April 23, 2003

LAST WEEK I WROTE ON DOUBLE STANDARDS in the treatment of Baghdad’s looting incidents. (That was before I knew that journalists were among the looters, or it would have been triple standards!) But now Andrea Harris identifies more doublethink:

I am intrigued by the idea that the column’s author, one Philip Hensher, apparently thinks that 1) it is possible to fight a “caring” war (how? Drop sympathy cards and flowers along with bombs?) and 2) that the best way to show “caring” would have been to shoot more civilians. The ways in which the minds of anti-Americans work never cease to cause amazement.

Yeah. And that’s why it’s been hard for me to take the looting complaints all that seriously, even before it started to seem likely that at least some of the media types doing the complaining were also pocketing Saddam’s silverware. As I wrote in my earlier piece, if it can be shown that the United States was in a position to stop the looting, and deliberately or callously let it happen, then that should be a big embarrassment and those responsible should be punished.

But, really, the complaints just seem so much like desperate efforts to find something to complain about that it’s hard to take them seriously, even though perhaps we should. (Jay Manifold calls this the bitter fruit of incompetent criticism, noting that the antiwar folks blew their credibility earlier, and now people aren’t listening even to valid complaints.)

A reader wrote me to say that it was worth risking American (and Iraqi) lives to protect the National Museum, even if it meant diverting resources from elsewhere. Well, maybe to some people, but not to me. Mickey Kaus says that the United States should be held to a “strict liability” standard here, with us responsible for anything that happens regardless of whether we actually did anything wrong.

I’d disagree with that. I think a lot of these criticisms underestimate the “fog of war” and the (rather high) likelihood that the Museum was looted before American troops even arrived. To make out a case that goes beyond carping, you have to show (1) that the Museum was un-looted before Baghdad fell; (2) that it would have been comparatively safe and practical for the United States to prevent looting; and (3) that the United States knew all of this, but just refused to act.

There is some evidence that Jay Garner sent a memo on this before Baghdad fell, but that doesn’t really answer the question. I’d have to call the case for negligence here “not proven.” Or as Roger Simon puts it: “It was only a teeny tiny bit our fault.”

Of course, as a mystery writer, he’s a beneficiary of the looting, which will provide MacGuffins aplenty for future works. . . .

UPDATE: Reader Rajat Datta emails:

I wonder how many of those who blame the coalition troops, and Bush and Rumsfeld in particular, for the looting would have held Clinton responsible for the mass expulsions of Muslims from Kosovo by Milosevic and the Servs when we liberated Kosovo. The Serbs were at fault then, and the looters are at fault now, despite the fact that they obviously took advantage of an oportunity that opened up because of our military operations.

Art historian David Nishimura, meanwhile has posts here, here, here, and here. His latest sum-up:

Points to note: the robbers have been heavily armed, quick to shoot, and not easily deterred; there has been extensive insider involvement; and finally, the most secure vaults have successfully defied all break-in attempts. This emerging picture (along with the report noted here that armed intruders had been firing at US forces from the national museum) poses a further challenge to the assumption that the looting of Baghdad’s museums and libraries could easily have been prevented, and was thus the direct result of American negligence.

Stay tuned.

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