Monday, October 27, 2008

A Conversation with my Iraqi Schoolmates

A Triptych from Sweden
Part Three. A Conversation with my Iraqi Schoolmates.

In part two of "A Triptych from Sweden" I wrote about the oddities of earnings in Sweden. A person can work full-time for months and still stay on welfare, earning the bare minimum to survive, while the employer is given time to evaluate the worker. That's if you're lucky enough to find a job. Even low-skill work is mostly taken by older citizens.

In part three we look abroad and find a country where work is plentiful, wages are fair, and payment is prompt. Go south and east of Stockholm until you arrive just a few hours short of the Red Sea. You're now welcome to work and live in Baghdad, Iraq.

Sweden has offered amnesty to the world's refugees ever since the Nazis trooped through and decided to leave it alone. People from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, and many other oppressed regions have found Sweden to be a generous and hospitable respite from war and genocide.

In a school dedicated to teaching Swedish to adults who have recently moved here, one can meet many of these people. Currently at least half of the student body is from Iraq. They are doctors, nurses, engineers, psychologists, laborers and artisans of every stripe. They come here when the stress of life under siege becomes too much to handle. They leave their careers, communities, and often their families in order to find peace. Several have told me how they would like to live in the US. Others prefer Europe. But many wait to go back to their homeland. They are hopeful that democracy will eventually calm things down there.

But they're worried. It's understood that every politician is under greater influence from foreign interests than from his own voters. The various allegiances of the Council of Representatives of Iraq are held by Iran, Kuwait, Russia, USA and any other government with an emissary and a briefcase. Right now there is no one in the government who is speaking for the people who actually reside in the country.

And don't be fooled by the news. The People of Iraq are not at war with each other. Every day we here about the violent, irrepressible urges of the Iraqi tribes. It's not true. Sunni marries Shiite. Shiite rooms with Kurd. Jew and Christian share business contacts. The community here is as diverse as any Western country. It is only the political parties who are in conflict with each other. So when the media tells you that generations of suspicion and animosity is the root cause for violence in the region, don't you believe it. It's a convenient and misleading wisdom aimed at keeping our forces there indefinitely. If we think of the citizenry as being tolerant and open-minded then we run the risk of losing our nerve to continue trying to save them from themselves. And if we lose our nerve, then we lose our "credibility." Without that then we can no longer bully any other country with whom we share any commercial interest. At least not as easily.

As it stands, the members of the Iraqi government want what most of the world's elected official want. Power. Control. Money. And they're not getting much of any. Could it be they're just waiting for the best deal? So far the American offer has been paltry, but with forces on the ground we do get to maintain a place at the bargaining table. Seated nearby one finds politicians being paid by Russia, Iran, and Syria. It's a bit like a custody battle over a talented young child whose parents are egotistical, greedy, stubborn, and armed.

I told my friends that I thought the war was wrong from the beginning. I didn't believe the lies from the Bush and Blair administrations. I was certain that the attack would be disastrous. (I did want to maintain my own credibility with them, after all.) But I asked them, given what we know now, was I wrong? Sure things are awful at the moment, but was it better with Saddam? Isn't there at least more of a chance for the future today? Their answer was no. It was better before. And hearing that was like taking a kick in the gut.

I want to be optimistic about this offensive. And let's be clear, it is offensive. But almost as reprehensible as Bush Inc. going into this war has been the media's handling of it. Even if you could find someone with the balls to question the attack back in the first 3 years of it, there was never any follow through.

For years after the initial assault, conservatives won every argument with, "So you think it would be better if Saddam was still in power?" It was a threat with a question mark at the end. Sort of like, "You wanna piece of me?" And of course the mature, responsible answer is always, "No." The question itself implied vast repercussions to anyone who dared answer in the affirmative. So no one did. No one even asks the question about Saddam any more. The answer was so consistent, defensive, and soft, that now it's politically correct to say, "I am against this war, but believe we should stay in Iraq for their own good."

Well we might want to rethink that opinion. And if you feel powerless over the media in the US, just think how the Iraqi people feel. I explained to my school friends how our mainstream news gives us unclear explanations about what is happening. It tells us that the people of Iraq are the ones who are killing each other. It tells us that we're doing what must be done. It tells us how Iraqi's politicians are doing their best to get a handle over this angry population.

But no explanations were necessary. It turns out that they see the same news. They know better than we do what we're being told. It bothers them, too.

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