History holds the real answers to the Iraq conflict

The Iraq war fumbles on. If you want to get a clear picture about what's happening, go to the PBS Lehrer News Hour at 6:30 p.m. on a night when they do the honor roll of those American military people killed in Iraq. It's a brutal few minutes as the faces and the names roll by. Most are in their early 20s, a few in their 30s, and one on a Monday night just 19. This is sadly what our side of the war is all about.

The Iraq Study Group has spoken, and it's not clear if anyone is listening. But whoever expected a committee to come up with a brilliant answer? President Bush may come up with something, but it probably will offer the same lack of intelligence and insight that was offered when we went to war.

History is a cruel teacher. It tells us what happened so that we can avoid making the same mistakes again. Then history grades us on how well we learned our lessons in a new history.

The unavoidable truth is that we are not going to realize that our goals in Iraq - securing the oil there and establishing a democracy - are beyond our grasp. History tells us so.

Iraq as Mesopotamia has a long history, dating from 3100 BCE when the Sumer kingdom was formed. Babalonia flared and in 331 BCE Cyrus the Great of Persia invaded and conquered. He was followed by the Greeks and the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, and in 637 CE by the Muslims. A caliphate was established to rule the Islam world. In 762 CE Baghdad arose from the desert. The Mongols then invaded and destroyed all. They were followed by the Turks and in 1914 by the British during World War I. The Brits stayed until they realized they could never stabilize Iraq and pulled out shortly after creating Iraq out of tribes and political parties. Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979 and executed 400 members of his own Ba'th party. He fought a war with Iran and murdered thousands of Kurdish Iraqis.

Got all that?

It does suggest that perhaps Iraq has been a battlefield for centuries, and that the only time there was stability of any sort was when a strongman simply took over things and squashed by force any opposition. It does not touch on how the Kurds have fought Baghdad for decades, or the long-standing Shi'a-Sunni division in the Islamic world.

Hold it. History tells us that during the later stages of World War II a Yugoslav partisan named Marshal Tito started taking over Yugoslavia. He ruled there as a strongman and formed the country from six nation states. He died in 1980 and within 10 years Yugoslavia fell apart.

I skied in Yugoslavia during the period after Tito's death, and boy, did they hate each other. Without a strongman in control, Yugoslavia ceased to exist. And just like the Slavs, Iraq is not going to calm down until some strongman (al-Sadr is the likely bet) comes along and says enough is enough.

Our goal of establishing a democracy in Iraq was obviously foolish, according to history. Democracy is not a concept in Islamic thinking; Islam is theocracy in place. And only a very strong strongman can live with that.

The idea of exporting democracy to the Mideast flies in the face of reality. Kings and strongmen rule there, along with the Imams. Nobody in power wants democracy except under their terms. There isn't even a good understanding of democracy, despite the voter turnout in Iraq in which voting was chiefly along religious and tribal lines.

And besides, who are we to preach democracy? We're a republic with all the limits that such an institution imposes on democracy.

So what the Baker group didn't say was, "Let's get out and let a strongman rescue us. Let's forget about democracy for Iraq. And as in Vietnam, things will settle down with just a few religious nuts tossing bombs still."

Of course, had our political leaders had the wit of a computer geek, they would have read up on Iraq's history before invading on false pretenses. After all, Saddam was no worse than a dozen despots around the world. Besides, rather than seeking a nuke bomb, Saddam was busy writing romance novels from his palaces. How dangerous could that be?

What's the point of this broadside? To say let's learn from history (poorly taught as it is in our schools). Let's let the Iraqis be Iraqis, bloody as they are. Let them divvy things up among the Kurds, the Shi'a and the Sunni. Help them rebuild what we have destroyed, and hope that they will sell us oil for a few more years before they run out. Bring our men (not "boys," thank you) home with honor, sadly after thousands have died.

And let us give up on the neocons' fantasy of an American superpower forever. Last guy that said something about a "1,000 year Reich" died in a ruined Berlin bunker.

• Sam Bauman has worked as a journalist in Asia, Europe and Africa, heading news bureaus in Italy and Germany. He traveled countries around the Mediterranean writing news stories for the Associated Press and both Asian and European Stars and Stripes newspapers. He is currently a resident of Carson City and on the staff of the Nevada Appeal.


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