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A War of Ideas

Reviewed by Richard A. Clarke
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page BW03

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BANKING ON BAGHDAD: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict

By Edwin Black. Wiley. 471 pp. $27.95

Edwin Black's Banking on Baghdad underlines Iraq's long history of exploitation by Western powers and powerful corporations struggling for advantage and domination. His impressive analysis, which included looking at more than 50,000 original documents and hundreds of scholarly books and articles, provides a comprehensive history of Iraq that explains why the West's record in the region so complicates nation-building there today. Black writes that popular sentiment in Iraq in the post-World War II era is most aptly characterized by "resentment over foreign interference, anti-Zionism, and churning nationalism . . . fused into a rage against the West." Clearly, the West's imperial legacy in Iraq has placed the United States at a major disadvantage in the war of ideas in the Middle East. America's poor understanding of Iraq's history only makes matters worse. "Most Americans had never heard of Najaf," the great center of Shiite pilgrimage, Black points out, "and barely knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis." In one foreboding anecdote, he describes the British effort after World War I to bring Iraq under British colonial control, with limited sovereignty, using "40 handpicked representatives," all of whom were expected to support the British agenda. After Iraqi protests went unheard, the British soon had a protracted, nationwide insurgency on their hands.

Black recounts numerous incidents of exploitation in intricate detail; his analysis of how Iraq's oil has greased the treads of war throughout modern history is particularly noteworthy. He writes that Iraqi crude fueled the tanks, warships, submarines and airplanes that helped fight for ultimate control of Iraqi territory during World War II. Well into the Cold War, Iraq remained a strategic outpost, even as its people remained "largely destitute, significantly unemployed, and detached en masse from the nation's oil wealth." Black's book is thoughtful and meticulous, though many readers may find the breadth of analysis too ambitious and, at just fewer than 500 pages, a bit tedious at points. His analysis, nevertheless, highlights the deficit of legitimacy the United States faces in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Since so few Arabs will seriously listen to arguments about democracy from the U.S. government, the war of ideas will have to be fought by nongovernmental organizations, governments other than the U.S. administration, and friendly leaders in the Islamic world. Washington could, however, play a role in stimulating such groups, governments and individuals to assume these tasks. The Office of Transition Initiatives at the State Department has staged many successful public relations campaigns for the United States by supporting local NGOs in Muslim countries critical to the global fight against al Qaeda, such as Indonesia and Afghanistan.

Above all, U.S. nation-building efforts and operations against the global jihadist movement must be planned with an appreciation for how such efforts affect the global war of ideas. A sound and effective response in that contest could become our greatest asset; an inconsistent and ineffective response, as we are now seeing, will certainly become one of our greatest weaknesses. •

Richard A. Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator under Presidents Clinton and Bush, is the author of "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror."

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