The Big Story

Wednesday, my youngest and I picked up the middle daughter at the airport, home from her year abroad. We circled the city as I missed a series of turnoffs from the beltway. I enjoyed listening to the sisters talk and talking myself. Then, I started a monologue; it is hard to believe, I told them, what Americans say to one another, do. They let me speak. Then I realized their faces had changed. Their impatience was not because I was talking too much nor because they felt I was prying nor even their usual boredom with me. Instead, they were both appalled.

“Mommy,” the younger one said, “I don’t think Tessie wants to hear this. I don’t.”

Yes, the stories were not just ugly, they were unimportant. I’d been drawn to them because they demanded attention, raw with anger – theirs and mine. But they had gotten me off track as much as those missed exits kept me circling the city. Bush as a Satanic creature from Goya’s Spain, Michael Moore’s tiresome spiel, novels that wittily discuss assassination – these are not the story. Not really.

And so I tried to piece together the big story about this time to tell my children and husband, returning separately, each missing news, caught up in conferences and goodbyes. But, at home, with the 24-hour-news cycles, with blogs, my own perspective had blurred: too little or too much news. (How I got distracted I will save for a later post, for understanding why and how Michael Moore and Ted Rall blur our thinking is an interesting topic; this week, though, it just doesn’t seem all that important.)

This week a conquering nation relinquished much power to those representing the conquered, a group clearly intending to go its own way. The tyrant who had ruled that country is now to be tried in an open court by his own people. I’m not a historian; there may be many parallels, but I have my doubts about their frequency. This was big news.

Appropriately, the description that moved me most was by Ali, an Iraqi blogger.

Small party and great hopes.
I was on duty-call in the hospital all yesterday and I was in the ward when I heard the news that Mr. Bremer had already transferred the power to the new government two days ahead of the expected date. I was so happy about this news and I couldn’t wait until I finish my tour to celebrate the occasion.

My friends all seemed thrilled and optimistic, yet they seemed to have no interest in celebrating the event. I decided to do something so I asked one of my colleagues to cover for me for an hour; I told him that I have to get something from outside. I directly headed to the nearest bakery and ordered a nice cake and returned to the hospital as fast as I could. On the way, I didn’t see any large calibrations but I noticed that the streets were busier than usual and people looked lively and relaxed.

I invited some of my friends, one of us volunteered to get some beverages and we gathered around the cake to celebrate the happy event. I took some pictures but sadly not all the doctors (female mainly) agreed on me posting their pictures and I’ll respect their will.

Some of us were celebrating regaining sovereignty, some were celebrating the end of occupation, others were happy because they think the new government will bring safety and order. I was celebrating a new and a great step towards democracy, but we were all joined by true hope for a better future and by the love we have for Iraq.

After wards we sat for a while discussing different matters. The hall was busy and everyone was chatting and laughing loud. They had Al-Jazeera on (something I never managed to convince them to stop doing). Then suddenly Mr. Bremer appeared on TV reading his last speech before he left Iraq. I approached the TV to listen carefully to the speech, as I expected it to be difficult in the midst of all that noise. To my surprise everyone stopped what they were doing and started watching as attentively as I was.

The speech was impressive and you could hear the sound of a needle if one had dropped it at that time. The most sensational moment was the end of the speech when Mr. Bremer used a famous Arab emotional poem. The poem was for a famous Arab poet who said it while leaving Baghdad. Al-Jazeera had put an interpreter who tried to translate even the Arabic poem which Mr. Bremer was telling in a fair Arabic! “Let this damned interpreter shut up. We want to hear what the man is saying” One of my colloquies shouted. The scene was very touching that the guy sitting next to me (who used to sympathize with Muqtada) said “He’s going to make me cry!”

Then he finished his speech by saying in Arabic,”A’ash Al-Iraq, A’ash Al-Iraq, A’ash Al-Iraq”! (Long live Iraq, Long live Iraq, long live Iraq).

I was deeply moved by this great man’s words but I couldn’t prevent myself from watching the effect of his words on my friends who some of them were anti-Americans and some were skeptic, although some of them have always shared my optimism. I found that they were touched even more deeply than I was. I turned to one friend who was a committed She’at and who distrusted America all the way. He looked as if he was bewitched, and I asked him, “So, what do you think of this man? Do you still consider him an invader?” My friend smiled, still touched and said, “Absolutely not! He brought tears to my eyes. God bless him.”

Another friend approached me. This one was not religious but he was one of the conspiracy theory believers. He put his hands on my shoulders and said smiling, “I must admit that I’m beginning to believe in what you’ve been telling us for months and I’m beginning to have faith in America. I never thought that they will hand us sovereignty in time. These people have shown that they keep their promises.”

And this is what I should have said first to my husband when he phoned, to my daughter when she got off the plane. The handover to an Iraqi government came two days early, perhaps to thwart the terrorist’s plans but early – imagine that – early. It is not Utopia and it will not be an easy place to live for quite a while. Plagued by terrorists even if the country is not, has not been for a while, a real war zone. (The depressing fact is that with the terrorist bombings, it is still probably safer than Washington, D.C. See Austin Bay .) They can feel the breath of anarchy over their shoulders – gaining then losing ground. We hope they outrun it. But we need perspective: this country was invaded less than a year and a half ago; the constitution is yet to be written. The civil war so many believed might happen still may. For now, however, Iraq is taking its first steps toward a government that represents rather than suppresses its people. The conquering army remains but the courts are Iraqi and the Iraqi dictator will be charged, judged, and sentenced by Iraqis.

Our army conquered. Letters to the editor and the political opposition complain of the blood lost and money spent to restore order to the conquered country. I must have missed something. When the colonizers – the Spanish and the French and to some extent the English – came to America, they came to take things home. Ferdinand and Isabella invested because believing they would be recompensed with souls and treasure. I thought that was what conquering armies did; they march across the countryside and bring back gold, jewels, horses, slaves, pelts—tributes. The great and beautiful horses in Venice at San Marco were hauled hither and thither by conqueror after conqueror – Greek, Roman, then Napoleon – going back for thousands of years. Powerful in their beauty and strength, they have a story to tell of what conquering nations do to one another. They ransack and raid and take art home. Instead, editorials are critical of the looting done of Iraq by Iraqis, blaming the invading army for insufficient order. (But, as it turns out, there weren’t so many looters. Even people brutalized by Saddam do not want to destroy the treasures of their heritage.) Of course, such editorials are appropriate. But, we need to remember that it was not always thus.

Saddam Hussein, himself, not so long ago attacked Kuwait, to get a port, to get oil, to get land. Sure, people like Niall Ferguson talk about the virtues of an imperially established order. He sees America as needing to be imperialist to restore order, but no one expects to see those gold commodes brought back to America and presented to Bush. The oil – it was all for the oil? – will be sold by the new government (not us) at prices closer to the market than they were, unconquered, in Saddam’s contracts with Russia and France.

We wince when Ferguson says “imperialism” – we knew what that was like. And we suspect that our muscled forces make us seem, indeed, sometimes makes us imperialists. We do want order and we do want markets. We thought of both our children and our commerce when we invaded. It is not altruism but a desire for a safer, more ordered world that brought us into Iraq. We don’t want our children to live in the fear we see can happen in a disordered world. We sense that Barnett’s theory of “disconnectedness” has some validity and a disconnected Iraq was bad for its citizens, bad for the world, bad for us.

So, finally, I got on track. I began to describe the big story: sovereignty, Saddam Hussein in court. We won’t know for another generation if this week has been important, helped define the twenty-first century. If this ends badly the differences from previous wars will make it a counter-example—the exception that proves the rule. If it works, this may be a twenty-first century mode – connecting Iraq with the more open, more transparent first world. Despite bases still in Germany, Schroeder didn’t back us. If it works, we won’t always get our way, even if we remain a “hyperpower.” Bush said, yes, Turkey voted against allowing us to come through and that, well, that is what happens in a democracy. We can’t wish they were democratic and then wish to make their choices for them. Bush understood. He didn’t like it in practice, but he understood, even liked, the importance of the principle. (And he represented our mixed feelings.)

This imperialism may reflect our desire for markets, but we don’t expect tributes. We may confidently assume others will learn English, but we don’t expect them to follow our customs, pray to our Gods. Some of us think of the Battle of White Mountain and the church that went underground for three hundred and fifty years. That was imperialism. This is Bremer saying, “Long live Iraq” in Arabic. And that is what all of us should wish, do wish. That is the big story.

3 thoughts on “The Big Story”

  1. How’s this for a headline in the NYT?
    THE ENDS OF EMPIRE Strange Bedfellows: ‘Imperial America’ Retreats From Iraq By ROGER COHEN

    As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, you can’t make this stuff up! What does it say that one of the worlds most virulently anti-American newspapers is right here in the USA! Retreats….unbelievable. Mr. Cohen must have struggled with how to spin the early handover of Iraqi sovreignty in a way that would turn a tremendous positive into a negative. It’s a retreat!! That’s it. It’s not a long planned handover, it’s a retreat! I imagine he’s bursting with pride at the success of the ‘insurgents’, aka terrorists/Ba’athists, in forcing this imperial retreat in the face of their heroic opposition. Such ‘reporting’ from the paper of record! Where’s the Pulitzer committee? Give this guy an award and a Kalishnikov. Maybe we can teach him to build IEDs. All he needs is a checkered headband. He’s already got the idealogy down pat.

    Here’s a sample from one of the first paragraphs of Mr. Cohens reporting:

    The Age of Empire is passed, and governments throughout the world were uncomfortable with what they saw as the brazen exercise of American authority over a country reduced to vassal status through force of arms.

    Vassal? Is that Iraq was? I see. So a vassal is a state in which:
    1. The imperium risks their sons and daughters for the freedom of the vassal state’s serfs, freeing them from brutal totalitarian rulers.
    2. The imperium pours vast amounts of money.
    3. Has their military trained and equipped at the expense of the imperium.
    4. Where the imperium sets up local and regional elected councils where previously there hadn’t been any, and whose ‘proconsul’ (Mr. Cohen’s word) has voluntarily relinquished power so that the serfs of said vassal may now write a constitution and have the first free and fair elections in decades.

    That’s what a vassal state is? Mr. Cohen and I must use different dictionaries! Or maybe it’s that Roger Cohen is just a blathering propogandist. You decide. It’s not difficult.

  2. Ginny:

    Read the post, liked and agreed with it but initially had mostly nothing to say. A good 4th post, not rah-rah like when i was a kid but timely and to the point.

    Wandered over to Town Hall for my weekly dose of Thomas Sowell, noticed Oliver North’s posting on the handover, had brunch and started thinking. The handover is the positive side of both editorials, in pointing out what’s right with us. Your post emphasizes it’s right because of it’s effect on Iraq. North emphasizes the continuity with 20th century wars against totalitarianism. I think yours says more of what needed to be said.

    They say giving is receiving. Maybe this is Iraq’s return gift to us, a sense of what we do right in the world.

    Matya no baka

  3. Once again, Ginny, Bravo and Amen! First, let me say your post reminded me of the big story too, and I felt ashamed of my dithering so much about Moore and even about Kerry.

    As I read your post, I recalled what a historian said about Athens after it lost the Peloponesian War. After it had lost its economic and political power, Athens proceeded to build an Empire of Thought, becoming a city of poets and philosophers. It is the ideas and thoughts of those poets and philsophers that have been the lasting legacy of the Greeks.

    American economic and military power have not begun to fade. Please God, they will not for a very long time to come. Permit me to observe, however, that America has done better than the Greeks, for, while we still possess economic and military power, we have already begun to build an Imperium Rationis. Some will call this hubris, but I propose this with the same humility — yes humility — with which President Reagan envisioned America as the shining city on the hill — just as imperfect as ancient Athens and just as magnificent.

    As Ginny says, we may yet fail — in Iraq — in our efforts to close Barnett’s gap, though, in the former case, the failure would be as much Iraqi as American. Having read Ali’s post, I think I am right to believe the Iraqis will not fail — us or themselves. On the this Fourth of July weekend, however, I close with thoughts about America and declare with President Kennedy: “I am certain that, after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered, not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

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