Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Where have all the Flowers Gone? Part II: Appreciation, Ambivalence, and Nationalism

The expectation that American soldiers would be greeted as “liberators,” with flowers and sweets was reasonable enough. After all, Iraqis had been savagely brutalized by Saddam’s domestic rein of torture, terror and sadism. Robert Kaplan recently wrote that, “Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying that going to Damascus from Baghdad was like coming up for liberal humanist air. People talked furtively in Syria; in Iraq, nobody breathed a syllable of opposition. The whole country was like an illuminated prison yard. I was emotionally affected. Recent events make it easy to forget just how bad Iraq was back then. “

Still, the question remains: What happened? If Americans were truly viewed as liberators, why is it now struggling against a ferocious insurgency? Why did the good will that Americans expected seem to turn so suddenly into suspicion and resentment? These are very important questions whose answers go to the heart of American efforts in Iraq and the public’s assessment of them.

Critics of the administration have already answered these questions to their self-satisfaction. They are convinced that the administration’s expressed expectations were “one of the biggest frauds of the Iraqi debacle,” and “None of that happened.”.

Were these expectations a “fraud?” No. Were Americans greeted as liberators? Yes. Christopher Hitchens, who was embedded with the invasion force recalled in an interview [HT: Neo-Neocon],

“..there are people who say that that never happened… Well I saw it happen with my own eyes and no one's going to tell me that I didn't. I saw it with--months after the invasion, people still lining the roads, especially in the south…still lining the roads and waving and the children waving which is always the sign because if the parents don't want them to, they don't. I'll never forget, you know, I will not allow it to be said that that did not happen. And in the marshes too--the marsh area of the country which was drained and burned out by poison by Saddam Hussein. Again, almost hysterical welcome and in Kurdistan in the north..”

Well, if Americans were greeted as liberators then what happened? That is the more complicated and poorly understood part of the story. The answer to that critical question requires a deeper understanding of the psychology and state of the Iraqi people than has been in evidence.

A basic, obvious and overlooked point about the Iraqi people is that they were severely traumatized by the brutal tyranny of Saddam Hussein. They had lived in abject terror for almost a quarter of a century. George Packer, whose well-received book The Assassins’ Gate contains a chapter entitled, “Psychological Demolition” that ought to be mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand what happened in Iraq. Think Mel Gibson's Road Warrior series set in a “post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

The monumental psychological barrier faced by American forces was well summed up by Aquila al-Hashemi, one of the three women who became members of the Interim Governing Council (p.165-66):“We are still under the shock, we are still afraid. We are still living in the same-I was15 in ’68, now I’m 50. You see? You can imagine-can I change in two days, in two moths, in two years? We need to be re-educated, rehabilitated.”

Administration plans to “empower” Iraqis apparently never considered that the psychological foundation of human initiative had been severely eroded under Saddam’s barbarous rule.

The psychological and spiritual damaged inflicted in Iraqis is one part of the answer to the question: What happened? But it cannot by itself fully account for our difficulties. To understand that more fully we must look more closely at Iraqi attitudes toward the invasion and what they reveal.

One way in which to do this is a by looking at some of the polls conducted in Iraq. There are by now a number of them. Face to face polls in Iraq suffer from many drawbacks among them the difficulty of drawing random samples, and the dangers and reticence of personal interviews. Still they are useful if you are careful. However, in the hands of breathless critics however they can be misused.

Consider the wholesale indictment of the Iraqi invasion by Ted Carpenter of the CATO Institute based on a selective and shallow reading of a few poll questions.

Mr. Carpenter begins by boldly asserting: “A new, extensive survey of Iraqi public opinion conducted by Gallup and other groups discredits numerous cherished beliefs that hawks have held about Iraq. For months, the Bush administration and its supporters have argued that there is a silent majority of Iraqis who regard coalition forces as liberators, want those forces to stay for a prolonged period, oppose insurgent attacks on coalition troops, and are enthusiastic about creating a Western style democracy for their country. The poll results contradict every one of those assumptions.”

Not Quite. Mr. Carpenter relies on a poll conducted by USATODAY in conjunction with CNN and Gallup from March 22-April 2, 2004 and reported in USATODAY on April 30, 2004.

He accurately reports that 19% in this sample view Americans as liberators, and makes much of it. But had he done any research or read beyond USATODAY, he would have found a number of surveys with different numbers.For example, an ABC news poll conducted at about the same time and released on March 15, 2004 found 48% of the respondents thought the invasion “was right,” and 39% said that it “was wrong.”

The survey goes on to ask “about any hardships you might have suffered since the US/British invasion, do you personally think that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it or not? (Q:22) 61% said it was and that included large majorities of Baghdad, Shi’ite, and Kurdish, but not Sunni areas).

Mr. Carpenter then goes on to “discredit” another “cherished belief,” namely that “that a majority of Iraqis want U.S. and British troops to stay on for an extended period.” I know of no administration official for whom this was a cherished belief, Nonetheless, it is true that the USATODAY /Gallup survey reports that 57% of the sample would like the United States to leave “immediately” (in the next few months) and the percentages favoring departure are even higher in Baghdad, Shi’ite and Sunni areas.

Yet, a BBC Poll reported in February of 2004, found that 59.9 % wanted Coalition forces to stay for more than a year, or until security was restored, or until an Iraqi government was in place or never.

However, this is by no means the end of the story. Mr. Carpenter does not report it, but when asked (Q:16) whether they would feel safer if the “Coalition left today,” 53% said they wouldn’t and that included pluralities in the Baghdad, Shi’ite and Sunni areas. He never asks the obvious question: Why would Iraqi want Coalition forces to leave, if it would make them feel less safe?

It is true that when asked whether they considered Americans occupiers or liberators at the time of the invasion (Q: 15) the sample was almost even split overall with 43% choosing each option. It is also true that by the time of the survey that sentiment had moved decisively toward viewing collation forces as occupiers—71% versus 19%.

He inquires no further. He should have because at the heart of Iraqi attitudes toward the collation forces was and remains ambivalence. That term simply means mixed feelings and Iraqis had many of them.

Yes, Iraqis increasing saw the coalition forces as “occupiers,” but why? One important clue is found in another question he overlooks (Q:17), “Would Saddam Hussein have been removed from power by Iraqis if US/British forces had not taken direct military action?” Eight-nine percent said that he would have remained in power and that included 85% of all groups asked (Baghdad, Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurds).

Another import clue comes from a question asked by the ABC Poll: Apart from being right or wrong, do you feel the U.S. led coalition (humiliated Iraq) or (liberated Iraq). The respondents were about even split between humiliation (41%) and liberated (42%). Only one-third of Arab respondents picked liberated. An absolutely parallel result was obtained from the February 2004 BBC poll reported the sample was split 41.2 vs.41.8 on the liberation/humiliation question.

A final clue come from a survey conducted by the Department of State that found (Table 8) that 79% of their sample felt that “transferring all authority to an Iraqi government” would be a very effective way to increase security. Shia (78%) and Sunni (81%) respondents overwhelmingly shared this goal Only 20% of the sample thought the immediate departure of collation forces would aid that goal.

The post-war psychology of the Iraqi people reflects a profound case of ambivalence. Ambivalence reflects conflicted feelings, views that pull emotionally in opposite directions. When the pulls are roughly equal, as they were in the liberation/humiliation question it means that most people felt some of both. The central issue for Iraqis was the split between Iraqi nationalism and relief and appreciation of being out from under the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. Each of those strong emotional currents pulled in direct directions.

On one hand Iraqis did feel “liberated,” yet they also recognized that their liberation wasn’t by their own hand but rather by an outsider about whom they felt ambivalent feelings, at best. The fact that they were not the authors of their own liberation produced a sense of shame and “humiliation.” They were both relieved and aggrieved.

Add to that a lack of understanding about why the world’s greatest superpower could not immediately reverse the fifty year decline of Iran’s infrastructure. And, couple that with the development of a ranging insurgency that made life extremely precarious and you can begin to understand why Iraqis fervently want us to stay, leave, fix their country and not humiliate them again by doing so.