A supremely helpful companion to, and gloss on, the news from Iraq—news that, to all appearances, we’ll be reading for years to come.
Former State Department advisor Polk (History/Univ. of Chicago; Polk’s Folly: An American Family History, 2000), who has lived in Iraq (and speaks fluent Arabic), provides a swiftly moving overview of Iraqi history from the dawn of Sumerian civilization to the present turmoil. He’s concerned with finding continuities over long periods of time, noting, for instance, that southern Iraq has enjoyed “a tradition of revolt against government and landlords” dating back at least 12 centuries, while the powerful capital and its dynasts have always lorded it over the countryside. One thing is certain, he says: “Over its long history, the one group that has seldom ‘owned Iraq’ was its people.” That is in part because Iraq has throughout that long history been ruled by outsiders, whether Persians or Mongols or Ottomans—or, more recently, Britain and the United States, both of which, by Polk’s account, have made a terrible hash of things, and both of which have given the average Iraqi much reason to believe “in what might be called the James Bond school of politics,” whereby shadowy agencies and governments are really in charge of things, presumably because Iraq has so much oil. Saddam Hussein knew how to exploit that sentiment, and so, Polk avers, do the insurgents who are making life so difficult for the American occupiers today. Polk adds that Iraq has another long tradition, a system of neighborhood self-government that tends to mistrust larger authority. The British dismantled the system in the 1930s, not trusting the decentralization of power, whereas under Baath Party rule the local councils were co-opted. The Americans have done no better than either, Polk argues: “They focused on the rulers and neglected the people.”
Learned, constantly engaging and full of pointed lessons for those wondering why the war has not ended, peace has not come, and no one in Iraq save Halliburton seems liberated.