On Beholding Baghdad

Avarice and conspiracy invariably smell most foul when they seep into scenes of sacrifice and hope. The stench that made its way into Iraq this week, pulled in amid the powerful currents of triumph and selflessness, was unmistakable in its rankness. What should now be a moment of deep satisfaction-mitigated but not negated by terrible losses suffered by soldiers and civilians during the conflict-has already been tainted by self-interest disguised as magnanimity.

Consider the dimensions of the victory, still incomplete, that the coalition and its allies within Iraq can now claim: In the space of one week, they allowed a plainly confused citizenry to progress from obsessive worries about whether Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen would be destroyed in anything resembling the short term to visual assurances that those squads were being cut down like the murderous, frothing animals they’ve always been. At the same time, the coalition forces put to rest the question of whether and where the vaunted Republican Guard units might be lying in wait by demonstrating that most of them had been transformed into a horrific collection of body parts that filled bomb craters, ditches and ruined entrenchments all over Iraq. The coalition’s army, a force unsurpassed by any in history in bravery and daring, and unequaled in its attention to discriminatory tactics, silenced those critics who wondered if Saddam’s regime might not in fact enjoy the grassroots loyalty of a majority of Iraqis: They boldly destroyed first the weapons and then the symbols of Saddamite power, and were cheered in their work by a civilian population that began genuinely to believe that the transformation underway in their country might be permanent.

The process of dispelling the deadly black magic of authoritarianism that has for so long enthralled Iraqis was capped Sunday by preliminary reports that caches of chemical weapons may have been found, and then by the news (of equal if not more importance to the fighting morale of Iraqi insurgents and Kurdish forces) that the official most closely associated with the use of those weapons, Saddam Hussein’s cousin “Chemical Ali,” had been killed by coalition planes. Within a day, another electric rumor circulated: Not only Saddam himself but his brace of sadistic sons had been killed by bunker-buster bombs. In all, it was a week unlike any in modern American military history; and it may seem peculiar that one should encounter in this column anything but unqualified appreciation of and enthusiasm for the achievement.

But scheming politicians and businessmen can deflate the mood of any analyst, and the greedy plotting that has haunted, in the case of Iraq, can no longer be considered separately from the military campaign-not when it stands an excellent chance of tarnishing the great achievements of the campaign itself.

Who will be watching out for postwar Iraq? After the conclusion of hostilities, the focus of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will shift to other matters affecting American national security all around the world-that’s his job. The problem is that Mr. Rumsfeld will leave behind a very confused picture, peopled by a cast of dreamy lieutenants and profiteers. It’s easy to imagine how this situation could degrade the nascent security that has been won for the Iraqi people.

The working models for postwar Iraq are said to be Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban and the Kurdish free state created in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War. Bits and pieces-and, in some cases, officials-from each experience will be adopted and adapted for use in Iraq generally, in order to create a situation in which (so goes the litany) all Iraqis will eventually feel free to participate in a free, open, democratic government. Since we are talking about one of the oldest civilized regions on earth-one where true democracy has never flourished-this may take some time, but the schemers show every sign of trying to stretch that time out longer than is necessary or advisable.

They hide their work absolutely and loftily: We are, after all, a country that has always profiteered with a noble fig leaf; and the man whose job it is in this case to spin a set of philosophical principles that will serve as a cover for the potentially exploitative occupation of Iraq is Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Possessed of a powerful intellect, along with ideas that, packaged in the best sort of benign American wrappings, are nonetheless characteristically self-interested, Mr. Wolfowitz is thought of as the eminence grise behind the idea that a democratic Iraq is possible, desirable-and will take far longer to embody than did the rehabilitation of Afghanistan (where a pre-assembled government was in place within weeks of the liberation of Kabul and where-not coincidentally-the potential rewards to American business were far lower).

Mr. Wolfowitz has been analyzed and reanalyzed in the press, yet he is not generally paired closely enough with the American to whom he bears the strongest ideological and psychological resemblance: Woodrow Wilson. This is perhaps understandable- Mr. Wolfowitz is a short, unassuming Jew, while Wilson was a puffed-up, posturing Presbyterian-but it’s also troubling. For whatever the superficial differences between the two men, they share one overriding quality: a belief in evangelical interventionism. This passion caused Wilson’s eight-year Presidency to become the greatest single period of American interference in the affairs of other governments in our nation’s history: He was a serial, unilateral interventionist, and one gets the feeling that Mr. Wolfowitz-who increasingly enjoys the ear of another democratic evangelist, George W. Bush-may be trying to duplicate the feat.

“I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” Woodrow Wilson once railed; and although Mr. Wolfowitz’s statements about Iraq and the Middle East are more soft-spoken and rambling, they often have the same sense of high moral purpose-and the same low estimation of the aspirations and abilities of the local populace. Like Latin Americans in Wilson’s day, the people of the Middle East are generally people who have lived under post-imperial petty autocracies for so long that they have almost forgotten that any other type of government exists. And, again like those Latin Americans of a century ago, they look primarily to religion to ease the burdens of repressive regimes.

Indeed, there is entirely too much about the Middle East of today that might attract a Wilsonian missionary. The President-Who-Should-Have-Been-Preacher never did manage to “teach the South American republics” much of anything, except that they didn’t understand what he was talking about-and, after enough harangues and bullets, no longer cared to even try.

Can President Bush, following Mr. Wolfowitz’s ideas, do better with Muslims than Wilson did with Latin Americans? It seems unlikely, since neither man seems ready to drop the didactic tone, with its attendant belief that the native population in question is made up not of men and women, but of ignorant children. And whatever small chance Mr. Bush and Mr. Wolfowitz might have at success seems further doomed by still another factor that played a central role in giving the lie to Wilson’s supposedly beneficent policies: the voracious appetite of international American corporations.

In early to mid-20th-century Latin America, the citizens of country after country heard the rhetoric of Wilson, but came up hard against the practices of American mining, agriculture and construction giants; and children though they may have been in the eyes of both the paternalistic Wilson and the far more sinister corporate magnates, those people understood the game that was being played out within their borders. Yet Wilson at least managed to keep the worst agents of corporate greed out of the White House itself; in our own time, by contrast, we have already seen the heavy, piggish hands of Vice President Dick Cheney and his multinational friends at work in the planning for a postwar Iraq. That Mr. Cheney attempted to secure a $600 million reconstruction package in Iraq for his own former company, Halliburton, without even a blush is almost as remarkable as the fact that, once that idea had been slapped down, he went right ahead and secured a smaller contract for one of Halliburton’s subsidiary companies, K.B.R.

Shameless? Perhaps-but that word implies an initial understanding of what “shame” is, and there is nothing in the Vice President’s career to suggest that he has ever embraced any philosophy more delicate than the belief that success in a corporate environment is what separates natural leaders from the rest of us. And for this reason, whether or not any company associated with Halliburton does end up biting off a nice, fat mouthful of the dripping Iraqi roast, there are a crowd of other Cheney cronies lined up to do the gorging. One way or another, Iraq is going to be good for those who have been good to the Republican Party-and democracy is not going to be allowed to travel abroad without toting the same cumbersome baggage it carried in Wilson’s time.

Nor will Messrs. Bush and Cheney’s Democratic opponents weep over this; or, if they do, it will only be because their dispenser of high-priced favors was not clever enough to wrest the great national prize from his opponent in Florida three years ago. Had the pillars of Big Labor known that they would be losing the reconstruction of an entire country in that process, they might well have pushed their Tennessee prince a little harder to play dirty; as it is, they still have such agents as Carl Levin of Michigan at their disposal in Congress, setting traps for the dispensers of Republican largesse in order to make sure that places at the trough are cleared for wealthy yet hungry Democratic interests (although Mr. Levin’s constituents are already making out quite well, thanks to renewed defense contracts).

Cynics, of course, will groan and sigh and say that there’s nothing new in any of this-and they’re right.

But the threat posed to the lives and interests of Americans by Islamic terrorism is, by contrast, unprecedented, and in no way comparable to, say, the bandit raids of Pancho Villa into U.S. territory during Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency. Characters such as Villa may have been capable of humiliating Washington, but they could not bring on full-scale crises: Wilson could ultimately afford to play his neurotic games of democratic nation-building in Latin America because they had no real cost to his own people (though he inflicted great suffering on Latin Americans). But the ventures of George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz may expose us to greater dangers than any we have known.

But it is to the memory of the military campaign still in its final phase in Iraq-and specifically, again, to the legacy of the men and women who have both fought in it and been killed and maimed as a result of it-that this venerable evangelical paradigm of American international behavior offers the greatest insult. The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein has not been on a par with the wandering ashore of a detachment of drunken Marines-which was more than once Woodrow Wilson’s method of insertion into troubled Latin American countries. Rather, the Iraq war has been (as this column has tried repeatedly to point out) that rarest of rarities in military history, a progressive campaign. In this campaign, we have seen innovative military principles and methods potentially change the political map of a region. Are we to sit back now and watch political and economic business-as-usual squander such momentous, such rare military achievements?

Perhaps. Or perhaps we will instead learn-for what would arguably be the first time in our nation’s history-to value superior military methods over self-serving economic ends. Perhaps we will insist that our civilian leaders honor the achievements and sacrifices of our forces, and those Iraqis who have fought beside them, by rejecting the plan that Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz are trying to railroad through Congress, even as various Iraqi opposition groups scream their protests. Perhaps we will recognize that “Iraqi Freedom” may not mean “Iraqi American-Style Capitalist Democracy”; but then, our commanders presumably chose the first name rather than the second because it had a distinctly better ring to it. This ought to tell them something: We have sacrificed and inflicted sacrifices in order to liberate Iraq, and let its people live as they wish-not to remake it in our image. That is the work we must now be about; that is the only work that can match what our troops have done in the field.

Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror (Random House) has been published in a revised and updated edition.