PolUnde 05-9-165


The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History


William R. Polk

HarperCollins, 2005, 219 pp., ISBN 0-06-06468-6

Polk lived in Iraq in 1951-52 and has visited dozens of times since 1947.  He studied Arabic and Turkish at Oxford, taught Middle Eastern History and politics at Harvard, and since 1965, has been Director for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.  He was also responsible for planning American policy toward the Middle East during the Kennedy administration. (Preface) 


The book includes speculation on how early peoples came to Iraq, the coming of Islam and its heritage, British rule from 1914 to 1958, what happened when Britain was overthrown and British influence declined, the sequence of dictators after 1958, and the period of “American domination” since 1991. (12)


Polk speaks from an Iraqi perspective.  Iraq’s early history is reported dispassionately but Iraq’s relations with Britain and the U.S. are reported politically.  He seems to think that the U.S. intends to set up a U.S. backed puppet regime in Iraq in order to manage Iraqi oil.  He does not seem to think that the U.S. is eager to help establish a working democracy as quickly as possible and then get out.  You can almost imagine yourself listening to Tariq Aziz. 


“I believe that knowing about events-over-time is crucial to a perception of the present.”  (Preface)


Martyrdom, for the Muslim, “is an act, indeed the supreme act, of one who is bearing witness to God of his faith.” (Preface)


“Like the European and American Puritans, Muslim thinkers have sought to ‘purify’ or return to the fundamental concepts of their forefathers,...ridding their religion of accretions that they feel have perverted it.” (Preface) [Well, perhaps not quite like the Puritans! dlm]


“The position of Christians was undermined by the British use of Christians, the Assyrian levies, to maintain their domination of Iraq, and the rise of Zionism, the Israeli-Arab wars, and the plight of the Palestinian refugees made the position of Jews ultimately untenable.” (105)


“...the very concept of representative government seemed alien; worse, when known, it seemed an aspect, even a cause, of weakness, corruption, and disunity.  It was this general lack of experience in and disregard for the workings of democracy, the legacy of both “British Iraq” and the first decade of “Revolutionary Iraq,” that created the conditions in which the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Husain flourished.” (118)


Saddam’s single unifying aim was power.  Saddam realized that men need enemies.  He spent much of his career finding them.  (119)


“Since the inception of the state, Iraqis of all walks of life firmly believed in what might be called the James Bond school of politics.  Behind every pronouncement, every alliance, every action, they believed, lurked ruthless, sinister, and brilliant foreign agents.” (122)


Saddam “was willing to use, and probably personally delighted in, ghastly forms of repression....” (124)  While Iraq was swimming in oil money, he created the best educated, healthiest, longest-lived population in the Arab world. (124)  But then, in 1980 he attacked Iran in an eight-year-war that bankrupted the country. 


“Nationalization of the IPC (foreign petroleum conglomerate) was perhaps the most popular move Saddam ever made.  It is difficult for foreigners, particularly modern Americans, to understand how bitter the Iraqis were about foreign domination.”  (127)


A profound philosophical clash: Saddam believed in the secular nation-state and Khomeini in the fundamentalist religious state. (129)


In 1983 the U.S. identified with the Iraq cause.  According to Polk, “To this end, the United States either supplied directly or arranged for others to supply conventional weapons, cluster bombs, anthrax, and other biological weapons materials as well as components for nuclear weapons and equipment to manufacture poison gas.”  (132, footnote) [Polk cites a German newspaper article (footnote, p. 146).   But I find it difficult to believe. dlm]


The reason for American support for Saddam was the fear that a vibrant revolutionary victorious Iran would destabilize the whole oil-producing gulf by inciting fellow Shiis to revolt. (133)  [In addition, the U.S. did not want to see the whole Middle East boil up in Islamic fundamentalism. dlm]


“Neither the war in Kurdistan nor the war with Iran solved anything.  The one devastated a whole society, but nourished hatreds to be taken up by their followers, while the war against Iran wiped out virtually a generation of Iranians.”  “None of these disasters seems to have affected Saddam.” (135)


“From the 1970s he had devoted much of Iraq’s income to acquiring particularly the ‘trump cards’—weapons of mass destruction.”  (137-38)


“Many observers have commented that his major miscalculation on Kuwait was not the act [of attacking] but the timing; if he had waited until he had nuclear weapons, the United States government might have considered that intervention was too dangerous....” (139) [It was his refusal to allow weapons inspectors to ensure he was not developing nuclear weapons that precipitated the invasion.  This statement admits that it would be extremely dangerous to allow Saddam that possibility. dlm]


He calls this period “American Iraq” “because from 1990 to the present it has been mostly American action that determined events.”  Two themes run through the 15 years of “American Iraq”: misunderstanding and deception.  (143) [This pretty well expresses Polk’s perspective. In spite of all that has been said before, Saddam stands pretty much free from blame in this book. dlm]


Re: the “Food for Oil” program.  “Critics have termed it one of the most draconian and punitive measures ever imposed on a defeated power.”  “It severely harmed the Iraqi people but did not prevent the government from buying arms.”  (157) “The Iraqi regime was able to deflect their impact so that the general population rather than its core supporters suffered.  The population indeed came to hate those who had imposed the sanctions rather than those whose actions had occasioned them.”  (158)  [That Saddam sold the food for arms, allowing his people to starve, is openly admitted but receives no condemnation here. dlm]


“There were many charges brought against Saddam during the years after the 1991 Gulf War....all of which proved to be untrue.”  (162)  [Well, were they all proved to be untrue or is this Polk’s spin on it?  From this point on, Saddam is treated as the victim and the United States as the criminal.  Even Kuwait is partially blamed for its own invasion on p. 163! dlm] 


In a 2003 interview with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, he “cut me off, saying that ‘America has long since decided to attack Iraq and nothing Iraq could do would prevent it.’” (169)  [Polk seems to have taken this statement at face value and judged all else by it. dlm]


“Over its long history, the one group that has seldom ‘owned’ Iraq was its people.” (186)


American ideologically-driven Neo-Conservatives “proclaimed that America had the right, indeed the obligation, to impose its way of life on the whole world.  Iraq was an early step in what was to be a new ‘crusade,’ which would be accomplished by warfare, essentially unending and everywhere.” (186-87) [Polk’s political bias is stated strongly here! dlm]


“Those Iraqis who aspire to complete sovereignty are prepared to create complete insecurity.” (193)  [In other words, they will destroy the country rather than let America protect it while peace, liberty, and law are secured.  This is true.  Various Iraqi groups do not want democracy: they want total power and control.  Probably most Iraqi’s would rather have what the U.S. is trying to help them provide.  The author takes no note of that.  dlm]


“...eventually America will have to leave.  But during the period it stays, say the next five years, my guess is that another thirty or forty thousand Iraqis will die or be killed while the U.S. armed forces will lose perhaps five thousand dead and twenty thousand seriously wounded.”  (209)


“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.  Then, and only then, could elections be meaningful.”  [Polk has been telling us that for 50 years Iraq has been a hotbed of would-be dictators killing their enemies to gain control. What’s to stop it? dlm]


Further reading:

Saddam - King of Terror, Con Coughlin, HarperCollins, 2002, 335 pp. 


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