HAW at the AHA
Reflections on Historians, the Middle East and the US war in Iraq
I take as my starting point that American historians have been complicit in obscuring the nature of U.S. policy in the Middle East. They are not alone in this, nor has their role been a determining one insofar as the US war and occupation of Iraq are concerned. However, historians play a singular role in shaping the nation’s collective memory and in training generations of students to question the relationship between past and present. It is in this context that I argue that by virtue of their long standing marginalization of the Middle East, historians have contributed to promoting a vision of the region as devoid of history, political struggles and social movements. Such lapses are not new. But they deserve critical reconsideration as the chronic marginalization and underexamination of US policy in the Middle East have contributed to numbing public opinion and, in so doing, rendering it all the more susceptible to the official ‘conditioning the public mind.’
(The phrase belongs to another era in US policy in the Middle East, 1946, when the then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, recommended the ‘conditioning of the public mind’ to assure an uncritical public support of US policy in Turkey.)
What of the present? And what of the role of historians? While exceptions certainly exist, we need to examine why- given ‘what we now know’ (to borrow the title by the same name of John Lewis Gaddis’ book that appeared in 1997)- both the study of the Middle East and US policy in the area have remained marginal and impoverished? Why has the Middle East remained taboo in the academic mainstream, including that inhabited by historians? Why has a region widely recognized as critical to US interests attracted so little systematic study among historians? The question applies to Middle East studies in general, and to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in particular. The question has special significance at present, given that US forces in Iraq have adopted Israeli tactics in dealing with Iraqi ‘insurgents,’ tactics that have been criticized by former high level Israeli intelligence officers, as well as dissidents in the Israeli army and opposition movements.
Should one conclude that the marginalization of the Middle East in the US academic world is a product of false disciplinary boundaries? Is it an unhealthy by-product of a partition of knowledge that goes by the name of specialization? And if so, what accounts for the perpetuation of such invisible walls?
In January 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville addressed his colleagues in the
French Parliament, warning them that they were sitting on a volcano. What
is the connection with the US and Iraq in
2004? Tocqueville did not visit
Tocqueville’s warning of the risks of deafness, just as the criticisms of a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, years later, are relevant to the apparent immunity of the present administration to outside criticism. But are Tocqueville’s criticisms- and those of an O’Neill – not applicable to those who remain silent in the face of the vast suffering that war entails. What of the response, or lack thereof, to the more than 11,000 US casualties in the US led invasion and occupation. (That figure includes “the total number of wounded soldiers and medical evacuations from the war in Iraq,” according to Pentagon sources, as reported by Mark Benjamin’s Dec. 19, 2003 UPI article cited in the website of Iraq Occupation Watch.) What of the apparent disengagement at work in the lack of response to the use of language to mask the suffering of Iraqis, as in the use of terms such as ‘collateral damage?’
As for the former US Secretary of State’s recommendation with respect to manipulating public opinion, the ‘conditioning of the public mind’ remains an active part of government operations. At the present time, moreover, systematic deception of the public is indissolubly linked, with the claimed right of preemption, or more accurately, the claimed right of preventive war embedded in the Bush Doctrine. In the absence of credible evidence of the existence of Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ which effectively nullifies claims of the imminent threat posed by such absent weapons, the administration’s justification for war collapses. In the eyes of legal scholars, moreover, the claimed right of preemption in the absence of accompanying conditions designated by international law, constitutes a violation of the same.
Why has there been so little interest in studying the critical analyses of US relations with Iraq produced by those engaged in examining past US policies with that country? I refer to U.S.Congressional Hearings that were held in the House and Senate through the 1990s, a body of evidence clearly relevant to current policies that is accessible to the public but underexamined.
Consider the following.
“Clearly, it is time for the administration to end its concerted attempt to withhold
information from the Congress and the American
people. This is a democracy. The people and their duly elected representatives
have a right to know what led up to our war with Saddam Hussein.” The speaker
was the Connecticut Congressman, Sam Gejdenson, who was Chair of the Subcommittee
on International Economic Policy and Trade, Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The date was
These hearings demonstrated the vast bureaucratic
network of support on which the first Bush administration relied to promote
its ‘tilt’ toward Iraq. And the same hearings confirmed that doing
business with Saddam Hussein was encouraged by National Security Directive
26, issued by the Bush administration on
The Senate Committee chaired by Donald Riegle,
“We now know that between January 1985 and August 1990, when the invasion of Kuwait took place, the executive branch of our Government sponsored 771 different export licenses for sale of dual-use sensitive equipment to Iraq....At least 17 licenses were issued for the export of bacteria or fungus cultures to either the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission or the University of Baghdad. Licenses to export computers to a missile activity, and computers and electronic instruments
to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, were issued to a known procurement agent for Iraqi missile programs. A license was issued to export equipment for
‘general military applications such as jet engine repair, rocket cases, et cetera.’
The records also indicate that the U.S. Government understood exports that it
was licensing could enhance Iraq’s conventional military capability.”
The Congressional hearings on Iraq are of particular significance today as the G.W. Bush administration pursues the second Gulf War with ever changing justifications, but with consistent indifference to the prehistory of US relations with Saddam Hussein.
Considered in historical perspective, current administration policies in Iraq represent the latest stage of the 25 year war that began in 1979, with the fall of the US backed Shah. Fears of the Iranian revolution in 1979 led to the so-called ‘tilt toward Iraq’ pursued by the first President Bush. But the underlying commitment to prevent the emergence of nationalist or reformist or revolutionary movements in the region in an effort to maintain unchallenged control and access to its resources- namely, oil- predated that development. Such a commitment was fundamental to the logic of US policy, as illustrated by the US and British response to Iran in 1953 and later. The long history of the 1950s, often cited but little known, is rich in examples that are relevant to the present predicament of US policy in Iraq. More can be learned by a rigorous consideration of the interaction of internal and international dynamics throughout succeeding years in the face of direct and indirect intervention, the promotion of compatible regional pacts and the provision of military assistance for local surrogates that undermined prospects of reform, let alone secular and democratic development.
And what of the present? Between talk of empire and the recommendations of so-called pragmatists eager to ‘get on with it,’ we risk overlooking the impact of the war and occupation in Iraq, as well as its regional implications.
As the Bush administration alters its public justifications for the invasion of Iraq, in response to the absence of evidence concerning Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, and in the presence of increasing evidence of its own deception, the question remains why the US occupation of Iraq? If one of the objectives of US policy was ‘regime change,’ ie. eliminating Saddam Hussein from power, what are the reasons for the extension of the US occupation?
Confronting such questions forces us to consider the span of policies being introduced by the US in Iraq, policies that range from the promotion of corporate raiding of the Iraqi economy, designs on Iraqi oil that are minimized for public consumption, attacks on Iraqi trade unions and the arrests of its leaders, and the indifference to increasing unemployment and the predictable immiseration and chaos to which this leads. Evidence of the deterioration of public security is rampant, as is the increase of sectarianism. While US officials claim that they are bringing democracy and constitutionalism to Iraq, the result of US occupation policies-including those pursued by US backed Iraqi exiles-has been to promote sectarian divisions that risk deepening civil strife. Claims to be bringing democracy to Iraq are scarcely compatible with demands to control the nature of the selection and election process.
If this is what democratization means in the Iraqi context, what does it mean for US policy in the region? If the US endorsement of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, and toward its own dissenters, is an example, then the course of the present administration’s Middle East policies represent a major risk to the peoples of the region who are committed to democracy and the ideals of social justice.
 The citations from Congressional Hearings of 1992 are taken from my article, On the Record: Congress, the U.S. and Iraq,” to be posted on ZNet)