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History Lesson

Wait a Minute, Crocker: Iraq Today is America from 1776-1965?

George Bush's acolytes have never been particular sticklers for accuracy when it comes to their analogies. Supporters have variously compared the president to such different personages as Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. They've been just as varied in evoking bygone parallels for Bush's mission in Iraq. The situation there has over the past four years been likened to post-surrender Germany, post-armistice Korea, and post-Tet Vietnam. But perhaps the most troubling metaphor was the one rolled out on Capitol Hill last week by Ambassador Ryan Crocker: Iraq, he explained, is just like ... the United States of America.

Have too many years abroad dislodged the veteran diplomat's memories of eleventh grade American history? Not quite. "Our efforts to build the institutions of government were not always successful in the first instance. And tough issues--such as slavery, universal suffrage, civil rights and state rights--were resolved only after acrimonious debate and sometimes violence," he said in his prepared remarks before Congress. Hard to argue with that, although Crocker pushed it a bit in asserting that "the debates currently occurring in Iraq on de-Baathification reform and provincial powers are akin to those surrounding our civil rights movement or struggle over states' rights." (As I recall, states-rights rebel Jefferson Davis allowed a rather higher level of democratic discourse than militia supremo Moqtada al-Sadr, and the city of Montgomery at the very least had a functioning municipal bus system on which it could discriminate against Rosa Parks.)

Tamp down the hyperbole, though, and it's easy to agree with Crocker that our own historical troubles mean we shouldn't think we're better than the Iraqis. Fair enough. Unfortunately, his remarks weren't part of some touchy-feely school exercise designed to make kids in Washington and kids in Baghdad realize they're all part of the same human family. Rather, they came during a week when Crocker and his fellow administration insiders were busily selling a policy of indefinite involvement in Iraq. As such, it's worth unpacking the metaphor a bit, if only to show the absurd contortions required of even the smartest, least political members of the Bush gang in the name of selling its war without end.

The essence of Crocker's reasoning declares that the situation in Iraq between 2003 and the present is roughly akin to the situation back home between, oh, 1776 and 1965. In the United States, dealing with the fallout from George III's overthrow required a failed first government, a complex Constitutional convention, several grand compromises over the expansion of slavery, a devastating civil war, a constitutional amendment over suffrage, and blood on the bridge at Selma before we got the open democracy we now have. In Iraq, he suggests, the fallout from Saddam Hussein's overthrow will take similar amounts of heavy lifting. They'll have to accomplish all those same tricky acts of statesmanship that faced us--splitting up revenues, agreeing on national economic policies, juggling individual rights against state needs, and, you know, learning not to slaughter one another in large numbers.

So if it's all a nice neat parallel, it must also hold that the strife of those painful nineteen early decades would have been eased by the presence of 160,000 heavily armed foreign troops. After all, the Iraqis aren't so different from the Americans--and the administration insists our presence is a boon to them, right? Just cast eyes back on this alternative American history: an army of selfless Mesopotamians helping us through the awkward years of states' rights conflicts and civil-rights traumas. While our independence-era leaders were rattled by uprisings such as Shays' rebellion, a surge of Middle-Eastern troops might have made the republic's birth more peaceful. Later on, when the Dred Scott decision or the election of Abraham Lincoln brought our rickety young republic to the brink of collapse, a video conference with the determined leadership back in Baghdad might well have soothed tensions among the hot-headed American leaders. If only we'd been so lucky!

Surely, these foreign allies would have taken the right side in every conflict. During the battles over slavery, they'd never have let themselves be swayed from doing what's right by self-interested concerns over things like the cheap supply of slave-cultivated cotton. And when it came to the identity battles of the twentieth century, rest assured that our pals on the Tigris would have displayed the deep knowledge of our cultural nuances than we in turn display in contemporary Iraq. Just imagine how some well-read Mesopotamian military man of this fantasy version of the past--let's call him General al-Petraeus--would have dealt with the provocations of the civil rights era. Not for a minute would he have been swayed by all that segregationist rhetoric about stability and outside agitators: I'll bet a surge of coalition forces into metropolitan Birmingham would have shut up Bull Connor once and for all. It's hard to imagine how such noble goals might have had any unintended consequences, like empowering demagogues or encouraging meddling from the dastardly folks across the border in Mexico.

In such an alternative scenario, the Mesopotamian role in America might have caused some tension back in Baghdad, as some Iraqis wonder what all this spilled blood and treasure was buying them. And when they did, the leadership would have had to argue that to pull out--say, in 1963, as the murder of Medgar Evars hinted at a fresh round of civil rights violence--would be an act of irresponsibility. Why, those Americans will slaughter one another, the administration would have reasoned. And so they'd have vacillated, unsure of which way to go, unclear about what aspects of the American scene were an accidental by product of the foreign presence and what parts of it were just endemic to the national culture of that troubled faraway land. At a hearing, perhaps some respected diplomat could have pointed to a successful new strategy in a once-restive state (Arkansas after Orval Faubus?) proved that success was possible after all. I suspect the folks back home would have bought it, too, because the political consequences of acknowledging their own futility would have been just too big.

So, Crocker's right: Iraq, in the end, really might be a lot like the U.S.

By Michael Currie Schaffer