Idiocy of the week

It was originally reported that 170,000 priceless artifacts were looted from Iraq's national museum. That number now stands at 33. Will overeager Bush critics issue corrections?

Published June 10, 2003 10:50PM (EDT)

The New York Times has been taking on a lot of water lately. So let's add another bucket.

Back on April 27 of this year, the Times' cultural critic, Frank Rich, weighed in on the calamity of the alleged ransacking of the National Museum in Baghdad. Rich opposed the war to liberate Iraq, preferring that Saddam stay in power if that's what it meant to oppose the Bush administration. But he really let rip when in the aftermath of the liberation, the National Museum appeared to be looted. Original press reports cited the loss of 170,000 priceless artifacts. Of course, even as Rich conceded in his column, "[t]here is much we don't know about what happened this month at the Baghdad museum, at its National Library and archives, at the Mosul museum and the rest of that country's gutted cultural institutions." We had no inventory of what had been lost, no reliable account of where the treasures might have been stored, how widespread the looting was, and so on. The situation in Baghdad was chaotic.

But Rich had an administration to bash. And in the wake of this extraordinary military victory, it was vital for left-wing ideologues to find something -- anything -- with which to denigrate the liberation. Rich had found his cause célèbre. And boy did he unload:

"Let it never be said that our government doesn't give a damn about culture. It was on April 10, the same day the sacking of the National Museum in Baghdad began, that a subtitled George W. Bush went on TV to tell the Iraqi people that they are 'the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.' And so what if America stood idly by while much of the heritage of that civilization -- its artifacts, its artistic treasures, its literary riches and written records -- was being destroyed as he spoke? It's not as if we weren't bringing in some culture of our own to fill that unfortunate vacuum. It was on April 10 as well, by happy coincidence, that the United States announced the imminent arrival of nightly newscasts from Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer and Brit Hume on newly liberated Iraqi TV. Better still, the White House let it be known, again on that same day, that it was seeking $62 million from Congress for a 24-hour Middle East Television Network that would pipe in dubbed versions of prime-time network programming. Goodbye, dreary old antiquity! Hello, 'Friends'!"

It was too tempting a target. When you're a Manhattanite culture-macher like Rich, the one thing you know is that you're smarter, more civilized and more intelligent than anyone who might ever call himself a Republican, let alone the mindless hicks now running the country. A chance to embarrass the idiot rubes in Washington was just too good to pass up. Rich wasn't the only one. I averred that what appeared to have happened was close to unforgivable. But I didn't say much more because it was still extremely murky. Was it an inside job? How many treasures had disappeared? How valuable were they? These kinds of questions are exactly the hard ones that people needed to ask. I figured we'd find out in due course once the dust had settled. At the time, Donald Rumsfeld opined to Tim Russert: "I'll bet you anything that if they -- when order is restored, and we have a more permissive environment, that there will be opportunities to ask people to return some of those things that were taken. We've already found people returning supplies to hospitals ... And it isn't something that someone allows or doesn't allow. It's something that happens." For this, Rumsfeld was ridiculed in this very magazine by Joe Conason.

According to Rich, there were only two possibilities for interpreting the sketchy reports coming out of Baghdad:

"Is it merely the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years, as Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist, put it? Or should we listen to Eleanor Robson, of All Souls College, Oxford, who said, 'You'd have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale'?"

Rich's hyperventilation continued:

"It's hard to put a loss this big in perspective. I asked Mahrukh Tarapor, the associate director for exhibitions at the Met, to try. Ms. Tarapor has spent the past six years seeking Mesopotamian holdings from museums throughout the world for 'Art of the First Cities,' an all too timely exhibition that by coincidence is opening on May 8. 'It's almost a new emotion,' she said, noting that she has felt it only once before, when the Taliban destroyed the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan two years ago. 'One is almost conditioned to accept even human death as part of life. The destruction of art -- of our heritage -- goes very deep in our unconscious. To a museum person, the worst thing you can experience is damage to an object on your watch. For the magnitude of what happened in Iraq, you have no words. You lose faith in your fellow man.'"

So who was right -- Rich and Conason or Rummy? Rummy, of course. He almost always is.

Check out the latest news from Baghdad, reported in the Washington Post and also by Channel Four in London, itself a left-leaning news organization. Here are the money paragraphs:

"The museum was indeed heavily looted, but its Iraqi directors confirmed today that the losses at the institute did not number 170,000 artifacts as originally reported in news accounts. Actually, about 33 priceless vases, statues and jewels were missing ... 'There are only 33 pieces from the main collections that are unaccounted for,' [Donny] George [the director general of research and study of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities] said. "Not 47. Some more pieces have been returned.' Museum staff members had taken some of the more valuable items home and are now returning them ... The confusion arose, in part, because many of the museum's best pieces had been removed long before U.S. troops entered Baghdad, George said. In 1990, before the Persian Gulf War, 179 boxes containing the Treasures of Nimrud were hidden in a vault beneath the Central Bank of Iraq, where the items -- gold and ivory pieces unearthed from four royal tombs in 1989 -- remained untouched for more than a decade. The collection was unearthed this week after the basement where the vault is located was drained of sewage water that had filled it ... George said a second 'secret vault' was used to secure many of the other exhibition-quality statues, figurines, vases, cups and clay tablets inscribed with hymns and homage to kings and gods. That vault was filled during the weeks before U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq in March. 'It is all safe and sound,' George said."

So there you have it. Yes, there was a lamentable outbreak of looting -- mainly of up to 3,000 minor objects of limited value. Yes, some 33 priceless artifacts from the main collection are missing, but some are being returned, meaning that Rumsfeld's bet with Russert was once again a shrewd call on the part of the secretary of defense. "They won't talk about it, but almost everything was saved," John Russell, an Iraq expert at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art, told the Washington Post.

As to the critics -- the Riches and Conasons who hyped reports they couldn't confirm in order to trash the administration? A correction would be nice, wouldn't it? Just because Maureen Dowd can get away with untruths and distortions with no corrections, why should Rich? Howell Raines has now left the building. Some kind of factual accountability should now be restored. Rich needs to correct, explain and apologize. But I won't hold my breath.

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By Andrew Sullivan

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