War on Iraq

Carrying the 'White Man's Burden' in Iraq

One of the many rarely spoken reasons why conservatives in Washington won't let us leave Iraq is the old notion of civilizing a primitive nation.
Last week, on the precious real estate of the right's flagship, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Iraq war-hawk Sen. Joe Lieberman (D?-CT) let slip another unspoken reason why we remain in Iraq more than two and a half years after achieving our stated goal of "disarming" Saddam Hussein.

Lieberman wrote that the Iraqis are on the brink of transitioning "from the primitive, killing tyranny of Saddam to modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood." That is, "unless the great American military that has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn."

It's noteworthy that Lieberman portrayed the old government as "primitive," despite the fact that we were talked into attacking Iraq because it had what President Bush called the "deadliest" weapons "known to mankind." They were, presumably, quite modern.

And that fits reality. Iraq under the Baathists was many things, but primitive wasn't one of them. Before two decades of infrastructure-smashing war, Iraq was considered to be as advanced as many countries in Western Europe. Its universities were the envy of the Arabic world, as was its health care system, which featured the most modern hospitals in the region.

Lieberman contrasts this "primitive" Iraq with the "modern" self-governance that the "great American military has given them."

If this strikes a familiar note with students of history, it should. In earlier iterations, the notion that the West had an obligation to drag their primitive charges into the present was embedded in the "civilizing missions" undertaken by the French and British in India and Africa, it was in the White Man's Burden invoked by Kipling and the "Hamitic Myth" favored by German intellectuals to justify its colonial possessions.

Even the Portuguese, the poorest, least educated, least powerful of the European colonial powers cooked up an ideology known as "Lusotropicalism" to justify keeping its African possessions into the 1970s.

All of these ideologies shared two things in common: the idea that the people they were subjugating were primitive -- the "natives" were frequently portrayed as children in contemporary art of the times - and the claim that what may have seemed like exploitation backed by the gun, was in fact a wholly beneficent attempt to bring the poor, brown people in question a taste of "modernity."

In 1839, six years before he coined the term "Manifest Destiny" in calling for the U.S. to annex Mexican Texas, well-known columnist John L. O'Sullivan wrote that America had been chosen for the "blessed mission" of subjugating those who "endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts," because only America "is destined to be the great nation of futurity."

We can call the modern iteration in Iraq, as expressed by Lieberman (and many others), simply "American exceptionalism."


Believing in our unique ability to "modernize" and "democratize" Iraq has a clear danger: it precludes our strategic elites from considering the idea that the country might best be served by letting Iraqis try to hammer out a home-grown solution to what has become an enormous mess.

A few weeks ago I caught up with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), one of Congress' most outspoken opponents of the Iraq invasion. His predictions about the consequences of our Iraq policy have, unfortunately, been proven correct at every turn.

McDermott's analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq is as far from the apocalyptic "clash of civilizations" tripe peddled by the Liebermans of the world as one can get. He asked me, "Why don't we ever assume that the Iraqis love their families and prefer to live in Peace? Why do we assume they just want to kill each other?"

I asked him what he would do to extricate the United States from Iraq. He didn't hesitate before responding: "I'd encourage the Iraqis to convene an atwa."

The atwa is an old and venerated system of dispute-resolution practiced in the region for generations. McDermott learned of the tradition during a recent trip to Jordan from influential Iraqis who had the means to flee the violence that's plagued Iraq since the United States' attack.

The process is, as the Iraqis say, "hutwa bi hutwa" -- "step-by-step." It begins with a ceasefire. Then respected leaders on both sides negotiate a series of mutual obligations that bridge the divide between the parties. Instead of the kinds of treaties favored by the West in which a "winner" wrenches concessions from a "loser," the atwa's great strength for a situation like the one plaguing Iraq today is that the process saves face (for more, read McDermott's essay, "Atwa in Iraq: A Tale of Two Villages").

That's vital. While our media obsess about those largely mythic "foreign fighters," by most serious accounts it's the humiliation of the Sunnis at the hands of predominantly Christian invaders closely allied with Israel that remains the go-juice of the insurgency.

Combine that with the extraordinarily difficult process of sharing the profits of Iraq's immense oil wealth and throw in Sunni and Kurdish fears of a government emerging that might become a puppet of Tehran, and Iraq is crying out for a home-grown solution along the lines of the atwa.

But it won't happen because of American exceptionalism. As McDermott said: "it has to be an Iraqi solution, we can't just convene an atwa ourselves or call for one publicly. To have legitimacy it has to come from them."


Two weeks ago, a group of over a hundred Iraqi leaders - Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds -- met in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League. They demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, throwing a lifeline that George W. Bush might have used to extricate the United States from his tragically developing "legacy."

While the initiative was supported by Iran, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, it was flawed. The U.S.-backed transitional government led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari excluded a number of parties from the talks, most importantly those led by former Baathists. Al Jazeera reported that the "agreement between the interim Iraqi government and the Arab League to exclude" those groups had "triggered widespread resentment among some Iraqis."

But whatever its flaws, the Cairo conference represented a step towards Iraq gaining real, rather than Fox News-style, sovereignty. Yet the United States would have none of it. The administration largely ignored the initiative. The day after the conference wrapped up, State Department Spokesman Justin Higgins was asked about the Iraqis' request for a U.S. withdrawal and his response was Foggy-Bottom-speak for "go screw." He said, "The coalition remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve security and stability as they rebuild their country." Whether they like it or not, "We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer," Higgins said.

The administration's reluctance to allow a truly Iraqi solution to develop is mostly about not losing control of Iraq's political economy. But it's also about stubborn American exceptionalism. The idea that we're dealing with "primitives" who can't resolve their own conflicts is nothing new. Jim McDermott pointed out that after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, "the Arab League asked for time to negotiate an atwa. George Bush refused, and the first Gulf War began."

What else, besides the deep-seated belief that we're culturally superior to the locals could lead so many to believe that our presence on the ground is by definition a net plus for the country's stability? After all, those backwards Iraqis have only their knowledge of the region's history, their familiarity with the country's competing cultures and an understanding of all the key players to guide them.

Only an ideology like American exceptionalism could lead so many to conclude that the only country that can bring Iraq to "modernity" is the one that spent the past 15 years bombing it "into the stone age."
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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