Frank Rich just published an op-ed column in the New York Times (Sep. 24, Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad) which eloquently puts the plight of the National Museum in Baghdad in the context of the larger Iraq War. Let me summarize by means of excerpts:
It's not just about torture. Even if there had never been an Abu Ghraib, a Guantánamo or an American president determined to rewrite the Geneva Conventions, America would still be losing the war for hearts and minds in the Arab world. Our first major defeat in that war happened at the dawn of the Iraq occupation, before 'detainee abuse' entered our language: the 'Stuff happens!' moment at the National Museum 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. ... 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. ... Of course, dear old Rummy’s what-me-worry take on the museum was the tip-off to how he would be wrong about everything that would follow: he reacted with exactly the same disdain and indifference to the insurgency happening under his own nose and to Abu Ghraib. There would be a hasty corrective to the looting, at least: a heroic Marine Reserve colonel, Matthew Bogdanos, commanded a team that ultimately tracked down a bit more than a third of the vanished objects. ... 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. ... 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. ... 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. ... But he is instead a major player in the 'democracy' we have installed in Iraq, controlling at least 30 of 275 seats in the Parliament and six government ministries, including the power centers of transportation and health. ... One of the first Westerners to warn strongly of the dangers of someone like Mr. Sadr was Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the legendary archaeologist, explorer, author and British political officer who masterminded the unlikely cobbling together of the modern Iraq state after World War I. She warned that a Shiite theocracy in the new country would be 'the very devil.' As it happened, it was also Bell who created the Iraqi National Museum in 1923. The fortunes of her museum, once considered the finest in the Middle East, have been synonymous with the fate of Iraq ever since. That’s because, like any such national institution, it is not merely some building that houses art but a repository of a country’s heart and soul.[my own emphasis] That America has stood helplessly by as Mr. Sadr folds the museum into his orbit of power is as ominous a predictor of what lies ahead in this war as was our callous reaction to the looting of 2003. For all of America’s talk of stamping out a 'murderous ideology' and promoting civilization and democracy in Iraq, we are now handing the very devil the keys.
September 25, 2006
The National Museum as the canary in the coal mine