Foreign interventions

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(Host) Reading a radio reporter’s new book on Iraq has made commentator Allen Gilbert think about the complexities of foreign interventions.

(Gilbert) I’ve just finished reading the book “Naked in Baghdad” by Anne Garrels. Garrels is the NPR reporter who covered the Iraq war from inside the capital. She was one of the few foreign journalists in Baghdad when the U.S. assault began. She wasn’t “embedded” with American forces as they invaded the country. Her reports from Baghdad leading up to the war, and of the war itself, were riveting. It was some of the finest radio reporting that NPR has ever provided.

Garrels’ book, “Naked in Baghdad,” is likewise a fine piece of reporting. You come to understand Iraq and the Iraqis the way that Garrels came to understand them – from personal contact. Sometimes the contact was brusque, as when she was dealing with officials of the Ministry of Information. But often the contact was close and revealing, as with her driver. More than anything, you come away with an appreciation for the complexities of life for average Iraqis. Their long history, their religious and ethnic factions, the years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, the complicating overlay of the country’s oil wealth – all these things make Iraqis’ life anything but straightforward and simple. And now, added to Iraq’s many complexities, is the U.S. occupation.

The occupation could last a long time. Estimates keep climbing of the number of soldiers needed to restore peace. The price to establish economic stability has ballooned to billions. We’re surprised. Yet any of the Iraqis that Garrels came to know could have told us this.

I am continually drawn to parallels between this modern-day intervention and an intervention nearly 150 years ago, on our side of the world. In 1862, as our Civil War raged, France invaded Mexico and established a puppet government under the well-intentioned Austrian archduke, Maximilian. The pretext was that Mexico, enduring a civil war of its own, had defaulted on loans made by European financiers. The Mexicans, under their Indian leader Benito Juarez, resisted the French intervention. While there were some well-publicized battles, most of the resistance came in guerrilla attacks, all around the country. As soon as the French thought they had pacified one region, trouble popped up somewhere else. Eventually, the French assembly back home balked at the cost of the war. And the French public had little stomach for the weekly death counts. The French gave up, withdrawing their troops and leaving Maximilian to his fate which turned out to be death by a Mexican firing squad.

It is never easy to intervene in a foreign country and impose a new government. Even if the new government strives to right past wrongs and to create peace and prosperity – as Maximilian tried to do – the odds of success are diminished. In a country’s soul, the victory of a foreign force humiliates the country’s people. The victory is not the people’s victory. The victory is, in fact, an admission of defeat — an admission that the country’s people could not control their own destiny.

Iraq is in the news every day, but it is very hard to understand what’s going on there. Anne Garrels’ book helps to shine a small, but tightly focused, beam of light on the complex situation we – as occupiers – now face.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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