Small:Iraq through the looking glass of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

Des Moines Register
May 28, 2004

On Monday evening, President Bush repeated his optimistic belief that a stable, Western-style democracy can be created in Iraq.  Since the American-led invasion, the President has been steadfast in holding to that view.  In February 2003, he stated at a meeting of supporters of the American Enterprise Institute that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom” for other nations in the region.  In October, at a meeting with Ambassador Paul Bremer, Bush again observed that “a free and secure Iraq in the midst of the Middle East will have enormous historical impact.”  On May 21, he said at a commencement speech at Louisiana State University: “We have an historic opportunity, the establishment of a peaceful and democratic Iraq at the heart of the Middle East, which will remove a danger, strike a blow against terrorism, and make America and the world more secure.”

Few Americans would fault Bush’s optimistic vision.  A peaceful and democratic Iraq would make the world a better place and America more secure.  The question is whether it is realistic to assume that this ideal goal is achievable in our lifetimes.  History seems to instruct us otherwise.

Iraq was carved out of portions of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and the British occupied that new nation under a mandate of the League of Nations.  Contrary to what Bush had to say Monday about Iraq now having a constitution for the first time, constitutions were written in the 1920s and ’30s.  Then they were rewritten, rewritten again and finally tossed aside.  Various assemblies were formed and disbanded as repeated efforts were made to establish a coherent political process.

Nothing worked and no democratic institutions evolved, even though the British were masters at running an empire and played a role there of one sort or another until well into the 1950s.

Now the neoconservatives in the Bush administration are trying their hand.  We wish them well.  But their dreams and activities remind me of the scholars in Jonathan Swift’s Royal Academy of Lagado in “Gulliver’s Travels.”  They, too, were idealists.  Although blind, they mixed colors for painters by feel and smell.  They built houses by beginning at the roof and only later worked down to the foundations.  They tried for years to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers.

The common characteristic of the scholars of the Academy of Lagado was their inability to exercise any common sense.  They strove mightily to force the world to conform to their notions of what should be.  They refused to adapt to reality and to how the world and human nature actually worked.  When they failed, as they always did, they did not adjust; they worked harder and failed again.

Such scholars still continue their work, not between the pages of an 18th-century classic but in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.  They serve there as the trusted advisers of the Bush administration and chart the future of Iraq.

These scholars within the Bush administration are still convinced there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and with time they will be uncovered.  They are still convinced that the people of Iraq will ultimately welcome us as liberators rather than as conquerors.  They are still convinced that with a little patience, a liberal democracy will flourish in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates.

They hold these truths so dearly they will risk lives – the lives of others – to prove their doctrines true.

Edmund Burke, another 18th-century British writer and a great statesman who supported the American Revolution, observed that democracies do not come into being according to abstract ideas of right.  Rather, the people must desire freedom, have an abiding respect for the rule of law and their government must originate directly from the people and cannot be transmitted to them.  Sadly, these conditions do not exist in Iraq and, despite the desires of the Bush administration’s academy scholars, are unlikely to spring into existence in my lifetime.

ARTHUR SMALL of Iowa City is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.  Before he became a lawyer, Small taught English literature, including “Gulliver’s Travels,” at St. Ambrose University and wrote his M.A. thesis on Edmund Burke.