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Not our problem?

Maybe the looting of Baghdad really was unpreventable. Never mind that we'll never know, since no one really tried. Never mind, either, the White House's claims before the war began that humanitarian aid, poised above Iraq's borders, would start flowing down and in and throughout Iraq just as soon as the detritus of Saddam's regime had been washed away — if they anticipated the chaos, then they knew there would be no aid. No, never mind the defensive little cover-your-ass-type misdirects — they, we all know too well, really are inevitable in times like these.

What, I want to know, about the Iraqi people? We are doing this for the people of Iraq, we're told again and again. But if you care about a thing, don't you at least try and protect it? Schoolyard fist fights are inevitable, you could say. Is that a reason not to break them up as best you can? Any large city is bound to foster a certain amount of crime. Should we just chalk it up to the natural human expression of unavoidable economic inequality and sadly shake our heads?

No. Obviously — you do whatever you can, with the resources you have. So if George, Rummie and Tommy all knew there would be looting, and if they actually do care about the Iraqi people and their homeland as they say they do, shouldn't they have provided some resources to at least temper the looting as best they could? (Are we, truly, only so mighty we can destroy, but not protect?) And if they really do care, wouldn't their failure to protect something they care about be something they might acknowledge, if not take responsibility for?

Rummie says "of course" there was a plan to deal with this "untidiness." He says such untidiness could be found "in any city in America." And he says our forces "are doing a terrific job" handling it.

But by what measure? The deputy director of Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities said five soldiers outside its doors could have saved its irreplaceable collection — and the Oriental Institute's McGuire Gibson told NPR this morning that the museum had been at the top of the list of historic treasures he sent to the White House and the Pentagon, with the understanding an effort would be made to protect them. [Update, 4/14: Gibson also spoke to the Washington Post.] Maybe — maybe — our forces in Iraq have done what they can; maybe they've even performed admirably with the resources they have. But they haven't done "a terrific job" by any standard that matters to the people whose future they're supposedly there to protect.

Rumsfeld, of course, is the very same secretary of Defense who wants control of the reconstruction of Iraq. What might his standard for that reconstruction be, if this is his standard for security? And the White House's position is hardly any more promising; Ari Fleischer put it this way: "Anything that involves looting is, of course, regrettable. But no one should miss the larger picture here, and that is a horrible regime has been lifted from the Iraqi people." It's too bad this is happening, but don't look at us, we got Saddam!

The question was never whether we would get rid of Saddam. The question was, what would we do with Iraq afterward. The looting itself may not be anything to draw many conclusions from, but the insistence by the White House and the Department of Defense that it isn't their problem isn't a promising indication of their level of concern for Iraq. President Bush has been going to lengths to say how he will do such great things for the Iraq — liberate its people, pump their gas for them, make them a democracy — but talk is cheap. We'll know his real priorities when Bush has to choose between what's good for the future of Iraq, and what he thinks is good for his own short-term interests.

One can only hope he cares more about Iraq than it looks so far.


Addendum (4/20): Slate reviews the looting and the damage done, and reaches much the same conclusions.

April 13, 2003 12:57 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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