As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of America’s invasion of Iraq, I find myself turning away from the usual signposts—the dead, the money, the ruins—and calling up instead a memory from the afternoon I spent in a place called Al Hakemiya.
It was April 20, 2003, eleven days after Saddam Hussein and his confederates had scurried from Baghdad. Anarchy was in full gallop—thievery and depravity were unfolding across the capital. The new paradigm, the liberation-as-catastrophe, had already started its nine-year run.
The phrase “liberation-as-catastrophe” is extraordinary and incredibly painful. Iraq was a fake country to begin with, a raw stew cooked up by the British after World War I. The British were at that point a most dangerous kind of aggressor — bankrupt imperialists. They set up countries and proxy leaders to run them throughout the Middle East because they could no longer afford to do colonial exploitation retail.
Iraq was held together by incredible violence — give it a good shove and it fell to pieces. Leslie Gelb, after the original invasion in 2003, advocated splitting the country up into it’s natural ethnogeographical components (Biden was about his only supporter), and that still seems to me the only possible outcome that might have worked — or at least, might have been the least bad outcome.
The Bush administration, however, didn’t have a bad plan; they had no plan at all. I still can’t imagine how they thought all the pieces of the country would fall back in place after the invasion. In the vacuum we created, communal violence occurred at a staggering rate, until the population was effectively redistributed along ethnic/religious lines, with the middle class mostly fleeing to other countries.
This was not the first ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Until the beginning of modern Israel, Baghdad was considered a “Jewish” city, with Jews making up almost half the population. The Jews of Iraq were forced out of the country, Baghdad became a very different place and created the precedent for the even more violent ethnic cleansing we’ve just seen.
The only part of Iraq that has prospered after the war is Kurdistan. They have their own flag, their own police, army and boarder patrol, and even their own currency. They are only as Iraqi as they absolutely have to be to prevent the Turks from invading them.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in that. As Americans, we tend to think of a country as a social contract, but that thinking might be unique to us. In the rest of the world, countries are organic wholes that evolve over centuries, or are colonialist-created grab-bags, “conspiracies of cartographers,” to use Tom Stoppard’s phrase, that are at best precarious, and more typically, tragic. These countries, ultimately, are doomed to fail, and trillions of our dollars and thousands of our soldiers will never succeed in propping them up.