Joe Hendren
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Only Empathy will Clear the Fog of Iraq

Peace Researcher 30, March 2005

In mid-November the US Department of Defence confirmed the existence of a report highly critical of the administration's efforts in the war on terror and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority [of Muslims] voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing, support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states. Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.” (1)

The report ‘Strategic Communication’ comes from none other than a branch of the Pentagon itself, the Defence Science Advisory Board (DSB). The DSB is a US Federal Advisory Committee established to provide independent advice to the Secretary of Defence. Donald Rumsfeld received the report on the 23rd of September. The Bush Administration is not known for appreciating official advice challenging neo-conservative views. Oh to be a fly on the wall that day.

Recently, a number of people in America, from the DSB to Boston Globe journalist Molly Bingham are asking a similar question. Are U.S. difficulties in Iraq due to an inability to see American actions through Arab eyes?

The Fog of Iraq

In the 2003 documentary ‘The Fog of War’ director Errol Morris interviews Robert S. McNamara, most widely known for his role as Secretary of Defence for the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. For me, McNamara’s discussion of the importance of ‘empathising with the enemy’ was the most interesting part of the film, especially as his ‘lesson’ has direct relevance for the US-created shambles in Iraq.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy was lucky enough to have someone at his side that knew the Soviet Premier Khrushchev well, and was able to predict (accurately as it turned out) the kind of compromise that Khrushchev needed in order to defuse the crisis without the need for war. Although he may not be a household name, Tommy Thompson, the former US ambassador to Moscow may have saved more than a few households.

McNamara: “We must try and put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.”

Later in the film McNamara makes a very interesting comparison between the outcomes of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the War on Vietnam.

“In the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the end I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathise. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interest, which was absolutely absurd. And we, saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as, a civil war."

Could ‘we did not know them well enough to empathise’ be a plausible explanation for the chaos and gross misunderstanding in Iraq right now? Even a cursory glance of Iraq’s twentieth century history reveals a long struggle to gain and retain Iraqi independence, first from the Ottoman Turks and then from the British. The failures of previous empires left a legacy in Iraqi politics, a strong distrust of foreign rule. Saddam Hussein knew how to turn this distrust into power, and (falsely) promoted himself with anti-imperialist rhetoric. The U.S have shown little understanding of this dynamic, perhaps apart from a relatively transparent attempt to include Iraqi troops in the invasion of Fallujah, only to make the ‘collaborators’ into prime targets. Unfortunately, other American actions have understandably reminded Iraqis of the colonial past, notably U.S. plans for a network of military bases and U.S enforced law changes that open Iraq up for unrestricted foreign investment and repatriation of profits (read plunder). Seen through these eyes, it is reasonable for Iraqis to fear that the U.S. will act like another colonial power.

The widespread use of embedded journalists enables us to see the war through the eyes of coalition soldiers, as long as the military gain editorial input (read ability to censor), but no Iraqi equivalent exists to provide the old journalistic maxim of balance. Instead, the mainstream media follows the dictionary of the occupier, dismissing the Iraqi opposition as terrorists, insurgents or militants, often with a suggestion of a possible connection to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These terms actually tell us very little. But the use of empty nouns does make it easier for those supporting the occupation to create the impression that any “violence” (but never US violence) is somehow without reason, or simply an attempt to ‘disrupt elections’. Create a ‘fog’, discourage empathy and the payoffs can be political.

Commenting on Iraq in 2004, McNamara made his views clear. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong." (2). He says the U.S. is not omniscient enough, on its own, to properly analyse the actions and ground-level conditions necessary to achieve the complex and ambiguous goals of a war, whether it is reversing the influence of communism in Vietnam’s case, or bringing democracy to the Arab world, in Iraq. In both cases the U.S. failed to grasp the complexities of the local culture, and therefore to anticipate the extended guerrilla war it became involved in.

Still fighting the Cold War

While the Defence Science Board report contains valuable analysis of America’s relationships with the Muslim world, it also contains some worrying commentary. To call digital cameras in Abu Ghraib a ‘strategic problem’ is to stretch the bounds of tasteful euphemism too far. The DSB say the use of embedded journalists in Iraq has won broad support in government and the media, as it “reduced the potential for Iraqi disinformation (e.g. on civilian casualties) that could have undermined political support in the U.S. and in other countries.”(3)  But on the few occasions such journalists did report civilian casualties, their figures appear implausibly low, especially when compared to more credible casualty surveys such as the Lancet report.

The Defence Science Board makes an insightful point when it criticises the U.S. Government for relying on Cold-War responses to the new ‘threat’ following 9/11, as if they were a reflex action, without a “thought or a care as to whether these were the best responses to a very different strategic situation” (4)

“In stark contrast to the cold war, the United States today is not seeking to contain a threatening state empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western Modernity – an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a 'War on Terrorism,” (5)

The DSB says it is a strategic mistake to compare Muslim masses to those “oppressed” under Soviet rule, as there is “no yearning-to be-liberated-by-the-US groundswell among Muslim societies” (p. 36) (they appear to assume that all communist countries yearned to be liberated by the US, a doubtful assumption at best). It says there is a religious revival occurring within Islam, taking form through a wide variety of movements, both moderate and militant. An overarching goal shared by these movements is the overthrow of the “apostate” regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the Gulf States. During the Cold War the US accepted such authoritarian regimes as long as they were anti-communist. “Today, however, the perception of intimate U.S. support of tyrannies in the Muslim World is perhaps the most critical vulnerability in the American strategy.” (opt. cit), as U.S attempts to promote democracy in the region are seen as hypocritical and self-serving.

If there is a groundswell of Muslim opinion following the Iraq war, it is going against America. A June 2004 Zogby International survey shows the U.S. is viewed unfavourably by overwhelming majorities in Egypt (98%), Saudi Arabia (94%), Morocco (88%) and Jordan (78%), representing an average 18% jump in unfavourable attitudes in these countries when compared with the 2002 survey. While Lebanon reported a tiny decrease in unfavourability, from 70% to 69%, feelings of favourability also decreased, from 26% in 2004 to 20% in 2002. Of the countries surveyed, only the United Arab Emirates showed a decrease in unfavourability ratings and an increase in favourability (from 10% to 14%), but a strong majority of 73% continue to view the U.S. in an unfavourable way (surveys quoted in SC, p. 44).

Just as the DSB question the use of Cold War routines in the War on Terrorism, a related point could be made about Iraq. A Cold-War mindset may have driven Paul Bremer’s overblown attempt to wipe the Ba’ath party from Iraqi society, as it resembled an ideological witch hunt for communists. Under the ‘de-Ba’athification’ policy, members from the top four ranks of the Ba’ath party were immediately fired from the jobs. All Iraqis working in the top three ranks of the state sector, affiliated corporations, hospitals and universities were “interviewed for possible affiliation with the Ba`ath Party, and subject to investigation for criminal conduct and risk to security”, with those found to be ordinary members, fired from their jobs and banned from working in these sectors (6). Similar motives were behind the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army. But in a one party state like Iraq, party membership does not necessarily entail support for Saddam, as many Iraqis joined the governing party as a pragmatic way to advance their careers. Due to the ‘de-Ba’athification’policy thousands of Iraqi teachers, civil servants and military officers were unable to work. Thankfully, the CPA relaxed the policy a little in April 2004 allowing some former Ba’athists back into their professions (7). But if Sunnis widely boycott participation in the elections, as appears likely, the U.S. could still achieve its original goal of engineering a government largely free of former Ba’athists (by its broad definition).

Who are the Iraqi Resistance?

In the Boston Globe, Molly Bingham explains why elections won't quell Iraq resistance.

The composition of the Iraqi resistance is not what the US administration has been calling it, and the more it is oversimplified the harder it is to explain its complexity....My objective is not to romanticize the fighters or their fight, but merely to better understand what our realistic choices are in Iraq and the Middle East. (8)

Like McNamara, Molly Bingham is advocating empathy, an empathy informed by her experiences while researching the Iraqi resistance in Baghdad from August 2003 to June this year. In her article she counters some of the myths that have been promoted by the US administration. Rather than a response to the disastrous US occupation or a reaction to the lack of elections, Bingham found the vast majority of the fighters joined the resistance within days of the end of the ground war on April 9th 2003. Bingham says it is misleading to describe the resistance as ‘Ba’athi dead enders’, regime loyalists, criminals, Islamic extremists or driven by a vast number of foreigners with contacts to Al Qaeda. While she does not discount the influence of such elements, this is not who she met in Iraq.

“Shia and Sunnis fighting together, women and men, young and old…people from all economic, social and educational backgrounds. The original impetus for almost all of the individuals I spoke was a nationalistic one – the desire to defend their country from occupation, not to defend Saddam Hussein or his regime.” (8)

Not one fighter had recently been released from prison, not one knew of any connection with Al Qaeda. She met one foreign fighter. Despite U.S. attempts to portray the resistance as having a tightly organised structure with a leadership that can be obliterated, led by the ‘Jordanian militant’ al-Zarqawi, Bingham says that the many levels of violence seen in Iraq after the US attack on Fallujah in November demonstrates this is another myth.

“Of the 15 resistance fighters who told me about their lives, most were from the same small neighbourhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad, but were not necessarily in the same cell or command structure. By the end of 2003 these cells had grown while maintaining their independence. They were no longer carrying out attacks in their own home turf but were travelling to other areas of the country.” (8)

Since the capture of Saddam a year ago, Bingham sensed the growing power of Islam among the fighters. But in the absence of a solid government or civil structure she does not regard it as “surprising that a Muslim community would revert to Koranic law, even if only temporary”.

“Attacking Fallujah neither decapitated the resistance nor eliminated its support. Rather it is a powerful recruiting poster for Iraqis not yet engaged in the struggle and for foreigners motivated to join what they view as a Jihad.” (8)

The struggle, as seen by the resistance, is a “fight for their homes, their nation, their honour and their faith against the imposition of a political structure by a foreign nation”. The January elections will not stop the violence, as the resistance will not regard a political process led by the US as being legitimate. Bingham concludes “the violence will remain until we are gone.” Despite US attempts to champion ‘Iraqi democracy’, the presence of the troops could act as the most significant barrier to the ballot box, and thus a barrier to the formation of a government regarded as legitimate by the Iraqi people.

The DSB reports “[I]n the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self determination.” (9)

I think the left has been a little unsure of itself in deciding whether or not to support the Iraqi resistance, largely because many have felt unsure about exactly what they were supporting. But a first step is to give up the erroneous impression, created by the occupiers, that the ‘insurgents’ represent a uniform group with the common goal of hating democracy. Attempting to ignore the resistance is a more common response. More understanding and empathy is required.

Much of the resistance sprung immediately in response to the illegal US invasion. Given the resistance is a nationalist response to the invasion, it seems safe to assume that no elections will be regarded as legitimate while Americans remain in control of the political process.

Empathy is something the left usually does well. So lets have more of it.

Joe Hendren 13 January 2005


  1. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Sept 04),“Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on \ Strategic Communication”(SC), p. 40
  2. Globe & Mail (Canada)(25/01/04), “Its just wrong what we are doing”
  3. Strategic Communication”, p. 23.
  4. Strategic Communication, p. 34.
  5. Strategic Communication, p. 36.
  6. CPA Order 1(16/05/03), “De-Ba`athification of Iraqi Society",
  7. Guardian (24/04/04), "U-turn on hiring of Ba'ath party members"
  8. Boston Globe (15/11/04),"Why elections won’t quell Iraq resistance", Molly Bingham
  9. Strategic Communication, p. 40.

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