On Sunday, Oct. 30, the New York Times Book Review achieved a rare feat. -- In about 6,500 words by four reviewers about five new books about Iraq, the word oil and the existence of petroleum in Iraq were mentioned not once. -- "Democracy" and its cognates, however, were mentioned 22 times. -- Such is the mystification about the policies of the U.S. national security state in the Middle East to which the New York Times has been, and remains, committed. -- The Times, we may safely predict, will never be in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and will resolutely support the upcoming U.S. aggression against Iran, and perhaps Syria, speaking hopefully all the while about the promise of democratization in the Middle East. -- Three of the reviews are posted below;[1,2,3] the other is available here....
EVERYBODY IS A REALIST NOW
By James Traub
** Right and left explore their own rationales for the war in Iraq. **
New York Times Book Review
October 30, 2005
[Review of: (1) The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited by Gary Rosen (Cambridge University Press, 2005). 254 pp. Cloth $65; paper $19.99. (2) A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman (University of California Press, 2005). 372 pp. Cloth $55; paper $21.95.
On the whole, it has been a very satisfying postwar period for opponents of the American engagement in Iraq. I have agreed to pay off a bet with a friend who had rather gleefully predicted a steady flow of body bags from the battlefield. She's been vindicated as well on the W.M.D. front, for, like quite a few people with no apparent access to intelligence data, she "always knew" that Saddam Hussein no longer had his weapons of mass destruction, just as she always knew the whole venture would miscarry. Well, I tip my hat to her foresight; the news from Iraq has in fact been so hellish that many doubtful supporters of the war -- the 55-45ers, as I like to call us -- have been forced to rethink their calculus.
But the bloodshed and the chaos, and the Bush administration's hubris and sometimes unfathomable nonchalance, have obscured the powerful case for war that existed as of March 2003, when hostilities began, and that still survives, if barely, today. And though the stunning failure to find any evidence that Hussein had reconstituted his weapons programs is taken as a trump by the war's opponents, the case for war did not actually depend on the threat of imminent attack -- even if the White House said otherwise. Virtually all of the essays collected in The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited by Gary Rosen, the managing editor of Commentary, and in A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman, the editor in chief of the Journal of Human Rights, were written after October 2003, when the weapons inspector David Kay put the kibosh on President Bush's prewar claims. And while several of the authors closest to the administration try to fudge the facts, and others have in fact changed their minds, most argue that Hussein's reckless expansionism, and his peerless brutality, justified the war even without vats of anthrax.
"Saddam's regime itself was the problem," as William Kristol and Robert Kagan write in a 2004 essay reprinted in "The Right War?," "above and beyond his weapons capabilities." They note that the policy of regime change began with the Clinton administration, and they quote Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, as asserting that Hussein was not only a menace to the region but "a source of inspiration for those who equate violence with power and compromise with surrender." The terrorist attacks of 9/11 increased the urgency to act, they say, not because Hussein was in any sense their author but because the bolt from the blue forced policy makers to focus on "the possible nexus between terrorism and Iraq's weapons program."
Could we afford to guess wrong, given the evidence of Hussein's intentions and capacities? Jeffrey Herf, a historian whose essay appears in "A Matter of Principle," a collection of articles making the "liberal internationalist" case for war, observes that a pre-emptive war against Germany in 1938 might have prevented World War II and the Holocaust, though it would have been roundly criticized since Hitler had not yet shown his hand.
Herf's argument is indistinguishable from many that appear in the conservative collection The Right War? In general, one thinks of the conservative rationale for war as Hobbesian -- a matter of self-preservation in a chaotic world -- and the liberal one as Kantian, an acceptance of moral obligations to others. And it's true that the authors represented in The Right War? put more stock in "good for us," while those in A Matter of Principle ground their claims more in "good for them." But it's mostly a matter of emphasis. Kristol and Kagan, for example, accept the humanitarian argument for war in Iraq, while Christopher Hitchens, a polemical warrior of the left, at least until very recently, argues that the "Islamofascism" embodied in Saddam Hussein's Baath regime represents an existential threat the West must be prepared to confront and destroy.
A decade ago, the question of humanitarian intervention, above all in Bosnia, split both left and right into antiwar "realists" and prowar moralists, or "Wilsonians." What is clear from these two volumes is that 9/11 fused the two arguments into one, for enemies embodying a totalitarian and obscurantist culture had reached out to deal us a terrible blow. This Islamofascist culture was as dangerous to us as to its domestic victims. President Bush, who entered office as a realist vowing to put "interests" ahead of "values," became the chief exponent of a revived Wilsonianism. "We support . . . democracy in the Middle East," he said, "because it is a founding principle, and because it is in our interest."
Debate on the war is now, in effect, organized around this view -- whether it is valid, whether it can be applied to Iraq, whether the Bush administration has hopelessly botched the execution. "Democracy promotion" has cleaved opinion on both sides, as humanitarian intervention did before. On the right, the "paleos" dismiss the project as a dangerous pipe dream -- a form of "democratic imperialism," in Patrick Buchanan's phrase.
Buchanan has largely lost his purchase on respectable conservative opinion, but the skepticism about human prospects upon which traditional conservatism is founded makes many figures on the right doubt that the democratization project will work in the Arab world. Germany and Japan, our great nation-building successes, had been modern, if not liberal-democratic, states in the past; Iraq, of course, was not. And as Francis Fukuyama observes, neoconservatives made their name by warning "about the dangers of ambitious social engineering," and about the difficulty of transforming a pathological culture. The old-line realists fear that the neocons have lost themselves in fantasies of transformation traditionally confined to the left.
Indeed, on the evidence of The Right War?, the neocons do seem trapped in their own ironclad premises. If the war was both supremely just and supremely necessary -- if the alternative really was Munich -- then there can be no reckoning with bad consequences, no weighing in a balance. The horrors we commit cannot be horrible. Norman Podhoretz, the editor at large of Commentary, is -- for reasons I won't bother to speculate about -- granted more than a quarter of the acreage in The Right War? in order to broil familiar enemies in his familiar auto-da-fé. He concedes that "the aftermath of major military operations" was "rougher than the Pentagon seems to have expected." But then he immediately observes that more Americans died on D-Day.
By the same token, real achievements must be raised to world-historical proportions. The neoconservative essayist Reuel Marc Gerecht offers the following "analytical bet of high probability and enormous returns. . . . The Jan. 30 elections will do for the people of Iraq, and after them, in all likelihood, the rest of the Arab world, what the end of the European imperial period did not: show the way to sovereignty without tyranny." This way to the parimutuel window, Mr. Gerecht.
The debate being played out inside The Right War? is not so much the familiar one between unsentimental realists and Wilsonian idealists as between doctrinal absolutists and empiricists. "Foreign policy is not theology," writes Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International. "A policy that might have been wise crumbles if the costs become prohibitive." Zakaria initially supported the war and still believes that democracy can flourish in the Arab world. The problem, he writes, "is that the Bush administration's inept version of nation-building failed." The problem, more deeply, is that the theologically inclined will not accept the fact that others, including intended beneficiaries, do not see us as we see ourselves, or react as we wish them to react.
The debate inside the left is of course a very different one, but also involves an absolutism that will not take account of individual cases. The absolutism, in this case, is an abhorrence of American power -- an abhorrence greatly magnified by hatred for George W. Bush and all his works. The journalist Ian Buruma, though not a supporter of the war, has accused the fashionable left of practicing a form of moral racism, in which the brutalities of the West provoke outrage but the far greater crimes of third-world monsters like Saddam Hussein are passed over in silence. A magisterial nonchalance marches under the banner of moral superiority. Apropos the novelist Julian Barnes's comment that the war wasn't worth the loss of a single life, Norman Geras, a British political theorist, mordantly observes, "Not one, eh? So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial shredders." But of course to admit otherwise would be to credit the Americans, and even the Bush administration, with moral insight and the capacity for good. How much more satisfying to revel in the administration's richly deserved comeuppance!
A Matter of Principle will be sobering reading to many American liberals, especially those who took comfort in the near-universal European opposition to the war. Among the most powerful essays in the volume are those by French or German scholars taking their own countrymen to task. With the threat of the cold war over, writes Richard Herzinger, an editor of Die Zeit, the old cry of "Never again!" had lost its meaning of never again submission in favor of never again war -- as if force itself were the great peril, and thus America, the most forceful nation, the chief enemy of peace. This is what Robert Kagan means when he describes the Kantian paradise Europeans have sought to take refuge in. They, no less than the Americans, and perhaps more, fit 9/11 into the world as they already understood it, and as they wished it to be.
Do we truly know what is required in order to defend democratic principles in the face of attack from those who consider themselves divinely inspired? (I am referring, of course, to Islamic fundamentalists, not the Bush administration.) A Matter of Principle includes a backbone-stiffening contribution from Adam Michnik, a political philosopher, a founder of Solidarity in Poland and an authentic hero of the democratic left. Asked whether it isn't "paradoxical" to advocate violence as a means to advance human rights, Michnik snaps, "I can't remember any text of mine where I said one should fight Hitler without violence; I'm not an idiot. . . . In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries."
--James Traub is writing a book on the United Nations in the era of Kofi Annan.
ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS
By Dexter Filkins
** A journalist's remembrance of his murdered interpreter illustrates the dangers confronting Iraq's intelligentsia. **
New York Times Book Review
October 30, 2005
[Review of Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, by Michael Goldfarb (Carroll & Graf, 2005). Illustrated. 354 pp. $32.95.]
In the 30 months since Saddam Hussein's regime fell, many Americans have felt their sympathies for ordinary Iraqis travel across an emotional arc, beginning with compassion and affection and ending, as the American enterprise has faltered, in anger, even disgust. The Iraqis, many Americans now feel, were never good enough for the liberation we gave them.
These sentiments are understandable - think of a crowd of Iraqis cheering over a burning Humvee. Iraq has more than its share of bad people, and it has become a preferred destination for even more of them. Two and half years later, it's clear that a large percentage of Iraqis were either too traumatized or too tangled up in their traditions to grasp a democratic future. The United States has found that out the hard way.
But a great many of the country's people saw precisely the opportunity that presented itself on April 9, 2003, when the American Army chased Saddam Hussein and his confederates from their palaces on the Tigris. These Iraqis realized that they had to seize the moment, that it might not come again. And they knew, better than anyone, how difficult it would be to carry their broken and brutalized country with them. So they started newspapers, they organized political parties, they called meetings to start a national conversation. Some of them, surveying the psychological ruins that Hussein and his torturers had left behind, formed institutes to teach their countrymen to think for themselves.
And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown into ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.
Michael Goldfarb, until recently a reporter for National Public Radio, has written a book about one of those Iraqis, Ahmad Shawkat, who was willing to fight, and to die, for the opportunities presented by the American intervention. It is a sad and necessary book that distills all of the country's blighted hopes in one man. Shawkat, a cantankerous Iraqi intellectual, was one of the good guys.
Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace is part memoir, part biography. It opens in March 2003, in the northern city of Erbil, on the eve of the invasion. Erbil was then under the control of the Kurdish rebels who, with American help, had thrived outside the control of Hussein's regime. Goldfarb was looking for an interpreter, and he found Shawkat in the lobby of a hotel.
One of the oddities of being a foreign correspondent is that the person you often end up learning the most from is someone who never makes it into your articles -- your interpreter. This is a shame. In broken, war-ravaged places, the men and women who offer their translation services are frequently extraordinary people, who in more stable societies wouldn't bother with such work: they're deposed university professors, persecuted newspaper editors, surgeons whose clinics have been destroyed. Whatever cultural nuance creeps into reporting is often thanks to them.
Shawkat had been a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Mosul's medical school, and was clearly an exceptional man. Goldfarb has performed a good deed by turning a journalistic convention on its head and making him the center of this book. (Full disclosure: I've met Michael Goldfarb once and corresponded briefly with him by e-mail.) By the time Goldfarb engaged him, in March 2003, Shawkat had already endured several stints in Hussein's dungeons, suffering through beatings, electrical shocks and interrogations for crimes no greater than discussing an alternative future for his country or writing satirical, heavily allegorical stories about Hussein.
Goldfarb's story is divided into three parts. The first recounts the war as it unfolded, rather anticlimactically, in northern Iraq. (Most of the heavy fighting occurred in southern Iraq and in Baghdad; Hussein's regime in Mosul more or less melted away.) The second section reconstructs Shawkat's life before he and Goldfarb met. While dramatic in parts, this section suffers from the author's decision to write an "imagined biography," with quotations rendered as if Shawkat had actually uttered them and Goldfarb actually heard them. The third section, recounting the events leading to Shawkat's murder, is by far the best.
When Hussein was swept away, Shawkat came back to Mosul and turned his prodigious energies into helping build a democratic Iraq. "Ahmad knew it was his time," Goldfarb writes. "There was a reason he had survived Saddam." The Americans who planned the invasion could hardly have hoped for a better ally on the ground than Ahmad Shawkat: he was educated, secular, articulate and absolutely fearless.
With American money, he started a weekly newspaper, ruefully named Bilattijah, "Without Direction," which he used to defend the democratic project and assail its enemies. Goldfarb does a fine job of recounting the heady days of Mosul's liberation, and the collapse of the American-backed efforts to create a liberal society before the onslaught of the insurgents. That failure has been documented elsewhere, but it is particularly stinging to witness through the eyes of someone like Shawkat, who tried so hard to construct a more humane Iraq.
Shawkat was one of the good guys, and now he's dead, shot in the back on a rubbish-filled rooftop. It is one of the more pressing questions of our day whether the democratic experiment in Iraq can survive without more people like him.
--Dexter Filkins is a Baghdad correspondent for the Times. He has covered the war in Iraq since it began in March 2003.
IN THE RED ZONE
By Ben MacIntyre
** Anthony Shadid describes what life is like in the part of Iraq not protected by soldiers and concrete. **
New York Times Book Review
October 30, 2005
Iraq tells its painful tale in images and events: a soldier grimly patrolling a garbage-strewn street; a child staring at a passing tank; the wide-eyed gore-spattered terror in the aftermath of yet another bombing; coffins, confrontations, corpses.
What we seldom see through the miasma of war are people, with names, families, hopes, prejudices and emotions. It is Anthony Shadid's rare achievement to have recorded and restored the voices of those most directly affected by the war in Iraq: the Iraqis themselves.
Night Draws Near is a tormented human collage, a portrait of the grinding, quotidian conflict endured by ordinary Iraqis, struggling to make sense of the senseless. Here are the mother trying to find work and feed her children in a crumbling slum, the sculptor watching his once beautiful city fall apart, the terrorist, the street sweeper, the schoolgirl scribbling her fears nightly in a tatty diary.
An Arab-American, born in Oklahoma of Lebanese descent, Shadid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported for The Washington Post from Iraq since the war began. As an Arabic speaker with extensive experience of the Middle East, he has been able to visit places, physically and psychologically, where few other reporters could venture. He converses equally easily with the Texas private and the Islamic insurgent, crossing the divide between Sunni, Shiite and American, to extract the individual stories that give human contour to the chaos. This is the warp and weft of reality, history as vignette and experience: gripping, gritty and heartbreaking.
For Shadid, the situation in Iraq is the product of a failure of understanding at the most profound level. American policy makers simply did not comprehend the level of hopes raised by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the depth of the ambivalence he left behind, the way that so many years of oppression had scarred the Iraqi psyche. Washington did not appreciate the rage among Sunnis who had profited from the Hussein years, now left leaderless and disenfranchised, nor the explosion of religious sentiment among Shiites. "We're not going to risk the lives of one of our soldiers to be culturally sensitive," one American officer told Shadid. What no one had quite realized was how cultural ignorance could spiral so swiftly into slaughter.
"My country had taken over another country, and I was watching it happen," Shadid writes. "The United States now controlled Iraq's destiny; we would now decide its fate. And we understood remarkably little about it."
The Iraqis were equally baffled. The Americans who came as liberators remained as occupiers. They promised democracy and peace, yet they could not stop the looting, or even, at the most basic level, ensure that the electricity worked in Baghdad. "Stuff happens. Freedom's untidy," declared the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as armed gangs claimed the streets. Shadid shows that this untidy, unexpected "stuff" transformed perceptions among Iraqis. At first cautiously welcomed, the United States Army became "first, a callous overseer in a looted capital, then an insensitive occupier in a Muslim land, and now . . . a provocative presence whose visibility only deepened the strife." Iraqis and Americans came together with impossibly high expectations. These collided, and then exploded.
In Shadid's telling, the simplicity of official American thinking, intoxicated by its own optimistic rhetoric, contrasts with the raw shock, emotional complexity and confusion of Iraqis, summed up by the Arabic word ghamidh, meaning mysterious, unclear and gloomy. Inside the Green Zone, the security oasis of four and a half square miles protected by concrete and wire, educated Americans imagined Iraq's future; outside, in the Red Zone, the rest of Iraq, the present was being forged by bomb, bullet and sermon.
It is from the gloom of the Red Zone that Shadid extracts resonant lives. The Sunni father who kills his own son, an informer, in obedience to the medieval rites of tribal revenge. The terrified Iraqi policeman, feeling he has deserted his own people to work for the occupiers, expecting death on every street corner. Perhaps the most moving testaments are those of Amal, the adolescent diarist, whose thoughts slowly evolve from naïve Hussein propaganda, to uncertain elation, to blank despair: "Oh God, why does this agony surround us?"
Shiites -- able to celebrate their rites openly for the first time in a generation, only to see their holy places attacked by suicide bombers and the celebrants murdered in droves - echo that cry. "Why won't they leave us in peace?" a young, horror-struck pilgrim asks Shadid after a suicide bomb explodes at the Karbala shrine in March 2004, killing dozens.
Who are "they"? Again, the answer is veiled in ghamidh, but Shadid leaves no doubt that the ferocious disillusionment among Sunnis, the Shiite uprising, the foreign Islamists who have poured into Iraq since the fall of Hussein reciting Qaeda slogans have all taken sustenance from the groundswell of fury at the continued presence of troops among this proud people. "Most of the insurgents shared a religious ideology that, in message and appeal, was a direct consequence of an occupation that was envisaged as the means of bringing democracy to Iraq." Freedom brought by the invasion has aggravated the very fundamentalism the West most fears.
The economic and ideological wasteland left by Hussein provided fertile ground for breeding both fanaticism and resentment. American officials are frustrated that Iraqis have not done more to embrace change, but years of oppression have created a dependency culture of the most acute sort. Baathist rule did not encourage self-sufficiency, resourcefulness or originality; after decades of submission, many Iraqis had forgotten how to act independently. The Islamic clergy filled the vacuum, but moral confusion reigned. Some who had loathed Hussein found themselves looking back with warped nostalgia to the days of the dictator. Long after the fallen president was dragged from his hole, inspected for fleas and bundled into captivity, his specter still haunts the skewed Iraqi imagination, and always will: "Maybe he will come back" Iraqis worry.
On March 10, 2003, George W. Bush announced that the lives of Iraqis would "dramatically improve." The president's promise is remembered today as a betrayal. Amal, confiding to her diary, demands: "Please, tell us, when are we going to live a life of security and stability? . . . They talk about democracy. Where is democracy?"
Many Americans still cannot understand why Iraqis are ungrateful. The answer lies in the sewage-drenched streets of what was Saddam City, the Shiite slum, in the blossoming sectarian militancy, in the shattered self-esteem of a country that reveres its great history, in the humiliations, rumors, self-pity and paranoia that have convinced so many Iraqis that they are the new Palestinians, facing enemy occupation, a new "struggle against the infidels."
Shadid offers no solutions. He is a reporter, not a politician. He looks over this bleak landscape of lengthening shadows to depict a place in desperate limbo, neither liberated, as Washington had hoped, nor occupied, as so many Iraqis and much of the Arab world believe. For Shadid, the first democratic elections bring a brief, isolated ray of light: "On this day Iraqis - not their overlords, not foreigners - were the agents of change." But he has spent too long watching the lights flicker on and off in this city to predict sunshine and hope. There is typically grainy honesty in his admission that he, too, remains bewildered by this place draped in ghamidh. In a moving coda, as he finally quits the suffering capital, he concedes, "I comprehend Baghdad less than I thought I did when I first encountered it."
If America's leaders, on entering Iraq, had displayed just a fraction of the humility that Shadid admits on leaving it, then there might have been no need for this brave book.
--Ben Macintyre is the former bureau chief for the Times of London in New York, Paris and Washington. His latest book is The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan.