People Aren’t the Same, Wherever You Go

Blake Hounshell observes that, “As we watch official Washington distance itself from Nuri al-Maliki, we would do well to take another look at these prescient words from Pat Lang, who was never fooled by the Iraqi prime minister:”

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.

Lang’s explanation for the basis of this mistake, though, is perhaps more insightful — and certainly more generalizable:

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.

[…]

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.

It’s worth keeping this in mind whether it’s coming from those on the right, like Rudy Giuliani, or those on the left, like John Edwards, who think we can fix the world, whether by forcing them to be free at the barrel of the gun or with a Coke and smile.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. We actually probably have a better chance of so doing with a Coke and smile, to be honest.

  2. I will say that I do think that people are ultimately the same no matter where you go. Culture, however, isn’t. Sometimes culture barriers can be overcome and sometimes they can’t.

  3. legion says:

    To be blunt, our foreign policy tends to be predicated on the notion that everyone wants to be an American.

    Spot on. Why are so many people, on both sides, constantly surprised that we can’t find any Iraqis to put in charge of Iraq that want to do what’s best for America, rather than wht’s best for Iraq (or at least, their vision of Iraq)?

  4. Andy says:

    We just need to give the Iraqis another 6 months or so to decide to become like Americans. Gen. Petraeus is certainly the best man for this job.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s an additional point to be made along these lines: the Iraqi adventure didn’t go pear-shaped because of the many, many mistakes made on the ground in Iraq by Americans. It would have gone pear-shaped anyway. The only way that could have been avoided was not invading Iraq at all, with all the implications that would have had.

    The time for engaging in debate and the time that the present presidential aspirants want to forget is the time before the AUMF was approved. Once the decision had been made to invade Iraq and the invasion was underway there was no right way to conduct the subsequent occupation. There were better ways and worse ways but no right way.

    This makes a difference in making plans for the future. Yes, the Bush Administration made a lot of mistakes and things might have been better had those mistakes not been made. The next administration will make a lot of mistakes, too. Let’s not hamper it with agonistic cries of “Incompetence!”

  6. legion says:

    Dave,
    Interesting, but I’m not sure I agree with your entire thesis… I don’t know enough to say conclusively that Iraq _couldn’t_ have been done successfully (for whatever definition of ‘success’), but I will definitely grant that all the decisions that sent us inevitably to the current fiasco were made prior to the actual invasion.

    But if your position is correct – that there was no right way to do this – then surely the very decision to invade was a colossal stroke of incompetence? And even if heaping further charges upon the administration won’t make the current situation better, they should serve as a reminder that the people who got us into this mess (and still insist it’s not a mess) must, under no circumstances, be trusted to get us out of it…

  7. spencer says:

    this is a very good piece and implies a very different way of looking at foreign policy.

    doesn’t it imply that “soft power” is a far superior approach to achieving US objectives?

  8. John Burgess says:

    Legion: No, I don’t think that the decision to invade was ‘colossal incompetence’. The fact that there is not a really brilliant, 100%-guaranteed success does not that mean sitting on one’s hands is a better solution. That’s the formula for stasis, the ‘precautionary principle’ shifted to the political realm.

    Something had to be done about Saddam. It was intolerable that the status quo continue. A decision was made, based on best available information (and you can certainly argue about the quality of that information). Once the decision was made however, new facts came into being, among them a responsibility to try and make things better, not worse. And yes, that hasn’t worked out very well, either. The reality of minimal success, however, does not change the fact, but does complicate further and future planning.

    I think people are basically the same. But as Steve Taylor notes, cultures are vastly different. It is where they are most different that the most friction arises. We see ‘corruption’ where most ME societies see a complicated and nuanced patron/client relationship, with mutual obligations. We see a ‘lack of transparency’ where those societies see a set of understood ground rules by which most play. We see patent unfairness; they see patent unfairness, but not immune to change in any particular individual’s favor whether through luck, hard work, or violence.

    These differences are to be found in many different areas of human endeavor, from religion to the relationship between the sexes to the valuation of society over the individual.

    I’m not saying that all cultural values are equal. They manifestly are not. But they don’t change at the drop of a hat or the holding of an election. It takes an extended period of time to change minds, to get them to adjust value systems that have worked successfully for thousands of years. The West found a shortcut; it only took us 400-500 years to get to where we are. The ME has barely started down that road. I’m sure they’ll find even shorter cuts, but nobody seems to have a map a present.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    then surely the very decision to invade was a colossal stroke of incompetence?

    Sure. And the next president will either be one of the incompetents that voted to go to war or one of the incompetents that (at least by default) supports the present policy.

    spencer:

    You might want to research what “soft power” means a little. It means, roughly, having people want the same objectives that you do. Both economic power and military power are hard power.

    Nearly everyone agrees that soft power is preferable to hard power but it functions in decades or centuries not days, months, or years.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Something had to be done about Saddam. It was intolerable that the status quo continue.

    That’s basically what I meant in my comment by “with all the implications that would have had”. I think there were alternatives other than what we did and sitting on our hands, more specifically, if we’d spent as much time, money, and effort on bolstering sanctions (for example) as we have on conquering and occupying Iraq we might have accomplished something.

    John, what do you think of Tom Friedman’s observation that what was needed was to take the ME and give it a good shake (paraphrase)? Whenever I’ve mentioned the idea it’s been roundly ridiculed and reviled by Arabists.

  11. MarkT says:

    Posted by John Burgess
    The fact that there is not a really brilliant, 100%-guaranteed success does not that mean sitting on one’s hands is a better solution.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so let me just ask for clarification: are you saying the only two options here were invade or do nothing?

    The Right likes to say the Left wants Saddam to still be in power, so we’re sensitive to anything that sounds remotely like that. Thanks.

  12. legion says:

    John,
    I think you took my comment a step too far…

    The fact that there is not a really brilliant, 100%-guaranteed success does not that mean sitting on one’s hands is a better solution.

    I didn’t say we should have sat on our hands. I described a specific if-then situation based on Dave’s comment –
    IF: Invading Iraq could absolutely _not_ be done successfully with our capabilities (as Gen Shinseki and many others suggested before the invasion),
    THEN: The actual decision to invade itself was incompetence; in fact, I would go so far as to say it was counter to expert advice, common sense, and basic human decency.

    I’m not willing to flatly agree with the IF clause above, but…

    Something had to be done about Saddam. It was intolerable that the status quo continue.

    I don’t agree with this either. Who said the status quo on Iraq was “intolerable”? It had been largely tolerable even to conservatives ever since the end of Desert Storm. The level and viability of threat Saddam posed to the US (and Israel, and his other ME neighbors) was _exactly_ the same in 2003 as it was on 12 Sep 2001, or at any point for the decade prior – what suddenly changed to make that particular thorn in our side worthy of diverting our attention to the capture of the people who had actually masterminded the 9-11 attack? Or do you, as Dave later asks, agree with Friedman that we needed to ‘beat someone up’ to re-establish our street cred?

    I think people are basically the same. But as Steve Taylor notes, cultures are vastly different.

    From here on, though, I completely agree. Cultural change cannot be imposed, at least not by any means short of a generations-long occupation (and perhaps not even then). And I think that is the most damning thing about our position in Iraq – regardless of why we went there, Bush is now relying on the idea of ‘fostering democracy’ to excuse our remaining there. Saner heads in the administration have, in the last few days, tried to shift that towards just leaving a ‘functioning’ gov’t in Iraq vice a US-style democracy, but the fact that Bush can’t grasp the difference, let alone the difficulties, more than 4 years after the invasion, just underlines his basic incompetence at this entire sad expedition.

  13. John Burgess says:

    To clarify:

    I consider(ed) the situation in Iraq as intolerable because it was clear that:

    a) the UN sanctions were not working and to the limited extent they were working, they were soon to be withdrawn by a lack of will on the part of several countries with deep economic interests in Iraq.

    b) Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have its teeth pulled. It continued to threaten countries both directly (Kuwait) and indirectly (the KSA), and supported terrorism both directly through funding terrorist organizations with offices established in Iraq and indirectly through payments to, for example, the families of suicide bombers in Israel.

    c) That the extent of his WMD program was such that the relaxing of sanctions would have led to immediate ramping up of that program. That he hid and continued to hide from the UN the extent of his programs; that the existence of his nuclear program wasn’t even learned until years after the ’91 Gulf War; that he had demonstrated that he had the will to use those weapons against others, including domestic opposition, all led me to conclude that he remained an existential threat, if not precisely in March, 2003, then certainly by March 2006.

    I very much agreed with (and continue to agree with) Pollack’s question: If not now, at predicable costs, then when, at what cost? That it was inevitable, I believe, was without question.

    What was not inevitable, IMO, was the the way the war was conducted and how reconstruction was (mis)handled. The ‘war’ part of it went very well. What came after did not, peppered with major errors of judgment based more on wishes and theory, it seems, than a realistic consideration of the real issues that were to be met.

    I think a better solution might have been to send in (and keep sending in, if necessary) assassination squads to take out Ba’ath Party leadership, say the top two dozen. Assassination was the route counseled by regional governments rather than an armed intervention. Would that have worked out? I don’t know: counterfactual history is fun, but not a practical exercise.

    In any event, I look forward to reading the histories that will be written about this period, though I’m sure the best ones will come long after I’m dead.

    More important for now is how we fix Iraq. I do not see walking out as a particularly good solution. In fact, I think it might be the worst of all available options as I am sure it will lead to a region war (if it’s lucky enough to stay that small). A regional war, based solely on the Orders of Battle and sizes of the armies, suggests that US interests are not likely to come out on top. Consequently, I’d prefer a solution–yet to be determined, obviously–that leaves the US as little damaged as possible.

  14. Andy says:

    b) Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have its teeth pulled. It continued to threaten countries both directly (Kuwait) and indirectly (the KSA), and supported terrorism both directly through funding terrorist organizations with offices established in Iraq and indirectly through payments to, for example, the families of suicide bombers in Israel.

    It hardly threatened Kuwait and KSA. The Iraqi military was in no shape for direct engagement, and the terrorism that Saddam funded was trivial in comparison to the homegrown terror in most other Middle Eastern countries, and the funding itself was minimal compared to that supplied by Iran, Syria, and the KSA.