Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Lessons of Iraq: A Small Quibble With Neil Brodie

Neil Brodie, one of the researchers on illicit antiquities whose work I most admire in the field, has added his own post to others on the Saving Antiquities for Everyone site marking the tenth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum. I always learn from Brodie's writings, and there is much to learn from this piece as well. But I do find myself disagreeing with one of the claims he makes in this piece, and wanted to lay out the reasons why it strikes me as problematic, as well as why I think it is important enough a point to warrant my airing my disagreement with someone I consider an intellectual ally and leader in the field of cultural policy research that has to do with the protection of archaeological sites.

The claim that bothers me comes at the end of this paragraph:
Looking back [at the last ten years since the invasion of Iraq in 2003], one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.
The reasoning here seems wrong to me, both as a matter of logic and as a matter of evidence. To begin with the evidence: Brodie seems to believe that there was "effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s", when the focus should have been on "trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand". That strikes me as backwards: the focus was on getting the UN to put in place a worldwide ban (Resolution 1483), and on embarrassing the museums into tightening their acquisitions policies. As for putting resources into protecting Iraqi sites, we know that the opposite is the case: the US disbanded Iraq's antiquities police and did next to nothing to protect the vast majority of Iraqi sites itself during the occupation period; after the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi government, the US failed to either assist Iraq in reconstituting its antiquities police or to jawbone the Iraqi government into doing so. As late as 2010 (if memory serves), a New York Times article reported that only 50-100 of the 5,000 or so antiquities police that Iraq's own antiquities policing chief said were needed had been budgeted for.  Little wonder then that massive looting occurred in Iraq during that period. 

One of the many lessons of Iraq, in fact, is precisely the opposite of Brodie's dictum that "looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection": looting will never be controlled in the absence of on-the-ground site protection. And the corollary -- that when-on-the-ground site protection is strong, looting is controlled -- also holds. Case in point? Iraq, where looting was controlled pretty well by on-the-ground site protection when the antiquities police under Saddam were powerful.  One could say the same of Egypt under Mubarak.

This is not to say, I hasten to add, that those of us who wish to curtail looting should not also be focusing on policies of trade regulation at the international level focused on stopping the illegal export and import of artifacts (which I would call the distribution side) as  regulation of the demand side (where the sale takes place to collectors and museums). This is not an either/or. To be maximally effective, we need both. 

I would argue, in fact, that more than both, we need linkage between the supply and the demand sides: the only way we will get "adequate" international anti-smuggling regulation that actually is enforced, and site protection that is robust, is if we regulate the demand side by, among other things, imposing a tax on sales of licit antiquities that can generate the revenue needed to pay for robust enforcement of both site protection and anti-smuggling policing. We can't begin to have the argument about how/whether such a linked policy could work in practice, however, or about what Neil has in mind when he calls for  "adequate policies  of trade regulation at the international level", until we stop denying that on-the-ground site protection curtails looting.

I do of course agree that on-the-ground site protection is very very difficult in times of revolution, civil war, or when the state itself is destroyed by an invading force that does not itself impose law and order.  But while difficult, protecting at least some sites in these conditions is not impossible. In fact, one of the other lessons of Iraq is that when the police disappear, the people need to be ready to mobilize to step into the breach. Donny George did that in 2003 himself along with other brave staffers who stood guard in front of the museum holding iron pipes to deter carloads of men carrying AK-47s who drove by having heard that the museum had been looted and hoping to make a foray of their own. And this lesson was learned by Egyptian citizens in Cairo who linked arms to form a human chain around their museum, and who cited Iraq's example as pointing to the need to do this. Monica Hanna and other activist archaeologists in Egypt are now mobilizing Egyptians to take direct action to protect sites and to pressure their government to do more to protect them. Similarly, antiquities officials in Libya learned from arrangements made by archaeologists in Iraq to pay local sheikhs to provide site security, and made deals with local Libyan shepherds to permit grazing on archaeological sites to create a continuous presence there that deterred looting effectively.

These are small successes, but they are real, as are the recent development of new programs by UNESCO and other international agencies focusing on disaster planning for contingencies that might include the breakdown of civil order. To say categorically then, as Brodie does, that "the effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s," and that "whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along", is to miss the learning that has gone on at this level of civil society.

Having gone on this long griping about what I think Neil has got wrong, I want to end by emphasizing that he has gotten absolutely right the need for archaeologists to stop simply pointing the finger at museums and push within their own universities for the hiring of heritage policy researchers -- in, I would add, tenure-track lines jointly funded between public policy or law or international relations departments and the archaeologists' department. I'm not as sanguine as Neil is in thinking that policy makers take seriously hard empirical evidence and cogent reasoned arguments. (My favorite story in this regard: a state arts agency head listened to one of our U of C profs showing that economic impact studies in the arts are completely unreliable, and responded, "I don't care, so long as I have a number, any number, that my legislator can cite.") I myself think we need not just more facts and figures, but more sophisticated models drawn from other policy sectors (i.e., archaeological sites are like environmental goods that get destroyed in the course of producing something else -- antiquities, electric power -- that is marketed, so environmental policy suggests a "pollution tax" might make sense for the antiquities trade). I also think we need more information about the costs of various strategies (is on-the-ground site protection really "too expensive"? compared to enforcing border controls? undercover operations to catch dealers and collectors? and who pays?) But I do share his feeling that we're unlikely to make any progress unless we have more thinking of this kind.


Neil Brodie said...

Knew you wouldn’t like it!!

I suppose I should clarify what I am and am not saying.

First, site protection in Iraq. I said “effort and resources”, and I believe that the effort of some very hard-working archaeologists, museum curators, police, military personnel and politicians, both Iraqi and Coalition, was not fully reflected in the realized material provision of site protection. Similarly, now, I see effort and resources being devoted – I might say diverted – to the question of site protection in Syria. I have long suspected, though nothing more, that UNSCR 1483 did more to protect sites in Iraq than anything on the ground. In other words, a demand-focused measure did more than site protection. The failure there is that UNSCR 1483 was targeted only at Iraq. I hear talk now about the desirability of a similar resolution aimed at Syria. I’m not sure how that would help the situation in Egypt, for example, and I’m not sure what learning I’ve missed in that regard. We need “trade regulation at the international level”. At a guess, there are millions of sites in the world, thousands of collectors and hundreds of dealers. At that very simple level, it seems to me to be a matter of practical common sense where regulatory effort should be expended.

Second, Saddam and Mubarek. I wouldn’t characterize site protection under Mubarek as a success, I would call it a failure. What protection is it offering to archaeological sites in Egypt now? None. Mubarek’s policy did nothing to protect sites in the next country along, nor did it do anything to protect sites in the next regime along. A demand-focused strategy might have achieved a more sustainable solution.

Third, I agree that the localized integration of sites into cultural and economic practices is something to be supported. No argument there.

Fourth, I agree that we need “linkage”, though to me it implies forefronting the trade, not the actual looting. It also highlights the need for more good quality research, a point on which I am pleased to see we both agree.

I believe the problems of looting caused by the antiquities trade are ultimately caused by those who do the buying in the so-called demand or destination countries, and it is there that the solution lies. Calls for site protection sound to me very much like the trade and its beneficiaries trying to shirk responsibility for the damage caused while at the same time relocating guilt and inhibiting the development of more effective demand-focused policies. They add insult to injury.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Thank you for another interesting point of view, and one that I personally can find some agreement with. The "Demand side" prohibitionists will never eliminate looting. Their misguided zealotry would merely turn productive, law abiding citizens into criminals. The private collecting of antiquities does not have a 600+ year-long history because people find it amusing or fashionable. Many people outside of the academic world seriously study the past and have every bit as much concern about the preservation of objects and information as any so-called "professional" does. To ridcule or deny the legitimacy of independent scholarship, because it is not institutionalized, is Anti-American and from a practical point of view not very smart. The Demand Side ideologists will never understand that fact because it is not in the textbooks that every waking moment of their lives is governed by.

Personally, I have publicly advocated strong site protection for many years and contrary to some thinking I have NEVER opposed import restrictions. I have only opposed the extension of import restrictions to objects that do not meet the criteria of CPIA. What I have always said in private and in public is that we ALL need to follow the law. We all know that the administrators of CPIA are not doing that, but how much criticism does that generate in academia? Is academic silence against government overreach ethically any better than looting? Aside from Urice and Adler, the academic world is embarrassingly silent and in fact sometimes aids, abets and endorses the crime.

The incessant slurs of Demand Side idealists, and bureaucratic targeting of collectors, do not encourage mutual efforts toward preservation of important objects and sites. They merely polarize the dialogue and accomplish nothing. One might add that they also speak poorly for the character of those who find this approach necessary, and of the institutions that they represent.