An excerpt from

The Rape of Mesopotamia

Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum

Lawrence Rothfield

“Nobody Thought of Culture”
War-Related Heritage Protection in the Early Prewar Period

Much has been written about the U.S. military’s failure to prepare adequately for the post-combat phase of the 2003 war and about the disastrous impact such shortsightedness had on virtually every sector of Iraqi society. The failure to take steps to prevent the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—and the less publicized, though far more devastating, ongoing looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites—must be understood within this larger short-term context of failure to protect any number of arguably more important assets. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s well-documented desire for invading forces to go in lighter and faster required jettisoning supposedly inessential forces from the first wave, and this meant there simply would be too few boots on the ground in Baghdad to be able to spare tanks to guard buildings, including but by no means limited to the museum. Undoubtedly, too, the rush to war meant that postwar planning would be foreshortened and truncated, in ways that made it difficult for cultural heritage protection—and any number of other important postwar tasks—to even get onto the planning agenda, let alone included in operational orders.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Rumsfeld’s strategic preference for speed, the rush to war, or even the tactical decision to punch into Baghdad were the only factors sealing the fate of the museum. There were also deep-seated, longer-term structural impediments, within both the military and the Bush administration, that blocked the development of assets capable of being deployed to protect museums and archaeological sites, had Pentagon policy makers or United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) planners wished to do so.

Soldiers consider themselves warriors, not police, and the American military in particular has traditionally placed a much lower value on the mundane tasks of patrolling or guarding areas than on combat operations. Peacekeeping and stability operations are thankless jobs, lacking the glory associated with the phrase “Mission accomplished.” The military’s relative indifference to this aspect of their work is reflected in the failure to establish standing units of civil-military officers or trained units of paramilitary police, even after the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo made clear that such troops were needed. Although it was obvious to any analyst of these conflicts that the U.S. military needed, at the very least, the capacity to train indigenous police as well as other specialized civil-military units, policing within the military continued to be funded in an ad hoc manner, through cumbersome supplementary budget requests coming from the State Department. As Robert Perito notes, while the military engaged in serious lessons-learned reviews that improved combat operations, “no similar effort at efficiency on the post-conflict side was made by relevant U.S. civilian agencies and executive-branch departments [nor, one might add, by the uniformed military]; they simply had not adopted post-conflict stability as a core mission.”

In this the U.S. military differed considerably from its NATO allies, for several reasons. First, our European counterparts had experience operating national police and paramilitary security forces and were comfortable with their functioning in tandem with regular military. In contrast, America has never permitted the development of a national police, reflecting the distrust of centralized power that has characterized America since its founding.

But U.S. constabulary functions at the start of the Bush administration were also less robust than our allies’ for a second set of reasons having to do with NATO war-fighting strategy developed for the Cold War era. As policy analyst Scott Feil explains:

NATO doctrine called for member nations to take care of their own populations in the event of conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Since the expected conflict would take place largely on the continent, the U.S. military was somewhat absolved from the responsibility for large-scale governance and reconstruction duties. Those would be handled by the NATO allies’ governments, and U.S. military responsibilities were to conduct war according to the accepted law of land warfare. That meant moving civilian populations out of the way of conflict, taking due care not to unnecessarily create civilian casualties or destroy non-military targets, etc. But the large-scale governance, constabulary, and reconstruction capabilities that existed at the end of WWII were, to a substantial extent, allowed to atrophy.

The uniformed military’s congenital predisposition against policing, the absence of a national police, and the historically ingrained war-fighting posture of American forces all contributed to the neglect of postwar planning for securing sites. None of these conditions, however, would have been as debilitating as they turned out to be, had they not dovetailed with the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 desire to get the military out of the business of peacemaking operations. Bush’s foreign policy team, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, came into office suggesting they preferred civilians to handle post-combat policing, a desire that meshed nicely with Rumsfeld’s vision of a leaner and more mobile military. The president’s first national security directive accordingly nullified all interagency groups, including the Peacekeeping Core Group that the Clinton administration had set up in an effort to grapple with the problem. Clinton’s policy directives on peacekeeping were suspended pending review, leaving no clear policy on what assistance the United States should provide for restoring public order, who was to be responsible, how interagency programs should be coordinated, or where funding should come from.

In this environment, responsibility for policing fell to the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), in particular to a small group of midlevel officials acting with almost no oversight and no standing forces upon which to draw. Recruiting for UN peacekeeping missions was therefore contracted out to a firm that hired police officers looking for some easy money and adventure, leading to a scandal in Bosnia when several American officers were accused of involvement in sexual trafficking.

The devastating effect America’s abdication of responsibility for peacekeeping could have on cultural heritage was demonstrated in Afghanistan, where an international security force authorized by the UN began to deploy only in January 2002, a month after the establishment of an interim government. But even this deployment was limited to Kabul, with responsibility for maintaining security elsewhere left to the Afghans. The Afghan Northern Alliance already had a 4,000-strong police force that was dispatched to Kabul when the Northern Alliance occupied it. The long-term goal was to train 70,000 police officers. Citing the Marshall Plan in a speech on the issue, Bush raised hopes that the administration had recognized the necessity for nation building. But the U.S. policy was immediately clarified by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Both men remained opposed to using American soldiers as police and envisaged building a national Afghan army and police force, using international peacekeepers in Kabul, and sending Special Forces teams to work with regional warlords.

The European Union nations did have experienced peacekeeping forces that might have done the job. Moreover, they also maintained specialized paramilitary units trained to deal with cultural heritage protection, in particular the Italian Carabinieri (a standing force), NATO’s smaller CIMIC Group North Cultural Affairs unit, and national reservist teams from the Netherlands and Poland. Iran also might have been able to provide militarized cultural guards, if this had not been a nonstarter for obvious reasons. But with the UN initially restricted to Kabul, instability growing in the countryside, and tensions growing with Europe over American unilateralism in other policy areas, European countries resisted the United States’ suggestion that they should take primary responsibility for peacekeeping on far-flung archaeological sites, where looting had increased a thousand-fold under the Taliban. German forces assisted civilian experts in the heartbreaking task of conserving what was left of the Bamiyan cliffs and niches, under the auspices of UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), but the remainder of Afghanistan’s sites remained unsecured.

By December 2003, the news from UNESCO on the situation in Afghanistan was grim:

Positive signs of more vigorous international cooperation [in post-Taliban Afghanistan] face one major challenge in reversing the tragic process of impoverishment of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, namely the continuous looting of archaeological sites and illicit traffic of cultural property outside of the country. The Ministry of Information and Culture of Afghanistan estimates that ongoing looting and illicit traffic are of an amplitude comparable to that endured during the Taliban regime. Means available to counter looting remain limited, especially in provincial areas where the security situation is still volatile. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Information and Culture requested the deployment of five hundred armed guards at the most exposed archaeological sites in the country. So far, resources available to restore law and order throughout the country have been insufficient to meet this demand.

Much of the disaster being suffered by Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage can be laid to the policy decision to permit warlords to police their own areas in lieu of a robust coalition military policing presence. On one important newly discovered site, the local warlord banned government officials while his troops plundered it. When the government sent police officers to another site that was also being looted by a warlord, four were murdered. Consequently looting in the countryside has reportedly grown completely out of control: between 2004 and 2006, the British government seized three to four tons (!) of plundered items smuggled into the United Kingdom from liberated Afghanistan.

UNESCO’s monitoring of the travails of Afghan heritage protection efforts reflected the international organization’s commitment, formalized in the 1972 World Heritage Convention, to work through governmental agencies to induce militaries to reduce war-related harm to antiquities. Unfortunately, despite the ratification of the UNESCO Convention by the United States, there was little UNESCO could do on its own to affect an indifferent military. Any influence would have to be exercised indirectly, through interlocutors within the State Department or other American agencies that might have a stake in cultural heritage protection.

Identifying precisely whom that might be, however, was no easy matter. Such was the degree of disorganization and disinterest about cultural heritage issues inside the government that it puzzled even so astute and seasoned a policy player as Arthur Houghton. Houghton was one of a very small number of people with inside experience of both Washington bureaucracy and the higher levels of the cultural sector. A blueblood scion of the founder of the Corning Glass Works, he had spent thirteen years in the State Department as a Foreign Service officer and six years as an international policy analyst in the White House under both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But he also had served as acting curator during the early years of the Getty Museum (where he had suffered the unfortunate experience of purchasing a kouros later determined to be fake), and as a member of the president’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. His own collecting passion was Seleucid coins, on which he is one of the world’s leading experts.

In late spring 2002, Houghton was approached by Ashton Hawkins, the former executive vice president and counsel to the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum—and, like Houghton, a proponent of liberalizing antiquities laws to make it easier for antiquities to be exported from countries of origin. Hawkins asked his friend to nose around Washington to find out what was being done by officials and heritage advocates in preparation for what was looking increasingly likely to be a war against Iraq.

Houghton had assumed that there would be an office somewhere in the Defense Department or State Department where the war-related dangers to Mesopotamian sites and the National Museum in Baghdad were already being thought about. “What I discovered,” he recalls, “was, lo and behold, nobody was handling the issue, there was no one I could find who was tagged with the responsibility for dealing with the protection and preservation of culture, material culture in Iraq, anywhere in the U.S. government.”

In an earlier epoch, someone like Houghton—Harvard educated, urbane, and well connected—might have been able to bring the concerns of Hawkins and others to the attention of policy makers at the highest level simply by calling a few friends in the power elite to warn them that attention must be paid to cultural heritage protection. As Lynn Nicholas shows, this is how it was done in World War II in the run-up to the Normandy invasion: the director of the Metropolitan Museum, after consulting with colleagues in Boston, met over dinner with the board of the National Gallery in Washington, which just happened to include Chief Justice Harlan Stone and the secretaries of state and the treasury. The chief justice offered to serve as chair of a national committee and sent a memo directly to Roosevelt, who responded in favorable terms.

But the old-boy network was a thing of the past, and Houghton found it necessary to hunt through the bureaucracy for months in search of someone who would pay attention. His long quest for an interlocutor inside the government over time would bring him in contact, directly or indirectly, with the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, State Department elements such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as various think tanks.

Houghton and Hawkins were not wrong, however, to assume that somewhere there was already some group pulling together plans for postwar Iraq. In May 2002 the Middle East Institute (MEI), a Washington think tank with close ties to the State Department, was beginning to serve as the administration’s unofficial host for the Future of Iraq (FOI) Project. And the Future of Iraq Project itself was the outgrowth of months of work. With clearance from the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs had begun thinking about the aftermath of a “transition” in Iraq as early as October 2001, cobbling together a list of postwar jobs and topics to be considered. The idea was to ask Iraqi exiles to craft a future set of institutions and policies for post-liberation Iraq. In March 2002 the Middle East Institute announced the lineup of working groups to develop plans for Iraq’s public sectors.

But even with the green light from Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, this initiative still faced stiff opposition from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and especially from its chair, aging archconservative Jesse Helms. Helms wanted to promote Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) above the dozens of other exile groups solicited for experts by the FOI Project. At Helms’s insistence, Congress had forbidden any official involvement with exiles by the State Department; housing the project at the Middle East Institute was a way of getting around that stricture, but it was also a risky venture. For that reason, the FOI Project’s organizers—Ryan Crocker, later to become U.S. ambassador to Iraq but at that point serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs; Thomas Warrick, a senior advisor on Iraq serving under Crocker; and David Mack, director of the MEI—made sure the project kept a very low profile. They buried their announcement in the midst of a news cycle dominated by Afghanistan and pulled working groups together quietly—so quietly that the project’s existence remained essentially unknown to anyone from the cultural heritage community. Even Houghton, who had at one point served on the Middle East Institute’s board, knew nothing about the initiative.

One might have expected those involved in defining the sectors for the Future of Iraq Project to have included culture among the set of public goods to be attended to in planning for the future of Iraq. After all, these were highly cultivated current and former State Department hands, working together with Iraqi exiles who cared deeply about their homeland and who brought expertise about health care, the environment, and other objects of governmental concern. Groups were established on sixteen topics, ranging from “Transitional Justice” to “Water, Agriculture, and the Environment.” And yet, as Houghton eventually discovered, “nobody thought of ‘culture’ as being an independent stand-alone issue that needed to be looked into, and nobody had experience in that area that would suggest, ‘Well, we ought to form another working group,’ so none was formed.” Mack recalls that someone did raise the issue of culture at one meeting, but “the Iraqis said, ‘Nah, nah we don’t need anything on culture, we don’t. What are you going to do, try and save the Iraq Symphony Orchestra?’” None of the Iraqi exiles was an expert on cultural heritage: “People knew that there were some antiquities being stolen, probably under the aegis of the Saddam regime, but they didn’t know that it was going to escalate after a change.”

There were, of course, other experts—though none among the exiles gathered for the FOI Project—who did expect a surge in looting. Archaeologists knew that the pillaging of cultural sites after combat “was almost predictable,” Mack admits, adding, however, “but on the other hand, they didn’t do a very good job of blowing the horn.” Mack is correct in his assessment, at least for the early period of prewar planning in which he was involved: archaeological organizations did not focus on the issue until the fall of 2002. As we shall see, once they began to try to get the attention of policy makers, it would take several months for cultural heritage protection advocates to find their way belatedly to the table of various postwar planners, including the Future of Iraq Project. During the crucial early period of May–October 2002, however, no one involved in planning for the future of Iraq had a stake in cultural heritage. It simply did not register as an object of governmental concern, as something about which a policy needed to be designed.

This might not have been the case in many other antiquities-rich countries where cultural heritage enjoys a sustained high-level governmental presence in the form of ministries of culture, antiquities boards, and so on. Those cultural bureaucracies have the visibility, clout, and permanency to enable them to develop standing relationships, educational programs, and even integrated operations with military forces, all designed to promote heritage protection. In Iran, for example, it is possible to fulfill the requirement for military service by serving for two years in the Cultural Heritage Guards unit of Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization. Because stemming the cross-border smuggling of antiquities is a major responsibility of the military and border police in Iran, the Cultural Heritage Organization organized special courses for the Iranian military, during and after the Iran-Iraq War, to educate soldiers about the value of cultural heritage and about how to implement heritage protection laws and regulations.

The United States has fewer ancient sites per square mile to protect than Italy, Iran, or Iraq, of course, though the total number of sites in America may be roughly equivalent. But just as our military posture is different from those of other countries, so is our attitude to our heritage—and more generally, to our culture. American suspicion of governmental involvement in cultural matters is deeply engrained, enshrined in the First Amendment. Indeed, the quasi-official line has long been that America has no cultural policy; when in 1999 the Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative to shape one, the foundation was savaged as advocating a Soviet-style ministry of culture. This deep-rooted antipathy is reflected in the absence of any cabinet-level post representing the public interest in culture, and in the relatively minor roles in cultural life played by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the president’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and other minor federal or quasi-federal offices.

Not only are America’s cultural bureaucracies weak, scattered, and uncoordinated, but they operate under very restricted mandates dealing with trade, conservation, domestic funding of the arts, and other peacetime issues affecting cultural goods. They are neither responsible for nor designed to address wartime or postwar situations. Consequently, governmental offices administering cultural heritage did not bring themselves to the attention of those planning for the upcoming conflict—even when working within the same agency. So far as I have been able to determine, for instance, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs did not communicate with the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project until January 2003. Nor did cultural bureaucrats attempt to contact the Pentagon office dealing with postwar stability and reconstruction issues. Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of Defense Joseph Collins, who headed that office, has been widely blamed for not having taken the steps needed to protect the museum and sites. As he points out, however, he was never prodded by anyone in the government to attend to the matter until after the fact. “When we started to have problems, all those people came out of the woodwork,” Collins recalls. “We said, ‘Wow, this is a part of the State Department we haven’t seen before!’ because it wasn’t the part that we met in the interagency.”

The structural shortcomings we have identified within the military with regard to cultural heritage protection were mirrored, then, within the government. Even in the absence of more powerful and bureaucracies to register and amplify their concerns, or elements of the military designed to deal with heritage protection, however, archaeological and preservationist NGOs still might have been able to worm their way into the post-combat planning process. To do this successfully, they would have had to have built a track record of working over the years with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and liaising with American armed forces. Humanitarian NGOs had done just that, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and had even formed an umbrella group, InterAction, to represent their interests. When the Pentagon began planning for postwar Iraq, it turned to InterAction for help, and in the months leading up to the invasion, 150 or so NGOs met repeatedly with Collins and USAID. None of these organizations, unfortunately, had as its mission the protection of cultural heritage.

Post-combat planners were turning to Iraq fresh from the invasion of Afghanistan, where the destruction of the Bamiyan statues had demonstrated with brutal clarity that cultural heritage was at risk in the region. But the statues had been blown up before the invasion, and the lesson they taught was that the way to prevent further destruction of Afghan heritage was to remove the Taliban regime, the sooner the better. Protecting cultural heritage in the post-combat phase in Afghanistan, Collins recalls, was not even on the radar screen, given the intent focus on the Taliban and the need to go to war on the fly, as fast and as light as possible. As we have already noted, even if the military had gone in heavy, it had no standing military policing forces of its own to deploy, especially for something as insignificant as an archaeological site. What was deployed instead were provincial reconstruction teams established by the military after the defeat of the Taliban. Surprisingly, American cultural heritage organizations did not seek to embed experts in these units, and it is only recently that the military has actively begun to seek out archaeologists for such duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, continued instability makes any nonmilitarized efforts at site policing or even palliative support for the National Museum of Afghanistan too dangerous for most cultural heritage NGOs: as late as 2004, the museum had still not gotten the help needed even to do an inventory of its objects. “A lot of people in Afghanistan are asking why the Americans are absent in cultural heritage,” according to Omar Sultan, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of information and culture.

One stumbling block in the way of American archaeological NGO involvement in militarized activities in both Afghanistan and Iraq was undoubtedly that, in sharp contrast to the hard-core disaster-relief orientation of international humanitarian NGOs like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent Society, the flagship American cultural heritage NGOs are oriented toward peacetime conservation, not toward injecting units into unstable situations where their lives might be at risk. They could and did provide information to the armed forces about the location of sites, and, on an ad hoc basis, could send money and experts to help repair damage and train up curators once a war was over. But they were not designed to think proactively about the dangers posed to cultural heritage in the lawless period of stabilization following armed conflicts—a period that, in Iraq, began with a bang but has turned out to be never-ending. And they had no general interest in things military either, it seems. The Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a program sponsored by the secretary of defense for American leaders interested in expanding their knowledge of the military and national defense, would have been an excellent point of entry for preservationists wanting to get the ear of the Defense Department. Yet less than two months before the invasion, at a January 28, 2003, meeting of this large group, at which not just Collins but Rumsfeld himself spoke, the only representative from the cultural heritage world was the director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

There is a single potential exception to this general rule about cultural heritage NGOs, one organization that does focus on cultural heritage protection in militarized situations: the Blue Shield, an international consortium of national committees describing itself as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. If any organization devoted to heritage protection should have found its way to the Future of Iraq Project and/or to Collins’s office in the Pentagon, it is the Blue Shield. But, incomprehensibly, in 2002–2003 the Blue Shield had no American committee, and its international body seems to have been preoccupied during this period with implementing its newly established function, under the 1999 Second Protocol to the Hague Convention, of advising an intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

In any case, the International Committee of the Blue Shield, linked umbilically to the United Nations, was not free from its end to make contact with American war planners. Nor was it likely to have been welcomed by them. The Pentagon was counting on help only from those in the coalition of the willing, not from the United Nations. This was a long-standing prejudice on the part of the United States, not limited to the UN’s cultural organizations, of course. But relations with UNESCO had been particularly chilly for decades. UNESCO had made several attempts to go into Iraq after the end of the 1991 war to assess the impact of the war on cultural sites, but the United States—which had pulled out of the organization in 1984—vetoed those requests.

By giving the cold shoulder to UNESCO, the United States made it far more difficult for that organization’s cultural heritage section to evolve ways of working with militaries to address proactively the challenges of protecting cultural sites in situations of armed conflict. That such efforts were stymied is illustrated by what happened in the aftermath of the 1991 bombing campaign, when a policy researcher with an interest in cultural heritage sought a meeting with UNESCO’s director-general, Federico Mayor. The objective was to persuade Mayor to develop a capacity within UNESCO to gather and maintain site coordinate information for cultural sites. Such a database could have been drawn upon not just by militaries but by development organizations considering major projects. Mayor, however, feared that discussing any aspect of American military action in Iraq would be seen as a tacit criticism of the American bombing campaign. Offending the United States unnecessarily was not something the director-general of UNESCO could afford to do at a moment when the collapsing Soviet Union had failed to pay its bill and UNESCO was desperately seeking ways to persuade the United States to rejoin. The meeting was quietly scrubbed and the idea forgotten. Consequently, UNESCO’s focus over the next decade remained on emergency responses and reconstruction, rather than expanding to include prewar disaster prevention measures.

As the war clouds began to gather in the spring and summer of 2002, then, the archaeological and cultural heritage community was structurally unprepared to work with post-combat planners on either long-term postwar reconstruction issues being dealt with by the Future of Iraq Project or on the short-term disaster-prevention issues that Pentagon planners were beginning to address as part of stability and peacekeeping operations.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 21–33 of The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum by Lawrence Rothfield, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Lawrence Rothfield
The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum
©2009, 228 pages, 20 halftones, 1 map
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 9780226729459

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Rape of Mesopotamia.

See also: