Imperialism in Iraq
   by Gene Lyons

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from
 those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than
 ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. "—"
          Heart of Darkness, "Joseph Conrad

Anybody whose jaw didn’t drop at those photos of Saddam Hussein’s portly
younger brother taking charge in Fallujah in his crisply pressed Republican
Guard uniform must have a weaker sense of irony than a dairy cow.
OK, so Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh isn’t actually kin to the deposed
Iraqi dictator, although they definitely appear to share the same mustache stylist.
But Saleh’s history in what TV invariably called Saddam’s" elite Republican
Guard" is real enough. He played a key role in brutally repressing a 1991 Shiite
rebellion, so after four days of strutting around as commander of the all-Iraqi
"Fallujah Brigade" replacing U.S. Marines there, he got replaced by Gen.
Mohammad Latif, an intelligence officer formerly imprisoned by the regime.

It remains to be seen whether fedayeen gunmen celebrating the American
retreat will accept Latif’s authority.

Ahmed Chalabi, the longtime Iraqi exile and convicted embezzler ticketed
by Pentagon "neo-conservative" theoreticians to run the country, argues that
giving Baath Party members a role in the new government is like turning
Germany over to ex-Nazis in 1945. But with Newsweek reporting that
Chalabi himself has been leaking U.S. secrets to his Shiite pals in Iran,
it’s unlikely he’ll get the final say-so, either.

Watching this ghastly comedy of errors, I wondered if Americans shouldn’t
stick to what we know best and hire FOX to produce a reality TV program:
"Iraqi Idol, the Search for a New Strongman."

The theme song selects itself: "Won’t Get Fooled Again" by The Who.
I can’t imagine how Pete Townshend’s caustic anthem would sound to Iraqi
ears, but the concept would definitely translate to Arabic: "Meet the new
boss/Same as the old boss."

But enough desperate jokes. Finding the right tone to write about Iraq is
very hard. Only today, I read about the funeral of Capt. Arthur "Bo" Felder
of Little Rock, a 36-year-old gentle giant, his mother said, who taught
troubled adolescents and served as youth director at his church.
Felder left behind his fiancee and two children, Jaelun, 8, and Amari, 4.
He was one of five Arkansas National Guardsmen killed in Iraq last week.
By way of reassurance, CNN reports that Iraqi combat deaths in April
outnumbered Americans almost 10-to-1.

Only a couple of weeks ago, all the GOP warrior-professors argued that
the U.S. needed to demonstrate resolve by cracking down against Sunni
insurgents in Fallujah and Shiite extremists in Najaf.

Writing in The New York Times, British historian Niall Ferguson chided
Americans, President Bush among them, for their naivet頩n "denying
that America is in the empire business."

Ferguson offered lessons from his country’s experience in Iraq. "Putting
this rebellion down," he wrote, "will require severity. In 1920, the British
eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment
and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty.

" Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force,
was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful
ground troops.... Is the United States willing or able to strike back with
comparable ruthlessness?"

Well, we all know what a brilliant success the Brits made of the Middle
East. At roughly the same time Iraq was being pacified, a young Etonian
named Eric Blair joined the Indian Imperial Police half a continent away
in Burma. Writing under his pen name, George Orwell, he later immortalized
that experience in "Shooting an Elephant," one of the great essays in the
English language.

Having decided that imperialism was "an evil thing," Orwell described
himself  "stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage
against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.
With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable
tyranny, as something clamped down... upon the will of prostrate peoples;
with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to
drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts."

Such emotions, which Orwell calls "normal by-products of imperialism,"
don’t entirely explain those degrading photos of American MPs and
contract workers torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners. But
they’re a beginning. Meanwhile, somebody needs to remind the Professor
Fergusons of the world that much has changed since 1920. Thanks to the
communications revolution, gentlemanly "village-burning expeditions" can
no longer be conducted in discreet good taste; hence, the U.S. Marines’
wise restraint in Fallujah. Disturbing images from the Abu Ghraib prison
are broadcast instantaneously across the Muslim world, evoking a
maelstrom of defiance and making mad Osama bin Laden look like a
prophet. The tragedy of Iraq is that, ultimately, Americans have no
appetite for empire.

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.

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