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In Germany, at the age of nine, I saw something on television that horrified me. It was a table lamp with a shade that looked like parchment. It had been made from the skin of a Jewish person. Disturbed by the sight of the lamp I began to wonder: what is it that makes people rob human beings of their skin? Where were the others that could have prevented this? In later years I learned that the German government had done countless other despicable things, and like many members of my age cohort I asked myself what the Nazi experience had to do with my grandparents and what it meant for me. The conclusion I reached was this: A democratic government draws its power from the population it governs, and even a tyrannical government acts in the name of that population. For this reason citizens have a moral obligation to watch their government at all times and ensure that its power remains checked. If they fail to do so, they become tainted by its deeds. To avoid becoming implicated, citizens must inform themselves. There is no right not to know.
Years passed, and I moved to the United States. On September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit, I was a doctoral student at American University in Washington, DC. I was there when the university’s population of Arab students realized that they were unwelcome and decided to continue their studies in their home countries or in Europe. I shared their fear when my Arabic name led to the shut-down of ticketing computers at Ronald Reagan Airport. When the Afghanistan war began I reminded students that many civilians would die. Some responded with hate mail. This silenced me, and when the Iraq war started, I decided to ignore it.
Four years later I teach college students the politics of the Middle East. By now most Americans are convinced that the idea to invade Iraq was a bad one. Analysts point to strategic miscalculations that have taken place: the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was exaggerated, because he did not have weapons of mass destruction. Usama Bin Laden, who had long been banned from Iraq by a jealous tyrant, is now establishing a foothold in Mesopotamia. The plan of establishing a model democracy in the heart of the Middle East is doomed, because the country’s religious and ethnic groups are sliding into civil war. As Iraq disintegrates, Iran is turning into a regional hegemon, threatening U.S. interests in the region.
Washington’s pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats, point fingers at each other, deflecting responsibility for the invasion from themselves towards their counterparts. As they do so, the various mistakes that were committed prior to the war are coming to light. The government and its neoconservative allies were war hungry. The CIA did poor research. Journalists that supplied the Washington, DC, “beltway bubble” with news swallowed information that came from the White House without checking alternative sources. Members of Congress forgot the lessons of the Gulf of Tonkin and yielded decisions over war and peace to the president. Citizens failed to demand of their leaders and their media that they provide good analysis.
Despite the fact that the Iraq debate brings mistakes to light, it leaves me with the impression that I am stuck in a bad movie, one that never gets at the real storyline. This impression is based on two observations. First, even though Americans debate the negative consequences of the war, their overriding concerns are largely self-serving. While average Americans are troubled by the cost of war, professional analysts are worried what this war will do to America’s status as the world’s superpower. The burden which the invasion has imposed on Iraqi civilians is a non-issue. Second, public discussion is marked by the latent claim that Iraqis are to blame for the failure of America’s military ambitions. It appears that this nation is mocking Iraqis twice by failing to see the misery which it has inflicted on them and by attributing guilt for this misery to them.
Let me elaborate on these two points, starting with the idea, at home in numerous Internet blogs, that Iraqis are to blame for their fate. The logic of the argument goes as follows: The U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in a well-intentioned effort to liberate the country from a tyrannical oppressor, enabling the people to take charge of their own fate and create a democracy. But Iraqis are refusing to do so. Instead of shaking the hands of those who came to save them, they are slapping their wrists. Thus, the liberation of the country “went wrong” because Iraqis do not want freedom.
When I discuss this claim with students, I bring up the following counterfactual. Assume that some benign power had concluded that Los Angeles was sitting on a large oilfield and that the L.A. municipal government was crudely suppressing its residents. The benign power invades, obliterates the government, the police force, the domestic infrastructure, and then waits for people to lead a better life. Only, that does not happen, because L.A.’s street gangs realize that amidst the institutional breakdown power can be grabbed by those who are willing to fight for it long enough. Chaos engulfs the city, and residents are murdered on a regular basis. What is the problem here? Is it that the citizens of Los Angeles don’t like freedom? Most who hear this example would answer in the negative. But if we concede that desire for freedom has nothing to do with what is happening in L.A., then why do we believe that Iraqis are to blame if their society goes up in flames?
Since 2003 inhabitants of Baghdad have been facing daily explosions and the killing of relatives. Gradually they are developing a historical record of injuries their families have suffered at the hands of their religious others. This record creates anger at Sunnis, Shiites, and perhaps even the foreign country that came and brought pandemonium. As the murders continue, even those who are usually quite apolitical will be drawn into the vortex of civil war. This, however, does not change a simple fact. Iraqis did not choose to have their government institutions overthrown. It was America that made this choice for them, and if anybody is to be blamed for the failure of this invasion it is America.
Let me now move to my claim that in their evaluation of the invasion, analysts and politicians fail to acknowledge the cost this war is imposing on Iraqis. For that I would like to look at the statements of those politicians who openly express the view that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. One such individual is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution. On March 19, 2007, she spoke in support of a bill that would tie spending increases for the war effort to a time table for troop withdrawal. According to her, what are the constituencies to whom this nation is indebted? For starters, Pelosi points to the high cost of the war, recognizing the burden that has been imposed on the country’s tax payers. Indeed, the burden is high. According to the National Priorities Project, the cost of war amounts to over $420 billion thus far. This is money which will not be spent on education or health care.
Pelosi also acknowledges the country’s debt to the troops. She recognizes that the armed forces have borne the brunt of the military campaign, and that 3,400 troops have lost their lives. And Pelosi is right. The women and men who are stationed in Iraq are paying a high price for the government’s poor decisions. They are left to sort out a mess that is hard to bring under control. Many of those who survive the war will not do so intact, suffering either physical injuries or emotional trauma. To these individuals Pelosi expresses her gratitude. She salutes them for their courage, their patriotism, and their sacrifice. Then she goes on to say: “The debt which can never be repaid is to those whose lives have been lost in the war, and as a nation, we mourn them.”
Well, the number of those whose lives have been lost is far greater than 3,200. It includes more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians who were either killed by coalition military action or by local insurgents. To put this tragedy in perspective, imagine two thousand shootings of the kind Virginia Tech experienced. But even though Iraqis bear an enormous burden, Pelosi does not refer to them when she says that the nation mourns those whose lives have been lost. Why is this? I believe the reason lies in the fact that Iraqis cannot vote in federal elections.
It is hard to accept that Americans mourn only Americans. All those who die deserve recognition, because they are human beings and have the right to live. A nation that views itself as a role model for the rest of the world must do better than inflicting suffering on others and then either blaming them for their misfortune or ignoring it entirely. It is time that members of this nation become aware of their moral obligations and take responsibility for what their government does in their name. As a first step in that direction we should stop viewing the war as a costly experiment that has gone wrong. Let’s treat it as the catastrophe that it really is.
NIVIEN SALEH is a visiting professor at Northern Arizona University