Posted by: Lister | March 19, 2008

We do not learn from history

The new liberated Iraq is five years old. Robert Fisk paints a couple of scenes from history:

[…] the 1920 Iraqi insurgency against British occupation, […] Churchill’s brusque and brutal settlement of Iraq the following year.

On our historical radars, not even Crassus appeared, the wealthiest Roman general of all, who demanded an emperorship after conquering Macedonia – “Mission Accomplished” – and vengefully set forth to destroy Mesopotamia. At a spot in the desert near the Euphrates river, the Parthians – ancestors of present day Iraqi insurgents – annihilated the legions, chopped off Crassus’s head and sent it back to Rome filled with gold. Today, they would have videotaped his beheading.

Fisk refers to a paper by Pat Buchanan. Written before the war, it puts forward the idea that we never learn from history. America is simply repeating the pattern of Empire:

“Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.” So wrote British historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1961.

All the 20th century empires forgot the lesson and all perished of wounds suffered in Great Wars: the Ottoman, Russian Austro-Hungarian and German empires in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, the French and British the morning after.

Comes now the turn of the Americans. Guided through the Cold War by conservative statesmen like Eisenhower and Reagan, America rejected Churchillian romanticism and, even in the face of horrors like the butchery in Budapest in 1956, refused to risk the Great War. But now a triumphalist America has begun to behave like all the rest.

[…] Yet America will not be defeated by an Arab pariah state with an obsolete air force, a dozen 400-mile missiles, a population a tenth of ours, an economy 1% of ours, and neither satellites nor smart bombs.

[…] But what comes after the celebratory gunfire when wicked Saddam is dead? Initially, the President and War Party will be seen as vindicated by victory and exhilarated by their new opportunity. For Iraq is key to the Middle East. With Iraq occupied, Syria will be hemmed in by Israeli, American, and Turkish power. Assad will have to pull his army out of Lebanon, so Sharon can go back in and settle scores with Hezbollah. Iran will be surrounded by U.S. power in Turkey, Iraq, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Arabian Sea.

This is the vision that intoxicates the neoconservatives who pine for a “World War IV” – a cakewalk conquest of Iraq followed by short sharp wars on Syria and Iran. Already Israel is tugging at our sleeve, reminding us not to forget Libya.

What is wrong with this vision? Only this. Just as Israel’s invasion of Lebanon ignited a guerrilla war that drove her bloodied army out after 18 years, a U.S. army in Baghdad will ignite calls for jihad from Morocco to Malaysia.

Pro-American regimes will be seen as impotent to prevent U.S. hegemony over the Islamic world. And just as monarchs who collaborated with Europe’s colonial powers were dethroned by nationalists in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Teheran and Addis Ababa, pro-American autocrats will be targeted by assassins.

A burst of gunfire could convert Jordan, Afghanistan or nuclear-armed Pakistan into an enemy overnight.

[…] To destroy Saddam’s weapons, to democratize, defend and hold Iraq together, U.S. troops will be tied down for decades. Yet, terrorist attacks in liberated Iraq seem as certain as in liberated Afghanistan. For a militant Islam that holds in thrall scores of millions of true believers will never accept George Bush dictating the destiny of the Islamic world.

With our MacArthur Regency in Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavor at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war. They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon.

[…] We have started up the road to empire and over the next hill we will meet those who went before. The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.


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