William Polk, whose book Understanding Iraq was published this year,, first went to that country fifty years ago. He knows and reads Arabic, has spent time in the country since, taught at major US universities, and been on the policy planning staff of the US State Department. This is his fifth book on the Middle East. He writes clearly.
I couldn’t have found a better book than this one for giving me a look behind the headlines.
I admit that I knew shockingly little about Iraq before I picked up Polk’s book from the New Books shelf of my library. I didn’t even know how little I knew. I had a vague notion the Iraqis were less advanced than the Iranians. This doesn’t tell anything about Iraq. It only shows that I went to college long ago.
The cover announces that the book covers “the sweep of Iraqi history-from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation.” Unbelievably, this 213 page book with its three useful maps does just that.
Polk begins by giving a context to the Arabic words usually translated as “martyr” and “holy war” in American newspapers, plunging his readers right into Arabic culture. He then divides his coverage of into six sections: Ancient Iraq, Islamic Iraq, British Iraq, Revolutionary Iraq, American Iraq and the final chapter, Whose Iraq?
To say the history of the Middle East is complicated is an understatement. Even if you start in the middle, you’ll probably want to go back to scan the first two chapters For those of you who are time-challenged, I offer facts and comments from the last 75 years that stayed in my mind after reading Understanding Iraq. You’ll have to imagine the fleshed out book, with its Sumerians and Mesopotamians, believers in quamiyah and.wataiyah, its analysis of oil prices, violent internal politics, and Islamic traditions.
*** During the twentieth century, the city-dwellers of Iraq were the most modernized in the Middle East, many of them well-educated professionals.
***Although Iraq is a relatively new nation-state, the region has a lengthy history of the region evident: in the layers of hill town built over hill town and in written records. Polk believes that the average Iraqi may not know the details of their 5000 year old history but that this past has colored their attitudes.
***From the centuries of Turkish domination, the Shiis drew tightly together as a commnity, carrying on many local government functions.
**During the 1920s, Iraqi Christians and Jews rose to prominence in commerce, education, and administration.
***American involvement in Iraq began when it supported the British there at the start of World War II. According to Polk, the US could have learned from the mistakes the British made while they were governing Iraq. Just as the British seemed hypocritical to Iraqi naationalists, the American government and military does now.
*** When Democratic president Clinton authorized the use of missiles against Iraq his popularity rating with American voters went up 11 percent.
***During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the U.S. backed Iraq, permitting the Iraqis to buy materials needed for biological and chemical weapons from American companies. At the same time, the U.S. was providing Iran with missiless to use against Saddam’s forces.
*** Saddam Hussein loved power, but in the beginning he did use that power and oil revenues to institute important modernization in his country.
***Polk explains why Hussein wanted to join “the nuclear club,” as well as explaining the policies of nations who were against expanding their number.
***To keep this list brief, I’ll just say that Polk devotes pages to the Kurdish minority in Iraq.
***The US military involvement has led to the destruction of much of the infrastructure that benefited its citizens..
***The war , which had already cost the U.S. more than $200 billion and 1000 lives at the time Polk wrote, is costing the US more in lives and money than we can afford. For Iraqi society, it has been a disaster. Stated simply, nearly every Iraqi family has lost someone.
***Writing in 2004, Polk already saw Iraq as being in chaos.
***Polk states that Iraqis across the board do not regard the U.S. government as promoting democracy. In addition to events in their country, many Iraqis have learned that the US unseated a democratic regime in Iran.
***Polk concludes his book by saying that democracy and empire may erode American society. He notes that our “interventions” elsewhere have not led to democracy.
It’s worth mentioning that Polk’s footnotes are well worth reading as an X-ray into our own governmental process. More directly, UNDERSTANDING IRAQ has shown me that Iraq is a real place with a complex history. The overall historical lesson – ignorance, political maneuvering and wishful thinking make an explosive backgroundl for unwise policy..