscriminately, the way of Islamist terrorism everywhere. Chaos makes everyone the prey of its perpetrators; it is the evil tyranny of the few.

SOME CRITICS, CITING public opinion polls in Iraq that supposedly show a nostalgia for the Saddam era, maintain that it is the obstruction of more than a few keeping Iraq from democracy. Indeed, there are those who believe that Iraqis do not really aspire to democracy at all. And one recent visitor to Iraq told me that our soldiers--perhaps because many are women--are having difficulties bonding with ordinary Iraqis. Maybe this should raise questions, in the words of one expert in Middle Eastern history, as to whether "we can ever build a functioning and truly reciprocal relationship with an Arab country. " Still, the Iraqis cannot really want to live under the kind of brute force from which the allies have freed them. (Nostalgia for tyrannies is not uncommon in history, but it represents only fear of a less structured future.) Many of those leftish critics of the administration's venture in Iraq who question this are simply hypocrites, for an ostensible cornerstone of their belief system is that all humankind shares a desire—nay, a need—for freedom and opportunity. Iraq was a country that could have materially provided this to its people. Only the rapacious dictatorship, buttressed by nepotism, prevented them from having it. Simply because of their Muslim "heresy," for example, hundreds of thousands of Shia whom the legendary traveler Wilfred Thesiger dubbed the "marsh Arabs" were deported from their immemorial living space, and that space was made arid, an enormity comparable to Soviet displacements of persecuted ethnic and national groups. This war--which has finally opened the possibilities for men and women to speak what they think, to read what they want, to earn a living in the ways in which they are capable, to live where their roots are, and, ultimately, to share in the enormous natural wealth of the country--is therefore a just war.

But, say the critics, this war is also wrong because it has absorbed energy and resources that ought to have been expended on other ventures. This, too, is more than slightly hypocritical. They argue simultaneously that we have not finished our righteous labors in Afghanistan because of the Iraq enmeshment and that we have shortchanged our military deployment in Iraq by tens of thousands of troops. But, with our straitened force capacity, which war do they want us to fight? Moreover, why is a war in Afghanistan more important, or more righteous, than one in Iraq? And what did war critics Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright do when the situation in Afghanistan begged for U.S. action during their tenures? Virtually nothing.

The critics further contend that the fixation on Iraq detracts from American efforts in the war against terrorism and has pushed our allies into indifference. What more do these scolds think we should do against the great dread? (I have some ideas, but I am reasonably sure that these folk would find them insufficiently respectful of civil liberties.) In the meantime, no one has complained about, say, France or Spain, Germany or Morocco being insufficiently cooperative in the anti-terrorism project. It's only logical: These countries are in at least as much peril as we are--and, given the growing Muslim population in Europe, perhaps more. Saudi Arabia is a separate case, and it has been coddled by the Bush administration--by both Bush administrations, in fact. (Saddam was not displaced in the Gulf war in large measure due to George H.W. Bush's solicitude for the House of Saud.) But Riyadh, too, has felt the tremors of explosive fanaticism. If it doesn't cooperate in the war on terrorism, it will be committing suicide.

Finally, critics maintain that the United States needs to rivet its attention on the danger of an already nuclearempowered North Korea, and indeed it does. But what coercive power do they propose we use? Indeed, our engagement with North Korea would seem to be an example of the cooperation they crave. Instead of going it alone against that country, the United States has wisely involved the Russians, the Chinese, the South Koreans, and the Japanese. These countries—which, after all, are North Korea's neighbors--have at least as much at stake as we do in denuclearizing the country. Why is multilateralism inappropriate here when it is demanded on almost everything else?

Indeed, the most persistent criticism of the Iraq war is that the Bush administration did not secure the approval of the Security Council and, therefore, it went into battle without the legitimizing caresses of the United Nations. Given the fact that France and Russia had spent the past decade undermining the sanctions, I believe there was no chance that either Paris or Moscow would have approved any military effort against the Baghdad regime. And, now that we have been forced by circumstances on the ground to engage the United Nations, we have paid an unspoken price--namely, that the various militias will not be disarmed, at least not yet. (The standing army of a sovereign state does not easily tolerate competing irregulars. There is an armed battle waiting to rage.)

In the meantime, the United Nations itself is not anxious to put its personnel or declining prestige at risk--an echo of its indifference to events in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide of epochal dimensions in Rwanda. Much of this inaction is directly attributable to Kofi Annan. Right now, another vast genocide is taking place in Sudan, with Muslims killing Christians and Arab Muslims killing African Muslims. The United Nations has merely wrung its hands. There are roughly 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When a rapacious mob entered the town of Bukavu, the blue helmets simply dissolved into the bush. In both Sudan and the Congo, it would not take much to enforce a separation between the warring bands. But who will put their men in harm's way for the sake of African lives? No one. Certainly nothing will be done without the Americans. But, for the moment, the Americans are otherwise engaged, putting their lives at risk in a faraway country about which we know not as much as we should. It is an honorable undertaking.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine.