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From the Spanish Civil War To Iraq’s Not-So-Civil War: Political Idealism Is the First Casualty

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

New York journalist Steven Vincent, who was murdered in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in early August, cut a very romantic figure. Profiles of the 49-year old former art critic that have been published since his tragic death portray him as a flamboyant bohemian who was always searching for new creative experiences, ranging from sexual fads to the, well, war on terror.

According to the New York Observer, Mr. Vincent was a "member of the fetish scene" and was seen wandering in Manhattan "with his nose in a book, sometimes sporting a top hat, like a Victorian dandy on his way to high tea — his hair was long and flowing, his clothes rich and fabulous." Reporter Lizzy Ratner wrote in the Observer that Mr. Vincent went through a political conversion after watching the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. "He became preoccupied — even obsessed — with the idea of an epic struggle between ‘democracy’ and ‘radical Islam’," Ms. Ratner recalled. "With a convert’s zeal, he gave up the glossy world of art galleries and openings and devoted himself to the story of Iraq."

A gung-ho supporter of the US invasion of Iraq, Mr. Vincent chose to go because he was too old to enlist in the Army but still wanted to participate in what he called "the greatest event of (his) lifetime": the war against "Islamofascism" as he wrote in In the Red Zone, the book he published after his first two visits to Iraq. He denounced all armed resistance to the US occupation of Iraq as the work of "Islamofascism" and right-wing "death squads" and, according to the New York Times, he "even compared his trips to Iraq to the tours taken by journalists covering the rise of fascism in Europe during the Spanish Civil War."

On Aug. 2, Mr. Vincent and his translator, Nouraya Tuaiz, were snatched from a street in downtown Basra by gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms. Five hours later, his body was found on a road near the city center. Several reports suggested that he may have been the victim of an "honor killing" by Shiite fundamentalists, because of his open friendship with Ms Tuaiz, an unmarried Muslim woman. There have also been suggestions that he was murdered by members of radical Shiite religious groups angry at him for publishing a piece in the New York Times on the rising influence of Shiite religious parties, in Basra. According to the Times, Mr. Vincent had been working on a story about the role of police officers, with ties to the Shiite parties in the recent assassinations of former Ba’ath Party officials.

What an irony, indeed. An idealistic liberal American writer who applauded the American campaign against radical Islamic or "Islamofascist" terrorists and the war to "liberate" Iraq from the Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist thugs, is being murdered by violent gangs with ties to a radical Islamic Shiite group whom he suspected of murdering former Ba’athists and which was put in power by the American-led coalition…

Moreover, one wonders what would have been the reaction of the bohemian New Yorker who had fashioned himself as a crusader for global democracy to learn that the American invasion of Iraq resulted in the emergence of a regime led by Shiite religious parties with links to the Shiite theocracy in Iran and under which the rights that women and religious minorities had enjoyed under Saddam would now be eroded.

It was fitting perhaps that Mr. Vincent compared his odyssey in Iraq to the experiences of those journalists who covered the Civil War in Spain in the late 1930s. Indeed, American and European journalists like Arthur Koestler who had flocked into Spain in that time — not unlike Mr. Vincent in Iraq — saw themselves as romantic figures and democratic idealists, fighting to defend the secular and liberal Spanish Republic threatened by a coalition of Fascists, militarists and clerics.

In reality, notwithstanding the romantic visions shared by Mr. Koestler and his idealistic colleagues, the Spanish Civil War turned out to be not a grand struggle between Good and Evil, but a battle ground on which forces allied with one Evil, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union were confronting an alliance backed by two other Evils, the Nazi Adolf Hitler and the Fascist Benito Mussolini. Many of the American and Europeans idealists who had joined the fight on the side of the Republic felt betrayed — some of them have been murdered — by the members of the Soviet-backed alliance. These idealists were certainly devastated when these two Evils, Stalin and Hitler, joined in a pact in 1939.

These days, the idealists who had fantasized about establishing a liberal secular democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, are shocked to learn that the crusade they supported in Iraq has given birth to a Shiite theocracy and a nationalist Kurdistan and created the conditions for a civil war that could draw in other nations in the region. They feel betrayed as they witness the death and destruction taking place in Iraq, a product of cynical machinations by local tribes, regional players, and outside powers. And they are probably are wondering when the mullahs in Baghdad and Teheran will sign their pact.

In his book, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, author William Pfaff chronicles the twentieth-century story of Mr. Koestler and other writers, artists, intellectual soldiers, and religious revolutionaries motivated by romanticism, nationalism, utopianism — and the search for transcendence.

They imagined politics as a form of art and themselves as artists who would be able to recreate society — only to become instruments in the hands of the political and military leaders who used them to advance their interests and those of the states they controlled.

In the 21st century, we seem to be plunging — once again — into visionary terrorism and utopian quests, that seem to attract idealistic crusaders like Mr. Vincent who are discovering in Iraq, like their predecessors did in Spain, that politics is not a work of art and that their dreams of Heaven on Earth in Mesopotamia and elsewhere end up as bloody nightmares.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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