December 11, 2005
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.
Lieberman wrote 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given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn."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
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
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."
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
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
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 said.
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.
ę 2005 Independent Media Institute.