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Oh, The Places They’ll Go

Ken Nesmith

Last week I found my copy of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh The Places You’ll Go.” I was gathering books for the “Books for Baghdad” drive, and looking over this classic infused me with a sense of bitter irony. The book is often given as a charge to recent graduates to make the most of their fresh new shot at life. Surely everyone’s read this staple of the Western canon, but take another look at it and think of addressing its zippy, childish tone to Iraqis, for whom a similar carpe diem-ish charge is imaginable.

“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away.” You’ve just been freed from a dictator known for torture, repression, mass slaughters, and so forth, whose economic, military, and social policies kept your country strangled. But he’s gone now! Now’s your chance! “You can steer yourself in any direction you choose... YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

Life is different now. “You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care,” because some might be lined with snipers, or have car bombs parked outside a church or liquor store. Iraq’s Christian population has undertaken mass exodus in the wake of a coordinated campaign of terror against them, sanctioned by clerics who disapprove of Christian infidels who sell alcohol, run video stores, or cooperate with the U.S. Many of those have been killed in their homes, along with their families.

“Out there things can happen, and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsy as you.” True enough. But “don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along -- you’ll start happening too.” There are signs of life. Most of the country’s 18 provinces are stable and peaceful. Prospects for the country are better than they were, in that they exist -- under Saddam, there was no future. Now, progress has a chance, and a majority of Iraqis think the country is moving in the right direction. But success isn’t guaranteed. “Except, when you don’t. Because sometimes you won’t. I’m sorry to say so, but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you... you’ll be left in a Lurch.” Leaked American intelligence documents paint a gloomy picture for the next few years, with potential outcomes ranging from tribal warfare to theocratic dictatorship.

To conflate the intelligence report and Seuss, Iraq might get into a post-war Slump. “You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” A convergence of violent interests could keep the country in turmoil, stifling recovery and hindering the elections that are the key to legitimacy and societal ownership of Iraq’s national future.

But some of those violent interests do not wish to see Iraqi citizens own their future. There are conflicting visions of where they country should go. This could be problematic. “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.” Extremist Islamists seek to establish the rule of fundamentalism and mysticism, to build a religious society featuring customs like gang-raping innocent women as punishment for others’ crimes, as is done by tribal councils in Pakistan, and other equally offensive manifestations of primeval living. That type of society is, indeed, a useless place, where you’ll be “waiting. Waiting for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a plane to go, or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow,” or the restoration of the Caliphate, or the extension of the Islamic empire over the whole earth, or ascension into post mortem paradise while cowering under clerical and divine law throughout this life.

But “NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying... With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!” Time will tell if Iraq is that kind of a guy. If that’s the case, that will make them “the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.” The country will be an inspiration to the Arab world, a beacon of sociopolitical modernity in the Mideast. It would be a sublime sight. Will it happen? “And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)” That percentage might be a bit high, but the idea is there. “So, be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray,” or Kahil or Kumal or Qusay, “you’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So... get on your way!”

It’s not so easy to just get on the way. With ongoing kidnappings, suicide bombings, and so forth, Iraq is not a pretty place. Reconstruction is not going perfectly. For those of us who advocated strongly in favor of removing Saddam, the poorly planned reconstruction is a fatal betrayal. Just as this administration’s farm subsidies, steel tariffs, anti-gay stance, and record federal spending betray the true rightist vision of free existence, a bungled postwar plan does the same for the hope of something better in the Mideast than a dance of dictatorships and religious backwardness.

A great deal of analysis recommends making elections happen as soon as possible, and then leaving as soon as possible. Giving people some stake and ownership in their country and future, and then getting out of the way, is the only way to begin the long process of turning popular tides against nihilistic insurgents. The fruits of reason and modernity can be strong enough to lead populations to choose against regression into darkness.

In the big picture, the world is undergoing the massive reorganization of power, reminding us that of course, it’s not the end of history. U.S. grand strategy will need to undergo ongoing adjustment in the face of shifting threats and global developments. Developments in Iraq are just one part of a much larger, not well-understood story. In the long term, we can only do so much there, and hope for the best thereafter; Iraqis will decide what to do with their country.