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The Tuesday Column
Occupation of Paradise Square Is an Illusory Promise of Peace

It’s difficult to judge who’s cowering more at the moment, Saddam’s band of butchers or America’s anti-war liberals. The now-famous scene of a Saddam statue tumbling to the heels of Iraqis is supposedly symbolic of an Iraqi rebirth midwifed by U.S. Marines, and just as supposedly symbolic of the burial of liberal opposition at home. But ParadiseSquare was Ground Zero in the blitzkrieg of deceptions that continue to define “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

There was no national celebration on ParadiseSquare. There was a gathering of a few dozen people orchestrated by the U.S. military in front of the Palestine Hotel, where the world’s press has its Baghdad headquarters. Like Saddam, the statue was brought down by the invading force, not by a popular uprising from within. The “celebration” that followed was contained to the very few people there, and rimmed by American tanks around the square. Cars were prevented from entering the traffic circle from radiating avenues. It was a celebration at gunpoint, however benevolent the arsenal shadowing the celebrants, and it was no more authentic than canned celebrations of Iraqis dancing around Saddam in those many propaganda films his regime distributed like Baath Party porn. To compare last week’s events on ParadiseSquare to the celebrations that involved hundreds of thousands of people dancing on the Berlin Wall for weeks in 1989 is as ludicrous as comparing the American invasion of Grenada in 1983 to the Normandy invasion in 1944.

But the invasion of Iraq was a morality play desperate for a moral. The scenes on ParadiseSquare finally provided it. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seized on the moment to compare the fall of Saddam to the end of Hitler and Stalin. Thus his fall was equated with the fall of the Third Reich, the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. And thus was Saddam weirdly elevated to the rank of the last century’s greatest dictators. But Hitler and Stalin were forces to be reckoned with if freedom and real estate were to be defended. They changed the course of history. Saddam couldn’t change the course of the Tigris if he tried.

The Anglo-American invasion will not be judged by the ability of Iraqis to disco around a Saddamite statue for the benefit of television cameras. It’ll be judged by the invasion’s motives and its consequences. Those judgments portend nothing more encouraging today than they did four weeks ago, because the war in Iraq is vindicating nothing. It is only proving that false pretenses leading to the invasion have been revised to fit the occupation; that Candidate Bush was unwittingly honest to deride nation-building in his second debate with Al Gore, as it is empire-building that President Bush has in mind; and that the Middle East is to the United States in 2003 what Eastern Europe was to the Soviet Union in 1945: A prize. Getting rid of Saddam doesn’t diminish Bush’s designs on the region.

Last week’s military priorities spoke bluntly enough. The oil fields were secured. Looting and the transformation of cities into fiefdoms of barricades and score-settling was permitted. The arithmetic of Mideast justice requires that retributive massacres follow any shift in power. An occupation force of 120,000 or three times that number cannot control a balkanized nation of 25 million. So worse will follow. Curiously, the same neo-conservatives who scorn “social engineering” and who have devoted the last 30 years to destroying the New Deal and the Great Society at home are engineering an imperious version of both for Iraq, and perhaps for the whole Middle East. They won’t succeed. But the attempt alone will mortgage America’s future to such Strangelove ambition.

One question should be faced head-on: Are Iraqis better off today, under American occupation, than they were five weeks ago, under Saddam’s boot? Yes. But the more pertinent question is this: Are Americans—and the world—better off today than they were five weeks ago? No. No occupation or benevolent foreign military presence in the Middle East has yielded peace in the last 50 years. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands is the pilot light to a half-dozen wars and uprisings. The American military presence on Saudi Arabian soil was catnip to al-Qaida’s recruiters (whose army of one, remember, is the suicide bomber). And Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon gave rise to Hezbollah, whose calling cards include the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marines’ barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the hostage-taking that seeded the American presidency’s worst scandal since Watergate. For all its collateral benefits, occupying Iraq is a dare to unintended consequences.

Withdrawing is not an immediate option. But short of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, occupation will not bring peace, either. Not if Iraqis think they’re the next West Bank, while half the population is of stone-throwing—or army-of-one—age.


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