In the weeks after liberation, Baghdad descended into a state of lawlessness. I was appalled to see looters carrying precious artifacts out of Iraq's national museum and to read reports of kidnapping, murder, and rape. Part of the explanation was that Saddam had released tens of thousands of criminals shortly before the war. But the problem was deeper than that. Saddam had warped the psychology of Iraqis in a way we didn't fully understand. The suspicion and fear that he had cultivated for decades were rising to the surface.
"What the hell is happening?" I asked during an NSC meeting in late April. "Why isn't anybody stopping these looters?"
The short answer was that there was a manpower shortage in Baghdad. The Iraqi police force had collapsed when the regime fell. The Iraqi army had melted away. Because of Turkey's decision, many of the American troops who liberated Baghdad had been required to continue north to free the rest of the country. The damage done in those early days created problems that would linger for years. The Iraqis were looking for someone to protect them. By failing to secure Baghdad, we missed our best chance to show that we could.True enough. But the excuse that "Saddam had warped the psychology of Iraqis in a way we didn't fully understand", cultivating "suspicion and fear" that were now "rising to the surface," reflects the stupidity and intellectual laziness that characterized Bush and his gang. As I and many others have made abundantly clear, there was massive evidence that Iraqis were willing and able to loot their country's cultural institutions if given the opportunity: the many regional museums looted within 24 hours of the establishment of no-fly zones back in the 1990s should have made that clear enough that the national museum would be targeted. McGuire Gibson, the Archaeological Institute of America, and many others from the archaeological community warned explicitly that looting was almost certain to occur (Gibson in a face-to-face meeting with Ryan Crocker in late January). And, as we know now thanks to Elizabeth Stone's forensic examination of time-series satellite imagery, the redeployment of Iraqi troops away from the site areas in January 2003, in preparation for the impending invasion, unleashed a wave of looting on Iraq's sites even before the US arrived.
These looters were not driven by a warped psychology of suspicion and fear, but by a much simpler psychological mechanism that Bush and other freemarketers certainly could have understood: the profit motive. Antiquities are valuable commodities. It doesn't take a genius to imagine that a country reduced to anarchy will resemble the purest of free markets. But it is easier to blame Saddam instead.
In any case, once Bush saw that the museum had been looted (how, it is hard to say, since to my knowledge there is no footage showing looters carrying objects out of the museum), he should have immediately asked, "What the hell is happening?" Yet he waited until late April to pose this question (assuming that the memoir didn't just make up this remark). That speaks volumes about the fecklessness of our worst President.