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“Understanding Iraq” – Book Review

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Book Title: UNDERSTANDING IRAQ: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation”

Author: William R Polk
I B Tauris, London New York 2006
221pp. Paperback. GBP 9.99
ISBN-10 1 84511-123-0

Understanding Iraq
Understanding Iraq

On the face of it this is a history book par excellence and one that, according to the book’s subtitle, offers ‘The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation.’ But is this really what we want when the need of the hour appears to be a speedy end to the bloodletting on the streets of
Baghdad and beyond? We may not want it but once initiated we are hooked.

Polk has made it his task to turn his vast horizon into a giant jigsaw puzzle and then go back to define and colour each piece. The effect is profoundly instructive.

Understanding Iraq is suddenly a priority for the West, not so much because of Iraq’s economic and political importance, which has been a constant since the days of Saddam Hussein and earlier, as because of the West’s need to frame Iraq within its own confused and confusing zeitgeist. The startling variety of interpretations of the Iraq project since the 2003 invasion,
dished out by academics as well as politicians, shows no apparent sign of jelling into any coherent form.

As this is written, the slaughter of the innocent continues with increasing  ferocity, alongside a tendency in the world’s media to paint the Iraqis as a blood-thirsty lot incapable of peaceful coexistence, let alone democratic rule.

Polk delivers many important correctives along the way in the pages of this concise book, chief amongst those being the idea of Iraq the artificial state. His ‘sweep’ of Iraqi history puts paid to the notion, bandied about in the highest of places, that the West somehow created Iraq and now, toy-like, risks breaking it.

A lot of his analysis, which has drawn fire from America’s ‘anti-liberal’ activists, is really meant for an American audience ill-served by the national curriculum. For that vast majority this is a history primer plain, simple and potentially influential. More interesting in view of ongoing events is the ‘what now’ element in his narrative.

Prescience apart, Polk presents two likely consequences of the West’s failure, observing that ‘the longer the war in Iraq continues the more it will resemble the statement the Roman historian Tacitus attributed to the contemporary guerrilla leader of the Britons. The Romans, he said, “create a desolation and call it peace.”’

The first of these after-effects outlined by Polk is already there for all to see — Iraq and its society physically wounded and farther than ever before from a sustainable, free and peaceful future.

The second is the impact on America which, he predicts, will be ‘angry, dispirited, and less democratic than today while internationally it will have lost much of the moral force that throughout its history, from the very Declaration of Independence, has been its most valued and most potent asset.’

While staying in Iraq is unacceptable, the West’s exit may take different forms — a gradual collapse of any regime propped up by western means, with a forced or voluntary withdrawal or a breakdown of order soon after a pullout.

Polk compares these scenarios with Vietnam and sees a phased drawdown as merely a ‘fig leaf to hide defeat.’

The key prerequisites of a voluntary withdrawal, which may lend the process some respectability, are a gradual release of America’s ‘lock on the Iraqi economy,’ an end to wilful disposal of Iraqi oil revenues and return of Iraqi oil to the international marketplace, ie out of the stranglehold of an American monopoly.

What of the security situation and how can that be resolved and peace restored? ‘If an American administration could be as courageous as General Charles de Gaulle was in Algeria, when he admitted that the Algerian insurgency had “won” and called for “a peace of the brave,” fighting would quickly die down as it did there and in all other guerrilla wars.’

This aspect of Polk’s analysis may verge on overoptimism, however, mainly because of the complexity of Iraq’s ethnic and religious make-up. What he suggests certainly is a better option than all others — yet clearly least likely to be chosen.

Of all future scenarios, the one most compelling and one that keeps recurring in public consciousness is of an Iraq reverting to autocratic rule under a saviour figure.

That ironically is also the scenario in which Iraq is most likely to survive in one piece till such time as democratic aspirations fired up by recent experiments mature into a sensible way forward.

Sajid Rizvi is Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief of EAPGROUP International Media.

This article was originally published in “The Middle East in Europe” and reprinted with permission.

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Sajid Rizvi

Sajid Rizvi is Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief of EAPGROUP International Media.

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