WASHINGTON -- Stores here in the war capital have, rather helpfully, placed racks of Middle East maps alongside cash registers. For $5 or $6, you get not only a 38-by-25-inch view of the world from Libya to Pakistan -- with Iraq ominously exactly in the center -- but also a small American flag suitable for car windows and a chronology of local events from 1932 to 2001.
To be more precise, the events marked begin with Ibn Saud's announcement that he controlled a new kingdom he called Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23, 1932. Exactly one month later, another desert king, Faisal, declared the independence of Iraq. The British, as you might suspect, had a hand in all this. The time-line ends with the bombing of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
We are about to add an event or two right now, as the mapmaker, Hammond, which is donating part of its profits to the American Red Cross, states in bold letters: "Today's newspaper headlines continue to bring this area into focus. This detailed, up-to-date map of the region will help you make sense of the news and gain a clearer understanding of the events that continue to unfold."
I assume Hammond sent a free copy to the White House. Anyway, I hope so. Even a short chronology could be enormously helpful to President Bush, whose greatest flaw is his proud ignorance of history. He rarely makes a speech that does not do violence to the past, as he did last Wednesday in his big war talk before a friendly crowd at the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank.
Declaring that he wanted to talk about "a crucial period in the history of the nation," he began with a war whoop: "Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us." Six sentences later, in full whoop, he offered this: "We have arrested or otherwise dealt with many key commanders of al-Qaida. Across the world, we are hunting down the killers one by one. We are winning, and we're showing them the definition of American justice."
"Otherwise dealing with," as we learned in the State of the Union message, is the president's euphemism for assassination. Now he is defining that as American justice. Actually, American justice is about the presumption of innocence and trial by peers. What the president was bragging about used to be called "lynching."
Ten paragraphs after that, Bush went from whoop to whopper, saying: "After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies; we left constitutions and parliaments."
Americans are a decent people with, except for lynching and such, a great history, a wonderful story to tell. We have been pretty good (and sensible) about avoiding colonialism and imperialism. But never occupying? Please. We did occupy Germany and Japan after World War II -- it would have been insane not to -- and we have occupied most every country in Central America, to say nothing of the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, Indian country and California. Some might add Texas to the list.
The president, as we know, is no scholar -- and that is not necessarily an insult. But he does seem to be intent on dumbing-down America. The ignorance at the top has infected real scholars, beginning with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a brainy fellow who has lost his bearings promoting and defending war in Iraq. Last Thursday, Wolfowitz rebuked the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told Congress that occupation of Iraq might require hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Wolfowitz then asserted that few troops would be needed because Iraq has never had the kind of ethnic strife that has characterized places like the Balkans.
What? Iraq is divided into three parts: Kurds in the north, Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslims in the center, and the poor (and brutalized) Shi'ites in the south. That's what the "no-fly zones" were about. And, unless God is as kind as he is great, those people are going to try to chop each other into little pieces if they get half the chance. Sad but true, so send some maps to the Pentagon, too.
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