Salam Pax recently wrote an open letter to President Bush published in The Guardian:

I hate to wake you up from that dream you are having, the one in which you are a superhero bringing democracy and freedom to underdeveloped, oppressed countries. But you really need to check things out in one of the countries you have recently bombed to freedom. Georgie, I am kind of worried that things are going a bit bad in Iraq and you don’t seem to care that much. You might want it to appear as if things are going well and sign Iraq off as a job well done, but I am afraid this is not the case.

Listen, habibi, it is not over yet. Let me explain this in simple terms. You have spilled a glass full of tomato juice on an already dirty carpet and now you have to clean up the whole room. Not all of the mess is your fault but you volunteered to clean it up. I bet if someone had explained it to you like that you would have been less hasty going on our Rambo-in-Baghdad trip.

To tell you the truth, I am glad that someone is doing the cleaning up, and thank you for getting rid of that scary guy with the hideous moustache that we had for president. But I have to say that the advertisements you were dropping from your B52s before the bombs fell promised a much more efficient and speedy service.

James Lileks is livid, noting that

[T]here’s a picture on the front page of my local paper today: third Minnesotan killed in Iraq. He died doing what you never had the stones to do: pick up a rifle and face the Ba’athists. You owe him.

Let me explain this in simple terms, habibi. You would have spent the rest of your life under Ba’athist rule. *** What’s certain is that none of your pals would ever have gotten rid of that “scary guy without the hideous moustache” (as if his greatest sin was somehow a fashion faux pas) and the Saddam regime would have prospered into the next generation precisely because of people like you. People who would rather have lived their life in low-level fear than change your situation. I understand; I would have done the same. I’m not brave enough to start a revolution. I wouldn’t have grabbed a gun and charged a palace. I would lived like you. Head down, eyes wary. When the man’s too strong, the man’s too strong. . . .


The rug was soaked before we got there, friend. Cut the clever cafe pose; drop the sneer. That “Rambo” crap is old. Iraq needs grown-ups. Be one.

Matthew Yglesias notes that most of the world’s countries opposed our intervention into Iraq and that Lileks is saying they’re all stupid and/or cowards. His commenters think Lileks should shut up, since Salam was very brave in blogging from Baghdad.

I don’t think that’s what Lileks is saying at all. Can people, even Iraqis, believe that the US should not have gone to war to overthrow Saddam? Sure. But it’s rather unseemly to whine about the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, do nothing to help secure your liberty, and then bitch about how your liberators aren’t moving fast enough. To quote the immortal words of the fictional Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) from “A Few Good Men”:

[M]y existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Update (1238): Dan Drezner disagrees, making in detail a point also noted by one of Matt’s commenters:

You’re absolutely right — Salam and his buddies would never have taken up arms to overthrow Saddam. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that back in 1991, when President Bush encouraged ordinary Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, the results weren’t so good.

Bush’s call worked perfectly. Seventeen out of eighteen provinces were in open revolt. Hussein was at his weakest. And what did the United States do after our call was answered by the Iraqi common man? Did we help in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein? Nope. We looked the other way while Hussein violated the no-fly zones to put down the Shi’ites, Marsh Arabs, Kurds, etc. We did it for realpolitik reasons, many of which the current administration has rejected. But we did it. Why, on God’s green earth, would anyone ever choose to rise up after that Mongolian cluster-fuck of U.S. foreign policy?

Let me explain this in simple terms, habibi. This was a debt that had to be repaid. Yeah, they owe us for getting rid of Saddam. But we owe them for going back on our word in 1991. As a result, Iraqi’s languished under Hussein’s rule an extra twelve years. That don’t buy a lot of sympathy.

I agree and disagree with this argument. As William Saleten wrote,

Three weeks into the war, Bush observed, “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and then comply with the United Nations resolutions.” That was a fact and a suggestion, no less true or wise than an equivalent remark about the Cuban or Serbian people. But it wasn’t a promise.

Still, as I noted in my response to Saletan in March, the uprising created a moral obligation on our part to intervene.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Yeah, yeah, but Colonel Jessop was the bad guy in that film.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True enough. Indeed, I’ve said so elsewhere. The above words were wrong in the context of excusing the abuse of authority that led to the death of Private Santiago. But they’re right, I think, in the current situation and, indeed, in a more general sense.

  3. G C says:

    Except you didn’t quote the part where Lileks said:

    “Hey, Salam? Fuck you.”

    That puts a rather more hostile spin on Lilek’s essay, and explains why a lot of Matt’s commenters (including me) think Lileks is WAAAY overboard here.

    Not to mention the idea that Iraqis are disgusting cowards for not resisting is absurd. Try the same argument on for size about concentration camps or confederate slaves and see how it feels.

  4. James Joyner says:


    I skipped the invective because I’m trying to maintain a cleaner tone here. I think Lilek’s reaction is perfectly justified, though.

    I haven’t gone that deeply into the social history of those eras, but I don’t recall the Jews who were liberated from the concentration camps complaining very much. And many of the slaves actually picked up a rifle and joined the Union army when they had a chance.

  5. JC says:

    Are you guys on the right just being dim to make a point? Spend some time in a soup kitchen or a half way house and you’ll see the psychology involved. Help is often not appreciated for a variety of reasons, and the psychology is pretty well understood.


  6. craig henry says:

    I think the last paragraph is key. “drop the sneer….. be a grownup.”

    That’s why i liked the Lileks’s post. Salam wasn’t offering a serious critique or advice, he was playing to his audience in England and going for cheap jokes.

  7. G C says:


    What I actually said was, “Not to mention the idea that Iraqis are disgusting cowards for not resisting is absurd. Try the same argument on for size about concentration camps or confederate slaves and see how it feels.”

    IF you think the Iraqis were cowards for not resisting Saddam, as Lileks does, do you think that Jews in concentration camps and slaves in the Confederate South who did not resist overwhelming force arrayed against hem were also cowards?

  8. James Joyner says:

    G C,

    Ah. Not really, but it’s a matter of degrees. Clearly, there were slaves and internees who resisted despite the overwhelming odds; they were particularly heroic. On the other end of the spectrum, there were some who did anything they could to ingratiate themselves with their captors, including spying on their fellows; they were despicable cowards. Most were somewhere in between.

    But, unless Lileks is calling himself a coward–he says he’d have done the same thing Salam did–then that’s not his argument. I certainly don’t blame Salam for trying to hide out until it all passed over; I do feel a bit of outrage over his snarkiness directed toward those who put their lives on the line and secured his freedom.

  9. JC says:

    Actually see Drezner’s response, which is pretty much on the mark. Good for him.

  10. James Joyner says:


    Fair enough. I’m sure people can feel embittered by the comparative courage of others. But, surely, it’s permissible for the target of the sneering to resent being sneered at?

  11. Tom Royce says:

    Lilek also captures the frustration of the people in flyover country. It typically is their children who are dying, and they also support the recontruction most fehemently. So when Salam sneers, they are hurt, and frustrated. Flyover folk do not want us to leave, or provide ammunition for the intelligencia to demand leaving Iraq.
    As typical dealing with the intelligencia, the hardest words to get out of them are thanks…

  12. G C says:

    “I understand; I would have done the same. I’m not brave enough to start a revolution. ”

    “He died doing what you never had the stones to do”

    Sure sounds to me like Lileks calling Salaam a coward.

    JC’s right. Drezner’s right on.

  13. James Joyner says:


    I think he’s saying Salam isn’t as brave as the soldiers he’s, by extension at least, sneering at. But, again, he says he wouldn’t have done it either.

  14. Gabe Posey says:


    James Lileks is writing his blog with his opinion in mind. Is it flawed? Sure, all of our opinions are. Is it wrong, though? Not really. His point is summarized there at the end, “be a grown up”. It’s semantics to argue what his intention was or to try and infer his meaning. Look only at the words he writes and watch for the way he writes them. His whole article is merely a heated response to a growing trend: complaining that you’re not seeing that new Iraqi McDonald’s built fast enough. He wants Salam and all of those with Salam’s penchant for whining to put up or shut up.

    That’s my two cents anyway.I’m busy covering the President’s newest ‘religion of peace’ comments.

  15. Gabe Posey says:

    Well that should have been

  16. JC says:

    “But, surely, it’s permissible for the target of the sneering to resent being sneered at?”

    Sure. When southern states who suck up all the federal money from states like mine then turn around and kick me in the balls for being a liberal and giving them all that money, I feel much the same.

    Join the club.

  17. Esq says:


    You’re not funny or clever. Does this Southern sneering mean that you are now willing to reduce everyone’s taxes and cut federal programs? Didn’t think so. They are your only means to power. Oppress the poor and buy some votes. 40 acres and a mule!

    You also are wrong about Drezner. Saddam was a tyrant before 1991 so Drezner’s all wet. And just like that poof, all your justification blown away.

    James nails it: “…it’s rather unseemly to whine about the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, do nothing to help secure your liberty, and then bitch about how your liberators aren’t moving fast enough.”

    Also calling your liberator Georgie, and treating him as your servant that must hurry up and clean up a mess he didn’t make is just so over the line Lileks was clearly right. Defend him if you want but he sounds like a typical selfish adolescent to me who needs to grow up.

  18. The problem with Drezner’s post is that the history he sights glosses over some really significant points that undermine, to some extent, his underlying argument. Rather than clog up your comments, I’ll just post the link.

  19. Paul says:

    All you guys are missing the point.

    Pax craves attention from the west and will do or say whatever he thinks will maximize it.

    I quit reading him because it was obvious he was far from genuine. Anyone with a brain knows that type of column will be lapped up by leftists in England this week.

    If you believe a word he writes you are genuinely naive. Go back and read his works, they mirror the headlines. When Bush is popular his is happy we came there. When there is a wave of left wing goofyness like in England this week, Pax plays to them too.

    I find it amusing… One guy sitting in a piss ant third world country can make thousands of people all across the globe spin on a dime. MAN the power trip must be a rush.


  20. Paul says:

    OH and Matthew Yglessias is an idiot.

    Many of the counties that he lists and claims oppose us so much have troops in Iraq or they gave us money.

    His credibility is about as high as Salam Pax’s

  21. JC says:

    “Does this Southern sneering mean that you are now willing to reduce everyone’s taxes and cut federal programs?” Hey, I’m just pointing out that if all the blue states stop giving the red states our tax dollars, you’d be toast. We’re propping you up. If you don’t want us to, fine.

    But I was under the assumption that we were a union of states, and that’s why I don’t mind. I find that growing food and other stuff highly important – not to mention well educated kids – and I’m more than willing to spend some of my hard earned tax dollar on making things better and sharing the wealth. It makes us all richer in the end.

    Strange how the recipients of this largess are the one’s screaming the loudest about it.

    Odd, that.

  22. Ross Judson says:

    Lileks requires abasement from those he has helped, apparently…and is unable to see the irony in the righteous anger derived from reading about the deaths of _three_ of his fellow Minnesotans, who gave their _lives_ helping people who’ve suffered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their citizens, at the hand of a madman, and several thousand more deaths at the hands of their liberators.

    Are the Iraqis permitted melancholy? Is a bittersweet taste not in their apple-pie deliverance?

    Lileks demonstrates with those words that in his mind, each of those American lives was worth a few hundred, or a few thousand, Iraqi lives. And when confronted with this observation, in his opinion, an Iraqi may not have outwardly say anything to an American other than “Thank you, Sir. My Mother died in a bombing for us all, Sir. My heart is full of joy.”

    Sounds goddamn communist to me.

    Freedom of speech is a bitch, ain’t it? Get used to the ingratitude. There’s a lot more coming.

    What, did you think that everyone would magically start liking you?

  23. James Joyner says:


    You have it backwards: Lileks was reacting to Pax, not the other way around. Pax, so far as I know, lost no one to the war–but several to Saddam.

    And free speech is fine. Pax has it now thanks to the US. But it works both ways–he can surely be criticized for what he says.

    Further, while criticism of US policy is not something worthy of condemnation, surely jejune comments are.

  24. Lee says:

    Free speech is wonderful and I fully support Lilek’s free speech smackdown of that little turd.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think this question of gratitude comes in anywhere. The U.S Govt has gone to Iraq to secure american national interests. It would be hard to make a convincing argument that it has gone to Iraq for purely “moral” reasons. The speech that President Bush made is implicitly an acknowledgement that this is true. And, this talk of gratitude obscures some of the real points that Mr Salam is trying to make.

    And if one is going to speak of moral reasons being prominent, why Saddam? Why not the Saudi King. The Saudi Govt is every bit as barbaric as Saddam was, but their ambassador has access to the highest levels of the Govt here, and they have gotten away with nothing less than sponsoring terrorism against the United States in a very direct fashion, something that Saddam never did. Ever wondered how the Saudis keep their Shia minorities quiet (Especially given that there are lots of Shias in the oil rich parts)? So if the reasons are for “bringing democracy” and “morality” why is this so selective?

  26. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Saudi Arabia, unlike Iraq, is not in violation of 16 binding Security Council resolutions. Saudia Arabia, unlike Iraq, does not contain 300,000 people in mass graves. Saudi Arabia, unlike Iraq, did not spend the 1990’s shooting at American planes. Saudi Arabia, unlike Iraq, has not attacked Kuwait, Iran, and Israel.

    The Kindgom is, to my way of thinking, a vile and oppressive place. In the hierarchy of vile and oppressive places, the Kingdom does not dwell anywhere near the summit; unlike Iraq.

  27. Martin Wisse says:

    I notice Lileks didn’t exactly run out to rid the world of Saddam either….

    It’s easy to write about how brave someone living under a dictatorship should be when you yourself are sitting comfortably in a country several continents away where your only fear is the worry of getting RSI from posting so many pro-war posts.