How telling that U.S. forces so carefully protected Iraq's oil fields while ignoring the looting of Baghdad's internationally renowned museum. The complete, and by all accounts preventable, destruction of one of the world's most significant collections of antiquities is a fit metaphor for current U.S. foreign policy, which causes more serious damage through carelessness than calculation.
The notion that Iraq even has history -- let alone that 7,000 years ago this land was the cradle of civilization -- is not likely to occur to the neocolonialists running a brawny young nation barely more than 200 years old. The United States' earnest innocence is the charm that our entertainment industry markets so successfully around the world, but it is also the perennial seed of disaster as we blithely rearrange corners of the planet we only pretend to understand.
To Donald Rumsfeld, the widespread looting that has ravaged hospitals, libraries and museums in Iraq was simply further proof the U.S. invasion of this fractured Muslim country represents liberation. "Freedom's untidy," he said. "And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes." Translation: You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
It almost sounds as if the Defense secretary is projecting onto the looters a blanket excuse for deadly errors the White House and the U.S. military have made and will continue to make in Iraq: alienating allies, killing civilians, handpicking craven and corrupt Iraqi "leaders" who haven't been in the country for decades. This is, after all, the distillation of the Bush Doctrine: Free countries are free to commit mistakes and commit crimes in unfree countries.
One wonders whether Rumsfeld would extend such tolerance to the United States' own 2 million prisoners. Surely he would not dismiss our country's long history of urban riots as an example of the untidiness of freedom? It is only in Iraq that we believe, to quote a song Janis Joplin made famous, that "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."
Yet neither the awesome display of U.S. military power or the slew of false justifications used to unleash it -- the imminent threat of Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction, now likely to be proved nonexistent, or the unsubstantiated claims that Iraq is linked to 9/11 -- qualifies the U.S. to remake a nation with which we have absolutely no affinity.
If Iraq needs a foreign midwife to assist in its rebirth it should be under the broader sponsorship of the United Nations Security Council, which our macho president continues to disparage for having failed to vote our way. Will the democracy we so glibly promote for Iraq be pushed aside if it similarly fails to produce results to our liking?
Eager to rebuild their country after years of misrule, will Iraqis really swallow the shameless plans of Bush insiders to privatize Iraqi oil while the administration awards billions of dollars in contracts to U.S. companies?
And what if Iraqi Muslim fundamentalists prove as successful at the polls as radicals in Algeria, where the U.S. only mildly rebuked a repressive regime for smashing a popularly elected but theocratic opposition?
If the new Iraq follows the path of Pakistan and Turkey, where the populace is inclined to obliterate any wall between state and church, will the U.S. spin this as a victory for democracy? Will Rumsfeld justify the ethnic cleansing common in a nation riven with competing tribes, clans and religious sects arbitrarily packed together by previous colonialist rulers as the unruly joy of freedom?
Why have the media bought the administration's propaganda that we come to Iraq with clean hands and virgin swords to slay the dragon of Saddam Hussein, when the U.S. did so much to keep him in power? Surely, even embedded journalists recall that it was Reagan administration special envoy Rumsfeld who met with Hussein in the 1980s to guarantee U.S. support for Iraq's war with Iran.
Once again, we're deep in the "nation-building" game that Bush the candidate railed against in 2000. Having blundered in, guns blazing, we should now play to win the peace, slowly backing out and inviting a true multinational rebuilding effort with support from the U.N. and Muslim countries.
And for heaven's sake, can we remember in our next preemptive invasion to assign at least a few of our tanks to protect the hospitals and museums?
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column for The Los Angeles Times.
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