One of the earliest metaphors President George W. Bush and some of his top officials wielded in their post-invasion salad days in Iraq involved bicycles. The question was: Should we take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike (of democracy)? Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, commented smugly on the way getting Iraq “straightened out” was like teaching your kid to ride a bike:
“They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.”
That image (about as patronizingly colonial as they come) of the little pedaling Iraqi child with an American parent running close behind, was abandoned when around the first corner, as it turned out, was an insurgent with an rocket-propelled grenade. Many years and many disasters later, though, Americans, whether in the Obama administration, the Washington punditocracy, or the media are still almost incapable of being patronizing when it comes to Iraq. Take a typical recent piece of “news analysis” in the New York Times by a perfectly sharp journalist, Alissa J. Rubin. It was headlined in print “America’s New Role in Iraq Prompts a Search for Means of Influence” and focused, in part, on Vice President Joe Biden’s recent trip there supposedly to “assuage” Iraqi feelings that they are being “moved to the bottom shelf.”
Rubin writes (and this sort of thing has been written countless times before) that the Americans are now in search of a “new tone” for their dealings in that country. (In the Bush years, this was often called — in another strange imperial metaphor — “putting an Iraqi face” on things.) “They have,” she comments, “a reputation for being heavy-handed, for telling Iraqis what to do rather than asking what they want.” But of course, as the piece makes clear, whatever his tone, Biden arrived in Iraq to tell Iraqis what they should do — or as she puts it, to try to “solve” the “troubles… that stymied three previous ambassadors and President George W. Bush”: continuing sectarian animosities, the passage of an Iraqi oil law, and the Kurdish problem.
These, it seems, are still our burden and we really can’t imagine it any other way. As the Iraqis quoted in Rubin’s piece make clear, the dominant role played by the U.S. is resented by the occupied — especially the elite — who have contempt for the occupiers, even if they find it hard to imagine life without them.
I mention this only because the tone of American writing and thought on Iraq has always been tinged with what Michael Schwartz, TomDispatch regular and author of a superb study, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, says is a deeper colonial urge, one that unfortunately may not be fading, even as discussion of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq grows. (Catch a TomDispatch audio interview with Schwartz by clicking here.) Tom
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