Why Baghdad is stripped bare

April 21st, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

In an earlier post about the looting of Iraqi museums and libraries, I asserted that the United States military could have stopped the looting. The writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden makes a different and more convincing claim:

We don’t have the manpower [to stop the looting]. Our guys couldn’t protect Baghdad’s hospitals, so 39 out of 40 of those are gone, stripped to the walls. The banks are gone too; and if you think that’s trivial, imagine you’re an elderly Iraqi whose savings were in a bank that’s not only been robbed, but stripped of its computers, filing cabinets, furniture, light fixtures, and plumbing. Mom-and-pop stores are being pillaged. The offices responsible for dull but essential social services are being plundered for their office equipment and furniture. It’s ugly.

And why are our troops stretched so thin? Because when the war was in its planning stages, Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly dismissed and overruled the experienced military planners who told him how much force would be needed to invade Iraq. We have the troops. We have the equipment. Our annual military budget could practically have bought the country. More conventionally, we could have gone in with massive force and done everything in an orderly fashion, the way all our military doctrine says we should do it. But Rumsfeld said no.

America started war with the goal of dismantling Saddam Hussein’s government. The people who planned the war—Rumsfeld and all the rest—ought to have known that once the government was gone, looting would become a problem. Either they did not realize this, which is unlikely, or they did not care, which is horrifying. It makes little difference now. There were not enough troops in Baghdad to maintain order after the government fell, and so the entire city has been plundered.

Farewell to history

April 15th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Of all the senseless and unnecessary consequences of the senseless and unnecessary war in Iraq, the most lasting will be the looting of Iraq’s National Museum and the burning of the National Library and Archives.

As the BBC explains, “The national museum was home to artefacts that dated back 10,000 years, from one of the world’s earliest civilisations. The development of writing, abstract counting, the wheel and agriculture were all charted in its exhibitions.” Up to 170,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum after American troops seized Iraq. The vast majority of those artifacts are gone forever. As for the library, a witness to the blaze found handwritten documents dating to the Ottoman Empire blowing through the streets.

Troops from the United States stood by as Iraqis looted the museum and burned the library, which is bad enough. Worse yet, scholars warned the Pentagon for months that historical sites—especially the museum—would be looted and urged the military to protect them. The military promised to do so. And yet U.S. soldiers did almost nothing.

Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld appeared on Meet the Press and made pathetic excuses. Looting, he said, “isn’t something that someone allows or doesn’t allow. It’s something that happens.” Bullshit. The United States has thousands of troops on the ground, armed with enough materiel to kill everyone in Baghdad. They can allow or not allow almost anything they want. The National Museum was looted because the United States military couldn’t be fucked to do anything about it.


March 28th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

I just finished reading a book called A New Theory of Urban Design, written by the architect Christopher Alexander and several of his students. After they describe their theory, Alexander and his co-authors document an experiment in which a group of students used the theory to redesign a small part of San Francisco. The students paid no attention to zoning laws or bank lending policies. They even ignored the issue of property ownership; they simply grabbed chunks of land as they needed to and proposed things to build on them. The authors acknowledge that existing laws and institutions would prevent anyone from replicating their experiment in real life. Their proposed solution is to develop new institutions, but they admit that they have no idea what sort of institutions might be needed.

I also read Jonathan Schell’s recent articles in Harper’s, in which he argues that many wars could be prevented, if the United States and other democratic countries were willing, by creating a new set of international institutions—not the United Nations, but other institutions with a different character. Again, though, he isn’t sure what sort of institutions are required.

Finally, while I was in Cambridge in October, I bought a book called The Ingenuity Gap, which argues that our ability to create social and environmental problems is outstripping our ability to find ways of solving them. The book touched briefly on the point that our existing institutions (regulatory bodies, resource management agencies, and so on) are inadequate to solve the problems we face. Once again, I don’t think the author said much about what sort of institutions we need, just that we need different ones.

So there are interesting questions underlying all of these problems. How are institutions created? How do novel types of institutions develop—do they tend to emerge fully formed, or do they evolve from existing institutions? Once an institution is created, how does it adapt to changing circumstances?

I’m sure there are raftloads of books and journals that attempt to answer these questions; do you have any recommendations?

Pox Americana

March 18th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

Empire, the embodiment of force, is the antithesis of democracy and self-determination. It violates equity on a global scale. No lover of freedom can give it support. It is especially contrary to the revolutionary tradition and founding principles of the United States. Can a nation that began in rebellion against the greatest empire of its time end by turning itself into a still greater empire? Perhaps it can, but not if it wishes to remain a republic.

From Jonathan Schell’s article “No More Unto the Breach, Part Two: The Unconquerable World,” in the April 2003 issue of Harper’s.


February 20th, 2003 § Four comments § permalink

Okay, that’s it: No posting about current events until March 31. I have a serious case of outrage overload, and if I keep writing about how awful the Bush administration is, I’m only going to make it worse.

If you enjoy reading about the sorry state of America’s leadership, I recommend Tom Tomorrow‘s weblog. It’s leftlicious.

Also, I reserve the right to rescind this ban if circumstances warrant it. Even if that happens, I’ll try to write something more thoughtful than a pithy comment followed by a link to a newspaper’s Web site.

More forgotten lessons

February 20th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

President John F. Kennedy, 1963: “What kind of peace do I mean? …I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. …I now declare that the United States does not propose to conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere so long as other states do not do so.”

New Scientist, 2003: “A leaked Pentagon document has confirmed that the US is considering the introduction of a new breed of smaller nuclear weapons designed for use in conventional warfare. Such a move would mean abandoning global arms treaties.”

No war

February 15th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

The weblogger Rebecca Blood has summarized my thoughts on the coming war more eloquently than I would have:

…Saddam is a monster. But the United States adopts a policy of preemptive attack against its real or perceived enemies at its peril.

Whatever moral authority we may have to allow or disallow other nations to possess weapons of mass destruction rests on our inviolate commitment to use our weapons only in self-defense. Whatever safety we have in this world derives not from our military might, but from whatever good will and trust we have earned from other nations and their people. If, by our actions, we sanction a policy of attacking whomever we deem to be dangerous, we open ourselves to the same. Our nation will be less safe if we attack any other sovereign nation, except in response to a direct attack.

Even the Bush Administration, in its unending attempts to link Saddam with al Qaeda, recognizes this most basic principle: that it is wrong to kill others, except in self-defense. The American government, the one I grew up believing in—the one I believe in still—does not attack other countries except in self-defense, or in the defense of its allies. I know it’s more complicated than that, but at the bottom, that’s the principle.

Compassionate conservatism at its finest

February 14th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

President Bush, October 2001: “Ultimately, one of the best weapons, one of the truest weapons that we have against terrorism is to show the world the true strength of character and kindness of the American people. Americans are…united in our concern for the innocent people of Afghanistan.”

BBC News, February 2003: “The United States Congress has stepped in to find nearly $300m in humanitarian and reconstruction funds for Afghanistan after the Bush administration failed to request any money in the latest budget.”

Iraq and Al Qaeda

February 12th, 2003 § Two comments § permalink

Before the bombs start falling on Iraq, let’s get one thing straight: Osama bin Laden’s latest message to his Iraqi supporters does not prove that Saddam Hussein is in league with Al Qaeda. If anything, the tape discredits that theory. Bin Laden refers to Iraq’s leaders as “infidels” and “hypocrites,” and he tells his supporters, “[F]ighting should be for the sake of the one God. It should not be for…championing the non-Islamic regimes in all Arab countries, including Iraq.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from claiming otherwise. Yesterday, Colin Powell cited the tape as evidence of a connection, saying it proved that bin Laden is “in partnership with Iraq.” Ari Fleischer, the President’s press secretary, told reporters today, “If that is not an unholy partnership, I have not heard of one. …This is the nightmare that people have warned about, the linking up of Iraq with Al Qaeda.”

I have no idea whether Iraq has official ties with Al Qaeda; surprisingly enough, the CIA hardly ever sends me its classified intelligence briefings. If there’s a case to be made, though, I wish the Bush administration would make it through means other than lying.

That takes the biscuit

February 8th, 2003 § Three comments § permalink

From the New York Times: Britain Admits That Much of Its Report on Iraq Came From Magazines.

The British government admitted today that large sections of its most recent report on Iraq, praised by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as “a fine paper” in his speech to the United Nations on Wednesday, had been lifted from magazines and academic journals.

But while acknowledging that the 19-page report was indeed a “pull-together of a variety of sources,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair defended it as “solid” and “accurate.” …

But critics of the government said that not only did the document appear to have been largely cut and pasted together, but also that the articles it relied on were based on information that is, by now, obsolete.

The report’s title, incidentally, is “Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation.” Replace “Iraq” with “Britain” and you’ve just about summed up the matter.

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