Politics & Policy

Cultural Sensitivity Does Not Win Wars

The Strong Tribe: 101st Airborne soldiers in Iraq, 2005. (Photo: Sergeant Andy Dunaway)
When it comes to gaining or losing allegiance, the sword is mightier than the pen.

Those who argue against publishing Mohammed cartoons — like the ones featured in Pamela Geller’s now-famous “Draw Mohammed” contest — often claim that the cartoons don’t just provoke terror, they also alienate Muslim friends and allies. Thus, even if one wishes to be defiant in the face of jihadist aggression, publishing the cartoons is still foolish because of the effect on our friends.

For example, writing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, Gregory Aftandilian, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy, wrote that “the decision [to publish Mohammed cartoons] is counter-productive to the fight against Islamist extremists, as such depictions alienate many mainstream Muslims — the very allies we need to discredit the extremist ideologies of ISIL and Al-Qaeda.” Responding to Geller, Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understandings, claimed that Mohammed cartoons “alienate Muslims, who are American citizens and often first in line to report planned terrorist attacks.”

RELATED: Islam and Free Speech: Missing the Point in Garland

Going even further, former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer wrote in The Guardian (after the Danish Mohammed-cartoon controversy) that nominating former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary-general of the U.N. would threaten the mission in Afghanistan. Why? Because when he was prime minister, he refused to meet with Muslim ambassadors protesting the Mohammed cartoons. As a result, his nomination was foolish:

It would do more to alienate Muslims from Nato than almost any other step the alliance could take. What can Nato be thinking? Proceeding with this appointment would suggest that it has lost all contact with reality. Rasmussen’s qualifications are not the issue — what matters is the way his appointment would be perceived in the world’s most explosive region.

But this argument fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our challenge in the region. No western combatant in the history of the Middle East warfare has worked harder to be sensitive and responsive to cultural and religious concerns than America and its NATO allies. Our leaders compliment Islam at every opportunity. Our soldiers are deluged with cultural-training sessions that go beyond extolling the virtues of Middle Eastern culture to downplaying or denying its many flaws – providing a distorted picture of reality. Our mainstream media is far more careful to avoid offending Muslims than any other religious group in American or European life. Their only regret is that they can’t do the impossible — they can’t browbeat everyone in the United States into perfect, politically correct compliance.

RELATED: Pamela Geller’s Critics Are Proving Her Point

Our allies on the ground, however, don’t really care about cartoons. They care about living or dying. In a world where strength matters, our incredible insistence on sensitivity is often seen as head-scratchingly weak. As Bing West has ably written, the Surge turned the corner in Iraq when local allies realized that we were the “strongest tribe,” not the most sensitive tribe. Two incidents stand out from my own time in Iraq — one humorous, one deadly.

Our allies on the ground don’t really care about cartoons. They care about living or dying.

First, the humorous. I vividly remember meeting with local police leaders in Balad Ruz, Iraq, to discuss their recent successes in autonomous counterterror operations. They gleefully passed around their cell phones, which featured grinning local police posing next to al-Qaeda corpses. Giddy with their success, they passed around cans of whiskey (yes, cans). Each of us declined. When they asked why, our executive officer said, “We can’t drink alcohol because we don’t want to offend you.” They laughed, toasted us, and promptly drank their warm, canned whiskey with glee.

There was nothing funny about the next incident. Local tribal leaders provided reliable intelligence about the meeting time and location of a particularly deadly terrorist cell. The catch? The cell met in a local mosque, during Friday prayers, and its leader just happened to be the imam. They begged us to raid the mosque. They pleaded with us strike the terrorists who had killed so many villagers and made their lives a living hell. But we couldn’t do it. Permission denied. So the cell kept meeting, and kept planting deadly IEDs, and was finally wiped out only when our soldiers were ambushed from the mosque — triggering a more than day-long firefight that destroyed much of the village. Our sensitivity cost lives.

RELATED: Could U.S. Weakness Invite Unplanned Military Confrontation with Iran?

We cannot possibly conform our culture to comply with the often-conflicting and ever-shifting religious sensibilities of both friends and enemies. But we can be a faithful friend to proven allies. Abandoning the Kurds until ISIS was on the outskirts of Erbil is far more dangerous than ten thousand Mohammad cartoons. Our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq alienated potential allies — driving them straight into Iran’s arms — far more than did Terry Jones (or anyone else) burning a Koran. Did we send a message of sensitivity or stupidity when we armed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, then suspended support for the el-Sisi regime, a stalwart enemy of jihad?

The bottom line is clear: Our politically correct sensitivity often broadcasts not respect for Islam but weakness in the face of bullies, and in the Middle East weakness is the one unforgivable sin.

SLIDESHOW: Defending America

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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