- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

UNDERSTANDING IRAQ

By William R. Polk

HarperCollins, $22.95, 214 pages

This book will be informative to two groups scarcely on speaking terms: the supporters of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq and those implacably opposed to it. A student of Iraq since the 1950s and professor of Middle Eastern history for many years at the University of Chicago, William Polk presents the reader with the full sweep of Iraq’s history, from the hunter-gatherers in the mountains of 12,000 years ago to his completion of this book late last summer.

In “Understanding Iraq,” he gives us a comprehensive tour of what he identifies as the five major periods of Iraq’s history. The first, “Ancient Iraq,” saw the beginning of farming in mountain valleys and foothills, then along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, some 6,000 years ago. Around 3,000 B.C. the Sumerians came to dominate the land. For them, the strongest warriors were known as “lugal” (“Big Man”). According to the author, “The cult of the ‘great man,’ once firmly fixed, has endured in the minds of Iraqis ever since.” In time, these “great men” promulgated codes of laws, Hammurabi’s being the most famous.

Mr. Polk then describes the influence of the Assyrians, Akkadians, Persians, Alexander the Great and the Parthians in just enough detail to keep the reader moving to the next period, “Islamic Iraq.” In his brief history of the life and times of Muhammad (570-632 A.D.) we learn that the year after Muhammad’s death, groups of Arab Muslim clans took Baghdad from the Persians. Subsequently, in 680, Husain, a grandson of Muhammad, was invited to Kufa to replace the then-caliph who had no relationship to Muhammad. He was killed there by the caliph’s forces. This date has been marked ever since as the most important on the Shi’a Muslim calendar.

A grandson of Genghis Khan captured and looted Baghdad in 1258, killing thousands of its citizens, but Islamic Iraq rose again despite deep divisions between Sunni and Shi’a. It lived under Ottoman rule until World War I, after which it came to be dominated by the British under a League of Nations mandate.

The author makes much of British errors in Iraq: high-handed administration; insensitivity to history and customs; imposition of laws; and a king virtually unknown to the Iraqis. (In his subsequent chapter, “American Iraq,” he tries doggedly to prove that mistakes made by U.S. administrators in 2003 and 2004 were replicas of British mistakes made decades earlier.)

In “Revolutionary Iraq,” the author traces the antecedents of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and the role he says the United States played in this by abetting the overthrow of Abdul Karim Qassim in 1963. Mr. Qassim had led the coup in 1958 that ended British hegemony. A driving spirit of that coup was pan-Arabism, whereas Nuri Said, who had led the government from 1941 until the 1958 coup, had espoused nationalism. Soon after Mr. Qassim took office, he pursued a nationalistic “Iraq First” policy, angering many supporters, including the Ba’athists. In 1968, when one of his successors was deposed, the Ba’athists maneuvered themselves into a position of control. Saddam was then a protege of the new leader, but gradually gathered enough power to ease him out. As the author puts it, for Saddam, “power — how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it. These were the driving forces of his life.”

In “American Iraq,” the author changes hats, from that of an informative historian, to a reciter of arguments against the war. He uses data from unidentified public opinion polls along with quoted asssertions of various writers to buttress his argument that there was no justification for the United States and its coalition allies to invade Iraq. His seems to think we have done nothing right there since. While the Coalition Provisional Authority made mistakes (one being to use Saddam’s Abu Ghuraib prison), Mr. Polk is skeptical that any good can come of the aftermath of our invasion.

It is perhaps inevitable that, as a historian, he sees current events through a rearview mirror. The possibility that the January elections could be the success they became eludes him. Thus he could not foresee their positive echo in Lebanon, Egypt, even Syria. He seems not to understand the power of satellite television to create instant impact.

Mr. Polk finished his book at a time when insurgent activities (which he saw as a national guerrilla war) were escalating. He assumed they would wind down only when we left. Yet, since the election they have contracted. While it may be too early to proclaim Iraqi democracy a full success, it seems very unlikely that the gloomy scenarios predicted by the “realist” school, of which the author seems to be a member, will come true.

Peter Hannaford is a senior counselor of the Committee on the Present Danger.

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