Why Iraq Needs a Cultural Surge

July 4, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IraqIslamic StateISISDaeshWarMosul

Why Iraq Needs a Cultural Surge

Iraq needs a new surge—one that is focused on the reconstruction of the country's cultural heritage.


The tourism potential is extraordinary in this land of Sennacherib, Biblical prophets, the Caesars, and Suleyman the Magnificent. The people are historically industrious. Mosul itself—a Silk Road sister of Aleppo, and home to the eponymous, fine-cotton weave called muslin—has been Iraq’s richest city for centuries. In the Nineveh Plain, Saddam used to marvel at the tidiness and order of the Christian villages. Forcefully expressing the renewed allied security commitment, profoundly unifying in its message, economically stimulating the Nineveh surge should unlock the unusual, age-old wealth and comity of Mosul and the plain.

Rep. Chris Gibson served two tours in Nineveh Province in 2004–06 and led a brigade of the Eighty-Second Airborne here under National Security Advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster. “In Mosul people were so proud of their community. I used to have help from every corner of society,” says Gibson, who spent six years in Congress after leaving Iraq. “That was our advantage in the Mosul area: the love that most Iraqis have for the diversity of their community. Al Qaeda tried to make it a weakness, but we made it a strength. We won.”


Then, to the surprise of the Iraqis negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Obama administration in 2010, the United States left. By proposing a U.S. troop level of 3,500 (which the Iraqis considered too small to provide even its own force protection), insisting on parliamentary approval not required for SOFA’s elsewhere, and requiring legal guarantees not available for U.S. troops in other such situations—or for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq since that time—the United States blew up the negotiation and left Iraq. Obama’s key election promise had been kept. But not for long. Within three years, Maliki’s Iran-directed Shia misrule had brought on the ISIS crisis. Soon enough, the United States was back in Iraq.

REVIVING THE venerable prosperity and tolerance of Mosul and Nineveh is clearly an unusually force-multiplying boost for Iraq’s better elements. Doing so with a focus on cultural heritage is not only singularly efficient, but also singularly good for the United States in Iraq.

Post-ISIS Iraq will continue to be an ally of the highest importance. Of all the post-conflict missions available to the United States in this key nation, cultural heritage is unusually influential and cost-effective.

Cultural heritage is by far the best in-country “look” available to the United States in Iraq. Foremost is the key point made above: heritage is the only on-the-ground cause that is truly national in meaning. For foreign supporters, Iraq is a public-relations minefield. A new hospital in Basra is seen as a pro-Shia project, while restoration of the Abbasid mosque at Samarra is a “Sunni” project, and so on. It is specifically Nineveh Province that transcends all of this. That is why, as Gibson says, Iraqis look on the area with rare pride and affection—and why Al Qaeda and ISIS look on it with desire.

If the location of the proposed cultural surge is disproportionately impactful, so is its subject matter.

“Heritage is not oil. It’s not guns. And it’s inescapably about respect,” according to Douglas Ollivant, a former country director for Iraq at the National Security Council.

“I’d much rather see this kind of surge, and not need the other kind,” says Col. Ollivant, who served as Gen. David Petraeus’s chief planner for Baghdad in 2006 and 2007. “When you can find something this selfless that is clearly cross-sectarian, it really deepens Iraqi-American bonds.”

The Mosul/Nineveh cultural surge would be very different from the numerous small initiatives already springing up. An explicit, named initiative led by the State Department or USAID, it would bring to the task publicity, coordination and, most powerfully, the huge morale-boost of American support.

U.S. prestige is currently extraordinarily high in Iraq. In the thirteen years I have spent focused on the country, I have never seen the United States as respected and welcome as I have found recently in Nineveh, Kurdistan and Baghdad. Returning as saviors, we have been excused our calamitous abandonment of the country in 2011. America’s necessity and basic decency here (the Aleppo comparison, where the foreign partner was Russia, has been most clarifying) make the notion of a world without us appalling to Iraq’s peaceful majority.

Fortunately for Iraqi hopes, and American interests, the mood is different in Washington, DC too. As Colonel Ollivant, who served the Bush II and Obama administrations, says, “There’s a growing bipartisan understanding now that the U.S. security commitment to Iraq is long-term.”

Maan Ajaj, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee director, says the implicit U.S. security support that comes with prioritizing the region’s world-class cultural assets would be the most catalytic development for the local minority communities. “Just knowing that the U.S. understands the security consequences of Nineveh will help the minorities to return,” says Ajaj, the head of a leading Mosul Christian family.

This is not a call for more U.S. taxpayer money. Existing resources can do it. And money, of course, is not ultimately the problem in Iraq. The country will likely always be somewhat violent and corrupt. It will also always be remarkably resilient and important. As long as we are there, Iraq will be stable enough to pay us back many times over. In 2010, the year before ISIS arrived, the Iraqi budget surplus was $140 billion. Since then, despite ISIS, oil production is up 60 percent and increasing rapidly.

The new surge should integrate the activities of three distinct U.S. actors: academia and nonprofits, government and the private sector.

U.S. civil society is moving first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is providing Iraqi curators with training and equipment for documenting antiquities in Iraqi museums. The University of Delaware and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are working on conservation projects in northern Iraq. The Smithsonian is initiating a program to train local antiquities staffers in “first aid”—Salih’s term—for devastated sites like Nimrud.

When this was announced in March, Mark Taplin, the acting assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the U.S. State Department, noted that “time and again, we have seen how collaboration in cultural heritage protection and preservation fosters dialogue and understanding within societies under stress.”

Diplomacy is the second element. The U.S. State Department can help ensure that Iraq’s politicians deliver on the federalism promised in their constitution. The 2008 Provincial Powers Act should be implemented, so that local communities here may begin to re-grow their ancient roots with less fear of inefficiency and chauvinism from Baghdad. Archaeologists, scholars and curators headed in both directions need help with visas, with the Iraqi side needing more support under State’s existing International Visitors Leadership Program. The cultural affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, bringing U.S. figures from the arts and academia to Iraq, should make the Mosul area a priority. The World Monuments Fund’s Future of Babylon Project, strongly supported by the U.S. State Department and some of America’s biggest private non-profits, including the Mellon Estate and the Annenberg Foundation, has done much in southern Iraq. This should be replicated on a larger scale in the far more politically urgent northwest.

USAID, with cultural projects worldwide, should shift resources here, to the true front-of-frontlines of the security interests of the American people. The Nineveh Plain meets two of the six criteria (“exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition . . . which is living or which has disappeared” and “tangibly associated with events or living traditions . . . of outstanding universal significance”) that are sufficient for qualification for cultural UNESCO World Heritage status. The United States and allies, given the vital national-security interests at stake here, should be pushing hard for this.

U.S. diplomacy must also exert pressure on Lebanon and Turkey, the two principal conduits for looted Iraqi antiquities—and the Gulf countries where the loot is bought—to stop this illegal trade. Meanwhile our Baghdad embassy is the largest on earth. Given that Nineveh was the first Iraqi province for ISIS to enter, and will soon be the last for it to leave, a small State/USAID team working on coordination and branding of the Nineveh Province cultural heritage surge will have a strong multiplier effect. Critically, the United States has the influence in Iraq to ensure that the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage never again rests in sectarian hands.

The third leg of the new surge strategy is Corporate USA. Many of America’s largest companies see the value of a growing market with thirty million consumers, and most are members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Iraq. The local Pepsi operator’s new facility outside Baghdad is the largest bottling plant in the Middle East. Additionally, Boeing and General Electric have signed some of their largest contracts anywhere, ever, in Iraq over the last few years. Bellying up once more to Iraq’s epic oil trough, American business needs nonsectarian, national, long-term ways to be seen as giving back.

ExxonMobil, which has a $50 billion contract in the south near Basra, operates legal but controversial fields in the Kurdish north—a constitutionally unhelpful position best mitigated via conspicuous support for unifying institutions. Last year Britain’s BP earned kudos by restoring the Basra Museum. The Mosul Museum is a wreck today, but, according to Salih, only about 15 percent of its best items have been looted or destroyed. It would be a perfect place for ExxonMobil to start.