- After a week of retrospectives on the tenth anniversary of Washington’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the most compelling consisted of a retrospective of the retrospectives.
It came from Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab public opinion at George Washington University and prominent blogger on the foreignpolicy.com website. The flood of retrospectives that materialised over the week, he wrote, has “almost exclusively been written by Americans, talking about Americans, for Americans.”
Lynch even did a tally. The New Republic, an important liberal publication, ran commentaries by eight writers, none Iraqi. Foreign Affairs, the country’s most influential foreign-affairs journal, featured 25 contributors, none Iraqi. The New York Times did slightly better: one Iraqi out of six commentators.
Foreign Policy itself, in cooperation with the Rand Corporation, featured 20 participants in a lengthy discussion on lessons learned from Iraq. Not a single one was Iraqi.
Most major newspapers – and cable news channels — ran a scattering of stories from Iraq in which officials and citizens voiced their satisfaction or, more often, their disillusionment with the results of the invasion and subsequent eight-year occupation, as well as their hopes and fears for the future. But these were largely overshadowed on the international news front by the growing drumbeat for U.S. intervention in Syria and President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel.
This self-absorbed world view also assumes that the United States can always control any events if it just chooses the right tools and puts the right people in charge.
"Strategic narcissism,” as Lynch called it, is neither new in U.S. relations with the rest of the world, nor is it something that the still-reigning global superpower has by any means shed as a result of the Iraq debacle. “The notion that what the United Sates does is the most important aspect of every development pervades American foreign-policy punditry, whether about Iraq or Egypt, Syria and the Arab uprisings,” he wrote.
Indeed, strategic narcissism, combined with a remarkable lack of interest in foreign peoples for an imperial power that has long been insulated by exceptionally weak neighbours and two great oceans, was in many ways responsible for the last great foreign-policy debacle of the post-World War II era: the Vietnam War.
According to Robert McNamara, that war’s defence secretary and later World Bank president, the U.S. foreign-policy elite saw Ho Chi Minh primarily as a puppet of an aggressive and expanding Soviet-Chinese Communist empire rather than as a Vietnamese nationalist.
“The basic lesson is: understand your opponent,” McNamara ruefully told the New York Times in 1997. “We don’t understand the Bosnians, we don’t understand the Chinese and we don’t really understand the Iranians.”
Of course, in the case of Iraq, the key policy-makers – and the commentariat that supported them – claimed to understand the locals quite well, primarily through long-time exiles; most importantly, Ahmad Chalabi, a wealthy banker and confidence man who helped persuade them that invading U.S. troops would be greeted with “flowers and sweets” by a grateful population, and whose ideas about de-Baathification – or “de-Sunnification”, as one military participant in the Rand seminar called it – would set the stage for the bloody sectarian conflict that followed the invasion.
They were also reassured by the neo-conservative views about Arabs of the eminent Islamic historian and ardent Zionist, Bernard Lewis, who, however, in an academic career spanning six decades, had never actually set foot in Iraq.
The ouster of Saddam Hussein by the U.S., they told their credulous – and highly narcissistic — interlocutors would not only put an end to a particularly ruthless and reckless dictator. It would also liberate the Iraqi people, serve as an example (and a first democratic domino) for the rest of the region, intimidate Iran and Syria, and ensure that the U.S. would have a reliable ally in the heart of the Middle East for generations.
Of course, it was not as if the government knew nothing about Iraq or how Iraqis might react to a U.S. invasion. Decades of federal support for Middle East Studies centres at major universities, as well as the accumulation of experience with the region built up in key bureaucracies, notably the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had produced high levels of expertise, much greater than those on Indochina in the build-up to the war there.
In fact, a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the State Department organised an ambitious “Future of Iraq” project that, in addition to U.S. experts, involved dozens of Iraqi professionals. At the same time, the intelligence community, using its own contacts and expertise, produced a series of reports that sharply questioned the confident predictions of the war hawks both in and outside the administration.
They warned, among other things, that de-Baathification would lead to the sectarian violence that followed, that a successor government could be more a boon for Iran than the U.S., let alone Israel, and that Washington’s ability to shape the consequences of the invasion was far more limited than the White House believed.
The studies, however, were ignored or discarded by the policy-makers and their mainly neo-conservative advisers who believed that the experts involved in these studies were “Arabists” and hence too sympathetic toward the subjects of their study – in this case, Iraqis – to be trusted.
In a recent Foreign Policy article, neo-conservative Elliott Abrams, who served under Ronald Reagan as a top Latin America aide and then as George W. Bush’s senior Middle East adviser (with little Spanish and no Arabic skills, respectively) stressed that every administration should establish a “shadow government of presidential loyalists” to ensure that experts in the relevant bureaucracies do not wrest control of policy.
That approach was vividly described some years ago by Col. Pat Lang (ret.), a former Green Beret and the top Middle East analyst in the Defence Intelligence Agency who had spent most oif his career in the region and who had been recommended to head the Pentagon office of special operations under Bush.
Asked by Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, a neo-conservative close to Abrams, whether it was true he knew Arabs well and that he spoke Arabic fluently, Lang replied affirmatively. “That’s too bad,” Lang quoted Feith as telling him. “And that was the end of the interview.”
Thus, it was not only Iraqis who were not listened to; also ignored were those in and outside the government who were most knowledgeable about Iraqis and understood that the Chalabi-fuelled dreams of the policy-makers on top were in fact delusions designed to appeal to the imperial narcissists at the top.
While this week’s retrospectives partially rectified the latter problem by including many of those experts, Iraqis, who, like the Vietnamese a generation ago, suffered far more from the decisions taken in Washington, remained almost entirely absent, as stressed by Lynch.
“Lynch is right on the money when he chastises Americans for neglecting Iraqi perceptions of the war,” Stephen Walt, who teaches international relations at Harvard University, told IPS.
“This self-absorbed world view also assumes that the United States can always control any events if it just chooses the right tools and puts the right people in charge. In fact, there are many situations that are beyond our control, and failure to appreciate that fact could sow the seeds of similar debacles in the future.”
“Myopia has consequences,” Lynch wrote. “Failing to listen to those Iraqi voices meant getting important things badly wrong. …The habit of treating Iraqis as objects to be manipulated rather than as fully equal human beings – with their own identities and interests – isn’t just ethically problematic, it’s strategically problematic.”