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The Lose-Lose War
Posted on Jun 14, 2007
Harris: Excuse me for being perhaps myopic, but I have to ask, because I was taught to clean up a mess when I was a kid: You spill the milk, you clean it up.
Harris: Would you prefer that we clean up the mess, that the American government work with Iraqis, work with the people, as they are doing perhaps now, to clean up the mess, or would you just like them to just drop their hats and leave?
Wasfi: Well, there’s a concept of Americans working with people. The reality is: if we had the capacity to do so. But we have no credibility in the region. Iraqis are very well educated. They know we supplied both sides, both Iraq and Iran, during that eight-year war. They know that it was primarily the United States and Great Britain that perpetrated the Gulf War, which destroyed their infrastructure. They know that the sanctions imposed by the U.N. were driven by the United States and Great Britain. They know that the United States and Great Britain are responsible for the [inaudible] invasion, the subsequent occupation, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the destruction of their country. So we have no credibility there, any more than the Gestapo had a role in rebuilding Poland. The reality is, it’s not the you-broke-it-you-fix-it analogy, but it’s like a bull in the china shop. Is the bull going to stay until all the china is fixed? Or should we let the owners of the shop take it into their own hands? Iraq’s future is in the hands of the Iraqi people, and nobody else, and we have got to get out.
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Wasfi: Let me tell you how I really feel.
Harris: Which she’s going to do. But I don’t know that we can sell that one to the American public, that we just leave and let them sort it out. It’s either that we don’t believe in Iraqis enough that they can do this, or we believe, as you suggested, that there’s other goods to be gotten in Iraq.
Wasfi: There is an element of white man’s burden in that. “How will these people wander through the desert and survive without us?” The reality is that Iraq is the cradle of civilization. The ancestors of the people who live in modern-day Iraq developed the first system of writing, the basis of mathematics, law, science and medicine. This is 7,000 years of civilization accomplished without the help of Americans. This country [the United States] has less than 300 years of history. Iraq has over 7,000. Who needs whose help? The reality is that they are more than capable. Don’t forget that, like, five years ago, we were terrified of what they were capable of doing to us, and now they can’t move forward without our guidance. That’s a misconception. If you can tell me how American teenagers with M-16s and hand grenades can improve Iraqi society, I’m willing to listen. But they’ve had over four years now, and the death and destruction and chaos and misery is increasing every day. It’s enough. Seventy-two percent of the American troops serving in Iraq in 2006 said, “Bring us home by the end of the year.” Eighty-two percent of the Iraqi people want us out, and the majority of the American people are unhappy with how things are going. Bring the troops home.
Scheer: I think James brings us to, absolutely, the key problem. We start with Vietnam. After all, it took us a long time to get out of Vietnam. One could argue it took a decade to get out of Vietnam after everyone knew we should get out. And there is what Graham Greene, the great novelist, describes as the “quiet American problem,” the assumption that somehow we are always the good guys, we’re always part of the solution. So we make mistakes, we stumble, but they are mistakes, and our intentions are always good. And yet we see that occupation brings about a different personality. Occupation brings about brutality and terror. Torture. It pits you against the population. You aren’t any longer the good guys. And I wonder if you saw that happening in Basra, for instance, which, after all, was a place that was very anti-Saddam Hussein. What happened to our reconstruction efforts? This is really the model. You could say, “Well, we should stay.” But the fact is, we’ve been there for a long time. We’ve spent at least $400 billion. That’s a lot of money. What did you see in terms of rebuilding hospitals, getting the water going ... ? What will change in the next four months that didn’t change in the previous four years?
Wasfi: Exactly. Nothing has changed.
Scheer: But what did you see? Because you had a vantage point that most of us don’t have. You went to visit your relatives. You saw the country. You are a medically trained person who visited hospitals and so forth. Why don’t you take us there? The average person in this country, as well-intentioned as they may be, they have a hard time, even today, finding Iraq on the map. They don’t know anything about the history. They certainly don’t know anything about the language. You have some feeling for this country. Maybe you could tell us something about it.
Wasfi: In comparison, I had two visits. One for three weeks in 2004 and then one for three months in 2006. In 2004 I was able to visit Baghdad. By the time 2006 had come around—again, the April siege of Fallujah, killing 600 to 800 civilians, the Abu Ghraib scandal had come to light, the November siege of Fallujah that killed between 6,000 and 8,000 civilians. This was the anti-American sentiment skyrocketing, and it continues to be like that to this day. So I could not even get to that part of the country. It was too dangerous.
But in the south, again, the atmosphere. ... There’s a lack of order. And what you know is, you might leave the house in the morning and you might get killed during the day, but you don’t know who will be the shooter. Will it be a militia? Will it be a member of the “coalition of the willing”? Will it be a random criminal act? This is the status of Iraq today, which is why 92 percent—they just did a poll: 92 percent of Iraqis have the mentality that they will die in the violence.
I noticed when I was in Basra in 2004, we had electricity for almost all the day except for maybe one or two hours. I went back two years later, and we had maybe two to four hours of electricity, but the rest is a blackout. I went in the winter. It is now summer in Iraq. The temperature will get to be between 120 and 130 degrees. There are soldiers dying of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. And in Basra you have ... they are on the water, the Shatt al-Arab [river], so the humidity comes in off of there, and my family does not have the electricity to run a ceiling fan, let alone an air conditioner. These daily aspects of life in the middle of the desert are unbelievable in a [U.S.] society where I take 24 hours of electricity and potable water from the tap—I take that for granted. But daily life [in Iraq] is a struggle. It is unbearable. And when your focus is, “Can I get the water while the electricity is on? Can we go shower? Can I take care of the wash while the electricity is on?” this takes your attention away from more academic pursuits. We saw an intellectual embargo during the sanctions when we would not allow any journals into the country. We see this. The destruction of Iraqi society now. Eight hundred thousand children, it’s estimated, are not in school because of the violence or because of the poverty, that the kids are selling Kleenex or small items on the street to make money for the family. It is an unmitigated tragedy. And the real tragedy is that Iraq is sitting on the biggest, perhaps the biggest resources of black gold that there are in the world. That’s the cash cow right there.
Scheer: I want to ask you about stereotyping people. Because, in less flattering circumstances, the Iraqis are referred to by American troops and others—not all of them, but by some—as “sand niggers,” “towel heads,” what have you, the whole characterization.
Wasfi: I can get that in Colorado.
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