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Iraqi Poet Sinan Antoon Looks Back On Donald Rumsfeld's Career

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

No other issue defined Donald Rumsfeld's second term as secretary of defense as much as the Iraq War. Now after his death this past week, we're looking back at his career. The war that began in 2003 is considered one of the deadliest and costliest mistakes of American foreign policy, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American service people and sapping the United States of billions of dollars. Rumsfeld never admitted to any error, despite the fact that the premise for the war - that the dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction - was a lie. To get reaction from an Iraqi about Rumsfeld's legacy, we're joined now by Iraqi scholar and poet Sinan Antoon. Thank you so much for being with us.

SINAN ANTOON: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was your reaction to hearing the news that Donald Rumsfeld had died?

ANTOON: I thought of hell and if there is a special place in hell for war criminals. In a more ideal world, everyone would acknowledge that Donald Rumsfeld was a war criminal whose actions are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. So I don't know how to describe my feeling, but it just brought back the tragedy of the destruction of a country called Iraq and the fact that millions of Iraqis suffer the consequences of some of Donald Rumsfeld's decisions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, one of my Iraqi friends texted me saying he is in the VIP lounge of hell. The AP had this quote from one Iraqi citizen - he didn't liberate us. This is a myth. He killed us and told us to thank him for it.

I mean, your reaction seems to be a common one in Iraq. What have you heard from other Iraqis?

ANTOON: My earliest memory of Mr. Donald Rumsfeld is when I was a teenager in our living room in Baghdad, I saw on the evening news Saddam Hussein receiving Donald Rumsfeld, who was the emissary of President Ronald Reagan. And the United States was heavily supporting Saddam Hussein and his regime despite all of his crimes. So when Donald Rumsfeld resurfaces again in the Bush administration and begins to speak of democracy and liberty, I have that image of him exchanging smiles with Saddam Hussein.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what does that tell you?

ANTOON: What the United States does abroad in the world, and especially in the global south and especially where I come from in the Arab world, is consistently support dictators, unelected tyrants. The examples are everywhere around us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are those, of course, who still defend the U.S. invasion of Iraq, among them the former president who presided over it, George W. Bush. What in your view, though, did the invasion achieve? What is Iraq like now?

ANTOON: Iraq now has one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. And these days, Iraqis are suffering because even after all of these years, the electricity is still a sham. The U.S. invasion dismantled the Iraqi state and all of its functioning institutions and replaced it with a chaotic system. More importantly, and this is where Donald Rumsfeld is directly responsible, is that according to international law, an occupying force is supposed to maintain security in the country that it occupies. The United States went into Iraq, did not secure the borders of Iraq. I went back in July of 2003 and at the main border entry from Jordan to Iraq, there were three U.S. soldiers manning the border. And I remember telling my colleague, if this is the major entry point from Jordan and there are only three soldiers guarding the border, then imagine what's happening elsewhere. So the achievement was to topple the dictator, yes, but then to open Iraq's borders up for all kinds of chaos, for terrorism. And sadly, George Bush said, quote-unquote, "we'll fight them over there so that we don't have to fight them here." Over there means Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look at the coverage of Rumsfeld's death, have you seen the voices of Iraqis and their opinions in that coverage?

ANTOON: No, not at all. But I'm not surprised, to be honest with you, because I think we live in a country that has yet to come to terms with its own history. I mean, we have war criminals from the Civil War who have statues and we have debates and fights over whether we should call them what they were, war criminals. So when it comes to Rumsfeld, I mean, it's the whitewashing, really, of public figures.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Today's July Fourth, and I think some people listening to this might think it is a conversation that perhaps is in bad taste, considering that people are celebrating American liberation and democracy today. What do you think about that?

ANTOON: It's one thing to celebrate the country, but it's also incumbent upon citizens to know the full story and history of how one's country comes about. And I think it's high time that we come to terms with the fact that we live in a settler colonial country that has a very bloody history, but also that, whether we like it or not, what the United States does abroad with its hundreds of military bases and the amount of destruction that was visited on Iraqis, innocent Iraqis who did nothing to any U.S. citizen, we as U.S. citizens are responsible for that. So on the Fourth of July, let's think about those for whom this story and the narrative of this country has not been all rosy and dandy but has meant suffering and destruction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sinan Antoon. His novel is called "The Book Of Collateral Damage." Thank you very much.

ANTOON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.