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Iraqis understand what Americans do not.
BAGHDAD — The new Iraq is slashes of color — purple, orange and green painted in broad swathes on the concrete barriers put up by the U.S. military and lining the road to the airport.
Iraqis are beginning to take back their country and take stock of what’s left.
After six years, the overwhelming American military presence has changed Iraq and Iraqis in countless ways. It’s left most of America — at least those who never served or had loved ones here — seemingly untouched.
America put down its boots in the land where civilization began. At times over the past six years, it has felt that civilization would end here. Would Iraqis rather have faced Saddam Hussein’s terrors and day-to-day repression than the prospect of being beheaded in their homes by insurgents? No one asked them. They didn’t really expect anyone would.
The true genius of America is that America can change, Barack Obama said on election night. But to those watching from beyond America’s shores, perceptions don’t change so easily.
For most of the world, America is an idea more than a place — a concept more powerful than the reality. There are few places where war has been more personal — Iraqis know the 1991 war after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait as "the Bush War." The invasion of 2003 was seen as George W. Bush finishing what his father started. To Iraqis, there was a tribal element of revenge to this war between the Bush and Hussein clans. Most Iraqis understood that. Most Americans did not.
The concept of an outsider in the White House is refreshing, but no match for the enduring myth of a monolithic America, the old America of Bush. Iraqis can more easily understand the U.S. as an occupier.
“Nothing in Iraq happens without America wanting it to happen,” a Western-educated Iraqi businessman explained to me. Conspiracy theories have always provided a convenient way for people in the region to avoid taking responsibility. But Iraqis would say they’ve had ample reason to be paranoid.
It’s hard to believe in change when you believe that everything is part of a master plan. In the Iraqi view, the combustible combination of American ideology, ignorance and arrogance that disbanded the Iraqi Army — and helped spark the insurgency — couldn’t possibly be a mistake. It’s part of a plan yet to be revealed.
“Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope,” Obama told the world Nov. 4.
But the stronger message instilled in the Middle East is that the power of America’s ideals is nothing without the might of its arms.
Iraqis don’t believe the U.S. came to instill democracy. If they wanted democracy they would push for it in places like Saudi Arabia and not oppose it in places like Gaza, the argument goes. Most Iraqis believe the U.S. came for its two preoccupations — oil and Israel.
You can draw a line from the shoes thrown at President Bush to the burning coal that is Gaza. From protests in Jordan and Egypt, to a White House that does not call for restraint while Palestinian women and children are killed by Israeli airstrikes in one of the most densely populated regions on earth. The Arabs’ ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians obscures to the West how deep the resentment lies over the unconditional U.S. support for Israel. Or how deeply people in the region believe that all U.S. foreign policy begins and ends with Israel.
That is a large part of the change people in the Arab world believe they need, but will not get.
At the start of the war, U.S. soldiers were more certain about why they’d been sent to Iraq. They signed up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they were defending the United States from terrorists, and they were sure that there was a link with Iraq.
“It’s payback time,” was a phrase I used to hear on patrol with soldiers. Now they’re not so sure.
American officials who have watched Iraq’s fragile progress fear that the new administration will lose interest in the country as it shifts its attention to a more pressing war in Afghanistan. They worry that Washington will disengage while the Iraqi government is pulled down by chaos and corruption, that U.S. forces will pull out before security takes hold.
Part of the change Iraqi officials would like to see is an America that listens more to the rest of the world.
“They brought a template with them that never fit,” says one long-suffering senior official of his experience with the Americans.
Part of the change Obama’s election has fostered in the United States is that ordinary people working together can make a difference. In the Middle East, with its carefully constructed divisions between the powerful and the powerless, it’s a concept that doesn’t work so well.
While America has changed Iraq, it’s unclear that Iraq has fundamentally changed America. In most parts of the country, it’s as if the U.S. hasn’t been at war.
New Yorkers are generally delighted to buy soldiers or Marines drinks in a bar as a sign of appreciation but most don’t personally know a single person in the military. At Christmas one year, an Army colonel friend waiting for his wife in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria in full dress uniform tells me he was mistaken more than once for a porter.
Then there’s Killeen, Texas, near the Fort Hood Army base — a city of strip malls, strip clubs and churches. There is no one there who has not been touched by the war and in military communities across the country, more people than we know who will never leave it behind.
A friend tells me about her military husband, who survived repeated IED attacks, playing on an Army golf course with his other wounded buddies when they were asked to step aside because they were moving too slowly.
“Can’t you see we’re all broken?” he told the retired officer.
After six years, more than 4,000 American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths and hundreds of thousands of lives overturned, a lot of Iraqis and Americans are too busy picking up the pieces to believe yet in the winds of change.