Why Iraq is Not Algeria
by Stephen Schwartz
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Critics of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, none of whom demonstrate much competence in reading history, keep searching for negative parallels between the obstacles faced in the liberation of Mesopotamia and earlier failures by Western nations fighting in former colonial lands.
First, of course, must come the false parallel with Vietnam, which is a standby for ‘60s nostalgics. Last June, in one of my first contributions to FSM, I outlined why the Iraqi struggle has nothing in common with the Vietnam war.
More recently, the fraudulent comparison of choice among critics of the U.S.-led effort in Iraq involves the Algerian war of independence, which ended with the withdrawal of France in 1962. British journalist Alistair Horne, author of A Savage War of Peace, a mediocre account of the Algerian conflict, has taken to preening over news that President George W. Bush is reading his book at the recommendation of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The entry of Kissinger's name into play should be a warning of bad counsel for the president, since Kissinger's "realist" approach to the Middle East has proven wrong time and again.
Mr. Horne bragged that he had sent his book to former defense-secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with paragraphs underlined. Rumsfeld was unimpressed, but Defense Department personnel had already been called on to watch Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. In contrast with Mr. Horne's superficial narrative, Pontecorvo's film is useful for understanding Algerian history, but neither the book nor the movie are relevant to the current battles in Baghdad or Basra.
The main, bogus parallels between Iraq and Algeria have been restated by Mr. Horne himself, and are three:
The art of political polemic has clearly declined in recent years, as each of these three claims for lessons from Algeria can easily be shown to be utterly inappropriate for Iraq.
First, the Arab mercenaries France had to defend were a small minority, and the Algerian revolutionaries represented a large majority. The comparison with Iraq would hold if the U.S.-led coalition were to protect Sunni terrorists against the Shia-backed al-Maliki administration. But that, obviously, is not the case; rather, the U.S. helps the Shias against the Sunni terror.
It is true that neither the U.S. nor Iraq have prevented Saudi supporters of the Sunni terror, or Iranian troublemakers interested in inciting Shia excesses, from entering Iraq. But the difficulty of maintaining border control in the face of irregular armed activity is visible in every war since, at least, the end of the 19th century. The Germans could not prevent the British and U.S. from supplying men and materiel for the Resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War. Does that mean the U.S.-led coalition is comparable with Hitler's forces, and the Sunni terrorists or Shia adventurists are peers of the Tito Partisans in Yugoslavia? Of course not, any more than the fact that all soldiers carry weapons or eat lousy food makes all wars the same.
Finally, France employed torture continually, as a standard weapon against the Algerian revolutionaries. France's record in this regard was abominable, especially given the short time that had gone by since the aforementioned Nazis used the same methods against the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle. For someone like myself, who was sickened by French abuses in the Algerian War, the news of U.S. personnel involvement in human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison was shocking. But Abu Ghraib was an exception, not policy.
If problems with sorting out the enemy's forces, cross-border infiltration, and incidents of torture were enough to establish parallels between wars, all wars would be the same. Certainly, there are many leftists and others who today think that any war is reprehensible. But all wars are not the same.
In the American Civil War, President Lincoln struggled over whether to free the slaves, and ordered the emancipation of those in Confederate territory mainly to undermine secessionist morale. The issue of how to deal with the Black slaves was no less a diversion from the immediate military campaign by the Union army than that of French concern for their Arab mercenaries in Algeria. (This is not to suggest that such slaves were mere pawns of Lincoln, although the Confederates would have argued such.) The Southern rebels received unofficial assistance from the British, just as radicals in Iraq do from neighboring countries, and the France of Napoleon III, much like certain Sunni rulers today, profited from fighting in the U.S. to launch an adventure in the colonization of Mexico. Lincoln also suspended the constitutional right of habeas corpus and locked up anti-Union editors. And one only needs watch the movie Gangs of New York to see how unpopular that liberation war was with the Northern public.
Do these bare and insubstantial parallels make Lincoln and Bush equal? Most politically-correct "liberals" would be horrified by the suggestion. Of that, more below.
Let us look, instead, at the differences that make a parallel between Iraq and Algeria absurd.
A proper comparison of Iraq with Algeria would begin by noting that "liberals" and leftists today complain over the fate of the former Sunni ruling class in Iraq, and bewail that of Saddam and his cohort – but they would never have defended the French colonists or French-Arab mercenaries in Algeria, whose role in oppressing the majority was the same as that of the Iraqi Sunnis.
As far as reading lists go, I recommend that President Bush throw away Mr. Horne's second-rate volume, and that the gadflies who praise it because it is the only volume on the Algerian war in English learn some French and begin examining French and Algerian sources on that conflict. In general, I would hope President Bush reads Walt Whitman's poetry on the Civil War and the biography of Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Both are spine-stiffening in a time when a righteous cause pursued by an American president is under assault from domestic as well as foreign enemies.