Forget hearts, Go for the Iraqi Minds

News Abroad

Ms. Klinghoffer is the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences (Macmillan/St. Martin’s: 1999).

Here I go again - trying to give advice. But watching Southern Iraqis scramble to get hold of a box of American rations and then shout their loyalty to Saddam made me very uncomfortable. This is a movie I have seen once too often, and it never ends well for the US. Once again America tries to achieve its goals by capturing the "hearts and minds" of Arabs by showering them with goodies and promises. It is a doomed strategy not only because past betrayals have hardened Arab hearts but because acting upon the heart's desires is the luxury of the strong. The weak, and those who need to be fed and freed, are by definition weak and know that their survival depends on their minds. The scene referred to above demonstrates that Iraqis, like other Middle Easterners, believe that American material largess is as unconditional as U.S. promises of protection are suspect. American success depends on convincing them otherwise.

Therefore, under no circumstances should American humanitarian aid flow to areas yet to be liberated. The American army has no interest in making Iraqi life under Baath rule viable. Iraqis who wish to avail themselves of American food and medicine have to help the coalition get control over their cities and towns. Given their 1991 experience, their reluctance is understandable. But "understanding" does not mandate acquiescence. After all, it was such "understandings" which led to 9/11 by permitting Arab rulers to engage in virulent anti-American rhetoric without suffering any adverse consequences.

This dangerous tradition began with John F. Kennedy. Eager to win the "hearts and minds" of the Egyptians, Washington began to supply Egypt with wheat. Soon, six out of every ten loaves of breads eaten in Egypt were made with American grain. President Gamal Ab'dl Nasser demonstrated his gratitude by being the first leader outside the Communist bloc to invite the East German president for a state visit. Some congressmen advocated reducing food aid to Egypt. An outraged Nasser responded with an insult filled speech in which he dismissed the importance of American food aid and praised Soviet military aid.

Did he or Egypt pay a price? Not a penny! The American ambassador personally assured Nasser that he should pay no attention to congressmen for they know not of what they speak. The American president was assured that, in their hearts, the Egyptian people "knew" who their friends were and the grain shipments continued. An emboldened Nasser turned into an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Hence, anti-American propaganda became a routine government tool in the Middle East.

To a significant degree, 9/11 is a fruit of this policy. The current scenes of support for Saddam displayed by Southern Iraqis proves that treating the Iraqi people in the same manner Washington used to treat Arab rulers is just as self defeating. Indeed, anti-Saddam Iraqi exiles should be given a central role in distributing and managing aid distribution. It would make clear the coalition's commitment to de-Baathization.

Second, it is time to end the sentimental drivel about how much the Bush administration cares for the freedom and well being of the Iraqi people. It insults their intelligence. Arabs, like Kurds, know that foreign policy is not social work. It is time to acknowledge that American marines are not fighting to liberate Iraqis anymore than they fought to liberate Germans or Japanese. They fight because they want to prevent 9/11 from becoming a regular part of American reality. The Egyptian historian, Ahmad Othman, explained it best in a discussion about Arab rulers on Al-Jazeera: "What happened is that after September 11, the Americans realized that dictatorial regimes in the Arab region produce terrorists who attack America and Europe. The entire world lives in fear of the terrorists these regimes produce. The Americans realize this. They do not want to establish democracy for our sake, but in order to defend themselves. If the Arab people have an opportunity to learn, to participate in the rule of its own land ... it will not destroy America and Europe." "They do this for their own interest," Othman went on, "but we have a genuine opportunity, an historic opportunity."

Straight talk implies respect for oneself and for the interlocutor. The U.S. should tell the Iraqi people, "for reasons of American national security, we need to cut the boil that is Arab governance. We decided to start in Iraq. Those who will join us early will be handsomely rewarded." Such plain talk is not only more plausible but it also implies respect. In short, Americans should not try to make the Arabs in general, or the Iraqis in particular, love them. They should merely level with them.

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More Comments:

Ronald Dale Karr - 4/4/2003

"After all, it was such "understandings" which led to 9/11 by permitting Arab rulers to engage in virulent anti-American rhetoric without suffering any adverse consequences."

Curious, isn't it, that the 9/11 terrorists hailed from U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt and not from anti-U.S. states like Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Libya?

Richard Kurdlion - 3/31/2003

If the purpose of foreign aid is only to promote American interests, why not start by "cutting" the biggest "boil" ?

The U.S. has apologized to the American Indians, someday Israel will apologize to the Palestinians. Why not bring that day a bit
closer ? Arab minds will no doubt appreciate being "leveled" with, by America acting to end its double-standard.

Or are Klinghoffer's true intended consequences something other than promoting what is good for America ?