Politics & Policy

Straight Talk

Don't insult Iraqi intelligence.

Watching southern Iraqis scramble to first grab hold of a box of American rations and then shout their loyalty to Saddam made me very uncomfortable. This is a movie I have seen once too often, and it never ends well for the U.S.

America tries to achieve its goals by capturing the “hearts and minds” of Arabs by showering them with goodies and promises, and once again it fails. That strategy is doomed not only because past betrayals have hardened Arab hearts, but because acting upon the heart’s desires to begin with is the luxury of the strong. The weak (and those who need to be fed and freed are by definition weak) know that their survival depends on their minds — which is why those southern Iraqis were perfectly willing to kowtow to Saddam even as they took food from us. Like other Middle Easterners, the Iraqis now believe that American material largess is as unconditional as U.S. promises of protection are suspect. American success depends on convincing them otherwise.

#ad#Therefore, under no circumstances should American humanitarian aid flow to areas yet to be liberated. The American army has no interest in making Iraqi life under Baath rule viable. Any Iraqis who wish to avail themselves of American food and medicine must first help the coalition get control over their cities and towns. Given their 1991 experience, their reluctance to do so is understandable. But “understanding” does not mean we must acquiesce. After all, it was our willingness to “understand” that led to 9/11, as we for years permitted Arab rulers to engage in virulent anti-American rhetoric without suffering any adverse consequences.

This dangerous tradition began with President Kennedy. Eager to win the “hearts and minds” of the Egyptians, Washington began to supply them with wheat. Soon, six out of every ten loaves of breads eaten in Egypt were made with American grain. President Gamal Abdel Nasser proceeded to show his gratitude by being the first leader outside the Communist bloc to invite the East German president for a state visit. Some congressmen suggested reducing food aid to Egypt. An outraged Nasser responded with an insult-filled speech in which he dismissed the importance of American food assistance and praised Soviet military aid. Did he or Egypt pay a price? Not a penny! The American ambassador even personally assured Nasser that he should pay no attention to the congressmen. The American president was assured that, in their hearts, the Egyptian people “knew” who their friends were, and so the grain shipments continued. An emboldened Nasser became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Thus anti-American propaganda became a routine government tool in the Middle East.

To a significant degree, 9/11 is a fruit of this policy. The southern Iraqis’ shows of support for Hussein prove that to treat the Iraqi people in the same manner as Washington once treated Arab rulers will be just as self-defeating. Indeed, anti-Saddam Iraqi exiles should be given a central role in managing aid distribution. It would make clear the Coalition’s commitment to de-Baathization.

Second, it is time to end the sentimental drivel about how much the Bush administration cares for the freedom and well-being of the Iraqi people. This is an insult to the Iraqis’ intelligence. Arabs, like Kurds, know that foreign policy is not social work. It’s time to acknowledge that American Marines aren’t fighting to liberate Iraqis any more than they fought in World War II to liberate the Germans or Japanese. Our armed forces are fighting because they want to prevent 9/11 from becoming a regular part of American reality. The Egyptian historian, Ahmad Othman, explained it best in a discussion about Arab rulers on al Jazeera:

What happened is that after September 11, the Americans realized that dictatorial regimes in the Arab region produce terrorists who attack America and Europe. The entire world lives in fear of the terrorists these regimes produce. The Americans realize this. They do not want to establish democracy for our sake, but in order to defend themselves. If the Arab people has an opportunity to learn, to participate in the rule of its own land, and in building society, it will not destroy America and Europe.”

“They do this for their own interest,” Othman went on, “but we have a genuine opportunity, an historic opportunity.” Straight talk implies respect for oneself and for one’s audience. The U.S. should tell the Iraqi people, “For reasons of American national security, we need to cut the boil that is Arab governance. We decided to start in Iraq. Those who will join us early will be handsomely rewarded.” Plain talk like this is not only more plausible, it implies respect. In short, Americans should not try to make the Arabs in general, or the Iraqis in particular, love them. They should merely level with them.

Finally, detailed discussions of American strategy are based on failure to realize that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. There is a well known and true maxim: “Generals always fight the last war” i.e., they look at what they did wrong in the last war and seek to fix it. The problem is that they often forget that their enemies follow the same procedure. Thus, in Gulf War I, the U.S. overestimated its own power and underestimated the Iraqi people’s hostility towards Saddam Hussein. In Gulf War II, the U.S. is trying not to repeat these same mistakes. The U.S has failed, however, to take into account that the Baath regime also learned from it past mistakes. Indeed, the more Americans trumpet the strategy of separating the Iraqi regime from the Iraqi people, the easier it is for Baghdad to take steps to block that strategy’s success by the use of guerilla tactics. The Iraqi regime understands that not only does every American casualty or prisoner of war mean Iraqi victory but so does every civilian Iraqi casualty. Ordering its soldiers to remove their uniforms is an obvious solution. It affords the soldier protection, not to mention a host of human shields. It also permits him to intimidate the population and, whenever opportunity presents itself, he can inflict harm on the American forces and incur the Baath regime’s gratitude.

As Sun Tzu said, nothing is as fatal as underestimating the enemy. Such underestimation includes the failure to take into account that the Iraqis, too, learned from past and are listening intently to reporters and military pundits detailing the current American strategic thinking. Some discretion maybe more than golden, it just may save lives.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer is senior research associate in the department of political science at Rutgers University. Klinghoffer is the author of Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences and co-author of International Citizens’ Tribunals: Mobilizing Public opinion to advance Human Rights.

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