Believing what you want to believe:

Original reports from Baghdad were that the National Museum was badly looted and trashed while US troops were busy guarding things we really cared about, such as the Oil Ministry. Apparently Baghdad fell so much faster than we had anticipated that we didn’t really have a plan ready, or the personnel on hand, to the place in the early days.

Naturally, there was heavy criticism of how things were handled, mostly but by no means entirely on the part of people who were against the invasion in the first place. My own reaction was that the failure to protect the treasures — apparently the museum had lots of really important stuff — was regrettable, but (not being an archaeologist) I didn’t weigh it very heavily compared to the human lives not lost in the house-to-house fighting that didn’t happen. Secretary Rumsfeld’s casual “freedom’s untidy” comment was pretty offensive, consistent with the philistinism that seems to go down well with a segment of the electorate, but the comparisons that were made with the destruction of the Standing Buddhas by the Taliban struck me as badly overdrawn: deliberately destroying ancient works of art as an act of religious intolerance simply isn’t the same as deciding not to use troops, and not to inflict some civilian casualties, to prevent looting. (Imagine if American troops had killed a dozen would-be looters; can’t you just hear the screams about “indifference to human life on the part of brutal occupiers”?)

Then word began to leak out that the looting hadn’t been that extensive, and that in particular most of the real treasures had been hidden by the museum staff. Given the natural tendency of bureaucracies to invent facts that prevent them from looking bad, and in particular the record of mendacity compiled by the current administration, I took those reassuring reports with a grain of salt. Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, seems to be watching his blood pressure, and swallowed those stories whole, with no seasoning whatever. Or perhaps he’s adding his own seasoning: note the contrast between his column and the more balanced Washington Post story he relies on. The Post story makes clear that some priceless items are still missing; Sullivan somehow knows that Rumsfeld was right, as he “always is,” and that the looters will bring them back. Moreover, Sullivan thinks that anyone who believed the assertion made by the museum director that it had been thoroughly trashed somehow now owes George W. Bush an apology, as if clever planning by the museum staff somehow negated the negligence that left the museum unguarded. Glenn Reynolds is singing a similar tune:

The academic community — antiwar all along, and a bit too obviously looking for a way to make Bush and the war look bad — shot itself in the foot, and will command much less respect on such topics in the future.

[Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light has a good roundup. She suggests that the museum staff deliberately hyped the looting in order to convince potential looters that everything was already gone. David Aaronovitch, who has been covering the story closely for The Guardian, thinks that what looting did take place was largely an inside job. Of course whatever happened at the National Museum is in addition to the catastrophe at the library and what appears to be continued massive looting of archaeological sites.]

Now comes Scheherezade Faramarzi, reporting for AP from a scholarly conference in London, suggesting that something like 50,000 items (and still counting) are missing, and very few (under 10%) are being returned. Will Sullivan, who demanded a retraction from Frank Rich, retract? Like Sullivan, I’m not holding my breath.

The whole story is pretty ugly: the indifference in Washington, the eagerness of the anti-war folks to believe the worst, the eagerness of the pro-war folks to wish the problem out of existence (and to believe the worst about the anti-war folks), the willingness on both sides to let their opinions dictate the facts, rather than vice versa. Being both pro-war and anti-Administration, I really have no dog in this fight, so I just stand on the sidelines and shake my head sadly.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: