Isn't It Rich?


Back in the early days of the invasion of Iraq, the sudden news that 170,000 priceless items might have been looted from the National Museum in Baghdad was terrible. Today, Frank Rich (TimesDelete) says I was one of the administration's "enforcers" back then and dismissed the rumors. In fact, on my blog, I wrote that if such things were true, they were damned near unforgivable. I was appalled from the get-go by the chaotic occupation. But I knew details were sketchy and 170,000 items seemed somewhat excessive. So I waited for the facts to come in. Rich didn't.

Today, he bloviates:

Sullivan damned Mr. Rumsfeld's critics as fatuous aesthetes exploiting a passing incident to denigrate the liberation of Iraq. In a column in Salon titled 'Idiocy of the Week' (that idiot would be me), Mr. Sullivan asked rhetorically who was right about 'the alleged ransacking' of the museum, Mr. Rumsfeld or his critics? 'Rummy, of course. He almost always is.'

Actually, I was only trying to get the facts right. And they were extremely murky at the time Rich wrote. That didn't stop him from the following hyperventilation:

"There is much we don't know about what happened this month at the Baghdad museum, at its National Library and archives, at the Mosul museum and the rest of that country's gutted cultural institutions. Is it merely the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years, as Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist, put it? Or should we listen to Eleanor Robson, of All Souls College, Oxford, who said, 'You'd have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale'?"

Almost two months later, the New York Times itself corrected its first reports. The new reality was the following:

Officials at the National Museum of Iraq have blamed shoddy reporting amid the "fog of war" for creating the impression that the majority of the institution's 170,000 items were looted in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad.

A carefully prepared storage plan, used in the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war, ensured that tens of thousands of pieces were saved, they said. They now believe that the number of items taken was in the low thousands, and possibly hundreds... Donny George, research director, said: "There was a mistake. Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost."

"Shoddy reporting." I thought Frank Rich was about correcting that, not practising it. So between Rummy's callous dismissal and Rich's pre-packaged hysteria, who was more accurate? Rummy. In my column, I cited a Washington Post story and a Channel Four report that noted in fact that:

"'There are only 33 pieces from the main collections that are unaccounted for,' [Donny] George [the director general of research and study of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities] said. "Not 47. Some more pieces have been returned.' Museum staff members had taken some of the more valuable items home and are now returning them ... "They won't talk about it, but almost everything was saved," John Russell, an Iraq expert at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art, told the Washington Post.

So on the matter at the time, Rich was wrong, basing his column on facts subsequently debunked by his own paper. Has he been proven right since? The original figure of 170,000 is no longer believed by anyone. Wikipedia puts the final loss as follows:

Officials said that of the 170,000 items initially believed missing, just 3,000 remained unaccounted for. And, of those, 47 were main exhibition artifacts.
In November, 2003 Coalition officials reported a few dozen of the most important items remained missing from the museum's public galleries, along with another 10,000 other items - most of them tiny and some of them fragments.

So that's where Rich got his final figure from - and, as often with him, it's misleading. The bottom line is that around 47 major items were looted, along with several thousand minor fragments. The truth is: I deplored the looting; but waited to get my facts right. Rich knew the truth already.

(For some weird reason, his original column won't appear in the NYT search engine, and isn't linked in his online column. If anyone digs it up in full, please send it to me. My original blog post is also unfindable, since my old archives are still being transferred to Time's server. If anyone can trace either piece, I'd appreciate it.)