On Thursday, March 20, 2003, at 9:30 pm EST or 530 hours local time, bombs started falling on Baghdad. Nineteen days later, on April 9, U.S. marines secured the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Again three weeks later, on Mayday, the Climate-Changer-in-Chief appeared in uniform on the screens of a worried planet and declared the mission accomplished.
Five years or one hundred thousand corpses later, Baghdad is the worst place to live on Earth. In terms of public relations, the American Dream has earned a Darwin Award. It wasn’t that long ago that “America” used to evoke cool images to the world—Martin Luther King; John F Kennedy; Jimi Hendrix.
Now it evokes losers and lost faces: scowling Rice; snarling Cheney; simian Bush.
It wasn’t that long ago, either, that the letters “USA” stood for stunning environmental legislation and universal human rights. Eight years into the new millennium and five yeas into Iraq have turned them, at least for the time being, into a detested symbol of blood, oil, and climate change.
Five years that could have been devoted to spearheading the switch to a post-carbon economy had been wasted, instead, on fighting over oil. The money poured year after year into the war effort, for the sake of maintaining the fossil lifestyle, is the very money that would have made a conversion to a viable infrastructure easier. Better Americans than the ones not yet impeached would have used the five years to invest in solar and wind, to build bullet trains and bike paths, and to make Kyoto and Bali work.
And the worst of it is: everyone knows it.
Suppose, this will be it, and nothing much changes anymore. Suppose the Green Zone will remain a place for arms dealers and oil companies; anything outside of it will be an American-made wasteland. Suppose Iraqi oil will be taken by multinationals that will line the pockets of U.S. leaders. Suppose people will keep dying; politicians will keep lying, and suppose the evening news from the Mideast, forever and ever, will remain the journalistic version of Groundhog Day. Suppose this will be it.
What stories shall future generations tell their children about Americans in Iraq?
Right now, odds are that the stories would go somewhat like this:
Once upon a time there was a large country and a little country. The little people had oil that the large people wanted. The large people knew that oil boils climate but didn’t care. While other peoples were evolving toward sustainable frames, the large people stomped on the little people and took control of their land. They made excuses. They said the little people had scary weapons. They said the little people had a scary boss. They said the little people had scary friends. They said the little people had scary beliefs. They said a lot but in the end just took what they needed. Only the little people didn’t quite let them. So the large people got mad and kept stomping about. In the end, when the harvests failed and the poles melted and food became hard to pay for, everyone started hating the large people, who had taken the wrong turn at the wrong time and made everything worse for everyone else. Thus the large people faded away and their name became an insult and a curse.
Time turns the complicated into a cartoon. It turns the multi-hued into a monochrome, and it reduces the evenhanded to a moral. Less than a lifetime was needed to distill the chaotic events of WWII into a clear-cut story with one point everywhere: Nazis lose in the end, for what they do is destructive, unsustainable, and self-reducing.
Now we risk leaving behind a similarly cartoonish and inexcusable legacy. Seen from a distance, either across continents or over generations, there’s no reason to single out Bush, Cheney, or Rice, since there is no impeachment. So the future campfire story, of the oil-stealing, orb-blistering, and climate-changing Americans in Iraq, is now in the making. But the story is still a little bit fluid; there’s still time before it crystallizes.
What would it take to tweak the conclusion and end on a better note?
Formally the answer is simple. A happy and hopeful ending would be one in which the Iraqi people, who were beaten up for no good reason in the first place, come out as winners. As soon as the story now in the making would lead to something like, “in the end, before everything ran out of control, the large people created a good deal for the little people, stomped on the oil habit, and started carbon sequestration,” the name “USA” would not become an insult. Mixed messages undercut simple morals.
There are two ways of making this work.
1. The Nationalizing Solution:
clean up, rebuild, and leave the assets in peace;
that is, let the Iraqis nationalize their oil industry and go home.
2. The Naturalizing Solution:
clean up, rebuild, and integrate Iraq;
that is, let the Iraqis naturalize as U.S. citizens and turn Iraq into a Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Alaska.
Either way, everyone wins, nobody loses.
Yesterday was weirdly poetic. Some of my colleagues are bushists, so the seminar room displays the flag. During the five-year anniversary, the light shining on the flag flickered all day long.