Not long ago I talked to a right-wing, hard-nosed fellow in a conservative central California town about the need to stay and finish stabilizing democracy in Iraq and rectifying the disastrous aftermath of 1991. He wasn’t buying. Instead he kept ranting about the war in the “more rubble, less trouble” vein. And his anger wasn’t only over our costs in lives and treasure. When I finally asked him exactly why the venom over Iraq, he shouted, “I don’t like them sons of bitches over there—any of ’em.” His was a sort of echo of Bismarck’s oft-quoted “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”
There are dozens of tragic ironies in Iraq. A Republican president’s fostering democracy only alienated his dour realist base. Yet his idealism did not win even a faint sympathy from his supposedly Wilsonian Democrat-ic opponents, who now sound like Bob Taft isolationists. The fiercest critics of the brave, struggling Iraqi-elected government remain liberal Senate Democrats, not Republicans.
The Iraqi oil fields were liberated from Russian, French, and Baathist extortion. Subsequent skyrocketing oil prices further enriched the Middle East—only to earn the slur “No blood for oil.” Liberation of the downtrodden Shiites from a largely oppressive Sunni minority won the United States only disdain from Shiite Iran and assorted Shiites from Lebanon to the gulf—and resentment from nearby Sunni monarchies.
President Bush stayed on after victory to offer consensual government, unlike his father in 1991. As a reward, he reaped criticism from his father’s critics for now attempting what they once had so loudly advocated.
Perhaps strangest of all is the tragicomic spectacle of Middle East “reformers” and democracy advocates. They vehemently criticized U.S. efforts in Iraq from their autocratic masters’ state-censored megaphones in Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman.
All that and the dreary narratives from the battlefield help explain plummeting public support for the war at a time when empathy for brave Iraqis is critical to the continuance of the effort. But another, more worrisome dynamic is at work here. I would call it the “them sons of bitches” sentiment that is usually better left unspoken.
By any honest assessment, the great majority of Iraqis are brave citizens who voted en masse for change, at great risk to their safety. Kurdistan, the northern Iraqi region, is a stunning success, belying stereotypes that Muslims can’t govern themselves peacefully, practice consensual government, or create vibrant economies. Tribal sheiks and clerics in Iraq hate Al-Qaeda as much as we do and suffer far greater losses in trying to rid their country of such killers. American soldiers testify to the friendliness and support of the Iraqi people.
But that American alliance with freedom-loving Arabs is not what is reported. Instead the public hears and sees two very different things.
First, we are now well accustomed to the administration talking of “freedom” and “democracy,” and of providing an “opportunity” for the Arab world “to embrace” liberty. Indeed, that is how the 3,000-plus Americans killed in action in Iraq and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent so far have often been explained: a chance for something better than the non-choice between a Saddam or an Assad on the one side and the theocratic alternative of the Taliban or the Iranian ayatollahs on the other.
But such a legitimate and necessary rationale depends also on a general empathy for the Middle East. We are embarking on this new course in the hopes that the American lives sacrificed and treasure spent are for a friendly people who appreciate our efforts. I think that they do and that the record of brave Iraqi reformers is worth the effort—for the sake of our future security and so that we might adopt a new moral posture that respects Arab self-determination.
But, again, most Americans now don’t think it is worth it—not just because of the cost we pay but because of what we get in return. Turn on the television and the reporting is all hate: a Middle Eastern Muslim is blowing up someone in Israel, shooting a rocket from Gaza, chanting death to America in Beirut, stoning an adulterer in Tehran, losing a hand for thievery in Saudi Arabia, threatening to take back Spain, gassing someone in Iraq, or promising to wipe out Israel. An unhinged, secular Muammar Gadhafi rants; a decrepit Saudi royal lectures; a wild-eyed Lebanese cleric threatens—whatever the country, whatever the political ideology, the U.S. television viewer draws the same conclusion: we are always blamed for their self-inflicted misery.
Fostering democracy in Iraq is called imperialism. But then so is the opposite, backing a strongman in Pakistan or Egypt. Billions in aid sent to Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine goes unmentioned or is considered too paltry. Millions of Muslims saved in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Indonesia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia means nothing. One Koran wrongly said to be flushed is everything.
A sense of imbalance is everywhere. Imams call Jews “pigs and apes.” The pope is threatened for his dry recitation of history. Cartoonists, novelists, filmmakers, and opera producers are all promised death or beheading, while the worst sort of racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian hatred is broadcast and published in state-run Arab media.
Worse follows. Just when one surmises from all this that the Arab Muslim world despises the United States, the American public is exasperated that, in fact, it really doesn’t—at least, in the sense that Muslims from the Middle East clamor to enter the United States. Everything Western—from iPods to the Internet to cell phones—spreads like wildfire in the Arab world. Family members of those in the Assad government, in the Shiite militias in Lebanon, in the Pakistani dictatorship, and in the Iranian theocracy live in safety and security in the land of the Great Satan, from Washington to Michigan.
Yet the Muslim community in the United States, at least if defined by its self-appointed collective leadership, is mostly heard and seen decrying “Islamophobia” inside America, suing on allegations of discrimination, and damning the effort in Iraq. Rarely are fury and anger voiced at the illiberal regimes that drove Arabs out. Even rarer is some sort of gratitude for the liberal regime that welcomed them in; at least that is the impression imparted to Americans by their media, which provide them with sound bites and live video streams in lieu of travel to and study of the Middle East.
As a result, the U.S. voter is tired and saturated with negative imagery. Public opinion polls are notoriously fickle, but most show a sharp increase in unfavorable views of Muslims in general. A 2006 Washington Post poll suggested that nearly half of all Americans had a negative view of Muslims—far higher even than was found shortly after the September 11 attacks. The Council on American-Islamic Relations claims that one in four Americans surveyed said Islam was a religion of hatred and violence and held extreme anti-Muslim views. Other, less-partisan surveys agree that one in three Americans believe that Islam encourages violence. Various other surveys show that only about 20 percent of Americans are in sympathy with the Palestinians. Egypt alone of the major Arab countries rates a favorable impression; most others—Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia—evoke high levels of American negativity.
Such popular sentiments, to the extent they are ever voiced openly, are, of course, attributed to “intolerance” and “prejudice.” But the true catalysts are the endemic violence and hypocrisy that appear nightly on millions of television screens. When the Left says of the war that “it isn’t worth it,” that message resonates to the American public as “they aren’t worth it.” Voters may not particularly like Harry Reid, but in frustration at the violence, they sense now that, just like them, he also doesn’t like a vague somebody over there.
So here we are in our eleventh hour. A divisive and costly war continues, in part to give Arab Muslims the freedom the West takes for granted; at precisely the same time, the public is becoming increasingly tired of Middle Eastern madness. In short, America believes that the entire region is not worth the bones of a single Marine.
To counteract this, we need more clarity both here and abroad. First, the administration must articulate how its idealism is stark realism as well. Americans daily must be reminded that consensual government in Iraq—not just plebiscites—is in our long-term strategic interest. Second, we should hear far more of Iraqi cooperation and joint operations, both military and civilian, that in fact do characterize this war and reveal an Arab desire to be free of the past. And third, many more long-suffering members of the Iraqi government need to express some appreciation for the U.S. sacrifice—and express such gratitude to the American people directly.
We worry rightly about anti-Americanism and winning over the people of Iraq. But the greater problem, at least as we now witness it in the Senate and House, is winning back those at home.
Seeing more of the voter’s purple finger, and less of the shaking fist, is the key to regaining the hearts and minds of Americans—who in the end alone can win or lose this war.