The J. Paul Getty Trust 2016 Report

Scholars Essay
Targeting History
Richard Haass
President of the Council on Foreign Relations

It is difficult to date the precise end of the Cold War, but November 9, 1989—11/9 as it turns out—is as good as any. It was on that day that the Berlin Wall, the concrete barrier that divided East from West Berlin and that had come to symbolize the four decade struggle between a free West and a Communist East, began to come down. What finally brought the Wall down was not NATO tanks but two things: the people of East Germany who, exploiting a political opening created by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, decided to take history into their own hands, and the East German security forces, who were unwilling to use deadly force to prevent a demonstration from literally and figuratively crossing a line.

Less than a year later, another border was breached, in this case with tanks and other weapons of war. Saddam Hussein, reeling from the costs of nearly a decade of war with Iran and low oil prices, needed a shortcut that could provide revenues to fuel his ambitions to be the hegemon of the Middle East. Kuwait was the shortcut, as control over it would double Iraq’s oil reserves and leave the Saudis and others afraid to stand up to Iraq when it came to determining the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) output and hence oil pricing. Saddam judged that his neighbors and the world would complain but in the end learn to live with his conquest of Kuwait.

As we all know, Saddam judged wrong. Led by the United States, the world came together, refusing to accept what Saddam had done. And when diplomacy backed by economic sanctions failed to sway Saddam and trigger a pullout by Iraqi forces, an unprecedented international coalition acting under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council forcibly evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

US President George H. W. Bush saw great potential in this international response. He very much hoped the world would come together to defeat Saddam Hussein and reinforce the norm that international borders could not be redrawn through the use of military force. But he hoped, too, that success in the Middle East would be a precedent, one that would lead to new collaboration among governments to meet other tests sure to surface in the post-Cold War world. This is how the President explained his vision in a September 1990 address to a joint session of Congress:

The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times … a new world order can emerge: a new era—freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.

Now, some twenty-five years later, it is clear that no benign new world order has materialized. What exists in many parts of the world as well as in various venues of international relations resembles more a new world disorder. What is worse, the clear trend is one of declining order.

This is not to deny the existence of important examples of stability and progress in the world, including an absence of great-power conflict, a degree of international cooperation to meet some of the challenges associated with globalization, and considerable coordination among governments and institutions in regard to many aspects of international economic policy. There is as well the fact that more people than ever are leading longer and healthier lives, that hundreds of millions of men, women, and children have been lifted out of extreme poverty in recent decades, and that more people enjoy what can be termed a middle-class life than at any other time in history.

That said, it is difficult to argue that what took place with the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq constituted a historic turning point for the better. Saddam Hussein’s thwarted attempt to use military force to accomplish his foreign policy goals turned out to be anything but an exception. With the advantage of a quarter century of hindsight, his illegitimate challenge to the status quo looks more like a harbinger of what was to come than the arrival of a new and more stable world.

Even a partial list of worrisome developments and trends in the world would include increased rivalry among several of this era’s major powers, a persistent and in some cases growing gap between global challenges and responses, the reality and the potential for conflict in several regions, and political dysfunction and changes going on within many countries, including but in no way limited to the United States, that are likely to make it more difficult to design and implement foreign policies that can help the world contend with the many threats to order.

Arguably no part of the world is more turbulent than the Middle East. This is not to ignore what is going on in Europe given the influx of refugees, Brexit, and Russian aggression in Ukraine, or the dangers posed by a nuclear North Korea and competing claims over territory and seas in South and East Asia. Nor is it to ignore the terrible civil conflict in South Sudan or the potential for one in an increasingly repressive Venezuela.

But the Middle East stands apart. The post–World War I order is unraveling in much of the region. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya all share many of the characteristics of failing or failed states in that governments are unable to assert authority and control over significant portions of their own territory. Syria in particular has emerged as an example of what can go wrong: an estimated four hundred thousand people have lost their lives and more than ten million—approximately half the original population—have become internally displaced or refugees, in the process threatening to overwhelm not just Syria’s immediate neighbors but Europe as well. In part as a result, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world has swelled to more than sixty million.

Today’s Middle East resembles nothing so much as Europe in the early seventeenth century when it experienced the Thirty Years War. Then as now religion and politics came together in the most combustible of ways. The result then was prolonged intense conflict within and across borders. History does not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain famously pointed out, on occasion it rhymes. We are thus likely to see prolonged intense violence in today’s Middle East.

Just why this is happening in today’s Middle East is a matter of some conjecture, but it is closely linked to the failure of many societies to come to terms with central elements of modernity, the prevalence of governments largely unresponsive to the needs of their citizens, underdeveloped civil society, and widespread corruption. Radical, intolerant, and often violent interpretations of Islam have come to fill a void. Outsiders, both by what they have elected to do (at times upsetting flawed but established orders) and not do (helping to put into place viable alternatives), have also contributed to all that has transpired.

The enormous price being paid by the people of Syria has already been noted. Civilians in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and elsewhere have likewise paid a heavy price. Some have lost their lives, some have life-changing injuries, while even more have been displaced, seen their lives shattered, or both.

But it is not just the present and future of the region that has been so affected. An additional casualty of the violence that characterizes much of the modern Middle East is the past.

The Islamic State, variously called ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, has made a point of destroying things it deems insufficiently Islamic. The most dramatic example was the destruction of the magnificent Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. As I write this, the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq is being liberated. But any liberation will not come soon enough to save the many sculptures already destroyed, libraries burned, or tombs pillaged.

To be sure, destruction of cultural artifacts is not limited to the Middle East. In 2001, the world watched in horror as the Taliban, then in control of much of Afghanistan, blew up the large statues of Buddha in Bamiyan. More recently, radical Islamists destroyed tombs and manuscripts in Timbuktu (Mali). But ISIS is carrying out destruction on a truly unprecedented scale.

There is something of a tradition of destroying the past. Alexander the Great destroyed much of what is now called Persepolis more than two thousand years ago. The religious wars that ravaged Europe over the centuries took their toll on churches, icons, and paintings. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao all did their best to destroy those buildings and works of art associated with cultures and ideas they viewed as dangerous. A half century ago the Khmer Rouge destroyed any number of temples and monuments in Cambodia.

In short, what can best be described as “Historicide” is all too familiar. That it should be as common as it is turns out to be understandable if perverse. Leaders wishing to mold a society around a new and different set of ideas and establish new loyalties and forms of behavior first need to destroy existing identities of adults and prevent the transmission of these identities to children. Destroying the symbols and expressions of these identities and the ideas inherent in them is judged by these self-proclaimed revolutionaries to be a necessary prerequisite to building a new society, culture, and/or polity.

For this reason preserving and protecting the past is essential for those who want to make sure today’s dangerous zealots do not succeed and that traditional values and identities persist. Museums and libraries are of great value not simply because they house and display what is beautiful but because they protect the heritage, values, ideas, and narratives that in no small part make us who we are and helps us transmit who we want to be to those who come after us. Our behavior as citizens, as members of a religion, as participants in causes and institutions defined by shared objectives and norms—all reflect and require strong links to the past.

The principal response of governments over time to Historicide has been to declare it illegal to traffic in stolen art and artifacts. A 1970 UNESCO Convention focuses on prohibiting the import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. This is desirable for any number of reasons, including the fact that terrorists who destroy cultural sites and enslave and kill innocent men, women, and children in part acquire the resources they require from the sale of looted treasures.

The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted at the Hague in 1954 and refined by two subsequent protocols, is related but different in important ways. It calls on the state parties who sign up to it not to target cultural sites and to refrain from using them for military purposes, i.e., to avoid housing soldiers or placing weapons at such sites. The goal is straightforward: to directly protect and preserve the past.

Alas, one should not exaggerate the significance of such international documents. They only apply to the governments that have chosen to be parties to them. There is no penalty for ignoring the 1954 Convention, as both Iraq and Syria have done, or withdrawing. The accords do not seem to apply to governments who endanger or destroy the past in the name of economic development. They provide no coverage of parties (such as ISIS) that do not happen to be states. And there is no mechanism for automatic action in the event a party or anyone else acts in ways the Convention seeks to prevent. Such action could encompass military action or sanctions; the idea would be to stop such destruction now and to deter it in the future.

One positive development worth noting in this regard was the successful prosecution in 2016 in the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who led forces of a radical Islamic group (Ansar Dine) reportedly linked to al-Qaeda who destroyed shrines in Timbuktu in 2012. He received a prison sentence of nine years after pleading guilty. But one should not make too much of this, as this is the first case on damage to cultural artifacts that the ICC has ever heard. The reach of the ICC, like the relevant Conventions, is limited.

The hard and sad truth is that there is much less in the way of international community than the frequent invocation of the term suggests. Alas, this reality applies to people as well as to buildings and objects. The international community is on record supporting the principle known as the “Responsibility to Protect,” widely referred to as R2P. A UN World Summit in 2005 declared, “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” What added to the significance was the additional statement that the international community had not just the right but the obligation to act, including with military force, regardless if the government in question asked for such intervention or even if it opposed it.

But to set a norm is one thing; to interpret it in the case of specific situations and to act on it as its authors intended is something very different. R2P has had no discernable effect on the well-being of the Syrian people; indeed, several members of the international community, including the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran, have intervened not to protect innocent people but to add significantly to their misery.

If the world is unwilling to fulfill its responsibility to protect people, it is highly unlikely to be able and willing to come together on behalf of statues, manuscripts, and paintings. To be sure, individual institutions such as the Getty can help, be it by taking in on a temporary basis objects from endangered counterparts around the world or by maintaining not just inventories but detailed images of holdings. No criticism is meant when I say this helps but only at the margins.

There is no getting around the conclusion that there is no substitute for stopping those who would destroy cultural property before they do it. In the case of today’s terrorists, who have emerged as the principal threat to the past, this involves discouraging young people from choosing radical paths, slowing the flows of recruits and resources, persuading governments to assign police and military units the mission of protecting valued sites, and when possible attacking the terrorists before they strike. This last task involves the gathering and then dissemination of accurate, timely intelligence along with the training, equipping, and advising of friendly governments. On some occasions, it may call for the United States and other like-minded countries to carry out direct military action, be it with drones or special operations forces. If a government is the source of the threat to cultural sites, then sanctions may be a more appropriate tool. Indicting, prosecuting, convicting, and jailing those who carry out such destruction might prove to be something of a deterrent that could influence the behavior of those who would otherwise follow in their footsteps. It is not all that different from what is required to stop violence against persons.

Until then, Historicide will remain an all too real threat and, as we have seen, a reality. The past will be in jeopardy. In that sense, it is no different than the present or future.

Richard Haass, an experienced diplomat, is in his fourteenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of more than a dozen books on international subjects, most recently A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (Penguin Press, 2017).