Searching for the lead lining

Posted: Apr 22, 2003 12:00 AM

"Bush Panel Members Quit Over Looting: Cultural Advisers Say U.S. Military Could Have Prevented Museum Losses" -- The Washington Post, April 17, 2003

You just knew that they'd find some reason to bewail U.S. conduct. The United States has just achieved one of the cleanest and most humane military triumphs in the history of warfare -- toppling a vicious dictator while simultaneously tending to the needs of the civilian population. U.S. forces have behaved with chivalry toward enemy forces (showering them with opportunities for surrender), as well as respect for the religious symbols of the Iraqi people and rapid attention to the humanitarian needs of the population.

The parade of horribles widely predicted before the war: the rise of the Arab street, terror strikes in the United States, oil well fires, use of chemical weapons, the entry of Israel into the conflict followed by a wider Middle East war -- evaporated like the Republican Guard.

This left some liberals hard up for gripes.

So the looting would have to do. Eleanor Clift wondered whether the United States might face war crimes accusations over its failure adequately to protect the antiquities in the National Museum of Iraq. NPR commentator Daniel Schorr quoted critics of the White House with approval and added: "The administration doesn't like the word ‘occupation,' preferring to speak of liberation. Call it what you will; when you take over a country, you have a certain responsibility for protecting its heritage." The Boston Globe editorialized, "The awful truth is that the U.S. government bears a shameful responsibility for not preventing this crime against history." And The Washington Post gave prominent attention to two resignations from a body it was pleased to call "Bush's panel."

In a letter to President Bush, Martin E. Sullivan, chairman of something called the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property, chided the administration, saying, "While our military forces have displayed extraordinary precision and restraint in deploying arms -- and apparently in securing Oil Ministry and oil fields -- they have been nothing short of impotent in failing to attend to the protection of (Iraq's) cultural heritage."

What the Post neglected to point out (though the Weekly Standard noticed) is that Sullivan and the other flamboyant resignation-waver were Clinton appointees, and Sullivan at least was about to replaced anyway, a fact he acknowledged saying, "From a practical perspective, my resignation is simply symbolic."

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq was without doubt awful. But was it foreseeable, as the critics claim? The U.S. military certainly was careful in its targeting and war-fighting plans to avoid places of historical, religious or cultural importance. The Bush critics say the military showed more care for safeguarding oil than for ancient treasures. Sounds just like a Republican doesn't it? But in fact, if the looting was so foreseeable, did the members of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property foresee it? If so, where are the memos showing that they warned the U.S. military of the likelihood?

Besides, we really don't know when the looting of the museum took place, before or after the arrival of American troops. A UNESCO team and other observers familiar with the museum's holdings have suggested that the theft bore all the marks of an inside job. The thieves had keys to certain vaults, glasscutters and other tools for opening cases, and apparently they bypassed copies and went straight for the real stuff.

Perhaps we ought to have thought of posting guards around the museum -- I'm sure everyone now wishes we had. The world has lost, perhaps forever, a 5,000 year old Sumerian vase, cuneiform tablets dating to the Babylonian Empire and a stone carving of a bird said to date back 10,000 years, among thousands of other items.

The Bush administration has dispatched the FBI to do what it can to retrieve some of these objects, and it's certainly possible that some will surface on legitimate or black markets and be rescued for posterity.

It's a terrible shame that these connections with humanity's early civilizations have been lost. But unfortunate things happen in war -- and those things are usually a lot more ghastly than the looting of a museum. We should be celebrating all of the tragedies coalition forces avoided. But those disinclined to rejoice in American success will always find something to occupy them.