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Never Having To Say You're Sorry

Two American art experts who resigned over the Iraqi National Museum "tragedy" look back on their decisions. No, they're not sorry.

12:00 AM, Jul 11, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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REMEMBER the Iraqi National Museum tragedy? In April it was reported that 170,000 priceless pieces had gone missing in the aftermath of the U.S. victory in Iraq. It turns out now that only 33 exhibition quality pieces are missing, along with 3,000 to 5,000 other items that were in storage. Nonetheless, two members of the administration who resigned in protest now say they would do so again if they had the chance.

Five days after the story initially broke, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined: "Bush Panel Members Quit Over Looting: Cultural Advisors Say U.S. Military Could Have Prevented Museum Losses." Martin E. Sullivan and Gary Vikan resigned from the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property in an act they admitted was "simply symbolic." Both were Clinton appointees due to be replaced shortly. But their resignations were taken as a repudiation of the Bush administration from within, and the obscure committee was suddenly in headlines around the world.

(Less media attention was given to revelations that before and during the looting, the museum was being used as a defensive position by Baathist forces, in violation of the Hague Convention of 1954. A well-written and thorough account of the armed resistance from inside the museum complex and the collection's current condition can be found here. The 5,000 year old Warka Vase described as missing in the opening paragraph has since been located and was on display last Thursday when the museum opened its doors for a few hours.)

Sullivan said his resignation was the result of the "wanton and preventable destruction" that took place at the National Museum, while Vikan told the Washington Post, "I had to do something" because "it hasn't been this bad [in Iraq] for 700 years."

Have they changed their tune today? Not really.

Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, compares the United States to a parent who allows a child to run across a freeway. "Whether or not the child gets hit," he says, "is beside the fundamental point." He says that the United States "made me feel like I didn't belong." Besides, he says, Americans are caught in a "maelstrom of us-ness." Asked to clarify, he replies that we have "ceased to value the past."

Martin Sullivan, executive director of Historic St. Mary's City Commission in Maryland, says: "I like to keep in perspective that it is not just that museum, there are also regional museums and the national library, in addition to looting at archeological sites."

"Our presence [in Iraq] was our decision," Sullivan says. He stresses that the war was preemptive, and the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property had alerted CENTCOM to the location and importance of the National Museum. Therefore, he concludes, American soldiers should have been able to stop the looting. To Sullivan, the matter is easily cast in simple terms: "We had the ability to plan for consequences, and we didn't."

At the close of our interview, Sullivan said, "The ministry of oil was the only place that got protected. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it doesn't look good."

But to less interested parties what has happened at the Iraqi National Museum actually does look pretty good. The collection is mostly intact, with a large, international effort underway to trace the pieces which are still missing. There is a bill pending in Congress to ban the import of Iraqi antiquities that should discourage antiquities smugglers, whose largest market is usually American collectors. And the museum, which had been closed to the public for years under Saddam's rule, is being renovated with plans to reopen to the public soon.

And if Sullivan and Vikan desire still more evidence that the United States is committed to doing the right thing by Iraq's cultural treasures, they should take a moment to read the casualty lists. Early last week, on the day that L. Paul Bremer, the top American official in Iraq, toured the museum to check on its condition, a soldier guarding it was shot and killed.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.