Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Hear About It

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

July 14, 2004

Review of Rashid Khalidi’s book, Resurrecting Empire.

Rashid Khalidi is an angry man. He is angry at the Bush administration for ignoring experts on the history and politics of the Middle East. He is angry at the neoconservatives who filled the gap with their ignorance and “blind zealotry.” He is angry at the decision to invade Iraq, and the grave consequences that resulted.

Iraq clearly didn’t turn out to be the cakewalk that some of the war’s most enthusiastic supporters were convinced it would be. While Saddam Hussein was ousted with relative ease, a new leadership did not immediately emerge to govern the country. Most Iraqis were happy to be rid of the tyrant who made their lives so miserable for so many years. But very few embraced an American occupation that failed to provide for even basic security, restore electrical power or see to many of their most basic needs. Little wonder then that more than 80 percent of Iraqis had lost confidence in the civilian and military occupation authorities by the time sovereignty was transferred last month.

The important question is why Iraq turned out this way. Was it because of the incompetence on the part of the administration: its failure to secure sufficient international support and legitimacy before going to war, to plan for the postwar reconstruction and nation-building effort, to deploy enough troops so security could be maintained? Or was the policy doomed from the start, the inevitable consequences of an ill-conceived endeavor?

Most of the Bush administration’s critics have resorted to the first set of explanations. Mr. Khalidi’s new book, “Resurrecting Empire,” is a forceful representation of the second set of arguments.

Mr. Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, argues that by ignoring experts who knew and understood the history of the Middle East, the United States was courting disaster. This is a region rich with a history of revolting against foreign occupation and full of resentment against those outside powers that would seek to determine its destiny. Yet none of the major players who made the decisions to go to war knew anything about this history.

Mr. Khalidi wrote this short book to fill the knowledge gap. He argues that it is important to understand what happened in this part of the world a century ago. Then, “pioneering early constitutional and democratic experiments” were snuffed out in no small part because of British and French intervention. The subsequent occupation and struggle for liberation still takes a prominent place in the region’s history. Even the youngest generation, Mr. Khalidi maintains, remains deeply conscious about what was lost to foreign occupation years ago.

As a result the population of the region was bound to see America’s intervention through the eyes of this prevailing perception. “The crucial question,” Mr. Khalidi says, “is whether by invading, occupying, and imposing a new regime on Iraq, the United States may be stepping, intentionally or not, into the boots of the old western colonial powers, and even worse, may be doing so in a region that within living memory concluded a lengthy struggle to expel those hated colonial occupations.”

Mr. Khalidi’s thesis is a strong one. One need only compare Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement about the certainty that American soldiers would be “greeted as liberators” with that made by the commander of British forces in Baghdad in 1917 — “Our armies do not come in to your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators” — to realize that a greater appreciation of history would have served the Bush administration well.

And Mr. Khalidi is also surely right that 60 years of Western coddling of Middle Eastern dictators (including, for many years, Saddam Hussein) justifies the doubts of many within the region about the sincerity of President Bush’s very recent rhetorical commitment to supporting democracy throughout the region.

Yet even Mr. Khalidi’s own history suggests that there are plenty of indigenous causes for the region’s problems, and that blame of Western intervention (be it British then or American now) often serves a convenient excuse for failing to meet the needs of the people. The “pioneering” democratic experiments, Mr. Khalidi notes, were themselves deeply flawed. Elites consistently manipulated power to their own ends.

Despite democratic experimentation, the most notable characteristic of Arab countries in the region is their commitment to a strong state. “The entire Arab world is blighted by a group of remarkably similar regimes that share several characteristics in common,” Mr. Khalidi writes, “notably their stagnant political systems and the ubiquitous, brutal efficiency of the means of repression that keep their respective oligarchies safely in power to siphon off and profit from their societies’ surplus.”

Change in this part of the world is therefore unlikely to come from within. It will need encouragement from without. Mr. Khalidi’s book will certainly be useful to all those outside the region who are engaged in the difficult yet crucial task of devising ways to help foster change in the Middle East.