Saturday, March 23, 2013

Missing from Iraq Retrospectives Ten Years After? Historians.

At History News Network, University of North Carolina history prof emeritus Michael H. Hunt points out that some very important viewpoints have gone missing in the collective examination of conscience and search for "lessons" ten years after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: those of professional historians who actually know something about the Middle East.  (In the vein of shameless self-promotion, and to point out that at least some reporters and editors "get it," I offer this piece in the Saginaw News, for which I and another historian - from Saginaw Valley State University - were interviewed.  They even included our PR pix!)  Hunt's essay bears extensive quoting:

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, March 20, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.


The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!


One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.


David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.


Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle East, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.


Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital, like the country more generally, “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).


Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.


But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?


Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Hunt's essay also reminds me that, before the invasion, the US State Department actually assembled a sizeable team of scholars and experts for what it called the "Future of Iraq Project."  (The team included Prof. McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, an eminent archaeologist/anthropologist who is one of the planet's premier experts on ancient Iraq and its antiquities; he's also an acquaintance of mine.)  They assembled a voluminous report, 13 volumes in fact, with many well-informed recommendations, only to see it shelved and ignored by the Bush administration.

Would that the New York Times and other newspapers "of note" had contacted and consulted some of the team members for their retrospective ten years after.  Would that Boy George and his entourage had bothered to consult them ten years ago.  Instead, neocon worthies like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and PW's former Dept of Defense  deputy  Douglas Feith continue to get interviews.  In Perle's case, on NPR, where in response to a question about whether the invasion - which he cheerleaded - has been the right thing to do, he replied, in effect, "Don't even ask" (as in, "stupid question!").   Douglas Feith - to whom General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, once referred as the "dumbest fucking guy on the planet") , went on to a faculty position at Georgetown, evidently because his expertise was deemed invaluable to foreign-service servants of the future.  (Shame on Georgetown for that one.)

So, it's left to us historians to try to pick up and reassemble the pieces for our students - some of whom are Iraq war vets, some of whom were hardly out of diapers when Bush had his "Mission Accomplished" moment and, if asked what Abu Ghraib was, might be as likely to answer "a Disney pixar-flick character"?

Meanwhile, as Peter Baker's recent NYT piece noted, Mr Obama had virtually no comment on the Iraq invasion 10 years after.

And the beat goes on.

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