Other People's History
The old political dictum “to the victor belong the spoils,” often applies to history as well as to political patronage. For one of the benefits of being a “victor” is the opportunity to shape the writing of history as an uncritical celebration: my country victorious, right and never wrong.
Opposing this is the tradition of dissident history that seeks to uncover the motives of political leaders, deconstruct the meaning of their official proclamations and documents, and describe the world from non-elitist perspectives, e.g., from the standpoint of ordinary people or of the victims, the “losers” to other country’s “winners.”
By dint of their research, dissidents are often in disagreement with “official history,” by which I mean the melded conventional wisdom of celebratory narrative and government propaganda. We dissidents are thus often accused of being unpatriotic; i.e., of not getting with the program. Right-wingers claim that we dominate university faculties, as well as the press and broadcast media, which is as much a laugh as it is a lie. Mostly we are ignored. Political leaders rarely listen to their critics. This is too bad. How can a country learn from its mistakes if it refuses to ever acknowledge that it made any? Consider:
This year is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the CIA coup that overthrew a democratic, secular, and progressive government in Iran. To justify that regime change, we called the Iranian government “communist.” But (sound familiar?) that was a lie. There was no evidence. At the time, and for many years thereafter, the coup, called Operation Ajax, was considered a great victory for American foreign policy. The pro-American Shah was installed in power and American corporations were given a dominant role in the Iranian economy.
But for Iranians and others in the Middle East, yearning for their right of self-determination, Operation Ajax was a defining moment. And we are still reeling from its impact. By suppressing his democratic and secular opponents, the Shah forced politics into the mosques. When a popular revolution in 1979 forced the Shah into an American exile, it was the fundamentalist and anti-democratic clerics who set up a government. Anti-Americanism, understandable in the Iranian experience, became a unifying principle in the Islamic world. The taking of hostages was just one of the ever-festering consequences.
Our inability to acknowledge the mistake of the 1953 coup shaped our support for Saddam Hussein in 1980, when he provoked a war with Iran that cost well more than a million lives. Instead of acting with other countries as a neutral peacemaker, we aided the Iraqi dictator against the Iranian clergy. This fact, also forgotten by most Americans, further incited anti-Americanism among the Iranian people and their Shiite co-religionists.
George W. Bush describes Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” But from the Iranian point of view, from the perspective of Iranian history, it’s the United States that is the “evil” provocateur. To get along in the Islamic world, Americans have to understand the validity of that perspective.
Dissident American writers and historians have long written about the Iranian coup, not as a victory, but as a foreign policy disaster that helps explain the problems that the United States had and has in Arab and non-Arab Islamic world. In a recent book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer tells the story of the 1953 coup and puts it into a contemporary perspective. “It is not far-fetched,” he concludes, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York." In other words, a seemingly great victory for the United States in 1953 was perceived as a humiliating defeat for people in the Islamic world of South and Central Asia and the Middle East. The anger and alienation that the coup engendered set the stage for this country’s most horrific disaster, almost fifty years after.
A similar situation, born from a similarly misguided foreign policy, is taking shape in Iraq. Many of the same American dissidents who warned of the implications of the 1953 Iranian coup, warn of a similar pending disaster. Critics of the Iraqi war predicted the mayhem that would follow the certain American military victory. We foresaw that American soldiers would be treated as occupiers, not as liberators; and that Iraqi factions, no matter how much they hated Saddam or hated one another, would find a temporary unity in opposing an American occupation. But the Bush administration ignored these voices, even in their own administration.
Unwilling to listen to any but its own most ardent supporters, ignorant of the history and culture of the people it is clumsily occupying, the administration stumbles about in the Iraqi sands, desperate to find a quick fix to make things look good if only for the 2004 elections. But for the people of Iraq, even the majority hoping to keep Saddam Hussein from regaining power, the American occupation is again providing a defining moment, and inciting anti-American agitation in far-away places. Like the Iranian coup a half century ago, it will shape Iraqi and Islamic politics for generations to come. Whatever happens between now and the 2004 elections, the Iraqi occupation, like the Iranian coup of fifty years ago, is going to come back and haunt us.