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WAR IN IRAQ

History Spurned

The Middle East is tough to occupy, as Bush would know if he'd really studied the Crusades

September 07, 2003|James Reston Jr. | James Reston Jr. is the author of "Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade" and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

WASHINGTON — At a press conference in July, President Bush said that he was "confident history will prove the decision we made [in going to war with Iraq] to be the right decision." His remark echoed something British Prime Minister Tony Blair had said a couple of weeks earlier, when he announced that he was certain that, even if no weapons of mass destruction were ultimately found in Iraq, "history will forgive" the allies' actions in destroying "a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering."

I think it's time for historians to stand up in defense of their craft. Bush and Blair have no standing in our province. It will be at least 10 years before any respectable and authoritative history of the Iraq adventure can be written, and it certainly won't be up to the war's architects to decree whether it was a success or failure.

Historical judgments can be passed only after the last American, British and other soldiers have left the desert, after the last billions have been spent and after Iraq is again a self-governing nation -- whatever religious or secular form that may take. Even then there will be disagreement. Bush and Blair may infatuate a historian or two, who will praise their war plans and overlook their misrepresentations. But no self-respecting historian will be able to separate the war from the occupation. The judgment of history will take the two aspects together as a package.

History is not a monolith that speaks, basso profundo, with a single voice. It is more art than science, offering analysis rather than proof. It is not a church that confers blessings or forgiveness. If we look back at the histories of the Vietnam War, history did not forgive President Johnson for pressing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution based on, at best, a gross exaggeration of Viet Cong aggression. It did not praise the politicians who argued the abstractions of a domino theory as passionately as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz argues the abstractions of preemptive strikes and a new Americanized Middle East. Historians could not consider the full debacle of Vietnam until the long years of the war and occupation of South Vietnam were complete, with the last American jumping into a helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in old Saigon.

Thus, to invoke the judgments of history now, in the first few months of the American-led occupation of Iraq, is absurd, no matter how well it plays before a joint session of Congress, where applauding members love to see themselves as writing history.

In fact, Bush embraces history only when he's trying to avoid the scrutiny of today. He ignored it when it could have helped him the most: before he gave the order for a massive deployment of troops to the Middle East.

In January 2002, only a few months after Sept. 11 and many months before last fall's marching orders, the New York Times reported that Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, urged Bush to read several histories that would help him to better understand the American dilemma in the Middle East. One of those histories was my own about the Third Crusade of Richard the Lionheart and his encounters with Saladin.

The paramount lessons of that crusade were clear -- and might have helped the president understand what he was getting into. The sultan of the Arab peoples, Saladin, was (and still is) considered the greatest of Muslim heroes in the Middle East because he defeated a Western occupation of Arab lands and defended Islam with a broad-based jihad. He has remained a hero to Arabs because the sense that Arabs should control their own land is as strong today as it was then.

Another lesson he might have learned is that the Middle East is a tough place to occupy. During the Crusades, just as now, Western soldiers longed to go home right after the enemy army was defeated. In the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart avoided capturing Jerusalem because he knew that once that mission was accomplished, his troops would rush for home-bound ships. No Western army has had the stomach to remain indefinitely in a hostile Arab country -- thousands of miles from home in a vastly different culture. What U.S. soldier wants to commit to the decades that would be required to transform an Islamic civilization into a compliant Western client-state?

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