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From Athens to Basra

For the last couple of issues, I’ve taken some time off in this column to write about fun things: cricket, bullfighting, pretty girls, Hemingway. Here in Europe, the “silly

season” is off and running, the time of year when people head for the beach and leave politics behind. The newspapers, especially in Britain, have to find interesting things to write about, so the transfer of an English soccer player from a Manchester club to a Spanish one becomes very big news. His wife, one Posh Spice—her professional name—is reported to be an unwelcome addition to Spanish footballers’ wives’ groups because she’s a celebrity with an ego the size of John Podhoretz’s and Ariel Sharon’s combined. He is David Beckham, a good-looking young man who has a tendency to wear kaftans and dye his hair, things tough guys don’t do in macho Latin countries. Victoria Beckham was part of a singing group, the Spice Girls. Her genius lies in her ability to get her name in the papers, not in her singing.

Sport, unlike politics, is never off the radar screen, especially during the summer. In ancient Greece, the spirit of competition and the sporting ideal acquired a central position in society for the first time in human history. (Blame the Greeks for that one too.) The ancient ones were smart fellows. They believed the cultivation of man’s (not woman’s, sorry) mental and intellectual abilities was in no way divorced from physical exercise; on the contrary, they mutually complemented each other. Sports like track-and-field and gymnastics were connected with the musical education of the young and with the entire development of the intellect. Religion, moreover, far from being opposed to this kind of education, gave it an established position in the great panhellenic sanctuaries, where the athletic and musical contests were held under the gaze of the gods and thousands of spectators from all over the Greek world.

Enter the wise men: Socrates, Plato, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Sport is uncool, they claimed. The first to say it was Xenophanes of Kolophon in the late sixth century BC. He emphasized that the development of wisdom was much more important than strong arms and legs for the prosperity and order of the state. The great Euripides went even further: “There are ten thousand evils in Greece, but nothing is worse than the race of athletes.” Ouch! Who am I, a poor little Greek boy, to argue with the greats, even though I’ve dedicated my life to sport—amateur sport, mind you?No, the greats are right, developing one’s mind has to be more important than developing one’s deltoids, although I’d hate to say this in the company of surfers down California way. (Euripides who? You ripee dese trousers and you pay with your life … ) So, gravitas wins out.

Back to boring old Iraq, or “Eye-raq,” as some American friends pronounce it. Let’s face it. No matter which side you’re on, Iraq is a mess—a far bigger mess than Afghanistan, and that’s really saying something. In strict military terms, the deaths of an American and British soldier every day is not significant. (Except to their families and loved ones, but who cares about families and loved ones when Mr. Neocon decides to send others to fight.) But guerilla campaigns are about politics, not battlefield victories. The Viet Cong lost the Tet Offensive but won the propaganda battle hands down. The purpose of Tet was to erode the will of the public back home in America, and it succeeded brilliantly. I was a hawk during that war and was right to be one. Not only was the domino theory correct, we also had a treaty with the sovereign state of South Vietnam. The brave men who fought that war—one the disgusting Bill Clinton dodged—received a belated appreciation from the American people. I was also a hawk during the first Gulf War, not because I had any love for the grotesque Kuwaiti and Saudi so-called royals—they are thieving, usurping camel-drivers and nothing more—but because Saddam had overrun a sovereign country, as we have done recently.The purpose of resistance in Iraq is progressively to disenchant us with a commitment to an alien society where our soldiers’ sacrifice is unappreciated. I am not saying that Iraq is like Vietnam. At least not yet. But the administration’s absence of a credible political strategy is undeniable. There is a vacuum in Iraq, and it’s being filled by guerilla gunmen and Islamofascists grimly familiar in the area. Here’s Scott McConnell writing in “Taki’s Top Drawer” as long ago as August 1999: “Much of the intellectual establishment (read neocons) wants to bury under the rug the issue of whether Washington’s various military interventions and ultimatums are raising the risks ordinary Americans have to run in the name of high-sounding goals. In fact there is not a single cause that Clinton, Albright, the New Republic or the Weekly Standard wants Americans to fight for—multi-ethnic democracy in Kosovo (what a sad joke that has turned out to be), democracy in Iraq, the end of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, or indeed any of their pet issues —that is worth casualties in an American city.”

Hear, hear! Our executive editor was rather prescient, wouldn’t you say? Four years later, the you-know-what has hit the fan big time. Here’s Peter Hitchens writing from Baghdad: “It is not that Iraqis yearn for the return of Saddam—hardly anyone is sorry that he has gone. It is that they recognize—as Washington has yet to—that if you behead a system based upon a single tyrant and his single party, you need to provide an alternative authority immediately.” In this the Bushies have failed as spectacularly as Clinton did when he said he never had sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. Neocon theorists like Michael Ledeen can dream Mussolini-like fantasies of conquests (according to John Laughland, fascism inspires Ledeen’s theories), but who are these buffoons trying to kid? Well, that’s an easy one: the American people, that’s who.

The problem of war termination is comparatively new to Western states. Traditionally, wars between sovereign governments were ended with a knockout blow, the loser on the canvas surrendering and accepting a peace settlement. The British never truly managed to rule post-Ottoman Iraq. There were revolts and massacres and more deployments of troops. The Brits divided and ruled, using Iraqi minorities along with RAF bombing of dissident tribesmen. Post-Ottoman Iraq became easy to run only under—yes, you guessed it—Saddam Hussein. The current situation of chaos—and believe me it is chaos, no matter what the spin doctors say—has persisted since 1918, except for the Saddam years. What is now needed to save face is an exit strategy. A strongman is bound to emerge, and it’s not going to be the convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi, the darling of our dear Defense Secretary. (Chalabi should be in jail; instead, we are financing him to play Napoleon of the Dunes.)What I want to know is who will pay for this madcap venture based on false intelligence and a plagiarized essay by a student? (No Hollywood studio would accept this scenario, yet most Americans have.) It was all about WMD, but it turned out to be a tragic farce. We have destroyed Iraq in order to save it, have killed thousands, and lost hundreds. Nothing has been resolved, the waves and cheers have turned to hatred and cold-blooded murder of our soldiers, yet those responsible for the mess are riding high. If I had my way, the warmongers would be named by a bipartisan commission; stripped of their television spots, columns, magazines, and newspapers; made to apologize to the families of those who have lost their loved ones on both sides; and then sent to exile in Monte Carlo or Palm Beach. For the duration. Amen!

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