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How Mesopotamia Became Iraq (and Why It Matters)

September 02, 1990|JACK MILES

Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "On the Law of Nations," to be published on Sept. 12 by Harvard University Press, is the companion, if not quite the sequel, to his 1988 "Came the Revolution: Argument in the Reagan Era" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The two deal, respectively, with foreign and domestic affairs. Both claim that the conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years has been the wreckage, not the restoration, of American traditions. Moynihan argues, in effect, that as the trillion-dollar deficit is to genuine fiscal conservatism, so a new contempt for international law in, for example, the mining of Nicaragua's harbors is to genuine diplomatic conservatism.

Deference to international law being commonly located among the liberal fatuosities, Moynihan begins preemptively by locating it squarely in the founding generation of the American republic. The oldest commentary on the American legal system, James Kent's 1826 "Commentaries on American Law," begins, Moynihan points out, by declaring its allegiance to international law:

"When the United States ceased to be a part of the British Empire, and assumed the character of an independent nation, they became subject to that system of rules which reason, morality, and custom had established among the civilized nations of Europe, as their public law. . . . The faithful observance of this law is essential to national character and to the happiness of mankind."

International law changes as much as national law, however, and it is the sea change that occurred after World War I that most concerns Moynihan, for it was then that--no matter if prematurely and ineptly--Woodrow Wilson forced the principle of self-determination onto the international legal agenda. "No other man in the history of the world," Moynihan writes, "--and certainly none other in our century--so engaged the passions and hopes of mankind as Wilson did in those months of 1918 and 1919. The idea of a world ruled by law is as old, almost, as the idea of law itself. But it was only with the latter part of the 19th Century that it came to be seen as a practical vision and as a reasonable choice that governments might make in determining their own behavior."

Moynihan echoes John Maynard Keynes: "When President Wilson left Washington he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence through the world unequaled in history." But Keynes' line came in the great economist's 1920 account of how and why Wilson failed. Wilson suffered a disabling stroke while campaigning at home for his vision, but innumerable problems had doomed it long before then. David Lloyd George would later write: "The only faculty that remained unimpaired to the end . . . was his abnormal stubbornness."

Lloyd George, the canniest of political and diplomatic in-fighters, got nearly everything that he wanted for Britain after World War I; Wilson--repudiated at home and abroad--got almost nothing that he wanted. And yet if Lloyd George won on the ground, Wilson won in the air, or as we might better say, in the atmosphere. The notion of legitimacy--the legitimacy of a monarch, an empire, a regime, a military occupation--had already begun to change when Wilson set sail for Europe, the first sitting American President ever to do so, but that notion was to change more rapidly and drastically because of him.

"On the Law of Nations" is thoughtful and timely, even as Moynihan himself is the refutation of the claim that the United States produces no politicians capable of expressing original thought in their own, unghosted words. I mention the book, however, not for full review but because its very appearance is a small victory for Wilson at a moment when we are facing in Iraq one of the long-term consequences of the visionary President's great defeat. And that defeat, in turn, is splendidly chronicled in David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace: Creating a Modern Middle East 1914-1922" (Henry Holt), one of the finalists for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history (see Pages 8-9).

Times employees may not be book prize judges, but my admiration for Fromkin's book became a matter of record as early as last February when I borrowed from it to write on the disturbances in Azerbaijan. Fromkin has written--fascinatingly, I think--on the Ottoman Empire's 11th-hour attempt to take Turkic Central Asia from the newborn Soviet Union. He makes that part of the Soviet nationalities question seem in a new way both an international and an ideological/religious question.

Fromkin is equally illuminating in telling the story of the making of modern Iraq. Reading him, one begins to guess why, at a time when Saddam Hussein's great opponent is ostensibly the United States, the tyrant should have chosen to have the first of his notorious televised chats with British rather than American children. As subsequent news stories have made clear, that chat played rather differently in the Arab and the Western world. The history of Britain in Iraq may explain why.

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