What Iraq Tells Us About Ourselves

The Bush administration, the Iraqi people, and Iranian meddling have all been blamed for the mess in Mesopotamia. But the American people themselves are the true root of the problem.

CHRIS HONDROS/AFP/Getty ImagesGone awry: Iraq is a mess, and its Americans fault.

In the four years since the United States invaded Iraq, its become clear that our campaign there has gone terribly awry. We invaded Iraq with too few troops; we destroyed the Iraqi civil administration and military without having a suitable instrument of government ready in the wings; we expelled from public employment anyone with a connection, no matter how tenuous, to the Baath Partywhich included most people who could be described as human infrastructure for Iraq. The list of errors goes on and on. Even the vice president acknowledges that mistakes were made (although, presumably, not by him).

But how did the highly educated, wealthy, and powerful American people make such a horrendous, catastrophic series of blunders? As Pogo, the cartoon opossum, once famously said, We have met the enemy and he is us! Yes, thats right: We, the American peoplenot the Bush administration, nor the hapless Iraqis, nor the meddlesome Iranians (the new scapegoat)are the root of the problem.

Its woven into our cultural DNA. Most Americans mistakenly believe that when we say that all men are created equal, it means that all people are the same. Behind the cute and charming native clothing, the weird marriage customs, and the odd food of other cultures, all humans are yearning for lifestyles and futures that will be increasingly unified as time and globalization progress. That is what Tom Friedman seems to have meant when he wrote that the world is flatthat technological and economic change are driving humankind toward a future of cultural sameness. In other words, whatever differences of custom and habit that still exist between peoples will pass away soon and be replaced by a world culture rather like that of the United States in the 21st century.

To be blunt, our foreign policy tends to be predicated on the notion that everyone wants to be an American. In the months leading up to the start of the Iraq War, it was common to hear seemingly educated people say that the Arabs, particularly Iraqis, had no way of life worth saving and would be better off if all that old stufftheir traditions, social institutions, and valueswere done away with, and soon. The U.S. Armed Forces and U.S. Agency for International Development would be the sharp swords of modernization in the Middle East.

How did Americans come to believe that the entire world is embarked on the same voyage, and that we are the navigators showing the way to a bright future? Our own culture is a rich blend, brewed from such elements as enlightenment, optimism, Puritan utopianism, a Calvinist tendency to not forgive sinners, and the settlers lack of respect for the weak and native peoples of the world. In the United States, such threads have pushed us to believe that we are all in a melting pot of common ideology. This belief system has been fed to us in the public schools, through Hollywood, and now in the endless prattle of 24-hour news networks. It has become secular religion, a religion so strong that any violation of its tenets brings instant and savage condemnation. So called neoconservatism isnt some kind of alien ideology; its merely a self-aware manifestation of the widespread American belief that people are all the same. The repeated assertion by U.S. President George W. Bush that history is dominated by the existence of universal values is proof in the pudding.

Americans invaded an imaginary Iraq that fit into our vision of the world. We invaded Iraq in the sure belief that inside every Iraqi there was an American trying to get out. In our dream version of Iraq, we would be greeted as not only liberators from the tyrant, but more importantly, from the old ways. Having inhabited the same state for 80 years, the Iraqi people would naturally see themselves as a unified Iraqi nation, moving forward into eventual total assimilation in that unified human nation.

Unfortunately for us and for them, that was not the real Iraq. In the real Iraq, cultural distinction from the West is still treasured, a manifestation of participation in the Islamic cultural continent. Tribe, sect, and community remain far more important than individual rights. One does not vote for candidates outside ones community unless one is a Baathist, Nasserist, or Communist (or, perhaps, a believer in world flatness like Tom Friedman and the neocons). But Iraqis know what Americans want to hear about identity, and be they Shiite, Kurd, or Sunni Arab, they tell us that they are all Iraqis.

Finding ourselves in the wrong Iraq, Americans have stubbornly insisted that the real Iraqis should behave as our dream Iraqis would surely do. The result has been frustration, disappointment, and finally rage against the craziness of the Iraqis. We are still acting out our dream, insisting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikis Shiite sectarian government unify the state, imagining that Maliki is a sort of Iraqi George Washington seeking the greater good for all. He is not that. His chief task is to consolidate Shiite Arab power while using the United States to accomplish the deed. To that end, he will tell us whatever we want to be told. He will sacrifice however many of his brethren are necessary to maintain the illusion, so long as the loss is not crippling to his effort. He will treat us as the naifs that we are.

Through our refusal to deal with alien peoples on their own terms, and within their own traditions, we have killed any real hope of a positive outcome in Iraq. Our mission there will be over some day, but there will be other fields for our missionary work, other dreams to dream about: Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran … Let us seek within ourselves the wisdom to avoid another such catastrophe.

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