Saturday, September 23, 2006

Museum Pieces (The Hidden Rich)

Frank Rich takes us back to the beginning of our woes in Iraq in Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad (fully available to Times Select subscribers)--the looting of Baghdad's National Museum:

Three and a half years later, have we learned anything? You have to wonder. As the looting of the museum was the first clear warning of disasters soon to come, so the stuff that’s happening at the museum today is a grim indicator of where we’re headed in Iraq: America is empowering the very Islamic radicals this war was supposed to smite. But even now we seem to be averting our eyes from reality on the ground in Baghdad.

Our blindness back in April 2003 seems ludicrous in retrospect. As the looting flared, an oblivious President Bush told the Iraqi people in a televised address that they were “the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.” Our actions — or, more accurately, our inaction as the artifacts of that great civilization were carted away — spoke louder than those pretty words. As Fred Ikle, the Reagan administration Pentagon policy chief, puts it in Thomas Ricks’s "Fiasco,” “America lost most of its prestige and respect in that episode.”

That disaster might have been mitigated if our leaders had not dismissed the whole episode as a triviality. But Donald Rumsfeld likened the chaos to the aftermath of a soccer game and joked that television was exaggerating the story by recycling video of a single looter with a vase. Gen. Richard Myers defended our failure to intervene as “a matter of priorities” (we had protected the oil ministry). Lt. Gen. William Wallace, countering a wildly inflated early claim by a former museum employee that 170,000 artifacts had been destroyed, put the number of objects still unaccounted for at “as few as 17.” (The actual number was closer to 14,000.)

[...]

The cavalier American reaction to the museum looting was mimicked in the $22 billion reconstruction effort, an orgy of corruption and waste that still hasn’t brought Iraqis reliable electricity. In a new account of the civilian nation-builders in the Green Zone, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post details how L. Paul Bremer III and his underlings enlisted cronies and apparatchiks rather than those who might actually know anything about the country’s people or their needs. Thus we saddled Iraq with Bernie Kerik, G.O.P. fund-raisers and politically connected young ideologues chosen over more qualified job applicants who knew Arabic. They saw Iraq as a guinea pig for irrelevant (and doomed) experiments, including an antismoking campaign and an elaborate American-style stock exchange. Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book, while nonfiction, is as chilling an indictment of America’s tragic cultural myopia as Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel of the American debacle in Indochina, “The Quiet American.”

Our public diplomacy efforts were equally tone-deaf to Iraqis and their neighbors. In the early going, the State Department hired a Madison Avenue whiz who made sunny TV testimonials about America’s love of Muslims. These ads won no hearts or minds, but wasted tons of money and even more valuable time. Now this job belongs to Karen Hughes, the presidential flack, whose patronizing photo-op tour of the region last year earned mostly ridicule.

[...]

Speaking before the United Nations last week in what may be the run-up to our new war, Mr. Bush was still on his battle-for-civilization kick, flattering Iranians much as he has the Iraqis. “We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization,” he said. All Iranians have to do is look to the Baghdad museum today to see that such words are worth no more now than they were in 2003.

It’s symbolic of the anarchy throughout Iraq’s capital that the museum’s entrances are now sealed with concrete to keep out new hordes of killers and thieves. But the violence, which seems to spiral with each declaration of a new security crackdown, is old news. More revealing is the other half of the museum’s current plight: it is now in the hands of Iraq’s version of the Taliban. That sad denouement is another symbol, standing for our defeat in the larger war of ideas.

The museum changed hands in August, when Donny George, its longtime administrator and the chairman of Iraq’s official antiquities board, fled the country fearing for his life and for the treasures in his care, both at the museum and the country’s many archaeological sites. Mr. George is a Christian and had good reason to fear. The new government minister placed in charge of the museum, a dentist, is an acolyte of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose goal is to make Iraq a fundamentalist theocracy. To Mr. Sadr and his followers, the museum’s legendary pre-Islam antiquities, harking back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, are infidels’ idols to be sacked.

Speaking of Mr. Rich, I just got his book -- The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina -- and though I've just gotten 25 pages into it since last night, it's a cracker and a must-read. More on it as I get through the book.


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