Joe Conason's Journal

What does the first lady -- a former librarian -- think of her husband's failure to protect Iraq's cultural sites?

Published April 18, 2003 4:06PM (EDT)

Fired up for National Library Week
Iraq's museums are looted, its universities are sacked, its national library is burned to the ground -- and the Bush administration yawns. Why would George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld care about a bunch of old pots and ancient books? They seem astonished that anyone would have expected them to safeguard the immense cultural patrimony of Baghdad and Mosul. Their bored reaction is yet more evidence that the intellectual benefits of an Ivy League education are often exaggerated. The president is a Yalie, of course, and Rumsfeld went to Princeton. (Perhaps the problem is Cheney, who more or less flunked out of Yale as a sophomore.)

Only in America would the blasé Bush attitude toward this criminal negligence be considered a hallmark of "conservatism." In Britain, Tory intellectuals are beginning to realize that an alarming number of their right-wing American counterparts are cultural imbeciles. But at the Spectator and elsewhere, they are also wondering whether there aren't more sinister designs behind the looting. Just as certain Western eyes gaze covetously on Iraq's oil, so there are others who lust after those lovely items in the museum storehouses and basements. During the months preceding the war, an outfit innocuously calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy started to lobby for dropping restrictions on the trade in antiquities.

Last Monday, a group of Britain's most distinguished archaeologists and experts published a letter warning that "the most dangerous stage of the conflict will be looting of monuments and museums on a massive scale," and protesting attempts by the American Council for Cultural Policy "to relax legislation that protects Iraq's heritage by prevention of sales abroad, arguing that antiquities will be safer in American museums and private collections than in Iraq." They demanded that the U.S. and British authorities immediately take steps to recover and protect Iraqi antiquities from speculators, smugglers and other crooks.

As the full story of the looting and burning continues to emerge, the negligence of the American authorities seems even less excusable. They had heard warnings from the experts, who pleaded for protection of the cultural sites. They knew, moreover, that looting had been a serious problem in the aftermath of the last Gulf War. Now two leading members of the president's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property have quit in protest of the administration's gross negligence.

Reading these stories, I have wondered what the first lady thinks about the artistic and literary wreckage in Iraq. She is, after all, a former librarian, who now oversees the Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries and serves as honorary chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Just a few days before the library burned down in Baghdad, Mrs. Bush had proclaimed National Library Week. (This year's theme is "At Your Library," although perhaps it should be "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.")

Mrs. Bush could surely prevail on her husband and his loutish advisors to protect whatever is left of Mesopotamia's legacy. They didn't listen to the experts, but maybe they will listen to the first lady. Urgent but polite letters asking her to intervene can be sent in care of her foundation:
[9:16 a.m. PDT, April 18, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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