Sulaimani, Northern Iraq, April 9, 2011
Today, almost eight years after George Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech, angry citizens protested in Sulaimani. This follows a protest the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. Today is the 52nd consecutive day of anti-government protests in this city 150 miles northeast of Baghdad and 40 miles west of the Iranian border. The protests have often turned violent: a grenade and gunfire killed one person and injured more than a dozen others in late February. To date, at least eight people have been killed.
These incidents occur against a backdrop of protests-becoming-riots-becoming-revolts across the Middle East. Here in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, we have had nothing like the high drama in Egypt or the low deeds in Libya, but political violence has increased. This is especially worrisome for a region that prides itself on being the safest block in a very bad neighborhood.
These are the kinds of stories that make even well-intentioned Americans want to wash their hands of Iraq. If the Kurdish region, the friendly corner, “the model of democracy for Iraq,” is roiling with sometimes violent anti-government protests, what can we do?
The security situation is the most common argument I hear against Americans working in Iraq. The second argument is subtler, but possibly more dangerous in the long run. It boils down to this: “Contributing to the reconstruction of Iraq is tantamount to endorsing George Bush’s invasion.”
I respond that to not support the redemption of Iraq because of an aversion to George W. Bush is as immoral as the invasion that crystallized that aversion.
This is not an apology for the men who led us into war eight years ago. This is an argument that we should stop thinking about those men and get to work repairing the aftermath of their folly. The current needs and aspirations of 30 million human beings in Iraq should outweigh the American public’s dislike of a few past-tense politicians.
In the summer of 2009, I came to Sulaimani, a city of one million in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq. I took a teaching position at The American University of Iraq – Sulaimani. Here, educators, staff, administrators and, most importantly, 500 students work to build the only American university in Iraq and, in so doing, help to rebuild Iraq.
Americans—precious few—come to Iraq to find many things: adventure, altruism, money, souls. For many, the dreaded Liberal Guilt Syndrome plays a role. Whatever my reasons for coming to Iraq, the students rapidly became my reason for staying.
Ali is one of these students. Sectarian violence drove his family out of their native Baghdad. Ali studied briefly at the American University of Beirut, but chose to leave what is arguably the best school in the Middle East for our untested start-up because he “wanted to come home.” (According to the United Nations High Council for Refugees, almost 2 million Iraqis live outside the country as refugees. Very few have Ali’s courage.)
Sham is a bright student who asks questions in a soft, high-pitched voice. She does not cover her hair, as do many of my female students, but she is generally quiet. However, when she is handed an exam or a basketball, she roars.
Karwan is a published poet and an aspiring politician. When I first met him, he would try to use every English word he knew, often in the same sentence. Eighteen months later, he conveys complex ideas and delicate nuance in English and dreams of building an Iraq with politics based on issues, not ethnicities.
Between lesson plans and endless cups of tea, I stay in contact with family and friends back home. Over scratchy Skype calls and in hurried e-mails, they express concern for my safety. They also express surprise, if not outright disdain, at my decision to work in Iraq. No one is quite cynical enough to say it, but the message between the lines is, “How can you work to support Iraqi reconstruction when that might mean Bush was right to invade?” Sometimes, the question is even more visceral: “How can you work to support Iraqi reconstruction when that might mean we were right to invade?”
If people of good faith avoid helping Iraq to rebuild itself because of an aversion to past leaders and their ideologies, we allow ourselves to be buffaloed once more. Say the invasion was morally wrong and technically clumsy; making a further mess of the reconstruction will not change that fact. Two wrongs do not make anything right. The invasion cannot be undone, but we can still contribute to the reconstruction. I encourage Americans of all political stripes to think about what they can do for Iraq now.
Violent protests and the continued presence of terrorists in Iraq eight years after the U.S.-led invasion indicate that America alone cannot stabilize Iraq. While we cannot stabilize Iraq, we can help the Iraqis who can: young, idealistic Iraqis like the students Ali, Sham and Karwan.
The question is, “Who is more important?” Ali and his fellow returnees are more important than Donald Rumsfeld and his few “dead-enders.” Sham and her questions are more important than Dick Cheney and his non-answers on Fox News. Karwan and his ambitions are more important than George W. Bush and his premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished.”
Karwan is a freshman in college, and Karwan is the mission.
Geoffrey Gresk blogs at www.Iraq2point0.com.
San Saravan contributed to this article.