Iraq: Let History Judge
It was a beautiful, sunny winter day in the Iraqi capital when dignitaries from the Iraqi government mingled with American officers and diplomats outside the embassy, a sprawling collection of boxy, coral-coloured buildings by the Tigris.
The flag-raising over the hyper-secure embassy, the largest in the world, was one of the last Iraq milestones the Bush administration, leaving office this month, presided over nearly six years after it led the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
As such, the question of Bush’s legacy loomed large.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is expected to resign himself after stepping down in Baghdad, chronicled the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations for the assembled crowd, starting with the arrival of the first U.S. consul — by caravan! — in 1889.
“We’ve had many important moments throughout that history, for better or for worse. No period has been more intense, more challenging and more promising than that since April 2003,” Crocker said.
Some of the highlights mentioned by Crocker and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, the first U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Iraq, were a 1938 treaty of commerce and navigation and the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in 1931.
They also paid tribute to the handover to Iraq just a week ago of control of the Green Zone, the fortified swathe of Baghdad that has been the seat of U.S. power here since 2003.
“We have a duty to honour this legacy,” Negroponte said.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the aging Kurdish leader who worked with Saddam against Kurdish rivals and came to lead Iraq after Saddam’s ouster, may have had his own legacy in mind as he sought to put a bright face on the U.S. project in Iraq.
“Allow me to express our firm belief that America’s history will have a most favourable view of the liberation of Iraq and the creation of a democratic, federal and independent Iraq, which will serve as a model for other peoples,” he said.
It is also election season in Iraq, which holds provincial polls on Jan. 31, to be followed by parliamentary elections in December.
Talabani praised the “courageous and historic” decision by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
After the ceremony, some guests forwent canapes and coffee and trickled into an exhibit showing copies of old photographs and documents from the two country’s history.
But many Iraqis will have a different take on history.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died — at least 90,000 by one conservative estimate — in the bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 invasion. Violence is far below what it was, but innocent people still die every day.
They might suggest a few additions to such an historical survey, like the handshake between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s former defence secretary, in 1983 when Washington supported Iraq in its war with arch-foe Iran.
Or the first Bush administration’s role in encouraging Iraqi Shi’ites to rise up after the Gulf War of 1991 — an episode which ended in Saddam’s mass slaughter of Iraqi civilians.
Or Washington’s economic support for Iraq in an era when Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurds in the late 1980s.
Even today, Iraq is an unstable place, where politics is a contact sport and the prospect of violence lurks below the surface.
If it is to the victors that falls the task of writing history, who will do so for Iraq?