[F-P] Col. W. Patrick Lang, Jr
In the four years since the United States invaded Iraq, it’s become clear that our campaign there has gone terribly awry. We invaded Iraq with too few troops; we destroyed the Iraqi civil administration and military without having a suitable instrument of government ready in the wings; we expelled from public employment anyone with a connection, no matter how tenuous, to the Baath Party—which included most people who could be described as human infrastructure for Iraq. The list of errors goes on and on. Even the vice president acknowledges that “mistakes were made” (although, presumably, not by him).
But how did the highly educated, wealthy, and powerful American people make such a horrendous, catastrophic series of blunders? As Pogo, the cartoon opossum, once famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Yes, that’s right: We, the American people—not the Bush administration, nor the hapless Iraqis, nor the meddlesome Iranians (the new scapegoat)—are the root of the problem.
It’s woven into our cultural DNA. Most Americans mistakenly believe that when we say that “all men are created equal,” it means that all people are the same. Behind the “cute” and “charming” native clothing, the “weird” marriage customs, and the “odd” food of other cultures, all humans are yearning for lifestyles and futures that will be increasingly unified as time and globalization progress. That is what Tom Friedman seems to have meant when he wrote that “the world is flat”—that technological and economic change are driving humankind toward a future of cultural sameness. In other words, whatever differences of custom and habit that still exist between peoples will pass away soon and be replaced by a world culture rather like that of the United States in the 21st century.
To be blunt, our foreign policy tends to be predicated on the notion that everyone wants to be an American. In the months leading up to the start of the Iraq War, it was common to hear seemingly educated people say that the Arabs, particularly Iraqis, had no way of life worth saving and would be better off if all “that old stuff”—their traditions, social institutions, and values—were done away with, and soon. The U.S. Armed Forces and U.S. Agency for International Development would be the sharp swords of modernization in the Middle East.
How did Americans come to believe that the entire world is embarked on the same voyage, and that we are the navigators showing the way to a bright future? Our own culture is a rich blend, brewed from such elements as enlightenment, optimism, Puritan utopianism, a Calvinist tendency to not forgive sinners, and the settler’s lack of respect for the weak and “native” peoples of the world. In the United States, such threads have pushed us to believe that we are all in a melting pot of common ideology. This belief system has been fed to us in the public schools, through Hollywood, and now in the endless prattle of 24-hour news networks. It has become secular religion, a religion so strong that any violation of its tenets brings instant and savage condemnation. So called “neoconservatism” isn’t some kind of alien ideology; it’s merely a self-aware manifestation of the widespread American belief that people are all the same. The repeated assertion by U.S. President George W. Bush that history is dominated by the existence of “universal values” is proof in the pudding.
Americans invaded an imaginary Iraq that fit into our vision of the world. We invaded Iraq in the sure belief that inside every Iraqi there was an American trying to get out. In our dream version of Iraq, we would be greeted as not only liberators from the tyrant, but more importantly, from the old ways. Having inhabited the same state for 80 years, the Iraqi people would naturally see themselves as a unified Iraqi nation, moving forward into eventual total assimilation in that unified human nation.
Unfortunately for us and for them, that was not the real Iraq. In the real Iraq, cultural distinction from the West is still treasured, a manifestation of participation in the Islamic cultural “continent.” Tribe, sect, and community remain far more important than individual rights. One does not vote for candidates outside one’s community unless one is a Baathist, Nasserist, or Communist (or, perhaps, a believer in world “flatness” like Tom Friedman and the neocons). But Iraqis know what Americans want to hear about “identity,” and be they Shiite, Kurd, or Sunni Arab, they tell us that they are all Iraqis.
Finding ourselves in the wrong Iraq, Americans have stubbornly insisted that the real Iraqis should behave as our dream Iraqis would surely do. The result has been frustration, disappointment, and finally rage against the “craziness” of the Iraqis. We are still acting out our dream, insisting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite sectarian government “unify” the state, imagining that Maliki is a sort of Iraqi George Washington seeking the greater good for all. He is not that. His chief task is to consolidate Shiite Arab power while using the United States to accomplish the deed. To that end, he will tell us whatever we want to be told. He will sacrifice however many of his brethren are necessary to maintain the illusion, so long as the loss is not crippling to his effort. He will treat us as the naifs that we are.
Through our refusal to deal with alien peoples on their own terms, and within their own traditions, we have killed any real hope of a positive outcome in Iraq. Our mission there will be over some day, but there will be other fields for our missionary work, other dreams to dream about: Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran … Let us seek within ourselves the wisdom to avoid another such catastrophe.
Col. W. Patrick Lang, Jr., a retired Army colonel and member of the Senior Executive Service, served with Special Forces in Vietnam, as an Arabic professor at West Point, and as chief defense intelligence officer for the Middle East.