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“They got it down!”
George W. Bush, as he caught television coverage of a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. [Washington Post, April 9]
For supporters of our adventure in Iraq, the culmination of military victory over Saddam Hussein is the toppling of his 40-foot bronze statue in central Baghdad’s al-Firdos (Paradise) Square, outside of the Palestine Hotel frequented by western journalists. This ideal-for-reality-TV episode was further evidence to war cheerleaders on both sides of the Atlantic that the Iraqi people have at last fulfilled their hopes for liberation. “This joyous moment recalls the deposition of scores of statues of Lenin all over eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War,” says Britain’s Daily Telegraph (April 10). ‘[L]ike newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein,” writes William Safire in the New York Times (April 10).
Not so fast, please.
Yes, Hussein was a brutal dictator. Yes, many in Iraq and in the Arab world feared him and are welcoming his demise. But to compare the toppling of Saddam’s statue to the removal of Lenin stone/metal look-alikes throughout Eastern Europe is to draw false analogies.
As I watched the event on Fox news, with its rah-rah go-go-America commentary that poses as “fair” reporting, I quickly realized that I wasn’t watching a replay of the end of communism in Soviet-occupied countries, no matter what was being said on the most jingoistic channel on the tube. There are several reasons:
* The gathering of hundreds of people around Saddam’s statue was not the culmination of previous domestic demonstrations against the regime (which, of course, made sure they didn’t happen).
* Local inhabitants failed to take down Saddam’s 65th-birthday gift to himself, despite looping and pulling a rope around its neck and hacking its marble plinth with sledgehammers. At one decisive point, U.S. Marines took over the pull-down-Saddam operation, at the request of Iraqis, according to media. In contrast, no foreign troops helped Eastern Europeans destroy their morbid Lenin memorials.
* An eager Marine, 23-year-old Corporal Edward Chin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., draped a U.S. flag over Saddam’s head, “a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in the Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network Al Arabiya” (<CNN.com>). No stars and stripes ever covered the visage the Great Leader of the Proletarian Revolution when the Soviet gulag-paradise collapsed.
* A pre-1991 Gulf War Iraqi flag was placed around Saddam’s neck (it looked like a door-to-door salesman’s cut-price tie!) by a Marine after the diplomatically awkward U.S. flag draped on the dictator’s metal face was whisked away. No way a patriotic Czech, Hungarian, Pole or Russian would have approved of his or her national flag being handled by a foreign army (no matter how welcomed) in this condescending and dismissive way.
* The statue was finally (and literally) yanked down (sans Iraqi flag) by a U.S. armored vehicle with a crane pulling a heavy cable. In the pre-preemptive days of containment, the people of Eastern Europe got rid of their occupiers (domestic and foreign) without depending on American soldiers on their soil.
In Eastern Europe Lenin’s lapidary sneer of cold command was a symbol of foreign domination. Saddam’s domineering figure, for all the fear it invoked, did not represent to the local population occupation by outside troops. In Russia, the eradication of Lenin statues (and not all of them are gone) symbolized the collapse from within of a vast Eurasian empire. In Iraq, in contrast, Saddam’s sinister bronze presence would still be seen reigning over Paradise Square today had it not been for the direct military intervention of the United States.
The one lesson of history is that it doesn’t repeat itself, no matter how much those who try to remake it according to grand schemes believe.
JOHN BROWN served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1981 until March 10, 2003, when he resigned to protest the Bush administration’s war plans. He has served in Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org