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.

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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.

Revolutionary Middle East, Thursday version

I was pleased with the format Tuesday, with the students’ participation in constructing the narrative and thinking about the implications.  But I couldn’t figure out how to provide enough background for their discussions.  They were reading too broadly this week (what was I thinking?): a Nasser speech, Fanon on torture, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and two chapters from Nadje al-Ali’s wonderful book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present.  Their journal was to be on whether these events really constituted revolutions.  So I had to provide at least the background for the Algerian war, Iraq 1958, Nasser 1952, Mossadegh 1953, and the Suez Crisis.  It seemed to me that they all fit together, but they were obviously too much for one lecture.

I wanted to focus on France and Algeria for the welcoming music, but since I couldn’t decide which Rai to play, I did two, beginning when only a few students had arrived.

I had decided that I would begin the lecture with a Poll Everywhere poll on the biggest issues of the era.  I would take their responses, create a word cloud with wordle, and then talk about the issues raised by the biggest words (most frequently used in the students’ responses) in order.  I had prepared the PowerPoint to be flexible.  But the system was down!   (Poll Everywhere was very apologetic, claimed this wouldn’t be repeated.)

Face to face with the problem of technology: sometimes it doesn’t work.  It took me most of the hour to regain my footing.  But what followed was not my finest hour as a teacher.  I was flustered, and reverted to a standard lecture, in chronological order.  Iran, oil and the cold war (Mossadegh 1953) followed by the Sinai Suez Crisis (Great Powers, Super Powers, Nasser and Israel), and the Algerian revolution.  The only redeeming elements:

First, I love this BBC clip on the 1956 Sinai-Suez crisis, especially when thinking about 2002-3 and Iraq.

And second, I juxtaposed de Toqueville and a colon legislator on the effects of the French on Algerian society.

I scrambled to the end, trying to remind us all of the big picture concerns as I finally wound down and hoping that they would think about the bigger issues in discussion sections.

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:

World War I

I was convinced and energized.  Instead of “covering” everything, I would introduce the enormous changes that World War I brought to the Middle East, emphasizing the big stuff and letting some of the details go by the wayside.  The students could use discuss the details they had read about for the week in sections to verify, refute, or lend color to the big question.

The big question, of course, was the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the war.  The maps shows how dramatic the change was:

I welcomed them with one of the more depressing and relevant videos I will show all semester: Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” illustrated by images of the battle at Gallipoli. 

After briefly reviewing the Thursday (data dump) lecture, I asked the students to help update our mindmap.    I wanted them to think about European interests in the Ottoman Empire (economic, strategic, political), interests that would help determine the future of the empire after its defeat.

I reduced the causes of World War I to three minutes (an outrageous travesty!) so I was able to spend a bit more time on three big Ottoman wartime experiences: the battle of Gallipoli, the siege of Kut, and the Armenian genocide.

My bigger interests were the postwar settlements.  I reminded them about the efforts of the European Great Powers to keep the empire intact in order to prevent conflict over the remains.  In that context, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement made sense: Russia, Britain and France awarded each other control over their favorite places to avoid postwar conflict.  The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres extended the dissection of central Ottoman lands, but it was made moot by the Greek invasion of Anatolia.

The postwar settlement allowed me to return to major course issues: the question of belonging (the Armenian genocide and the Greek-Turkish population exchange), the intervention of outsiders (invasion, occupation and treaty imposition); the lives and livelihoods of the people (devastation of war and the population exchange), and the nature of the state.  There was too little time to explain the long-term implications of Kemalist ideology (to which we will return), but they loved this video synopsis of Ataturk’s life.

Constitutions

Today’s welcome video was a brief clip from the terrific film, “Crossing the Bridge–The Sound of Istanbul”

The class was tremendously enlightening.  After a week that had included two public lectures in addition to the usual work, I fell back on my previous teaching style.  There was so much to “cover,” what with the Urabi Revolt in Egypt, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, and the “Young Turk” revolution in the Ottoman Empire, that I spent the whole class lecturing about the events.  I tried to tie it all together by emphasizing the belief of many members of the elite that a constitution would be the silver bullet that could strengthen Middle Eastern powers to be competitive with European states.  (The irony: although members of the US government pretended that they could introduce democracy through invasion at the start of the 21st century, people in the region had believed a whole century earlier that they could withstand foreign intervention if they only had constitutional regimes.)

Despite my enthusiasm for the topic and all of the techniques we teach new lecturers (moving around the room, lots of eye contact, dramatic voice changes, repeating important points), it was clear that I lost the students.  This was the first time all semester that they were not engaged– some actually fell asleep.  By the time the lecture was over, only one posted a question.  The only student who approached me afterward asked for a glossary so they could follow better while I sprinted through events.

I suppose it was a good test of the new system.  Some of the students had seemed to want more traditional lectures, and I had begun wondering about the efficacy of taking so long to focus on fewer things, unable to “cover” as much as during previous semesters.  This was an eye-opening “failure”: had I focused on underlying questions, they may not have “learned” about all three constitutional efforts, but they may have remembered the big ideas.  In discussions after class with the TA’s, I began thinking about how I should have done it.  Perhaps comparing the underlying notions of governance and the governed that had informed the medieval “Circle of Justice” ideals with the early twentieth-century constitutional demands that had been assigned as their reading for the week?  I also learned that it takes much more time for me to re-imagine the histories that I don’t research as problems to be explored instead of events to be narrated.

 Perhaps part of the problem had been UNC’s devastating one point defeat at the hands of arch-rival Duke in the last second of last night’s game.  In an effort to lighten the mood, instead of a map quiz, I did a review of the recommendations for Ottoman renewal.