Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Iraqi Ingratitude

Iraqi Ingratitude: How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth
by Rahul Mahajan, from Empire Notes, December 15, 2008.

George Bush’s attempts to strike the right valedictory note and secure his legacy by helping people to forget exactly what it is were marred recently when a young Iraqi journalist, maddened by the proximity of the man who destroyed his country, threw a shoe at the still-president of the United States and called him a dog, then threw the other shoe, saying it was from the widows, orphans, and martyrs of Iraq.

As might be expected in the gloriously democratic Iraq that Bush has built, the journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, was hustled away by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security detail and beaten until, in the words of another Arab journalist, he “was crying like a woman.” In a sign of the gloriously democratic world order recently ushered in, we are probably all wondering whether Zaidi will be removed to some dank hole in the earth to rot for the foreseeable future.

This incident is probably the closest that Mr. Bush will ever come to accountability for his crimes. At the very least, it has probably revived his puzzlement over the vexing question of why the Iraqis are not more grateful.

This is a question that has bothered Bush for years, and his desire to get the Iraqis to show some gratitude has been as strong a driving force as anything else in his decisionmaking. Before the so-called “transfer of sovereignty” in June 2004, Bush told L. Paul Bremer, his viceroy in Baghdad, that the leader of the new Iraq should be "someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq." He picked Ghazi al-Yawer, an obscure businessman and tribal leader, to be the first president of the supposedly newly sovereign Iraq, on the basis of his “open thanks to the Coalition.”

Iraqi ingratitude has also been an obsession of the right wing and its pseudo-intelligentsia, but more importantly, it is simply an item of conventional wisdom in the political mainstream. When retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote in a 2006 report on the Iraq situation, “U.S. public opinion may become increasingly alienated by Iraqi ingratitude for our sacrifice on their behalf,” he didn’t even see the point as debatable.

Democratic politicians and liberal intellectuals generally don’t phrase their conceptions in terms of ingratitude, but it can be hard to tell the difference. The standard juxtaposition is the “amazing, unbelievable, brilliant, courageous” performance of our troops, who constantly meet and exceed the highest expectations, with the Iraqis who have “refused to step up,” have remained mired in parochial concerns, have spent too much time killing each other, and who, in general, supposedly should shoulder the burden for rebuilding the country destroyed by our intervention.

Another indication: we are starting to see once more the claim that at least Iraqis are better off than they were under Saddam, an idea that was very prevalent in the United States during the first two years or so, then went underground as Iraq hit its nadir of violence, but has resurfaced with the surge and the deeply important question of Bush’s legacy.

Virtually nobody tries to challenge this ludicrous idea, perhaps in part because Americans are just not equipped to employ the minimal empathy required to evaluate this claim.

It reminds me of the one I heard long ago from a radio host interviewing me, who suggested that, badly off as the Palestinians were, they were far better off than the population of other Arab nations. Although, of course, Palestinians have the nominal right to denounce the Israeli Prime Minister, something not always true for heads of state in Arab countries, to think that this is more important than ongoing theft of property, mass detentions, house demolitions, house raids, and checkpoints, let alone frequent aerial bombing and blockades requires an almost complete detachment from the idea of evaluating Palestinians’ lives as if they were the lives of human beings like yourself.

Recently, I was telling someone about Iraqi hatred of the American troops in 2004, and she could not understand why, because “they were just doing their job.” I suppose that understanding or even imagining how it feels to be treated like a subject population in your own country is just too much for most Americans.

And to understand that more Iraqis have died by violence in the five years of occupation than in any other such period in Iraqi history, to understand that they had a society that functioned to some degree (in fact, under heavy constraints, during the sanctions, Saddam’s government implemented a massive food-distribution program that was the only thing that staved off mass starvation), that individuals, despite voting, have had less freedom even than under a totalitarian dictator, and to understand that almost every institution in their country was destroyed – well, that will only happen if we start talking about it.

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