Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bush's ghostwriters on the looting of the Iraq National Museum

George W. Bush's utterly mendacious ghostwritten memoir contains only one mention of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. It comes in the context of a rare admission that "there was one important contingency for which we had not adequately prepared":

     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.

Friday, December 10, 2010

CNN Report on Pompeii: $ Going to Digging and Large Events Instead of Conservation

CNN reports on the problems at Pompeii. One major cause is a dramatic reduction in the Ministry of Culture's budget for conservation, cut in half between 2000 and 2008. The money seems instead to have gone to produce and promote theatre and shows at Pompeii, which is unconscionable by any standard, but also to archaeological excavations:
 “The financial resources available for restoration and conservation have always been negligible. Instead it is preferred to dig, rather than preserve what has already been discovered,” explained former superintendant of the ancient city, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo.
The archaeological community faces a serious ethical problem here, as in Iraq and elsewhere, when limited resources are being misallocated in ways that support archaeological discovery but at the cost of leaving sites to the mercy of nature, looters, and tourists. Would a boycott on digging by archaeologists until and unless adequate funding for site conservation and protection is put in place do any good?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

British Museum Raising $ for New Museum in Basra, Iraq

While the image of the Brits setting up a museum in Iraq to display artifacts removed from Iraq may leave one a bit queasy at the neo-colonialist overtones, this is actually a great idea worth emulating as a form of cultural diplomacy in other countries. One hopes that State Department officials are in discussions with the Met, the Art Institute, and other universal museums with holdings that could and should make visits to their countries of origin.

Kudoes to the indefatigable John Curtis and especially to Major General Barney White-Spunner for imagining and pushing this, and to the British Museum for backing the effort to raise funds.