Grand Fenwick, Afghanistan and Iraq

The administration has made a big deal of pointing out that President Bush reads thick presidential biographies for policy guidance. But, having led a coalition to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and now aiming at Iraq, the president might learn what to do with those countries by taking a break from big books and watching a funny movie.

Not any funny movie, but “The Mouse That Roared.” That 1959 comedy was based on the premise that by the late 1950s both sides in World War II in Europe were better off because of the war’s outcome. That’s what Bush should seek now. The best American policy for Afghanistan, and one that might make an attack on Iraq more successful, would be one in which Afghans clearly benefit from American intervention, just as the United States has.

In “The Mouse That Roared,” the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a tiny fictional country, decides that the best way for it to revive its flailing economy is to go to war against the United States. Grand Fenwick’s prime minister convinces the ruling duchess (both parts played by Peter Sellers) that when the duchy loses, it will be eligible for significant American aid.

Afghanistan resembles the Duchy of Fenwick. Although the United States attacked Afghanistan — in “Mouse,” the grand duchy picks the fight — Afghanistan’s war with the United States had nothing to do with a conflict between its people and Americans. Like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, Afghanistan is a poor country. Like the Fenwickians, Afghans might well have expected to receive American aid as a result of war.

“The Mouse That Roared” parodies the wisest foreign policy the United States has ever adopted: the Marshall Plan. From 1948 to 1951, the United States spent $13 billion to help rebuild the economies of Europe that had been devastated by World War II. On the battlefield, the United States and its European allies defeated Germany and Italy, but the Marshall Plan helped not only allies but also former enemies to become more productive and provide their residents a higher standard of living than before the war. Moreover, Western Europe remained safe from Soviet domination and was America’s best trading partner for half a century because of the Marshall Plan.

But the United States has done nothing similar to rebuild Afghanistan. Despite promises of significant aid, American help has consisted of token security measures and President Bush’s feeble call for American children to donate their nickels and dimes to an Afghan children’s fund. Rather than constructing roads, schools, hospitals and factories that would make Afghanistan better for its people and friendlier to the United States, Bush’s Afghanistan policy has involved little more than hunts for terrorists. And those missions have hurt more than helped, causing casualties and destruction without hurting their intended targets.

The price of rebuilding Afghanistan — perhaps $2 billion ? may sound big, but it’s less than the cost of a half dozen fighter planes. Not only would those funds improve Afghans’ lives and make the Afghans more disposed to see the United States as an ally, but they would save countless American lives and dollars, should the United States invade Iraq.

What have Afghanistan and Peter Sellers to do with Iraq? Iraq is not poor. And while Peter Sellers in drag is a preposterous national leader, Saddam Hussein is a seriously murderous one. Nevertheless, Afghanistan and “The Mouse That Roared” are relevant to a war on Iraq because, no doubt, the people of Iraq are watching Afghanistan closely. They want to know what to expect should the United States attack them. Their behavior — and America’s success — in a war and its aftermath will be strongly influenced by what Iraqis think they might gain or lose in an American occupation. Iraqi soldiers and civilians will be less likely to resist American troops and more likely to welcome them if Iraqis perceive that the United States will grant aid to rebuild their nation once Saddam Hussein is ousted.

Even today, because of the Marshall Plan, Germans and Italians can look back at World War II and reasonably conclude that by losing they actually won. Their nations have been our allies ever since. A war in which America’s opponent wins by losing and then becomes an ally: that’s what the United States should offer to the Iraqi people. But that’s not what the Bush Administration has provided to Afghans. And unless it does so soon, Iraqis might decide that resistance is a better option than surrender. That would be disastrous for everybody.

“The Mouse That Roared” ends with the Duchy of Fenwick possessing the “Q-bomb,” the world’s most powerful weapon, and demanding far more than just aid. Sounds like North Korea, doesn’t it? Another reason to see the movie, Mr. President.

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.