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Lessons from Iraq... in 1958.

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(Read caption) The flag that flew over Iraq between 1958 and the bloody takeover by the Baath in 1963

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The Atlantic recently re-posted a piece they'd commissioned from William R. Polk in 1958 and I stumbled across it when I was looking for some of Mr. Polk's more recent work this morning. 

Mr. Polk's essay was published five months after the July 1958 coup that ended the pro-Western monarchy that the British had installed in Iraq in 1921 and came at a time of enormous regional upheaval, when forms of government were being upended, new ideologies were burbling throughout the Arab cultural and social sphere, and the US and its closest allies were desperately scrambling for a new regional modus videndi. The essay is simply titled "The Lesson of Iraq" and I'm putting it straight into my "the more things change..." file.

Here's the first paragraph: "Crash programs seldom result in a sound policy. Too often our State Department has waited until the United States was involved in a new crisis before it began to improvise a pact, a doctrine, or a show of force; too often we have reacted in the heat of emergency, under circumstances not of our own choosing."

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There's a lot of wisdom in those words alone as regards US behavior in the years since 9/11, certainly for our nearly decade of war in Iraq, which removed the secular-nationalist Baath Party (that rose to power with a coup of its own in 1963), and for America's fumbling for new policies in a region that is once again being turned on its head. In the 1950s, US-friendly monarchs were overthrown in Iraq and Egypt and replaced by officers angry at what they considered the humiliation of being Western client states and seeking to upend what they saw as corrupt domestic orders. Across the region, publics were inflamed with the pan-Arabism preached by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Today, political Islam has come to the fore in Egypt. In Iraq, a Shiite-Islamist dominated government resulted from the US war to remove Saddam Hussein. In Syria a bloody, sectarian war is raging with the US uncertain of what to do, seeking influence with a rebellion, many of whose members have as little love for America as Abdel Karim Kassem did for the US in 1958. 

Also interesting is his comments on the lack of a US plan b in Iraq in the 1950s, which reminds me very much of our long-standing relationship with Mubarak's Egypt. Iraq then was awash in secret police and informants, a place where all peaceful avenues for channeling political dissent were shut down, leaving a chaotic uprising the only real avenue for change. Nuri as-Said was the political power behind the Iraqi throne, a seven-term prime minister who Polk called the "keystone of the Iraqi arch of power." But he was also aging, in ill-health, and in a country with growing aspirations and frustrations brought on by rising levels of education and industrialization thanks to oil wealth, he wouldn't have hung on for long, coup or no coup.

Yet "in case of his retirement, which Washington should have foreseen, upon whom or what were we planning to rely? Nuri built no party organization and had no follower of sufficient ability to succeed in command. The hatred directed toward his government, which was held in check by the fear he inspired, could not be controlled by any of his associates or followers."

While it is far from a perfect analogy, the US also had no plan b for Egypt after Hosni Mubarak, the reliable dictator who was aging, in ill-health, had closed off all avenues for peaceful political dissent, and was trying to find a way to pass power to his unpopular son that most observers predicted would end in disaster.

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The Egyptian uprising of Jan. 2011 couldn't have been timed or predicted. But that a change was coming was clear for years. I covered Egypt intensely from 2003-2008 and have made frequent visits since. The US constantly urged Mubarak to "reform" in public, but in private the flow of military and economic aid was assured, and when the change came, which has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power (at least for now), US policy makers were ill-prepared.

The piece covers a lot of ground -- from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the stability of Jordan and the oil monarchies of the Gulf, and the definition of US interests. A lot of the context has changed, but much of this essay still rings true. He concludes with a call to US policy-makers, reminding his readers that, in the end, most people in the region want to prosper, the oil states want to sell their oil, and no one wants ruinous wars if they can avoid it.

"Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs," he writes.


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