Iraq During the Gore Years
Ahmed Ibraim remembers the dark years.
He remembers his friends and neighbors while they were rounded up by Saddam Hussein’s regime. He remembers the air raid sirens blaring at 3 am, and the frantic rush for cover, and, especially, the awful roar of the occasional nearby explosions. He remembers hating America for it all.
A Sunni, Mr. Ahmed today lives in a neighborhood that was, in many ways, spared from Saddam’s dark curtain, and, somehow, most of the bombs Saddam’s regime provoked.
Today, his once dusty neighborhood is replete with schools, busy grocery stores and even an occasional Starbucks. His three children have all passed entrance exams for universities run by a group known as the Hijric Collective, a Muslim group that has taken over management of the educational system. Some Iraqis say the group is tainted by American imperialism and Zionism, but the Hijric is so well financed, and most importantly, housed by Imams, paid off or not, that most of the complaints are mere utterances within the confines of local coffee houses.
The fact that the Hijric Collective is funded by numerous Western benefactors is not lost on Mr. Ibraim, but he adorns his skepticism and distrust with the hope that his children will have a better life than he could have hoped for.
Such is life in modern Iraq, a diffused land that has somehow, despite geopolitics, demonstrated that the concept of civics is a real one, and that disparate groups like Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds can choose to overcome extreme pasts even in a place as haunted as the world of Middle Eastern politics.
Mr. Ahmed is a typical Iraqi working man. A carpenter by trade, he spends hours at lunch time with his friends dissecting politics not only concerning his land, but America as well.
The backdrop for this story is normally not necessary, since it rings so familiar with Americans post-9-11, but it matters to Mr. Ibraim, who claims a different perspective on it than most Americans. Mr. Ahmed knows little of America. He hears tales, many of them unsettling, but he doesn’t trust the sources, and has no way of gauging the real truth about the nation that haunted his for so long.
“Every family,” says Mr. Ibraim, “in my country has a martyr. We were all so frightened after 9/11. We were afraid that America would act on it because we knew you had never experienced losing your brother in violence unless it was through a random act. For us, though, it happens every day.”
The weight of the attack that horrified Americans and unleashed an unprecedented wave of sympathy across much of the world was lost on Mr. Ibraim.
As was Gore’s quick and decisive reaction. “Americans will be intimidated to the extent we wish to be,” said Gore 47 seconds after his security advisor whispered the news of the attack into his ear. Visibly shaken, Gore’s next words characterized his presidency and ended forever his reputation as a wooden personality: “And I believe in my heart as an American that we don’t wish to be.”
When he got the news, Gore was sitting in a chair reading stories to students at a kindergarten in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. His warlike stance within such a fragile environment enthralled even Republicans and led to a historic synchronization with New York’s Rudolph Giuliani, whose subsequent “March of Victory,” as it was later known, became a defining moment in American history. Giuliani, who became a hero in New York for his entry into the World Trade Center at its weakest moment, walked hand in hand with Gore in parade after parade, with the same famous placard, “We Shall Overcome.”
The moment, albeit historical, still sends chills down the spine of many observers. “Folks are coming out of nowhere,” wrote one blogger, who was visiting friends in Manhattan at the time. “It’s weird. The President is marching down the street and it’s bleeding with people, like they smell victory, or some kind of truth.”
Mr. Ahmed pauses, reflects, clearly unaware of that part of history. And repeats what he said earlier. “Every family in my country has a martyr. Every single one. Nobody lives here without a sister, brother, who has not sacrificed.”
Mr. Ahmed admits that his bitterness is tempered by today’s reality. “Every neighbor of mine hunkered down for the invasion…and we all waited for it — and it never came, and we lost years of our lives listening to that silly bastard Saddam who kept telling us the end was near.”
Today, many psychologists who’ve hung shingles in Baghdad say that much of what Americans refer to as Middle Eastern rage is simply a loud, collective expletive on the part of its bourgeoning youth, a mass refrain based on a combination of poverty and political helplessness. “We see the videos of suicide bombers and we think how far apart we are as cultures,” says Simon Rosenthal, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Yale. “When in reality, all they’re doing is expressing their torment, which is something that people who live in what we might call ‘deprived classes’ have done throughout history.”
Mr. Ahmed has another explanation. “We have fought so many enemies to secure our lands,” he says, “that we stopped naming them long ago, and we’ll never feel freedom until every last foreigner, every last enemy, is removed from our territory.”
If pressed, Mr. Ahmed will tell you that he still names America when he considers the word “enemy”. “Their chief interest,” he says, “is, how can we turn the overthrow of Saddam into an investment? They’ve moved in with their fast food restaurants and grocery chains and banks, and they think they are part of this new regime, but they forget that we don’t put a higher value on something other than the Almighty the way they do.”
Then, with a wry smile, Mr. Ahmed will tell you of the pride he takes in his children’s success. Glowing, he offers photos of his children. The photographs are all decorated by impressive frames imported from Iran, which has, ironically, become an important trading and strategic partner with Iraq, largely because of the influence of the newly empowered Shi’a in the new Iraqi government.
“See, here?” exudes Mr. Ahmed as he displays a photo of his “first son” wearing a blue graduation cap. “This is Omar. He graduated from Samarra just this last month. If Allah wills it, my other son and my daughter will also be contributing to our great society soon, as well.” Mr. Ahmed then extols the virtues of the “Great Islamic university” in Samarra, which was built next to a holy shrine and boasts the largest student body in the Middle East.
Samarrah is, in fact, a testimony about America that even Mr. Ahmed admits to some reverence. Samarrah’s curriculum, designed by the Hijric Collective, has become a template for most of the new universities in the Middle East, such as those found in Riyadh, Beirut, Dubai and Cairo.
Mr. Ahmed also has cousins working for American, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern companies that have assets that stretch from the South of the Nile to the Euphrates.
Deep inside, and maybe because of the above, Mr. Ahmed still distrusts America and the West, despite his family’s growing success. He suspects a litany of conspiracies will be behind his eventual downfall, but he also has enough doubt about his own prejudices to wonder about the veracity of all of them.
Gore’s long-term answer to 9-11, as is famously known now, was a combination of guns and butter. His generals quickly drew up a plan for invading Afghanistan and quashing the Taliban, an operation that was hugely successful. But Gore, characteristically, was never comfortable with that maneuver. So, even though Al Gore, of all people, quickly became known as a general, it took him less than a month to divert the nation’s attention from what he called “the eyes of violence.”
So he turned his eyes on the rest of the Middle East, and declared to the world in his state of the Union address of 2002 that “No nation shall be alone in overcoming poverty, terrorism, or tyranny. No woman shall have a veil over her eyes unless she chooses, and no man shall punch through that veil unless we all acquiesce to that strange, untold right of passage that permits such a blasphemy.”
In normal times, pundits would have considered such a complicated message as proof that Gore’s only true constituency consisted of eggheads, but the quote was parsed and massaged so much that everyone in the country, and, eventually, the world, understood that the message was directed towards the Taliban, and that Gore was not declaring war on fundamentalist Muslims so much as he was fighting fundamentalist religion in all its flavors. One administration insider even snickered that “Pat Robertson is a speech away from a search warrant”.
History tells us, however, that the patriotic fervor surrounding Gore’s presidency would soon expire. World oil prices were rising exponentially, apparently because of fears that Gore would either nationalize oil companies or simply restrain them. Inflation began to creep into economic numbers out of Washington, so much so that some Republicans began to make comparisons to the Carter era.
Then, a surprising thing happened. William Sapphire of the New York Times praised Gore in a column by headlining, “Gore gets that America has had strange bedfellows, and he doesn’t blame us.” It was a strangely cryptic message, but the guts of it permeated American politics for the next two years. Sapphire’s column began a surprising torrent of similar exclamations from the entirety of the American political spectrum. George F. Will, for one, declared, “We got to third base with the dictators of the world during the Cold War, but to consistently drive in runs we need to focus on democracy, even if it becomes unpleasant to do so.”
Hugo Chavez’s anti-American presidential campaign quickly became an economic crusade, and Gore’s visit to Caracas in his second year created an alliance that most observers say only happened because of the two leaders’ common conviction that oil was threatening to become the world’s dictator. Chavez, his arm wrapped affably around Gore’s shoulder, proclaimed, “Mr. Gore is a true leader, and he has convicted us all. I will continue to extract every penny I can from consumer nations, but Mr. Gore has put me on notice that there is a new tax, one that has not yet been made known.”
Gore’s reaction, now known as BOH, became an American icon.
A $300 billion initiative, The BOH was eventually whittled down to about $90 billion through a combination of Republican opposition and public confusion about its purpose.
Gore’s enemies in the Senate were inspired by one of Gore’s own Senatorial allies, John McCain, who decried the BOH as, “a pansy attack against pansies”.
As soon as McCain said those words, it appeared the BOH was dead. But then came Arlen Specter, a Republican leader with at least the same stature as McCain, who declared the BOH “an innovation along the lines of the Marshall Plan”. “It is,” mused Specter, “a very well thought out war against the next world war.”
The rest is history. Billions of dollars poured into the Middle East under the cover of anti-poverty literacy programs as Gore stumped the nation in an endless string of speeches extolling the virtues of guns over butter. Because the money was funneled to, mostly, Islamic groups in the Middle East rather than governments, the intentions of the American government swiftly captured the hearts and minds of the poorer masses. The result: Three overthrown dictatorships, in Egypt, Syria, and, most hugely, in Iraq, where Saddam endured a fate similar to Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu.
The desert, as Tony Blair stated so eloquently when asked about rising oil prices recently, “is not golden. It is a tarnished land, fought over and coveted by so many and for so long. But I believe, very deeply, that this American President is helping the world learn that the mad desire to possess this land with no regard towards its people is a malignancy that we must cure.”
Today, most people look at the rocketing GNPs in the Middle East when they talk about the failure of Al Queda and Gore’s triumphant war. “We will fight them,” Gore said shortly after the 9/11 attacks, “on our terms, by demonstrating American values. To them and to those who might somehow believe that they are worthy of attention I can say only one thing: You cannot vanquish the goodness in people’s hearts.” America, said Gore, will take the battle to people of the Middle East.
A humbled John McCain took a diversion later when he said, “I was wrong, and I love America enough to admit that I’m wrong.”
Few pundits are surprised that he is the most likely Republican nominee to face Gore in 2004. Even fewer believe he’ll win.