Joe Hendren

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Fog of Iraq

This morning I watched ‘The Fog of War’, a documentary film comprising of an extended interview with Robert S. McNamara, the secretary of defence under 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 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. Athough 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."
The Bush Administration and the mainstream media have made no effort to empathise with Iraqis, and demonstrate a glaring ignorance of their history. As I have written before the consistent dismissal of the Iraqi opposition as terrorists, insurgents or militants, often with a suggestion of a possible connection to Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, actually tells us very little. But the use of empty verbs 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’.

In the Boston Globe, Molly Bingham writes 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.
Even a cursory glance of Iraq’s twentieth century history reveals a long struggle to gain and retain Iraqi independence, first from the Turks and then from the British. Even on the basis of recent history, it is reasonable for Iraqis to fear that the US will act like another colonial power, as the Americans have set up permanent military bases and have opened Iraq up for unrestricted US investment and repatriation of profits (read plunder). Halliburton now has effective control of the oil, thanks to ‘reconstruction’ contracts, and is very likely to be looking to ensure this control remains permanent.

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 legimate while Americans remain in control of the political process.

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

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At 4:01 am, Blogger sagenz said...

really interesting post. I disagree that the US do not know what they are up to. Look at sadr and sistani. there is very little shia violence in the election lead up and none from Kurds. the shia know that the election is important for them and the US will go home. I think the US are sanguine enough that native Iraqi fighting for their soil can be understood. When you pay a price something has a value. democracy without pain would not mean anything. Their view is on the wider pan arab situation. Losing 1000 troops and bringing democracy to the shia and kurds is a price worth paying if it sets the example for the rest of the arab world.
Sunni in Baghdad and jihadists obviously have a huge amount to lose which is why they are fighting so hard. The administration cannot come out and accept what the sunni are doing. it would be self defeating. reduced troop numbers and iraqi having to take responsibility for themselves are important contributors to a real deomcracy in the future. Dont write the yanks understanding off so easily. look at what happened in the kurd area of iraq. it was feuding 10 years ago. 10 years is no time at all in the scheme of things

At 3:38 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

thanks :)

But this just demonstrates that under a winner take all scenario the opposition is not going to regard an election result as legimiate - this is an essential feature of a working democracy. As a significant part of Iraq's population, Sunni's have a right to be represented too. Iraq needs an honest broker - its a darm shame the UN compromised itself by supporting an interim government that was clearly illegimate.

I suspect many in the west overestimate the importance of the Sunni/Shia split in any case - many Iraqis I have talked to emphasise they consider themselves Iraqis first and foremost, religious differences being secondary.

The US may know what it is up to, they want a government friendly to their interests in Iraq. It needs to be remembered that Paul Bremer foolishly attempted to prevent sadr from being a candidate in the elections earlier this year - when he led a popular revolt against the US occupation. They feared him as a politican.

I don't think the US treatment of Kurdistan is a particularly good example of good US management. The US have used the Kurds in the same way as Iran or Iraq have used them in the past, as a regional pawn as part of a larger conflict (eg Iran/Iraq war). The US attempted to use Kurdistan as a base to grow opposition to Saddam, and it didn't work. Based on its history I can't see the peace in Kurdistan lasting very long. Especially as its contains a number of important oilfields.

The Kurds want self-determination, but are very unlikely to get it, as US ally Turkey sees this as a major threat to the santicity of its borders, especially its southern Kurdish areas.


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