Four years

Inspired by Russel Arben Fox, I thought I’d repost something I originally wrote on the eve of the Iraq War. It was not a policy critique, but an attempt to position current events into the continuum of history:


Babylon 3/20/2003

Mene. Mene. Tekil. Parsin.

Words with the cadence of cruise missiles. So went the writing on the wall for Belshazzar, king of Babylon, two and a half millennia ago. The message was received in the king’s palace during a great banquet, as revellers drank from the stolen vessels of Jerusalem’s temple. Belshazzar didn’t understand the message and so called in the Jewish prophet, Daniel. It was a sign from on high — “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it; thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.” This was not good news for Belshazzar. The Bible records that his “limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” The prophecy was soon to come true. In 539 BC Babylon fell, and for centuries thereafter remained under foreign control — Persian, Greek, Mongol, Turkish, and British.

A strikingly similar scene has just been played out. In one of his own palaces in or near Baghdad, not far north of the ruins of ancient Babylon, Saddam Hussein also received an ultimatum written not by the finger of God, but by an American president who clearly considers God to be on his side: “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.” This was Saddam’s Writing on the Wall, a phrase even used by Ari Fleischer last week.

The parallel between the two eras is not as strange as it sounds, for Saddam has clearly attempted to identify himself with Iraq’s ancient past. Saddam’s recent interview with Dan Rather demonstrated this interesting quirk of Ba’athist propaganda. Commenting on the fact that the United States had once threatened to “push Iraq back into the pre-industrial age,” Hussein suggested to Rather that Iraq had no intention of allowing what is the “Cradle of Civilization” to find itself in such a situation:

We hope that war will not take place, but if war is forced upon us, then Iraq will continue to be here. This country, with a history of over [6000] years, this country, the cradle of the first civilizations for humanity, will not finish just like that, even though a huge power may want it to.

The civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria all flourished in Mesopotamia, Iraq’s “Land between the Rivers.” From pictures showing himself dressed like an Assyrian king, to lengthy reminders that it was Babylon that had succeeded in taking the Jews captive, Saddam has molded himself into the successor of the ancient Mesopotamian rulers. It is not a frivolous exercise, for ancient Mesopotamia offers modern Iraq two important identities. First, it provides the illusion of a once unified Iraq in a country which is really a 20th century invention. Second, Iraq can be shown to have been a civilized and important place long before the coming of Islam, which helps support the Ba’athist secular identity.

All of this is not to say that what comes from the use of real history is not also supremely kitsch. In reconstructing the ruins of Babylon, Saddam followed the instructions of Nebuchadnezzar who urged his successors to repair his royal edifices. The ancient bricks of Babylon included an inscription announcing that they were the works of “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from far sea to far sea.” The new bricks were stamped with the following: “Rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” To guard New Babylon, guards, dressed in Babylonian costume, were posted outside the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.

But Saddam the historian would do well to remember that many of the kings of Iraq’s glorious past met ignominious ends. There was Belzhazzar who could do nothing to stop the Persian conquest, and there was Sennacherib the Assyrian king who was murdered by his sons. But perhaps Saddam is aiming to be like Ibbi-Suen, the king of Ur who refused to flee even as his kingdom was torn down around him. A Sumerian lament over the destruction of Ur paints this mournful and strangely contemporary picture:

The king sat immobilised in the palace, all alone. Ibbi-Suen was sitting in anguish in the palace, all alone. In his place of delight, he wept bitterly. The devastating flood was levelling everything. To destroy the city, to destroy the house, like a great storm it roared over the earth. Traitors lay on top of loyal men and the blood of traitors flowed upon loyal men. Who could escape it?

Surely, not even King Saddam this time.


  1. A sad coda to the historical perspective above: Iraq’s heritage is in serious danger.

  2. Such a waste of life.

  3. I checked in at Iraq the Model yesterday. Maybe it’s me, but there is a sadder tone, maybe they are starting to despair. I didn’t read closely, though.

    Truly, however, responsibility for peace rests with the people of Iraq, who seem determined to exterminate one another. We didn’t make them do that, Dan, they are choosing murder.

  4. Truly, however, responsibility for peace rests with the people of Iraq, who seem determined to exterminate one another. We didn’t make them do that, Dan, they are choosing murder.

    If the reponsibility for peace rests with the people of Iraq, what are we doing there then?

  5. Dang, Mark, good point. I think we’re stopping them from mass murdering one another. For the record, I was opposed to the war in Iraq. I thought it was a mistake at the time and I still do.

    But while I care more for our soldiers than I do Iraqis, I do care about those people and I’m afraid of what will happen if we leave now. They are already killing each other off, if we leave, I see genocide.

  6. If I saw two guys on the street fighting, I might be tempted to step in the middle and break it up.

    Should the two guys suddenly change their focus from each other to me being the object of the combat, I’d have to figure that these guys really do want to settle this on their own, and want me not to stick my nose where it apparently doesn’t belong.

    If the situation in Iraq worsens as a result of the withdrawal of American troops, doesn’t it become the responsibility of the UN to come up with a political solution?

    As I recall, Bush sent us into Iraq and tried to make it look like we were following UN instructions when, in fact, we were actually acting contrary to UN wishes.

  7. Can we agree that it was a mistake to go in the first place and put that argument aside?

    Your question “doesn’t it become the responsibilty of the UN?”–well, yeah, I guess, but their track record sucks.

    What do we do now? I guess it’s a quagmire.

  8. Truly, however, responsibility for peace rests with the people of Iraq, who seem determined to exterminate one another. We didn’t make them do that, Dan, they are choosing murder.

    Actually, we did. We created a situation that threatened Sunnis existentially. Unless Sunnis can be safe, surrender is not an option. Without Sunni acquiesence, there can be no peace.

    Phoebe Marr, the premier American historian of Iraq, identified that problem in 1999. We had relationships with Shia and Kurdish groups but until we could form a coalition with Sunnis, Marr argued, we would fail to bring about regime change.

    Truer words were never spoken. We killed Saddam but Iraq still does not have a government that would deserve that name.

    Having said that, the Shia government has refused to satisfy Sunni security needs. May be, there will be a change of heart once people realize that everyone can loose. That’s why the United States has to redeploy.

    The best plan is probably by Edward Luttwak.

    If the situation in Iraq worsens as a result of the withdrawal of American troops, doesn’t it become the responsibility of the UN to come up with a political solution?

    In international politics, responsibilities are not a matter of ideals or morality but of interests. A political solution is the responsibility of the interested parties. Even after we have withdrawn troops, Iraq will remain our responsibility because we have interests in Iraq and the region.

    As for the United Nations, they are as effective as the member states allow them to be. The UN bureaucracy’s autonomy is narrowly limited. Primarily, the power of the UN is a function of the member states’ support. The United States is the most important member state and therefore bears the greatest responsibility for UN failures.

    The United Nations has become a convenient scapegoat for American politicians, especially since Clinton needed to explain Black Hawk Down. That’s in the interest of elected officials. It is not in the interest of citizens to buy into that kind of propaganda.

    We are better off holding our national policy makers accountable instead of letting them off the hook every time they blame the United Nations. Missattributing blame might satisfy our nationalist commitments but it does not improve the American position in the world.

  9. Don’t miss Blogger Guy Murray on the Iraq war in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.


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