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Iraq: Will It Be Different This Time?

Could Iraq be another Muslim surprise to the West in its resilience to U.S. occupation?

December 20, 2002

Could Iraq be another Muslim surprise to the West in its resilience to U.S. occupation?

In the last century, it was Great Britain which invaded Iraq twice — in World War I and World War II. Both times, the British were successful — although the Mesopotamian campaigns of 1915-1917 cost them over 50,000 lives.

Of course, in light of recent events, it's hard to see what good they accomplished back then. Indeed, some observers note the artificial borders of Iraq — and conclude that many of the problems that the English-speakers are poised to "fix" today are the result of those past British adventures.

These problems range from the border dispute with Kuwait to the dispossession of the Kurds.

But now it appears all but certain that America will retrace that forlorn path. In doing so, it appears to ignore tragic monuments to past folly. "It'll be different this time" — that's the standard refrain of the giddy, the optimistic and the ahistorical.

But the mechanics of U.S. occupation should give anybody pause. For a primer on the benefits and odds of occupation, just ask yourself these questions: How are the mighty Israelis doing in the West Bank — after decades of occupation? How are the powerful Indians doing in Kashmir?

Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find any place in the Arab — or even the Muslim — world where a non-Muslim minority successfully rules over a Muslim majority. That is, Muslims seem to be inspired by the anti-colonial Zeitgeist — plus, of course, their own fierce faith.

And it's that faith that Americans and Westerners in general have underestimated. Little has happened in the Muslim world over the last three decades that actually was anticipated by non-Muslim observers.

Let's examine that list of surprises. It ranges from the surprising effectiveness of the Egyptian army in the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to the fall of the Shah in 1979.

And it goes on to the stalemate of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the rise of Hezbollah-style suicide bombing in the 1990s — and finally the strategy of airplane bombing of today.

And yet, most of these events can be traced back to Islamic militancy. Now that militancy is spreading to other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia — a place that few Americans even knew was Islamic.

Indeed, until a few years ago, most Indonesians didn't seem to know they were Muslim. Western ways predominated. But now, the country is fundamentalizing, radicalizing — and anti-Americanizing.

What's the reason for Indonesia's change? And Islam's? Is it a spontaneous upheaval? Is it in reaction to America? To Israel? To Britney Spears?

As the struggle of ideas across oceans and continents is subject to a constant flux that is full of surprises, so is the world of military affairs. It's hard to imagine America suffering a Waterloo-like fate anytime soon. Which, of course, is not the same as it not happening, ever.

After all, in 1815, neither Wellington the winner nor Napoleon the loser had to concern themselves with weapons of mass destruction. History may be cyclical, but technology is mostly linear.

And so sometimes, the line may trump the circle. And if and when that happens, even the mightiest empire could fall.