NEW YORK -- As the Iraq war enters its second year, it has already barreled through at least four movie plots. What began as a "High Noon" showdown with Saddam Hussein soon gave way to George Bush's "Top Gun" victory jig. Next was the unexpected synergy with "The Fog of War," Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary underlining how the Johnson administration's manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the ur-text for this administration's hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And then Falluja: "Black Hawk Down."
If the news from the war were better, there might be an audience now for Disney's version of "The Alamo," with which Michael Eisner had once hoped to "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism." But triumphalism is out. If we are to believe most commentators, the next title on our wartime bill will instead be "Apocalypse Now" (if we stay and sink into the quagmire) or "Three Kings" (if we cut and run). Though perhaps not quite yet. The most apt movie for this moment may be David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, said to me: "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."
Holbrooke was referring to the story's mordant conclusion. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded. The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away. But as the Arab leaders gather in a council, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public-health outrages roil the populace. "I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie, when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired. But the bloodbath continued - and now that America has ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off. But Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.
It was last weekend, after I watched "Lawrence" again for the first time in years, that L. Paul Bremer, the American civilian administrator for Iraq, was asked by the journalist Tim Russert to whom we would turn over the keys in Iraq on June 30, and gave his now immortal answer: "Well, that's a good question." We don't have a clue, and in part that's because we have no memory.
As the historian Niall Ferguson points out in his new book, "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire," Bush's promise to Iraqis of "a peaceful and representative government" in place of Saddam's brutal regime was an uncanny, if unconscious, replay of what the British commander who occupied Baghdad in 1917 told the people of what was then still Mesopotamia. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators," General F.S. Maude said back then, expressing the desire that his forces would help the populace build their own governmental institutions.
But Iraq did not give birth to an indigenous form of self-government. The country was run by a Bremer-like civil commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, for three often violent years. Eventually a British-style constitutional monarchy was installed, leading to decades of tumult and coups. By the time the revolution of 1958 overthrew the monarchy, the Baath party and Saddam were lurking in the wings.
To revisit "Lawrence" and the history it dramatizes in embryo is to feel not only déjà vu but also a roaring anger at the American arrogance and ignorance that has led to this nightmare. Condoleezza Rice's use of the word "historical" to describe the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing on Osama bin Laden was not the only tipoff to her limited understanding of history. In the opening filibuster of testimony, she invoked the Lusitania, Hitler's rise and Pearl Harbor as analogues of 9/11 - an asymmetrical comparison that blurs the distinctions between nations' acts of war and the stateless conspiracies of modern terrorists.
Apparently the administration's understanding of British colonial history in the Middle East is no sharper. Though it might have been impossible to prevent the 9/11 attacks, it would have been possible to avoid what's happening in Iraq now had anyone heeded the past. However much the current crisis may be a function of a military bungle like Donald Rumsfeld's inadequate deployment of troops or the diplomatic failure to attract a proper coalition, it is above all else the product of cultural hubris.
The United States has appointed a governing council whose members are more likely to criticize their American sponsors than stand up to a fanatic like Moktada al-Sadr. The council's most prominent member is Ahmed Chalabi, whose exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, was linked by The Los Angeles Times last month to "lies or distortions" that caused American and British intelligence to vastly overstate the size of Saddam's weapons programs. A February poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC showed that Iraqis now trust Chalabi even less than they do the incarcerated Saddam.
"Arabs believe in persons, not institutions," T.E. Lawrence wrote in the early 1920s. His observations don't always hold up, but this one is echoed by many as we watch the implosion of the neoconservative experiment in shepherding Iraq to a representative government built around the unpopular likes of a Chalabi.
As for those people Iraqis respect more than vague governmental schemes, we were too enthralled by American pets like Chalabi to recognize the importance (and political usefulness) of the most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. For all our sensitivity to religion, we appointed a (corrupt) Sunni as mayor of Najaf, the Shiite center lately occupied by al-Sadr, and promoted photos of the corpses of Uday and Qusay in defiance of Islamic dictates.
Yet much as we misread Iraqi culture, we also misrepresent American culture to the Iraqis. It's al-Sistani, not the Americans, who champions direct elections. We turned al-Sadr from a simmering menace into a martyr by shutting down his incendiary newspaper, Al Hazwa. (And at the same time that the Coalition Provisional Authority's official Web site was running a headline: "Gallup Poll: Baghdad Residents Overwhelmingly Desire Freedom of Speech, Press and Assembly.")
The First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the war in Iraq, wrote in Newsday: "Of all the messages the United States could send to the people of Iraq, the sorriest is this: If you say things we disapprove of, we'll shut you up."
"Once liberators turn into pacifiers, they've lost," Holbrooke said last week when we talked about "Lawrence of Arabia." Or, as Juan Cole, a professor of history and an Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, has said, "A hated occupier is powerless even with all the firepower in the world." Since we cannot cut and run and since we don't have any idea who should get the keys, it's clear that the Americans, like the British before them, are in occupancy in Iraq for the long haul, no matter who officially has "sovereignty" in July.
This is "Lawrence of Arabia," the sequel, and you can be certain it will play on every channel.
Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune