Iraq, and the Truth We Dare Not Speak
We must win American hearts and minds.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review OnlineNot long ago I talked to a right-wing hardnosed fellow in a conservative central
California town about the need to stay and finish the task of stabilizing the democracy in Iraq and
rectifying the disastrous aftermath of 1991. He wasn’t buying. Instead he kept ranting about the war in the ‘more rubble, less trouble’ vein. And his anger wasn’t only over our costs in lives and treasure. So I finally asked him exactly why the venom over Iraq. He shouted, “I don’t like them sons of bitches over there — any of ’em.” His was a sort of echo of Bismarck’s oft-quoted “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” There are dozens of tragic ironies in Iraq. The fostering of democracy by a Republican president only alienated his dour realist base. Yet his idealism did not even win as recompense faint sympathy from supposedly Wilsonian Democratic opponents. Indeed, they now sound like Bob Taft isolationists. The fiercest critics of the brave struggling Iraqi elected government remain liberal Senate Democrats, not Republicans.
The Iraqi oil fields were liberated from Russian, French, and Baathist extortion. Then subsequent sky-rocketing oil prices further enriched the Middle East — only to earn the slur “No Blood for Oil.”
Liberation of the downtrodden Shiite from a largely oppressive Sunni minority only won the U.S. disdain from Shiite Iran and assorted Shiites from Lebanon to the Gulf — and resentment from nearby Sunni monarchies.
President Bush stayed on after victory to offer consensual government, unlike his father in 1991. As a reward, he won criticism from the critics of Bush I for now attempting what they once so loudly advocated.
Perhaps strangest of all is the tragicomic spectacle of Middle East “reformers” and democracy advocates. They vehemently criticized American efforts in Iraq from their autocratic masters’ state-run censored megaphones in Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman.
All that and the dreary narrative from the battlefield help to explain plummeting public support for the war at a time when empathy for brave Iraqis is critical to the continuance of the effort. But there is another, more worrisome dynamic at work here. I would call it the “them sons of bitches” sentiment that is usually better left unspoken.
By any honest assessment, the great majority of Iraqis are brave citizens who voted en masse for change, at great risk to their safety. Kurdistan is a stunning success. It belies stereotypes that Muslims can’t govern themselves peacefully, practice consensual government, or create vibrant economies. Tribal sheiks and clerics in Iraq hate al Qaeda as much as we do. They suffer far more losses in trying to rid their country of such killers. American soldiers testify to the friendliness and support of the Iraqi people.
But that American alliance with freedom-loving Arabs is not what is reported. Instead the public hears and sees two quite different things. The two are antithetical to each other.
First, we are now well accustomed to the administration talking of “freedom” and “democracy,” and of providing an “opportunity” for the Arab world “to embrace” liberty. Indeed, the 3,000 plus Americans killed in action in Iraq and the hundreds of billions spent so far are often explained as being for the sake of offering a chance for something better than the non-choice between a Saddam or an Assad and the theocratic alternative of the Taliban or the Iranian ayatollahs.
But such a legitimate and necessary rationale depends also upon general empathy for the Middle East. We are embarking on this new course in the hopes that the American lives sacrificed and our treasure spent are for a friendly people that appreciates our efforts. I think they do, and that the record of brave Iraqi reformers is worth the effort — both for the sake of our future security and so as to adopt a new moral posture that respects Arab self-determination.
But, again, most Americans now don’t think it is worth it — and not just because of the cost we pay, but because of what we get in return. Turn on the television and the reporting is all hate: a Middle Eastern Muslim is blowing up someone in Israel, shooting a rocket from Gaza, chanting death to America in Beirut, stoning an adulterer in Tehran, losing a hand for thievery in Saudi Arabia, threatening to take back Spain, gassing someone in Iraq, or promising to wipe out Israel. An unhinged, secular Khadafi rants; a decrepit Saudi royal lectures; a wild-eyed Lebanese cleric threatens — whatever the country, whatever the political ideology, the American television viewer draws the same conclusion: we are always blamed for their own self-inflicted misery. Fostering democracy in Iraq is called imperialism. But then so is the opposite of backing a strongman in Pakistan or Egypt. Billions sent to Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine goes unmentioned or is considered too paltry. Millions of Muslims saved in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Indonesia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia means nothing. One Koran wrongly said to be flushed is everything.
A sense of imbalance is everywhere. Imams call Jews “pigs and apes.” The Pope is threatened for his dry recitation of history. Cartoonists, novelists, filmmakers, and opera producers are all promised death or beheading, while the worst sort of racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian hatred is broadcast and published in state-run Arab media.
Worse follows. Just when one surmises from all this that the Arab Muslim world despises the United States, the American public is exasperated that, in fact, it really doesn’t — at least, in the sense that Muslims from the Middle East clamor to enter the United States. Everything Western, from iPods to the Internet to cellphones, spreads like wildfire in the Arab world. Family members of those in the Assad government, in the Shiite militias in Lebanon, in the Pakistani dictatorship, and in the Iranian theocracy live in safety and security in the land of the Great Satan, from Washington to Michigan.
Yet the Muslim community in the Untied States, at least if defined by its self-appointed collective leadership, is mostly heard and seen decrying “Islamophobia” inside America, suing on allegations of discrimination, and damning the effort in Iraq. Rarely are voiced furor and anger at the illiberal regimes that drove Arabs out. Even rarer is expressed some sort of gratitude for the liberal regime that welcomed them in. Or, at least, that is the impression imparted to Americans by their media that provides them with sounds bites and live video streams in lieu of travel to and study of the Middle East.
The net result is the American voter is tired and saturated with negative imagery. Public opinion polls are notoriously fickle. But most show a sharp increase in negative views of Muslims in general. A 2006 Washington Post poll suggested that nearly half of all Americans had a negative view of Muslims — far higher even than was even found shortly after September 11. The Council on American-Islamic Relations claims that one American in four surveyed said Islam was a religion of hatred and violence and held extreme anti-Muslim views. Yet other less partisan surveys agree that one in three Americans believe that Islam encourages violence. And various other polls reveal that only about 20% of Americans are in sympathy with the Palestinians. Egypt alone of the major Arab countries rates a favorable impression; most others — Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia — evoke high levels of American negativity.
This popular sentiment, to the extent it is ever voiced openly, is, of course, attributed to “intolerance” and “prejudice.” But the real catalysts are the endemic violence and hypocrisy that appear nightly on millions of television screens. When the liberal Left says of the war, “It isn’t worth it,” that message resonates, as the American public rightly suspects that it really means “They aren’t worth it.” Voters may not like particularly a Harry Reid, but in frustration at the violence, they sense now that, just like them, he also doesn’t like a vague somebody over there.So here we are in our eleventh hour. A controversial and costly war continues, in part so as to give Arab Muslims the sort of freedom the West takes for granted; but at precisely the time that the public increasingly is tired of Middle Eastern madness. In short, America believes that the entire region is not worth the bones of a single Marine.
To counteract this, we need more clarity both here and abroad. First, the administration must articulate how our idealism is stark realism as well. Americans daily have to be reminded that consensual government in Iraq — not just plebiscites — is in our long-term strategic interest. Second, we should hear far more of Iraqi cooperation and joint operations, both military and civilian, that in fact do characterize this war and reveal an Arab desire to be free of the past. And third, far more long-suffering members of the Iraqi government need to express some appreciation for the American sacrifice — and express such gratitude to the American people directly.
We worry rightly about anti-Americanism and winning over the people of Iraq. But the greater problem, at least as we now witness it in the Senate and House, is winning back those here at home.
Seeing more of the purple finger, and less of the shaking fist, is the key to regaining the hearts and minds of Americans — who in the end alone can win or lose this war.
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson