Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Updating the Potemkin Legend for the 21st Century

When Catherine the Great went to tour the Crimean region forcibly annexed by the Russian military in the late 18th century, she saw fabulous and elegant villages along the desolate banks of the Dnieper. But the fabulous villages were hollow facades, erected at the behest of the Russian military commander in the region, Grigori Potemkin, put in place to wow the empress and her traveling party as they sailed by; and to raise his stature in her eyes in the process.

In a colder calculus - they were supposed to create the illusion that the conquest of the region was worthwhile.

One could say that the saying "there's no 'there' there" dates to 1787. (But one would need to say it in Russian.)

To this day, we use the word Potemkin as a modifier whenever something is less than it seems on the surface.

Now, we have a modern equivalent to the Potemkin Village in the Dora Market, and General Petraeus is certainly giving ol' Grigori a run for his money in the creating-illusions-to-snow-the-potentates department.

BAGHDAD -- Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.

"This is General Petraeus's baby," said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August.

...Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus's showcase remain skeptical. "Personally, I think it's a false representation," Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge's success. "But what can I say? I'm just doing my job and don't ask questions."

...Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said.

"We helped them a lot. We gave them money, security, even the locks on their doors," said a 36-year-old Iraqi interpreter at the outpost whom U.S. soldiers call Jimmy for security reasons. He asked that his real name not be used. "Everything we gave them. That's why the violence has stopped. That's why they cooperate with us."

Some shopkeepers said they would not do business in the market without U.S. support. "The Americans are giving money, so they're opening up stores," said Falah Hassan Fadhil, 27, who sells cosmetics.

1st Lt. Jose Molina, who is in charge of monitoring and disbursing the grant money, said the U.S. military includes barely operating stores in its tally. "Although they sell dust, they are open for business," said Molina, 35, from Dallas. "They intend to sell goods or they may just have a handful of goods. But they are still counted."

Security measures in the market are rigorous. Vehicles are not allowed inside for fear of car bombs. Customers are body-searched at checkpoints. Humvees constantly patrol the area, which is the sole focus of the 50 or so soldiers of Combat Outpost Gator.

I have been to a lot of open air markets in my life, including Agoras and Bazaars, and I have NEVER been frisked before buying my hummus ingredients, I don't care what Representative Pence says, or what kind of deal Lindsey got on his rugs.

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