Playing God in the Middle East

We are now in the 10th year of the first decade of the ‘war on terror.’ So the inevitable anniversary assessments are beginning to appear.  Iraq reappraisals specifically are back in vogue.  They favor the drawing of balance sheets.  Most will be skewed in an alchemic attempt to put the face of success on an unmitigated disaster.  Even a more tempered approach at calculating cost/benefits, though, leaves something missing – something of paramount importance.  It is the effects on Iraqis themselves.  Not Iraqis in the abstract, not as figures in a statistical tabulation of sects.  Rather, as flesh and blood and feeling persons.  Frankly, most of the discourse about Iraq from day one has had a disengaged quality to it.  That is the norm for dominant powers on the world stage, and for the seminar strategist.  That was not always the norm by which Americans referenced war and violence abroad in the 20th century when we truly believed in our proclaimed ideals.

To illuminate the point, here are some too readily slighted facts.  100,000 – 150,000 Iraqis are dead as the consequence of our invasion and occupation.  That is the conservative estimate.  Untold thousands are maimed and orphaned.  2 million are uprooted refugees in neighboring lands.  Another 2 million are displaced persons internally.  The availability of potable water and electricity is somewhat less than it was in February 2003.  The comparable numbers for the United States would be 1.1 – 1.6 million dead; an equal number infirmed; 22 million refugees eking out a precarious existence in Mexico and Canada; 22 million displaced persons within the country.  We did not do all the killing and maiming; we did most of the destruction of infrastructure.  To all these tragedies we are accessories before and during the fact.

Digits make less of an impact on us than observed reality.  That is always the case.  And very few have been in a position to see the human effects of our actions first hand – or even second-hand given censorship on filming casualties.  So let me suggest a couple of ways to approximate that experience.  Step one.  Go to RFK stadium, imagine it full.  Do that 3 times and then imagine them all – men, women and children – in their graves.  Repeat the exercise – this time imagine them hobbling on one leg, lying crippled or blind on a cot in a cinderblock house.  Imagine them as Americans – men, women and children – who placed USA stickers on their cars, chanted USA! USA! watching the Olympics, eating hot dogs and drinking Coke.  Imagine them now six feet under.  Imagine them all as the victims of an invasion and occupation by Iraqi Muslims who were deceived by their lying leaders who hid their own dark purposes.  An occupation that featured the likes of L. Ahmed Chelabi IV and run amok Bashi Bazouks.  Imagine that these altruistic Iraqis keep a Vice-Regal Embassy on the banks of the Potomac, giant airbases scattered around the country, and 550,000 troops (proportional) – all out of concern for our health and safety.  Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Imagine your counterparts in Baghdad now drawing up balance sheets.

Step two: go back to the study and reconstruct your own Iraq balance sheet.

Does this imply that pacifism is the only ethically acceptable conduct?  No – but it does give us a better fix on the true meaning of our shameful adventure in Iraq.  Moreover, keep in mind that the Iraqis never gave us permission to do those things to them.  We willfully imposed ourselves on them, did so based on the accusation of a fabricated threat that never existed.

Who assigns value in the equation to the dead, the maimed, the orphaned, the distressed, the uprooted?  Who assigns value to being free of Saddam’s police? Who distributes the values among Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and Turcomen? Who decides on the relevant time frame? Who determines what constitutes sufficient evidence to support any of these judgments?

Who has the right, the authority, the legitimacy to do this?  To do so before the event?  To do so after the event in a post hoc justification of the acts that produced these effects?

Who is prepared to reach a definitive judgment? Is it God? Or is it those who instigated and supported those actions in the self-righteous conceit that they were acting as His surrogate?  Personally, I place myself in neither category.

“Let humanity be the ultimate measure of all that you do” is a Confucian admonition meant to guide the behavior of officials.  America today pays it scant regard.

MICHAEL BRENNER is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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