Thursday, 26 May 2011

Baghdad Museum: are "US Tax Dollars" the most important issue here?

Professor Lamia al-Gailani Werr wrote on the University of Chicago's IraqCrisis list (Letter from Baghdad, May 24th 2011) of some of the recent archaeological and heritage events in Iraq, including some ongoing problems in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad with inventorisation, archiving and conservation despite having been helped by a grant from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Most people on reading such a text would consider it a shame that so much cultural property is in peril and feeling deep sympathy and empathy for those colleagues who are fighting these problems out of their own concern for the situation (for example the people in Iraq who alerted prof al-Galiani Werr to the problems). They would be considering ways to offer their support and help. Not so the US collecting mob. Lawyer Tompa "Cultural Property Observer" considers this text as highlighting why the US should not be aiding the Iraqis attempting to preserve the cultural heritage of the country that was so recently subject to US-led invasion and occupation (Your tax dollars at work: Fraud, Waste and Abuse at the Iraq Museum). He seems not to notice that the problems highlighted in the text go far beyond the particular one the US ambassadors threw a bit of money at (largely one suspects as a public relations gesture, the US having earned such bad press over the way they treated the Iraq Museum and similar institutions during the Invasion). He apparently places the blame for this "fraud" (eh?), "waste and abuse" of US tax dollars on "Crusading Western archaeologists". He seems not to notice that the number of tax dollars spent on repairing the roof and showcases of the shelled and gutted Museum are insignificant compared to the number of tax dollars spent on invading a sovereign country, bombing, shooting arresting, torturing and killing its citizens, searching for imaginary super weapons and toppling a former US ally. He sees no evidence of Fraud, Waste and Abuse in the conduct of that war.

As for US tax dollars lost through the failure of those distributing them to apply some more effective form of fiscal accountability from those receiving them, "stuff happens" Mr Tompa. Is that not the US attitude? You cannot blame financial mismanagement and wastage on "crusading western archaeologists".

Is it not a bit much to blame the Iraqi people for the shortcomings of their heritage protection efforts today, given the huge human and humanitarian problems the country faces? The people of Iraq have gone through three wars in twenty years, had to suffer under a dictator that America's leaders would have the world believe was one of the worse in the world. They had to endure ten years under US imposed sanctions, a US-generated program of economic and social destabilisation, then a US-led invasion and and cope with the consequent instability that has prevailed until now. I wonder how well the heritage would fare in any other country (including the US) if it was forced to endure such conditions.

This sort of use of other peoples' misfortunes as pro-American "it could never happen here" and "look at what the wily Orientals are doing now" propaganda is upsetting when it is offered as an excuse for ceasing to express support and concern or offer help. The use of commercial interests of reports of other peoples' misfortunes as oblique propaganda for Tompa's trade partners arguing for the sustaining of current ongoing antiquity looting and smuggling (because "it's better off in US collections") is simply disgusting.

UPDATE 13.06.11
It seems the Iraqis, still less those dastardly 'crusading archaeologists' are not the whole (or maybe main) culprits here: Paul Richter, 'Missing Iraq money may have been stolen, auditors say', Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2011:
U.S. Defense officials still cannot say what happened to $6.6 billion, sent by the planeload in cash and intended for Iraq's reconstruction after the start of the war. [...] U.S. officials often didn't have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified. House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials "used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds." Pentagon officials have contended for the last six years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records. But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless.
So, a leaky roof in a foreign museum is just the tip of the iceberg of a problem involving considerable mismanagement of US funds, by the representatives of US administration itself and nothing to do with archaeologists and preservationists.

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