How Ethnocentrism Blinded the War’s Critics to the People of Iraq

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SCANNING THIS WEEK’S renewal of the Bush and Blair trials, I wondered: do I alone notice the toxic ethnocentrism lurking in the belief that the world’s political disasters are the result of, and response to, America’s policies and actions?

America was a thousand years distant when, for example, a dispute over the caliph furnished Islam its chief confessional schism. Reading some of the more partisan commentary, you might expect to find that Dick Cheney had formulated the practice of takfir, or that the CIA implanted the Hadith as part of a sinister divide-and-conquer plot. Alas, Islam came up with its Shia and Sunni variants without foreign aid or the instigation of Washington.

Not so useful for polemical purposes is the thought that Islam may currently be the host of a cultural and civil war that is many centuries in the making, and that this would be the case even if a United States of America had never come into being. In the struggle for Mesopotamia, according to this way of looking at the world, America is little more than a marginal concern. Let the ethnocentrists insist that everything happening Over There has its origins and explanations Over Here. Only, don’t fail to notice how contemptuous this patronage is.

I’ve been debating and discussing Iraqi politics at least since the first Persian Gulf War — not the Bush Sr. liberation of Kuwait, but the pointless sacrifice of a generation arranged in the 1980s between the Ba’athists and Iran’s fanatical counter-revolutionaries. When the 1990 invasion occurred, no self-respecting critic of American imperialism failed to note, correctly, that Saddam Hussein was after all a CIA man, and that he’d suited George H.W. Bush just fine, going all the way back to the day he was that agency’s director.

This same critique could be, and was applied, to numerous other countries where numerous other autocrats and sadists had terrorized the citizenry while filling mass graves, all on the American taxpayers’ expropriated wealth. Yet I can’t now recall any of these critics marshalling proper outrage for Saddam Hussein and America’s other “puppets.” The criminals were apparently all in Washington, and to a lesser degree London, as were the factors that had brought about the crimes in the first place.

This racket was all supposed to have begun in Indochina, with the Vietnam and Cambodian campaigns. Or it was the end of the Second World War, the Marshall Plan and the emergence of the American Empire. If the topic were Iraq, someone with a greater historical memory would recall the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Sèvres, and so forth, and the way in which Britain had (once again) re-drawn the map for its own greedy purposes.

All true. And along these lines it may be fairly said that the 2003 war was poorly conceived and poorly executed, and that the opportunity for a lasting and stable government in Iraq was greatly diminished by the actions of the invaders. The Americans dismantled the state and army, reconstituted them hastily, and then left the critical matter of the controversial 2005 constitution unsettled. Everything that is happening in Iraq today was predicted, and explained, as early as 2005, and yet two American administrations failed to absorb the warnings.

What is largely missing from this are the bits that do not conform to the ethnocentric view of Over Here. For examples, that Iraq (along with many other countries) is today endangered by Islamic tribalism and fanaticism; that before the USA dismantled the state, Saddam Hussein did the same to Iraq’s civil society and through his repeated acts of belligerence and genocide made an invasion, followed by a civil war, all but inevitable; that the neighbouring Ba’athists of Bashar al-Assad’s government have disfigured and ruined the prospect for Mesopotamia (the correct geographical term for the domains now captive to ISIS), likely for the remainder of this century; and that the corruption and political purges initiated by Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, likely finished off any hope of a peaceful and democratic federal representative republic.

Why labour the point? — the United States has a big share of the blame, so leave it at that, you may say. My objective is to restore to the conversation the idea that countries on the other side of the globe are composed of people with their own aspirations, agency and trajectories. The habit of making everything point to an ultimate American interest, policy, desire or action is a dangerous habit. Overlooked and erased are the people who have the misfortune of living on ground overtaken by catastrophe. From this it follows that to the people of Iraq falls the responsibility of building and sustaining a nation. No one else can do it for them.

We should continue to note the conflict in Iraq was a conflict of interests, and that US Vice-President Dick Cheney enriched himself at hundreds of millions. We should also remember that George W. Bush made a dishonest and dishonourable case for the 2003 invasion, and that American incompetence and political expedience have only made life worse for millions of people.

We should also recognize that the civil war within Islam is historical in nature and that it has its own internal logic, momentum and rationale. It’s going to be here for many decades to come. The jihadists and suicide bombers and clerical totalitarians will have to be resisted and fought by people who prefer pluralism and tolerance to theocratic dictatorships. A side will have to be taken — it’s going to be either education and political rights for women or else repressions and honour killings. The self-proclaimed progressive elements of North America seem to think it’s a good day’s work merely to denounce George Bush and to say No More Blood For Oil. That’s a lazy and contemptible standard, in my opinion.

Gone and forgotten by most is the honourable history of radicalism to which I once considered myself attached — the internationalist solidarity campaigns of the anti-fascists and anti-totalitarians. In fact, I do still feel myself a radical of this kind, although now an exiled and homeless one. But I don’t mind being a member of no political tribe, and indeed I prefer it. Tribalism, a form of ethnocentrism taken to an extreme, is the problem of our world.

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