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Bush's Iraq War
Ghosts of 1,001 Nights

Shashi Tharoor is a career diplomat at the United Nations who currently heads the U.N.’s P.R. operations. He’s also a novelist and essayist, whose latest book, published in July, is called “Bookless in Baghdad “ (Arcade Publishing). The book has little to do with Baghdad except for a short essay in which Tharoor describes a walk he took through Baghdad ‘s book bazaars, or “souks,” in February 1998. He found himself anything but bookless amid piles of volumes in many languages, from many countries and different centuries—including copies of Leon Uris’ “Exodus” and Grace Metalious’ “ Peyton Place “ alongside Arab girlie magazines and copies of the Quran.

The last paragraphs of the piece struck me at the time for their description of an old idol of mine: “With the book souk still on my mind,” Tharoor wrote, “I took a trip to see the riverside statue of Scheherazade, the storyteller of the 1,001 Arabian nights. Only in Baghdad , said friends who know the Arab world, would there be such a statue at all—not only of a woman but of a woman renowned for decidedly un-Islamic reasons. Scheherazade stood 20 feet high in black stone, hands extended, weaving her spell to an equally immense sculpture of her husband, the Sultan Shahryar, reclining entranced at a safe distance. Her eyes were large, her gown flowing, her expression modest; but there was no doubt that she dominated the scene, a woman harnessing the power of fiction to her own salvation.

“I walked slowly around the plinth on which the pair had been erected and failed to find a plaque or even a date. Nor was there any other visitor or attendant to ask. The site was deserted, and the park in which the statuary stood was overgrown and ill tended. The city of the fabled Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, patron of the arts, now neglects its own stories—as if, with harsh reality pressing down upon it, even literary Baghdad can no longer seek solace in the magic of myth.”

Can you blame it? Iraq today is the supreme example of myths’ power to launch a country’s invasion and occupation, by a nation that harnessed the power of fiction to its own betrayal. What I find particularly touching about those descriptions of Scheherazade’s statue eight years ago is how Tharoor not only sensed the “harsh reality pressing down” on Iraq, but was himself in the thick of the story of that harsh reality, and was as incapable as Scheherazade’s statue to keep it from happening.

Tharoor was U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s right-hand man at the time. That week in February he was in Baghdad , preparing the way for Annan’s mission to bring Iraq back from the brink of war with the United States . Annan did in fact work out an agreement with Saddam Hussein that would let weapons inspectors back in. Saber-rattling even then, this country’s conservatives found time enough away from obsessing about Bill Clinton’s sex life to cry foul. The appeasing agreement would only “become one more stop on the road to Munich ,” in the words of former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal. He and his ilk finally got their way, launching an invasion on a heap of hurriedly cooked-up tales of their own.

We now know that Annan’s mission wasn’t appeasement but prudence. We also know that the only Iraqis taking the road to Munich were the likes of “Curveball,” the code-named Baghdadi defector and all-around sleaze whose nutty fictions about bio-weapons programs the Bush administration used to base its entire and entirely fake case for war. And we know that what passes for our intelligence services decoded what they wanted to hear, embellished what they didn’t and invented the rest. It’s a great narrative technique for the 1,001 Nights. It’s not a wise technique for the most important intelligence service of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Symbolism sometimes counts for more than reality in the Middle East . Abu Ghraib (for example) was no replay of Saddam-era torture, but since when does the United States measure its moral standards on a scale set by Saddam? Arabs—those fools—thought we aimed higher. They learned otherwise. Abu Ghraib was the first symbolic deception to doom the occupation. Here’s something more literal. On Dec. 15, the United States will have been in Iraq 1,000 days. To Arabs the mark will be just as powerful as the markings of 1,000 and 2,000 American dead soldiers have been over here. Scheherazade’s statue will be as deserted as when Tharoor spied her, but with the ghosts of a thousand and one nights of war hovering about, and a story without end ringing in its metallic ears.

The day will probably be meaningless over here. The only number that’ll matter is that there’ll still be nine shopping days left till Christmas.

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