Straight Outta Fallujah

A flood of bad news on Iraq


In the new era that opened on September 11, 2001, last week was unquestionably one of the worst for the United States—abroad and at home. Coming from Iraq, there were gruesome images of American civilians murdered, their charred bodies mutilated, dragged, and displayed as trophies by a cheering, dancing mob. Coming from Washington, D.C., there was the ugly spectacle of partisan bickering over who was really to blame for the lack of preparedness that allowed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to happen.

The horror of the Fallujah killings seemed to be a graphic embodiment of the worst fears of many war opponents: that Americans would become a hated occupation force, trapped in a tense standoff against a hostile population. While the war was still in progress, a left-wing professor at a Columbia University antiwar speak-out sparked outrage by voicing the hope that Americans would encounter "a million Mogadishus" in Iraq—a reference to the 1993 battle in Somalia in which 18 American soldiers were killed and the bodies of some of the dead were dragged through the streets by a jeering crowd. A million, no; but one Mogadishu is bad enough.

Does the rage in Fallujah, a notoriously anti-American stronghold of Saddam Hussein supporters, reflect a general trend in Iraqi sentiment? The answer to this question is hard to pin down. Last month, an ABC News poll found 56 percent of Iraqis saying that they are better off thanks to the US-led war that brought down Hussein's brutal regime. While 51 percent said that the current security situation in Iraq was bad, 54 percent felt that it was better than it had been before the war, and only 25 percent said it was worse.

To supporters of the war, these findings are a vindication; and indeed, they are a much-needed corrective to the anti-war rhetoric that uniformly treats Iraqis as victims of America's war. And yet, overall, the poll yielded a mixed verdict: 48 percent of the Iraqis surveyed believed that the US invasion was right, while 39 percent said it was wrong. There was an even split on whether Iraqis had been "liberated" or "humiliated" by the war.

Journalistic accounts of postwar Iraq are just as contradictory. A recent New York Times article profiles an Iraqi family enjoying a new sense of freedom, as well as better living standards due to the end of the economic sanctions against the Hussein regime. (Many antiwar leftists who deplore the war's impact on the Iraqis seem to have forgotten about their own earlier complaints that the Iraqi people were being devastated by the sanctions.) The family's eldest son was a political prisoner under Hussein. Now, the clan's matriarch says that despite the risks, she would gladly go to work for the Americans as a cook or a seamstress.

In Reason, freelance journalist Nir Rosen tells a very different, much bleaker story: ubiquitous violence, often unnoticed by the press and largely ignored by the authorities; an embittered population that blames all its troubles on Americans and Jews; American soldiers whose ability to win local hearts and minds is severely hampered by lack of communication, including lack of translators, and by an arrogant attitude toward the locals. (In Rosen's account, little consideration is shown an Iraqi man and his family after he is manhandled during what turns out to be a mistaken arrest.)

Which is the real picture? Most likely, there is some truth to both. But evidence of ordinary Iraqis' hostility to Americans is especially dispiriting because, with no weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi people's liberation from a brutal dictatorship emerges as the strongest moral justification for the war.

Meanwhile, at home, the blame game goes on. Was it Bush's or Clinton's negligence that allowed Al Qaeda to flourish? Did Clinton fail to pursue an effective antiterrorism strategy because of his own failings or because the Republicans had his hands tied? The depressing thing about the responses to these questions is, with a few exceptions, how entirely partisan they are. Put the shoe on the other foot, and most of the pundits would switch sides.

The war in Iraq is central to this debate: Former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, whose ferocious criticism of the Bush administration's response to terrorism has rocked Washington and led to a flurry of nasty charges and countercharges, believes that the war was a major mistake and has made us more vulnerable to terrorism. On this issue, the jury is still out—just as it is on Iraq's future.