October 28, 2003,
BAGHDAD, IRAQ These days, the more I experience the situation in postwar Iraq, the more I think of France. After all, both countries were freed from despotic madmen largely through the efforts of the United States. And just as France has become the oversensitive, vainglorious, self-aggrandizing nation we know and . . . well, know Iraq, too, is showing increasing signs of resentment toward its liberator. In Iraq's case, however, the symptoms are more serious, threatening to bring social division, political volatility, and a kind of sullen passivity.
To offer one example: At a small social gathering in Baghdad recently, a woman expressed great excitement over the freedom in her life occasioned by the fall of Saddam. In the same breath, however, she added, "but I hate the occupation of my country so much I fantasize about shooting a U.S. soldier." When I suggested a link between U.S. soldiers and Saddam's demise, she replied, "I know that and you can't imagine how it humiliates me."
There, in an Iraqi nutshell, you have it. Underneath the joy these people feel upon their liberation from Saddam runs a countercurrent of shame over the fact that they couldn't do the job themselves. "If you'd only given us more time, we would have risen up and overthrown Saddam," a waiter lectured me. This sense of impotence explains, in part, the ungracious gratitude expressed by many Iraqis toward the U.S. otherwise known as the "thanks America, now go home" syndrome. It also underscores how na´ve we were to think that our invading troops would be wholeheartedly welcomed as liberators.
The truth is, no one likes being beholden to another for his freedom. Especially not Iraqis, who, like the French, maintain a somewhat idealized image of their country. In their case, la difference irakien lies in the glories of its Sumerian and Babylonian heritage, plus its rich natural resources. "No wonder civilization started here," a teacher informed me. "We have everything." This pride, however, has its downside. Since Iraq today isn't exactly in a position to fulfill its great potential, its people often project their sense of superiority outward most notably on the United States.
France may consider America a barely restrainable "hyperpower"; Iraq just sees us as omnipotent. The ease with which we occupied the country only reinforces that idea, as does America's breast-beating over its technological know-how and advanced weaponry. As a result, many Iraqis have a faulty view of U.S. intentions since America is all-powerful, they reason, mistakes and mishaps in our actions are really part of some Bush-administration strategy.
Take, for example, the looting that wracked Baghdad immediately after Saddam's fall. Where we might blame slipshod Pentagon planning, numerous Iraqis contend that America permitted and even encouraged the looting in order to demonstrate Iraqis' inability to govern themselves. Approaching the status of an urban legend is the story of G.I.s who broke open the national museum and invited passersby to help themselves to priceless antiquities. A cab driver swore to me he witnessed American soldiers exhort crowds to ransack government buildings with hearty cries of, "Go on, people, take what you want!" Note how these stories attempt to lift the blame for these acts of criminal vandalism from the Iraqi people and place it on the shoulders of a devious Uncle Sam.
The overestimation of U.S. capabilities also exerts an unfortunate influence on the Iraqi sense of time. Since America is so masterful, why can't it gin up the electrical grid, restore peace and tranquility, and provide jobs to everyone like, today? Here again, the U.S. is victim both of Iraqi projections and of its own high-tech wizardry. Try to explain to an Iraqi housewife the difficulties of repairing a decrepit electrical system beset by saboteurs, and she'll cock a skeptical eyebrow. This from a nation with weapons so smart they can look up a target's address in the Baghdad yellow pages? No, the only reason America is dropping the quality-of-life ball is because Bush wants to keep Iraqis downtrodden and dependent.
Not every Iraqi thinks this way, of course. Still, I've encountered these sentiments enough to believe they reflect something deeply ingrained in the Iraqi people. A case in point is a conversation I had with the piano player at my hotel. After a superb medley of Sinatra numbers, Ahmed (let's call him) decided to give me the low-down on the Iraq situation. "The only reason America invaded was to steal our national resources," he explained. Ahmed's proof? America didn't have to occupy Iraq in order to topple Saddam, he noted; all it really had to do was beam down special radiation from its super-secret satellites, which would scramble Baath-party communications and enable of course "the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam." As to why Iraqis hadn't overthrown Saddam before, that was simple, too: The dictator was supported by the Jews. The Jews not only established and maintained his regime, but also manipulated him into attacking Iran in order to "keep the Arabs down" and to but at this point I requested he play "Send in the Clowns" and escaped to my room.
I'd discount Ahmed's ramblings as the sort of garden-variety anti-Semitism one stumbles over with wearying regularity in Iraq, if they didn't encapsulate the sense of historical grievance, conspiratorial thinking, and thwarted superiority that lurks in the darker chambers of the Iraqi soul. How serious are these complexes? Very. As I've seen, they slip all too easily into an unspoken assumption among many people here that, since the Iraqis aren't at fault for Saddam's abuses, they share no responsibility in repairing the damage America caused in overthrowing him i.e., "you broke it, you fix it." Worse, some Iraqi leaders seem anxious to demonstrate to their followers that they have the moxie to throw out an oppressor in this case, the U.S. Tapping into Iraqi mortification and resentment is one motive, I'd say, behind the efforts of radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr to create a "shadow" government of Shia militia.
What can the United States do? Or, more to the point, how can it avoid further aggravating the humiliation felt by many, if not most, Iraqis? France had Charles de Gaulle to maintain the illusion of French puissance clearly that option is not available to us. The next best strategy, it seems, is to build up a functioning Iraqi army that can win some high-profile battles against terrorists and Baathist holdouts. I dream of hearing one day that a crack team of Iraqi special forces has captured Saddam Hussein. How Iraqis' chests would swell! How they would laugh at the failure of the much-vaunted U.S. military to do the job! Of course, knowing the Iraqis, they would also be quite capable of believing that we had Saddam on ice all along, and simply allowed their troops to bag him, just for the purpose of restoring national pride. After all, as we know, the Americans can do anything . . .
Steven Vincent is a freelance writer currently in Iraq.