FALSE ALARM. All those reports about the wholesale ransacking of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities, and the theft or destruction of “tens of thousands” of ancient archaeological artifacts, turn out to be—in the parlance of the day—overhyped.
So, for that matter, were all the anguished denunciations of America’s failure to protect the relics.
Iraqi looters might have celebrated their newfound freedom by running roughshod over their own museum, but they mercifully did relatively little damage in the process. That’s because museum officials managed to clean out the most precious antiquities well in advance—as much as 13 years in advance, before the start of the first Gulf War—and stashed them in a vault beneath the Central Bank of Iraq. Other items were safely squirreled away at some museum officials’ homes.
“They were never lost,” acting Central Bank Governor Faleh Salman told Reuters. “We knew all along that they were there”—despite inexplicably carrying on as though they were gone forever.
The most recent tally: Of the museum’s 170,000 pieces some 3,000 are unaccounted for (although not necessarily gone). And, according to the Washington Post, “of the 8,000 or so exhibit-quality, world-class pieces of jewelry, statues and cuneiform clay tablets,” only 33 are missing—a cultural travesty, to be sure, but rather a minor one compared to earlier reports that all 170,000 items were taken or destroyed.
This good news, no doubt, is being met with great sighs of relief from the many self-professed antiquities lovers on the left and throughout the establishment press who have spent the last two months bellyaching about the “rape of civilization.” How delighted they must be that the 2,800-year-old Treasures of Nimrud are safely intact.
Hardly. For all the consternation that met earlier reports of looting and plundering, there has been little recognition, let alone euphoria, about the recovery of items so recently mourned.
It’s enough to make one wonder if all that mourning weren’t itself a little “overhyped.”
After all, we now know that the ancient treasures were “missing” not just since the fall of Baghdad, but for more than a decade before that. Their whereabouts were unknown to anyone but a few top Iraqi officials, and unavailable to researchers and the public at large. Last time they were seen, they were in the possession of a regime controlled by an infamous looter and plunderer.
For all anyone knew, the priceless items had become furnishings in the guest bathroom of Qusay Hussein’s beach house. Yet we didn’t hear much concern from the art-loving talking heads of MSNBC and CNN back then. The hand-wringing didn’t start until it became possible to cast blame on the U.S.
The grieving all seemed a bit misplaced. Those who shrieked most loudly about the “rape of civilization” were largely the same pacifists who shrugged off the literal rape of Iraqi women by Hussein family thugs. Those who most angrily protested the robbing of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities tended to be those who were least concerned by Saddam’s longtime robbing of the Iraqi oil-for-food program. All in all, they seemed more distressed about Iraqis losing their artifacts than excited about Iraqis winning their freedom.
It’s as if all that carrying on about the Iraqi Museum wasn’t so much motivated by any concern for “civilization,” but the opportunity to denounce American policy.
That’s been the left’s approach to the war since before it began—seize upon any perceived mistake, and cite any single setback as proof of the moral bankruptcy of the entire enterprise. So it was with the Iraqi artifacts. “The complete, and by all accounts preventable, destruction of one of the world’s most significant collections of antiquities,” wrote Robert Scheer in The Nation, “is a fit metaphor for current U.S. foreign policy, which causes more serious damage through carelessness than calculation.”
That’s not to say that the critics haven’t, on occasion, raised valid concerns, but in their haste to pick nits, they’ve lost all sense of perspective. Even if the Treasures of Nimrud were today going to the highest bidder on e-bay, rather than awaiting display in a reopened Iraqi Museum come July, Operation Iraqi Freedom would still be a tremendous military victory, achieved with minimum allied and civilian casualties, that freed a nation and delivered a powerful blow to Islamofascism, Inc.
Sure, it would have been better if the museum and various hospitals weren’t trashed, and in a perfect world, allied forces would have prevented the looting. But planning and executing a war are much easier in hindsight, and it’s not as though American soldiers spent April in Baghdad manning their Gameboys. As long as there were still Ba’athist death squads roaming the Iraqi countryside and children trapped in political prisons, allied forces had better things to do than protect museum pieces—no matter how ancient or beautiful.
Yet it’s precisely allied priorities that anti-war critics have condemned most bitterly. The most common refrain among those protesting the museum riots is that America couldn’t bother to safeguard Iraqi antiquities, but did station troops by Iraqi oil fields and the Ministry of Oil—as though it would have been better to let Hussein’s forces set the oil fields on fire, thereby depriving millions of Iraqis of their best hope for a prosperous future and a full stomach. (As it happens, looters still managed to make a mess of the the Iraqi oil industry, but nothing comparable to the devastation Hussein's forces inflicted by setting wells on fire in 1991.)
If the museum was today completely intact, but the oil wells on fire, does anyone think the left would now be praising America’s efforts at cultural preservation? More likely, we would just be hearing about the “rape of the environment” and the “rape of the Iraqi economy” rather than the “rape of civilization.”
Those who were happy to let Iraq suffer under tyranny have no tolerance for even the slightest of imperfections under freedom. Their only concern for Iraq, its culture, and its people is how they can be used for cheap political purposes.
It would be nice to see them take some joy in the good news from Iraq’s National Museum. Then again, it would be nice to see them take some joy in the liberation of 24 million people.