The liberators

Posted: May 09, 2003 12:00 AM

The Weekly Standard magazine (which, if you do not already subscribe is must reading) contains two articles in the latest issue that are critical to our understanding of what has happened in Iraq.

I was delighted in particular to see Jonathan Foreman's piece titled "Bad Reporting in Baghdad" because the narrative most American journalists have brought us in the month since Saddam's fall has been almost comically mournful, considering the circumstances.

Everyone, of course, reported the toppling of Saddam's statue in one of Baghdad's main squares. But those images were quickly supplanted by others.

First, there was the looting story. "Why hadn't the American forces anticipated the looting?" went the indictment of a thousand news stories. A few voices were raised to point out that the looting was actually quite localized to the property and residences of members of the regime. But by then the press had an even juicier story -- the national museum of Iraq, home to antiquities unrivaled in any other nation on earth -- was pillaged while American forces were busy guarding the Ministry of Oil and the oil fields. According to The New York Times, 170,000 artifacts were missing, and the networks ran moving footage of a female curator sobbing among the smashed display cases.

It turns out that the museum story was almost entirely fraudulent. Professionals, not the street rabble, took most of the stolen items. And in any case, the numbers were, ahem, exaggerated. The New York Times now reports that, in all, some 25 valuable antiquities are still missing. As Col. Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Marine reservist investigating the looting, dryly commented to Times, "Twenty-five pieces is not 170,000."

Foreman clarifies that the other half of the story -- that Marines guarded the Ministry of Oil on the day the museum was pillaged -- is a complete fabrication. U.S. forces did guard the oil fields, but not because Americans are so crass as to value oil more than art, but because Saddam had a history of setting oil fields on fire in Kuwait, creating an environmental disaster and a potential economic catastrophe. In point of fact, the regime did attempt to set some of Iraq's oil fields aflame, but the fires were quickly extinguished by the highly competent U.S. armed forces.

The other image that has dominated reporting from Iraq since the liberation is of demonstrations -- whether of Shiite zealots slashing themselves with swords as part of a religious rite, or doctors protesting the inclusion of a former regime official in the Department of Health, or "ordinary" Iraqis carrying signs reading, "America out."

What does not get reported, according to Foreman, is that American forces are being "love bombed" by Baghdadis on a daily basis. Women flirt with them, children flock to gawk and giggle, and old and young alike are amazed by the presence of black troops, apparently having been led to believe that blacks could not serve in the U.S. Army (or something). And everywhere they go, Americans are cheered and thanked profusely by Iraqis of every class and station, but particularly by the poor.

Just as they grew whiny and petulant when the United States had not completely dominated the country in 48 hours, the press now vastly underestimates the length of time it takes to return a liberated city to normal.

Well, not normal, really. Because if the U.S. liberation is to be successful in the largest sense, our work has really just begun. After getting water treatment plants running, electricity back on line, gasoline distributed, food supplies regulated, and schools and hospitals functioning, the United Staets must turn to the de-Baathification of the Iraqi people.

In the same issue of the Standard, Meyrav Wurmser details the indoctrination Iraqis have endured for 35 years. All personal goals were to be subordinated to the good of the state. Baathist doctrine exalted Arab unity above all other goals (though Saddam attacked an Arab neighbor and the Islamic Republic of Iran). Such unity, it was taught, would restore Arab civilization to its lost preeminence. Iraqi sixth grade textbooks quoted Saddam praising the Republican Guard for defending the nation from "Persian, American, NATO and Zionist aggression."

Moreover, decades of brutality and repression have left their mark. Iraqis will need to learn for the first time about democracy, pluralism and individual rights. But despite what you see and read in the press, we're off to a very promising start.