Iraq Reprise: The 2003 Invasion and the Historian’s Work

I decided to spend my last substantive lecture of the semester addressing that student’s question directly: How do I deal with the importance of narratives in my lectures?  Although I had planned to welcome them with part of the film Control Room, technical issues made that impossible.

I began by reiterating Tuesday’s problem: Why was there an uprising among Palestinians in 2000? I reviewed my arguments: The uprisings resulted from the same kinds of issues being faced by people throughout the region: economic hardships, oppressive governments, and, in this case, also occupation.  And I had really emphasized my other argument: Historical interpretations have consequences.  I wanted to take the historiographical issues I had discussed about the origins of the 2000 Intifada and ask the students to think about how to apply them to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The lecture would focus on the ways historians think, with a silly slide providing the outline:  I began at the beginning.  Different questions would require different kinds of sources, I explained.  So “Why did the US lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003?” would require different sources than the question “How were Iraqis’ lives changed by the 2003 invasion?”  And both would require different sources than the question, “What were the international consequences of the 2003 war in Iraq?”  I shared with them my sources for Tuesday’s lecture and discussed the importance of primary sources.  Then I asked them to think about their assigned readings on the 2003 Iraq war.  What questions would they want to ask?  We collected their questions, the TA writing them on the PowerPoint Slide.  After they had articulated their research questions, she typed in red their brainstorming about where they would look for primary sources.

Often the sources lead to changed questions, which I illustrated using my own experiences beginning research only to find that the information I had was inaccurate or the documents I sought were unavailable.

The next problem was analyzing the evidence.  How do you know that what you read or see or hear is accurate?  I provided two examples.  First, the pulling-down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.  First they saw the Fox News version of the events.  Then they saw the MSNBC critique.

   How is one to decide which version to accept?  I also offered them Jessica Lynch’s disagreement with the narrative that had been provided about her heroism, but did not have time to play the link with her testimony to Congress.  (I do post my PowerPoint slides on the Blackboard site, so they can view it if they choose.)

The question of sources is quite tangled, I argued.  I showed them the New York Times investigation about the “Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” in television analysis, and juxtaposed that with an analysis from National Defense University of the issues raised by US military interventions. 

But even with presumably reliable evidence, the question remains, which issues and events matter?  I talked about fishing in the sea of history, deciding which things of the millions and millions of events taking place each day should be included in our considerations.  I reminded them of the first week of class, when I had explained that some analysts sought answers to the current uprisings in economy, others in demography, and still others seeking to understand the Arab uprisings by looking to religion.

Whichever events and issues seem most important to the analyst, though, it would still be necessary to put them into a larger context.  Here I went back to the British mandate.  Was the mandate important in some way for understanding the 2003 invasion or today’s Iraq?  If it was, how did it matter?  What kind of context did it provide?  Did the distinction between two different Muslim groups matter in the war or its outcome?  I pointed out that, although many people have emphasized the centrality of a Sunni-Shi’I divide, Iraqis themselves seem not to have paid much attention to it until 2006.  Bagdad’s neighborhoods were remarkably integrated until after the bombing of the al-Askeri mosque.

In the end, historians have to construct narratives.  But which of the images do we focus on?And what about the consequences?

For historians, how important is “balance”?  Although journalists find it crucial in their work, at which stage of our work are historians supposed to seek “balance”: Question-asking? Source-locating? Evidence-analyzing? Narrating hardly seems to be a place to begin trying to find countervailing patterns and forces just for the sake of “balance” when evidence shows a clear way to an argument.  And the point of historians’ work is, after all, to interpret the past, not to present a variety of incidents and issues and let the reader decide.

I wanted to make sure that they know that this freedom to pursue information about the past, and to narrate it consistent with our research, is crucial to society in general.  That is why US universities provide academic freedom; this is what the tenure system is about.  I offered examples of places where historians and journalists are not free to write the information they found, not free to offer their best and most accurate analyses of the past.  I really wanted this next generation to understand the point of tenure: the fact that I have tenure allows me to write and teach history as I and historians around the world have understood it, without fear of losing my job–or my life–even  if my analysis disagrees with the most powerful members of my society.  Having dissenting views is not only important for some abstract liberal reasons.  Having people able to tell the powerful that their ideas are likely to evoke dreadful consequences is important for the whole society (even, sometimes, for the powerful themselves).

I did not, in the end, provide my own narrative about the Iraq invasion of 2003, which the TA’s told me would likely frustrate the students.  The students can easily find a timeline online, and their journal for the week asked them to write a textbook entry for the Iraq war.  I knew they already had the basic elements, and I wanted to interrogate how they had come up with their own narrative.

As the semester draws to a close, I had consciously decided to focus on making the historian’s process transparent instead of presenting my own narrative, and I’m not sure that was generally appreciated.  Next week, we turn again to the current uprisings in the Middle East, something we haven’t discussed in the big lecture since January (though the students had been talking about their weekly news postings in discussion sections).  But the person at the front of the room won’t be me as the course considers the ways that people are living the current Middle East.

Islamic Political Movements

Having begun on Tuesday with a video from DAM, today I showed them one of Subliminal’s videos.

Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements.  One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.

I began in a different place, though.  What causes human rights violations in the Middle East?  I showed them Wikipedia’s answer (the Douglas Adams fans chortled):

I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East.  Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.

I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International.  Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being.  The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:

I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.

I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems.  They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way.  Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented.  Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.

I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East).  And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.

Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.

I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments.  The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy.  When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?”  Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

The Gulf War and the Arabian Peninsula

I introduced the students to DAM, the Palestinian hip-hop group, as they entered today.

I began where we had ended on Thursday: the consequences of Operation Desert Storm on Iraqis.  This, too, ended up being a fairly traditional lecture.

First up, the debate over the sanctions that devastated Iraq, the twelve years that resulted in fatally degraded infrastructure that the (apparently uninformed) media referred to it in 2003 as “neglect.”   The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure that made uncontaminated water difficult to come by, combined with the sanctions that prohibited the importation of spare parts and medications, had both immediate and long-term consequences, resulting in an estimated half million children dying from easily preventable diseases.  The Clinton administration decided that, somehow, the weekly US-UK bombings and the public health nightmare were “worth it.”

The students had seen the graph showing declining child mortality under the Ba’ath government.  Now I showed them a graph on the nutritional results of sanctions.

I emphasized two regional consequences of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and the sanctions.  One, of course, was Osama bin Laden’s offer to protect the Saudi state and his fury at the King’s request for US protection instead.  The resulting US bases in the kingdom remained a mobilizing point for Islamist groups.

Second, partly as a result of a promise made to coalition allies, the US initiated negotiations over the territories Israel had been occupying since 1967.  Although the resulting Madrid Conference did not produce an agreement, back-channel talks continued in Oslo.  The resulting Declaration of Principles (aka Oslo Accords) was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993.

The Declaration of Principles provided for mutual recognition, Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza, and a Palestinian authority with limited (largely municipal) powers. At the same time, it divided the West Bank into many small and mutually exclusive enclaves, some under Palestinian control, others under Israeli control.  It did not create a Palestinian state or deal with the central issues of refugees, water, or Jerusalem.

This was an opportunity to remind the students about the range of existing opinions.  There was anger from the edges among both Palestinians and Israelis.  While most seemed to support a “land for peace” agreement, right-wing Israelis worked to make agreement impossible.  Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a  mosque during prayers five months after the signature on the White House lawn, and an assassin killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin months later.  At the same time, Hamas suicide bombings increased.  Focusing on one set of violent acts to the exclusion of the other makes the bigger pattern invisible.

I ended by trying to tie together recent issues in the region–through Saudi Arabia.  I asked the students to think about the challenges that a patriarchal monarchy would face during the turbulent second half of the twentieth century.  So many choices, each containing contradictions!  How could an old-style oligarchy neutralize Nasserist-type nationalism? How could this government navigate the connected and apparently irreconcilable choices posed by the alliance with the US in the Cold War and US support for Israel?  Where could the Saudi ruling family come down on the use of oil revenue and the potential dangers of “development” for the regime’s survival?  When confronted with global rhetoric about democracy and human rights, what was a Saudi king to do?  War in Yemen, the 1979 take-over of the shrines, support for Operation Desert Storm, exiling Osama bin Laden, and the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan illustrated the tight-rope.

War in Iraq

I did my first public speaking during the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm, and once I began, there have been, sad to say, so many American (mis)adventures in the region that I seem hardly to have paused.  There seemed then, and seem now, so many things the students have to know, so many contradictions between the stories the government told us and the information we had even then, it is difficult to step back and let students draw conclusions.  The stakes seem too high, even now after more than a decade of sanctions and another horrific invasion.

Our job is to have students learn to analyze sources critically and to draw conclusions.  That’s what I was demanding of my public audiences more than a decade ago.  Instead of including the students’ voices today, though, I hoped I could model the way a historian can create a narrative based on diverse sources.

 They arrived to Saadoun al-Bayati performing Iraqi music at UNC, videotaped this fall when he was part of my students’ workshop for K-12 teachers, Iraq beyond Conflict.

We began with a review of Saddam Hussein’s reasons for invading Iran, tying them to the issues that we had been discussing since World War I.  Then I moved on to the US support for both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict.  I focused on the aftermath of the war: the horrific human cost, the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein’s troops destroyed Kurdish villages and lives, the devastation of the economies of both countries, and the consolidation of Iran’s new revolutionary regime.  I argued that one could not understand Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait without recognizing the effects of the previous invasion of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s sense that Kuwait was disavowing their common war aims by demanding loan repayment, accusations that Kuwait was engaging in economic warfare against Iraq, insistence that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil.

The George H. W. Bush administration waited hardly any time to see if sanctions had worked, and the war was quick and enormously destructive, carried out by a coalition of 34 countries.  Ending the war was a murkier project.  I showed them an interview with then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney explaining (presciently) why trying to topple the Iraqi regime would have resulted in a quagmire.

I showed photos of the “Highway of Death,” when American forces bombed Iraqi conscripts retreating from Kuwait.  I talked about the importance of military reports, showing them one that discussed the complications of the campaign, like the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter that had killed hundreds of civilians.  I ended with a description of the simultaneous Iraqi uprisings against the regime, encouraged by the US, during which American forces did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression.  They left to the video of the destruction of Kerbala.

In the end, it was an old-fashioned narrative, a lecture about war and destruction.  How traditional can a historian get?

Sadat and Saddam: The 1970s and 1980s

For some reason, recent history seems much harder for me to synthesize.  What are the biggest issues of the 1970s and 1980s?  How can one present them to beginning students who don’t know much about the region, without eliciting significantly more controversy than analysis.  By the time we get to the 1970s and beyond, students already have fixed ideas and a stake in the narration.

Instead of doing an overview of the 1970s and 80s, I decided today to focus on two secular autocracies and try to connect them to the big issues of the era.  I realized they hadn’t hear Fairuz yet, a serious deficiency on my part, so they arrived to her singing one of the songs my Damascus women friends seemed to consider almost an anthem.

The “quiz” today was the same one that Viji gave her students a few weeks ago, and their responses were similar.  I told the students about the experiment she had done in class, and how thinking about issues at a deeper level would help students learn.  I explained that when I asked them to respond to a poll, I had hoped to encourage the kind of engagement that would help them participate more actively in the kinds of analysis historians do, but now it seems I may have been (inadvertently) helping them learn and remember the issues we were talking about.

I began by reviewing the importance of the past in understanding the violence in Lebanon in the 1970s, talked briefly about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, the Israeli occupation of the south, the Syrian occupation of much of the rest, and the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut, for which a memorial exists down the road at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Then I asked the students to think about all they had learned so far about the region.  Based on that, what kinds of challenges faced Egypt and Iraq in the 1970s?  Here are their Poll Everywhere responses, appropriate and complex, as a word cloud:

I began with Sadat’s Egypt, the high costs entailed in being neither at war nor at peace, and the 1973 war that managed to solve none of those problems.  Neither did the “opening” to capitalist investment.  I described Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the result of food riots that followed the imposition of IMF austerity measures.  (In past years I have had to describe the demands for austerity measures, but the students seem to know lots about them these days.)  I introduced the Muslim Brotherhood as both an economic and a political force, and ended with the assassination of Sadat.  (They now know the names of all of the Egyptian presidents since 1952!)

Then on to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Context comes first: the Cold War, and the various ideological options available to people in the 1970s Middle East: communism, state nationalism, Arab nationalism, Islamism.  The Ba’ath party made sense in this context. The rising price of oil we had already talked about (and they seem to have talked to their parents about) provided the emerging Iraqi dictator with a lot of income to spread around.  I talked about rapidly improving child mortality rates under his rule, and the sorts of improvements that would have been reflected in the improving health of children.  But I also showed them a series of images reflecting the growing cult of personality, and concluded with the 1980 invasion of Iran, trying to provide the background they would need for the week’s reading, Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.  The Iraqi invasion of Iran, I pointed out, brought together most of the issues we had focused on since the end of World War I: disputes over borders, questions of belonging, Nasserism and nationalism, and fear of popular revolution.

Their questions will provide a transition to Thursday:

Revolutionary Middle East: Nasser

The decade that followed the creation of the state of Israel saw the overthrow of most of the rulers of the Arab states.  It’s a challenge to “cover” all of the revolutionary movements, let alone their consequences.  I have been struggling with my desire to talk about all of the big events of the decade, trying to figure out which things I should focus on.  Those would have to stand in for the issues raised by all of them.

Who better to begin with than Um Khulthoum, though I’m not sure the students understood from the video clip why she has been so beloved by so many for so long.  Review today: the partition of 1947, Israel’s establishment, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees that resulted.

I’d found a wonderful Guardian newsclip on the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 Iraq, and asked the students to watch it and prepare to respond to four questions: What happened? Why? So what? What other information would you need to know to answer these questions?  Then the film:

They began to respond, and quickly got bogged down.  After I played the clip again, they were able to answer the questions, while the TA typed their responses.  Although I’m not convinced the responses are below the right questions, it seemed (I hoped?) that the exercise was helpful not only to make the list, but also to think about HOW one prepares for–and works to understand–historical information.

Clearly, Nasser was not only a huge and frightening spectre for the British newscaster.  He was also a really significant symbol for those who have come after him and used his legacy to seek change .  I wanted the students to think about Nasser and how he could have come to be so popular.  They are reading one of his speeches this week.  I asked them to think about everything they know about Egypt to this point, and began a timeline on a PowerPoint slide.  They were quite impressive, remembering not only the events, but also some of the big issues.  We had left Egypt after the Urabi revolt, so I caught them up to 1948: the frustrated efforts for independence after World War I and the dependent independence that followed, with British continuing to control most aspects of Egypt’s government and economy.  I hope by the end of the semester to convince them that context matters, in this case, that Nasser and his legacy can only be understood within the contexts of Egypt’s history, the struggle against colonialism, and the Cold War.

WWI: Remaking the Middle East

I was very excited about this class on World War I and the Middle East.  This is where I start many of my public lectures, arguing that it is impossible to understand the region without taking into account the new state system installed at war’s end.

For the effects of WWI in the Middle East, I  welcomed them (of course) with the trailer for Lawrence of Arabia.  I used my review of Ottomans in the War to explain why the British were worried enough (besieged in Kut, pinned down at Gallipoli) to make promises to Sharif Husayn: if he were to lead an uprising against the Ottomans, he would become King of Arab lands.  I asked them to think about the Sykes-Picot map from Tuesday, and read them the Balfour declaration.  I asked them to think about Woodrow Wilson, who put all of these promises into a new context

After the Bolshevik revolution, when the “Arab revolt” forces learned of the wartime promises, the French and British issued a joint declaration explaining that “The aim of France and Great Britain in carrying on in the Near East the war let loose by Germany’s ambitions is the complete and final liberation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and the free choice of the native populations.”

So there were many and conflicting promises, along with Wilson’s commitment to self-government and the Great Powers’ insistence on liberation.  How, I asked, could these promises be reconciled?  I asked the students to figure it out together, and then post their group response using Poll Everywhere.  Their answers ranged from imposing colonial governments on the region, to negotiated settlements, to ignoring European interests in favor of independence for the people.  A colleague had told me about Wordle, a neat little program that could create a word cloud from free responses to Poll Everywhere.  The preponderance of ideas is clear from the size of the words:

Mandates, of course, were the answer, and the students had read article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant and knew about the project.  I wanted to re-introduce local agency, too long missing in discussions of peace treaties and Great Power interests, by talking about Syrian resistance to the French mandate and the 1920 uprising against the British in Iraq.  Once again (and again and again), it was clear that local populations would not welcome foreign invasions.  Unwilling to commit more treasure and lives to Iraq, the British created a façade of local governance, imposing an Arab king by botched plebiscite and assigning British “advisers” to all government agencies.  To whom were the newly appointed rulers responsible, local populations or the Europeans who had appointed them?

The limits of sovereignty will arise again and again in the post-Ottoman period, as they have arisen already in the course.  Here are my summary of the new state system, and the students’ questions: