Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Idea of Iraq

Some countries just happen, some are made to happen, and some make themselves happen. Let's skip over the obvious examples and get right to Iraq. A piece of the old Ottoman Empire. Heart of a former Caliphate. Plaything of ancient empires, and empire of sorts itself. As ancient as history, with Babel at its heart. No wonder the matter is troublesome. If its ways seem impenitrable, its problems intractable, that would be because this is where the Gates of Confusion are found.

For our purposes, we can start after WWI, when the British carved the Ottoman pie into delectable bite-sized morsels and thought to continue a centuries-long feast. By 1926 the three old provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul were circumscribed on a map and called a country, Iraq -- Uruk in the old tongue, city of Gilgamesh. Far cry from Bakersfield, isn't it.

No need to dwell on the specifics. A couple of puppet kings, some Nazi intrigues, a couple more kings, a republic, more Nazi intrigue in the guise of Baathism, and then the Era of Bush. It is within this sequence that David Ignatius suggests that Iraq sees itself in the historical context not of ancients and Romans and Ottomans, but of resistance to British colonialism. I think he's right.

So much gabble about the long memory of the moslems. Bull. They don't have a clue. Their backward-looking civilizational gaze is focused solely on that navel called the Koran. Such tiresome specifics as documentation and corroborating or contradictory source material must to the faithful reek of the profane. They seem to know absolutely nothing about the Crusades. How odd. But this is an instance where the bitch did ask for it. Don't burn churches and murder pilgrims and we won't send you a Crusade. Git it?

Memory, non-false-memory memory goes back a couple of generations in Iraq. We have our War of Independence from the Brits -- so do the Iraqis. Ours succeeded due to a happy constellation of historical happenstance, whereas the Iraqis got squashed, and bided their time until fickle history should turn its gaze with favor upon them. Not sure that it ever did, but they managed to find independence for a time, until that Saddam thing took over for a handful of decades.

So Ignatius makes the point that Maliki is following the mandate of history, as he understands it, in panting after an American interuptus. It's not unreasonable. Iraqi schoolchildren understand their history as a heroic resistance to colonialism. Well? We are the Land of Freedom. We have, each of us, to be true to our mythos.

This is a good thing. We don't want Iraq. We want a presence there, a launching pad, because the world is what it is, but there need be no colonial war against us. We are not a colonial power. Out by 2010? Good. If out means we're not responsible for policing the streets. Wonderful. Just give us a few thousand border acres along the cardinal compass points and we'll be content. We want our enemies to be facing us from the outside. With Maliki and a realworld-reasonable government at our backs, we'll pretend we have a loving ally at our side, and proceed to take care of business as best we can.

Obama benefits from the present tide of history. The wrong man at the right time. Too bad, but loving the wrong man is a not uncommon theme, too often the substance of tragedy, but of comedy too. Let's not worry about it. His honeymoon will last only a year or so. Then disillusionment, a two-year awakening with a fling with a Republican congress, and then an ugly divorce. The point with Iraq has been made. The al-Qaeda dog has been whipped, whimpering through its snarls in a manner most pitiful. Poor Osama, with his nosehairs and cravings for icecubes. Lucky Obama, with his basketball prowess and rotund oratory. History sweeps them along as if free will were only a theory and historical memory lasted only a few generations.

In the case of American politics, historical memory lasts only as long as an election cycle. There's no complaining about it. The Gates of Confusion open every time we part our lips.


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