THERE IS A short and deceptively modest article in the current New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson, who recently traveled through Iraq in an attempt to find out what people were thinking on the eve of war. Anderson tells the story of Colonel Gerald Leachman, a British army officer and contemporary of T.E. Lawrence who, after World War I, attempted to pacify Iraq, an artificial country that had just been carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. A swashbuckling figure who was said to ride through the desert on horses and camels, Leachman came to a nasty end: he was assassinated by a man named Sheikh Dhari, whose murderous deed to this day is celebrated as a symbol of Arab nationalism.
Anderson interviewed Sheikh Muther Khameez Al-Dhari, the 71-year-old grandson of the famous assassin. Anderson recounts Sheikh Muther’s becoming "agitated" and yelling, "Leachman was trying to make war between the people in Iraq in order to get what he wanted. Tell America not to attack! I am a warrior just like Sheikh Dhari, and I will defend my country bravely." To which a younger relative, Abdul Razaq, added: "We learned many lessons about how to defend ourselves from any kind of occupation. The Americans and British cannot occupy Iraq. Nobody can occupy Iraq."
I read Anderson’s article late on Tuesday night, after a second evening in front of the television, waiting for the war to begin. Following George W. Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on Monday, the sense was one of quiet, anxious anticipation. The arguments for invading Iraq had been made hundreds of times over the course of many months: to root out Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; to liberate Iraqis from one of the world’s cruelest dictators; possibly even to launch a nascent democracy that could, over time, transform the Middle East. The arguments against invasion — more compelling, in my view — were equally familiar: that we would be thumbing our nose at the international community; that many innocent Iraqi civilians might die; and that we would be inciting further terrorist attacks against us and our allies. At long last, though, it didn’t matter what anyone thought. The war was going to take place. The only thing left to do was to hope to God that the optimists were right.
Over the past few weeks, conventional wisdom about the likely outcome of the war and its aftermath has begun to take shape. Virtually every expert, analyst, opinion-monger, and third-string talking head agrees that the war itself is likely to go extraordinarily well, the only questions being whether the Iraqi forces will fight and if Saddam finds a way to launch chemical and/or biological weapons against American and British troops.
But after the victory (raucous welcome from flower-tossing Iraqis optional) comes the hard part: the long occupation of a country whose people — no matter how happy they are to be rid of a dictator who models himself after Stalin but who seems equally inspired by Vlad the Impaler — will soon begin to resent us, then to hate us, then to demand that we get our hands off their land and their government and their oil and get out.
Or wind up like Colonel Leachman.
THE SUFFERING OF the Iraqi people should not be underestimated. In an essay for Salon this week, two exiled Iraqi dissidents, Adil Awadh and Sayyid Ali Al-Ridha, tell of the horrors of Saddam’s regime. "Iraq under the totalitarian regime of Saddam is not a country, it is a vast suffocating prison run by a sectarian maniac," they write. "It is a place where the goons of Saddam roam free, where mothers witness their young sons being dragged off in the dark of the night, never to be seen or heard from again." On Monday, Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident and Brandeis University professor, complained on PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers that those who oppose bringing democracy to his homeland are guilty of "intellectual laziness" and a "lack of political imagination." He added: "There’s no alternative. There’s a war already going on. There’s a war being waged against the Iraqi people."
The lamentations of Awadh, Al-Ridha, and Makiya serve as a rebuke to the moral lepers of the antiwar movement, with their no blood for oil signs and their posters depicting Bush as the new Hitler. They are a rebuke to France and Germany as well. But if you believe in a muscular sort of liberalism — if you believe in the prudent application of American force to advance values such as democracy and simple human dignity — then the actions of the Bush White House can only fill you with despair.
Rather than engaging in the hard work of building a truly international coalition, either with the UN Security Council or without it, the president has been content to mouth arrogant, taunting phrases such as "you’re either with us or against us." His thuggish secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, a buddy of Saddam’s in the 1980s, has managed to insult not only France and Germany, but even Britain, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, has risked his career in the name of transatlantic solidarity. And his secretary of state, Colin Powell, does his diplomacy by phone, eschewing face-to-face visits with foreign leaders, perhaps out of fear that his political enemies will cut him out of the loop if he is so bold as to travel beyond the city limits of Washington.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a long-time advocate of overthrowing Saddam, wrote on Wednesday, "Though the Bush team came to office with this Iraq project in mind, it has pursued a narrow, ideological and bullying foreign policy that has alienated so many people that by the time it wanted to rustle up a posse for an Iraq war, too many nations were suspicious of its motives."
The cover of the current Newsweek depicts an American MOAB — the "mother of all bombs" — falling from the sky. The headline: why america scares the world. Inside, Fareed Zakaria — like Friedman, a liberal who has supported invading Iraq — has a long, detailed essay titled "The Arrogant Empire." It is both devastating and depressing. Zakaria notes that even toward the end of his life, Franklin Roosevelt, sick, exhausted, and suffering from the indignities of polio, never stopped traveling, persuading, and cajoling other countries. The Bush method, by contrast, is to insult and humiliate.
"The notion is that the United States needs to intimidate countries with its power and assertiveness, always threatening, always denouncing, never showing weakness," Zakaria writes. "Donald Rumsfeld often quotes a line from Al Capone: ‘You will get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.’ But should the guiding philosophy of the world’s leading democracy really be the tough talk of a Chicago mobster?"
Then there are the Bush administration’s plans for postwar Iraq. American government and military officials will be in charge for some time to come. But on Monday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that rebuilding the shattered country is a job that will mainly be parceled out to American companies, which are competing for more than $1.5 billion in contracts. Among the bidders: Bechtel, the shadowy, politically wired megacorporation best known in Massachusetts for its notoriously lax financial management of the Big Dig, and Halliburton, the oil-drilling-equipment company formerly run by Vice-President Dick Cheney. Cheney, who emerges from his secure bunker only to talk to Tim Russert, was identified in a separate Journal story as the real mastermind of Bush’s Iraq strategy — "choreographing events like Pluto, lord of the underground," as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it on Wednesday.
Maybe the Bush administration genuinely believes that American businesses can rebuild Iraq faster, cheaper, and more competently than anyone else. But transforming the country into Iraq, Inc., is exceedingly unlikely to win back any of the former friends whom the White House has alienated with its unilateralism and arrogance. Then again, we can be reasonably sure that the president doesn’t particularly care.