History lessons

The past two weeks have brought bewilderment and confusion to Iraq watchers everywhere. A number of politicians, diplomats, analysts and ordinary citizens have been disappointed by the UN impasse and startled by the slow progress of the war once it started. Resorting to history, however, can lessen our sense of surprise. As French historian and resistance fighter, Mark Bloch, had painfully asserted, «misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.» Thucydides, for example, could shed much light on the current imbroglio. In the celebrated Melian dialogue, the Athenians warn the hapless Melians: «In human disputation, justice is then only agreed upon when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.» In contemporary parlance, this means that international law becomes operative among powers relatively equal in strength. In all other circumstances, the side commanding more power will act as it wants (in this case the USA pursuing war in Iraq), while the weaker side (France, Germany and especially Iraq) should prudently recognize reality and bend to America’s hegemonic will. Let us next refer to Sir Winston S. Churchill, a statesman who was personally involved in a series of dramatic events and conflicts culminating with his stewardship of Great Britain during the Second World War. His assessment of military campaigns is sobering: «Let us learn our lessons,» he said. «Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy.» Related to Sir Winston’s caveat is the surprise, even shock, of coalition planners realizing that Iraqi citizens are not necessarily welcoming the invading forces as liberators, but are responding with terror tactics which are the instruments of the weak against the strong. In October 1940, Greece was presented with an ultimatum by Italy. The Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, flatly rejected it. The result was an outpouring of popular enthusiasm and the valiant military campaign against Mussolini’s forces in Albania. However, the people’s support should not be understood as an endorsement of Metaxas and his oppressive rule. Greeks did not suddenly embrace fascism, nor did they forget or excuse the regime’s brutal character. The key to understanding such reactions is to be found in the patriotism that an invasion of the homeland elicits among average citizens. Iraqis may despise and fear Saddam Hussein, and the country’s ethnic and religious diversity will provide eventually a source of popular acquiescence if not support for the coalition forces. But an invasion is an invasion, regardless of intentions, and it is pointless to attempt to disguise this fact. Greek history also helps us evaluate America’s plans for a post-conflict Iraq. President Bush recently outlined his ambitious vision concerning a democratic Middle East, beginning, of course, with Iraq. However, there is no such thing as instant democracy. Greece, for example, went through a tumultuous process over a period of decades before a secure and functioning liberal democracy could be established. Furthermore, there exists a clear link between economic prosperity and the democratic prospects of a state. Given Iraq’s uneven economic development, complete lack of civil society structures, and absence of ethnic homogeneity (unlike post-World War II Japan and Germany), the international community can hope at best for a democratizing but not a democratic Iraq. The process will be lengthy and will require international stewardship and substantial funds, not to mention a continued and costly military occupation. There can be little doubt about the ultimate victory of the coalition forces in Iraq. Let us keep in mind though that acts of conquest often result in different interpretations. Tacitus openly condemned Roman imperialists by pointing out that «they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wilderness and call it peace.» The invasion of Iraq will eventually be judged not so much by its duration and the number of casualties, but by Iraq’s final status. The issue is not to prevail in war, but to win the peace. A genuine engagement, funding and support by the international community will prove essential to the success and legitimacy of this long-term endeavor. The significance of this point cannot be overemphasized. Progress in the political, societal and economic realms does not necessarily follow a linear path, even when one has the most sincere of intentions. As British historian Herbert Butterfield explained, «History has contributed… to the realization of how crooked and perverse the ways of progress are, with what willfulness and waste it twists and turns, and takes anything but the straight track to its goal, and how often it seems to go astray.» Let us be warned! (1) Theodore Couloumbis is professor emeritus at the University of Athens and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer of International Relations at the University of Piraeus and a research fellow at ELIAMEP.