Middle Eastern Image Gap


Lee Harris has an interesting piece about the "The War of Images" over at Tech Central Station. A snippet:

The enemy's compelling images show what we are fighting against in Iraq; but there are no equally compelling images that show us what we are fighting for—an "image gap" that is already causing many well wishers of the administration to question a policy in which we are endlessly willing to help a people who refuses to offer us even a single image of themselves caught in the act of displaying friendliness toward us—a people who, on the contrary, take every photo opportunity given to them to show how much and how deeply they hate us; and who, when not given such an opportunity by us, are quite able to make one for themselves.

I'm not sure I agree with Harris' full analysis, but he raises a number of interesting points, and one thing is clear (whether you're for or against the war): The Bush administration has done a real botch job of the occupation of Iraq, and not simply because of conditions on the ground there.

It has failed to (literally) represent the occupation or justify its cause in ways that are convincing to most Americans. It may be that that simply can't be done. That, as Harris suggests, given the costs involved (in lives and money), the vast majority of Americans will not sign on to the mission of democratizing, liberalizing, etc., Iraq and/or the Middle East and/or the Central Asian Islamic world. Or, same thing, that whatever initial willingness to bear those burdens is wearing out fast as the costs become apparent.

NEXT: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Beheading

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  1. Nick, thanks for the clarification, and I agree with your points.

  2. There is no strategic threat to US military control anywhere in Iraq.


    Of course, we doves were saying prior to the invasion that Iraq posed no threat to the USA. So this isn’t exactly news to us.

  3. Tom wrote: “I don’t for a second believe any of this ‘failed occupation’ crap.”

    Hmm, so Bush administration officials *didn’t* announce shortly after the invasion that they planned to reduce troop levels to 30,000 by last summer? And they *didn’t* indicate that oil revenues would be sufficient after one year to finance the occupation? Etc., etc., etc. While I certainly do not believe that Iraq is Vietnam, I do believe you have to be a fool to say that the occupation is going great when the CPA has failed to meet almost every deadline and target they’ve announced.

  4. The number-one least attractive trait of the Bush-haters is the way they gloat and sneer over every scrap of bad news from Iraq.
    Remember the Clinton-haters, and how irrational and unattractive they seemed?
    Ever notice how, deep down in their greasy little hearts, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore are actually the same needy, vain blowhard?
    Bush is trying to overthrow tyrants, kill terrorists, and make the world safe for democracy, in the face of substantial opposition.
    Yet many people are hoping he fails.
    I know why tyrants, terrorists, and people who hate democracy want him to fail.

  5. I remember another war where several administrations made their case badly and we let communists kill several million people as a result.

    It is interesting to see the same dynamic go on again.

    Why are so many in a hurry to see a blood bath?

    Are a million dead Iraqis preferable to 500 dead Americans?

  6. You know this is a lot like the occupation of Italy in 1944. There you had two competing armies. German and Allied.

    We didn’t get that one fully straightened until the Germans were defeated.

    Iran any one?

  7. M. Simon-

    Are you saying that you want to invade Iran?!?!?

  8. M. Simon-

    Are you saying that you want to invade Iran?!?!?

  9. M. Simon,

    “Iran any one?”

    Roger (frankly I wish we were already helping the students in Iran – it might not even go the military route).

    And may be Jr. Assad too!

  10. fydor,

    If you had studied the rules of the IGC and their ramifications you would know that such compromises are already being tried.

    We have a goal and a plan for muddling through. So far like Wellinton at Waterloo, despite numerous alarums the line seems to be holding.

    We have the problem of not just remaking Iraq but doing it under opposition. Despite the opposition we are gaining ground.

  11. Sorry for the double post.

    Are there any countries that the posters on this forum don’t want to invade?

  12. Australia

  13. Lichtenstein

  14. Why not Canada? And Mexico to make it nice and neat, one continent, one country.

  15. james: Not to mention lots and lots of oil.

  16. Good thinking Mo, I can finally support giving up in Iraq and we can start the annexation immedietly!

  17. What this amounts to is a “botch” in pr and nothing else. Overall, things are not going that badly, but there is a perception it is

    First, hold firm, since “perception” is transitory, and often lags behind reality.

    Second, decide if what you’re going is wrong or if the message is. (I think it’s mostly the message, and have the view reified by the harsh propaganda the Bush people have to put up with by anti-War folks every day.)

    Third, if Nick thinks people feel the cost is too high (another false perception), I hope it won’t take poison gas (as almost happened in Jordan) killing tens of tens of thousands, or a small tactical device set of in some America city to remind us of the true cost.

  18. Captain,

    Your third point assumes that the war on, and now occupation of Iraq make us any safer from attack when the opposite is likely true.

    Of course the growing cost in life, American life and money is too high. This should come as no surprise since it was justified with shameless and wild duplicity.

    And, what reasonably expected result could possibly justify the further expected (even greater in light of the growing torture scandal) loss of American life?

    We need to have our military call off its dogs and come home before any more Americans and others lose their lives without good cause.

  19. “It has failed to (literally) represent the occupation or justify its cause in ways that are convincing to most Americans.”

    This is probably because so many “causes” were floated, and the WMD “cause” crapped out.

    At this point, attempts to say it was about democratizing Iraq just look like after-the-fact ass-covering. Especially given the refusal to use enough troops to actually make it safe so that an orderly transition to democracy would be possible.

  20. thoreau,

    With the advent of electronic media America is invading the world. All countries all the time. Some places do not like this. It destroys cultures. Some people do not like this. It upsets power relations.

    Some of those upset think they have a military solution. Every one of the places where the mind set of a military solution is in charge will need to be invaded.

    Simple rule: armed opposition to American cultural invasion will require armed intervention.

    Iran next (I hope – so do many Iranians).

  21. One aspect of losing the Image War seems to come from the group that would hate America first, then second worry about the particular topic or context.

    The European world was mainly against any war in Irak, and it is posed and ready to report on great detail on everything, that is going wrong there. Unless things went better than the most optimistic Hawk outcome, I feel that the slant here would be negative, no matter what would be going on.

    On the other side, how one would take a country over, without having proper knowledge of the culture and cultural players, and how to navigate such the culture is astonishing.

    And what does “And most Americans are from Missouri” mean?

    And the sentiment that Mr. Harris says at the end, “Many Americans simply wish the Arabs would go away; others wish to blow them away — and wish to blow them away not because they see this step as inevitable and tragic, but because they rejoice at the prospect of getting them back for what they have done to us” is this not the same feeling that Palestinians have vis-a-vis Israelis? And is a true sentiment there?

    Good, 5pm, Happy Hour.

  22. I’ve seen lots of photos of Iraqis getting freindly with the Americans.

    Nick, how is it that in the post above you say you can’t figure out what’s going on there (and I agree), but here you confidently say the occupation has been botched?

    I think we’ll be in a better position to judge by the end of the summer, after the hand over.

  23. The Iraqis don’t “[refuse] to offer us even a single image of themselves caught in the act of displaying friendliness toward us”. They’re scared shitless of being caught in the act of displaying friendliness toward us because in the best of all remaining plausible outcomes, they’re going to be living in a mildly anti-American moderate theocracy in a couple of years, and as best as they can guess, there’s a pretty strong likelihood it’s going to be worse than that, and that “collaborationists” will come to a bad end.

    The pro-democracy secularists, the Communists and the urban moderates who don’t want that kind of outcome don’t have militias, don’t have strong organizations and don’t seem to have the ear of the CPA, either. The theocrats and the extremists do.

    Besides, with the US-led forces razing homes, making mass arrests and generally acting like a hostile occupying army, they’re not exactly something that inspires solidarity marches. Nor for that matter is Mr. Chalabi’s Governing Council. What are pro-democracy, liberal Iraqis supposed to demonmstrate in solidarity with?

  24. s. m. koppelman refers to urban moderates, a recognition that the more secular elements in Iraq tend to be urban.

    In the US, we frequently praise the way that our Constitution gives our rural population (which is also the more religious portion of our population) a more powerful voice than they would have otherwise. I wonder if we should suggest the same scheme for Iraq.

  25. Fair enough, Todd. I called it a botch job because even many war supporters would agree that they’ve done a horrible job of explaining what they’ve been doing, managing expectations, and the like. They had to admit that they were essentially unprepared for the post-war era; pull the original proconsul quickly; they plainly backed the wrong “local” (Chalabi) early on; screwed up the design of the new flag; pulled a real boner with the flag-draped coffins; fucked up not only by letting Abu Ghraib happen, but then trying to minimize it at first; etc.

    Which isn’t to say that Iraq and most Iraqis aren’t better off materially than they were two years ago. But judging from fading poll numbers regarding a continuing American presence in Iraq, this much is clear: the Bush administration is doing a progressively worse job in selling the American mission there.

  26. “And what does “And most Americans are from Missouri” mean? ”

    Missouri is known as the “show me” state, “I’m from Missouri and you have to show me” indicates someone desiring proof about something. Not sure where exactly this started. Found the following in google (not sure how accurate it is) …


    “Missouri has had many nicknames through the years, but the one most widely known is the “Show Me State.” No one knows exactly when or where the expression originated. Much of the credit for popularizing the term, however, goes to Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver of Cape Girardeau County.

    Vandiver ? a scholar, writer and lecturer who served as a U.S. Representative from 1897 to 1905 ? used the expression during an 1899 speech in Philadelphia. Vandiver bore a strong facial resemblance to another famous Missourian, Mark Twain, and was noted as a colorful orator. Speaking to Philadelphia’s Five O’Clock Club, he questioned the accuracy of an earlier speaker’s remarks, concluding with the phrase, “I’m from Missouri and you’ve got to show me.” The expression soon caught the public fancy, portraying Missourians as tough-minded demanders of proof.

    Some have suggested other origins for the phrase. About 1897, one version goes, hundreds of free railroad passes were issued to people connected with the Missouri legislature. The conductor, when told that passengers on the train had passes, would insist, “You’ve got to show me.”

    Another version dates to 1898, shortly after the start of the Spanish-American War. About 60,000 soldiers were stationed in Chickamauga Park in Tennessee. Gate guards were from St. Louis and soldiers were told that anyone claiming to have passes to town would be stopped at the gates, for the guards were from Missouri and had to be shown. The “Show Me” expression also appears in songs and poems published in the late 1890s.”

  27. Thank you Allen.
    That makes sense. Americans with whom I have worked do want the demonstration, and they do not like empty promises.

  28. M. Simon-

    You characterize the ubiquity of American culture in negative terms, and then argue that anybody who violently resists this will need to be conquered by force. You make it sound like America’s goal should be to impose a distasteful situation by force. Hardly a ringing endorsement of our position in the world.

    I see the ubiquity of American culture in much more positive terms. It’s no surprise to me that the most culturally diverse nation on earth would produce cultural products with universal appeal. And it’s reassuring to know that wherever you go in this world a lot of people just like that old kind of rock and roll.

    To get anecdotal, I found it reassuring last year (prior to the invasion of Iraq) to hear that teenage girls in Baghdad thought Britney Spears should be sent as an ambassador to negotiate some sort of truce. It told me that teenagers everywhere have the same loopy idealism and the same bad musical taste.

    For that matter, I found it reassuring when my friend from China complained to me about his wife, and his complaints were identical to my complaints about my wife. If 2 guys born and raised on opposite sides of the globe have basically the same observations about their wives (also born and raised on opposite sides of the globe) then it tells me that the terrorists are doomed to lose in any clash of civilizations.

    Yes, I know, the Islamic terrorists generally aren’t Chinese. (Having said that, I suspect that at least one or two posters here would like to invade China…) But I just don’t see how they’ll get more than a handful of lunatics to hate the American people. They might get a whole bunch of people to hate our government, but they’ll never get more than a handful to hate our people. That’s why I don’t believe the dire predictions about how if we lose the war on terror we’ll all be enslaved. No civilization has ever been defeated by a handful of lunatics.

    Anyway, my criterion for invading a country remains quite simple: Show me substantial evidence that the government in question sponsored an attack on the US.

    I have no seen any evidence that Iran was involved in attacks against the United States. Besides, I suspect that the Iranian theocrats will be overthrown from within in the next few years.

  29. Best post yet by koppelman.

    Thoreau, I don’t know if we need to contrive extra representation for rural Iraqis per se, but I think the US’s “great compromise” that led to the bicameral legislature, one for proportional representation and one for geographic representation, could be a great model for solving the BIG problem of Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd, and I’m shocked and dismayed that I never see anything about such a thing being proposed. Same goes for Europe.

  30. From the article:

    We are fighting a war of images, and right now our enemy is winning this war, while we are losing it, and losing it badly.

    And just who is “our enemy” and who are “we”?

    The government is not us, yet it makes needlessly makes enemies for us via support of repressive regimes and now thru this war that was launched on the basis of multiple frauds.

    …and yet the Bush administration insists that we are in Iraq to help the Arabs.

    It’s not “images” that get in the way here. That the government is not in Iraq to “help the Arabs” is made manifest by its support of the Israeli occupation and the racist Sharon regime, the support of the thug Egyptian regime, and the repressive Jordanian regime.

  31. I have to laugh at most of these comments (or else I’d cry.) I remember distinctly how, during the first days of the war the media made it sound like the coalition forces were bogged down and that the outcome of the fighting was really in doubt. Of course, this facade fell apart once it became impossible to continue to spin that lie: the coalition forces rolled right over Saddam’s “army” and occupied the entire country within days. I don’t for a second believe any of this “failed occupation” crap. The media, and a lot of you twits, take every single negative event and blow it completely out of proportion while entirely disregarding the positive events (which, by the way, make up about 95% of what’s happening in Iraq.)

    I’m not sure why I waste my time with you guys, maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. However, I am 100% confident that, within a reasonable length of time for something of this magnitude, it will become crystal clear, even for twits like you who have their heads shoved so far up their rears that they can hardly breath, that this effort has been a success. Of course, I know you guys will try to put some spin on it to make the outcome seem bad. Whatever.


  32. ahhh…but one cannot forget neither the vice nor the versa.

  33. Tom makes a good point. Most of the folks saying the occupation is a failure pretty well blew their credibility during the fighting, and have a number of self-interested reasons for portraying the occupation as a failure. I tend to discount their claims accordingly; if you don’t, well, its probably because they are telling you what you want to hear.

    For a failed occupation, though, it has done pretty well.

    There is no strategic threat to US military control anywhere in Iraq. Zip, zero, nada. We own every square inch that we care to put boots on. Even in so-called “rebellious” areas, we hold back only because we choose not to utterly destroy the enemy. Basically, the military side of the war was won last year and as stayed won ever since.

    The only difficulties are political. On that front, we see Sadr (the primary Iranian proxy) completely neutered and on the run, as even his natural constituents among the Shiites turn on him. He has essentially forced the rest o the Shiite leadership to support the Americans.

    We also see the primary uprising of the Baathist bitter enders decisively contained in Fallujah, with most of the town under friendly Iraqi control. Again, the only thing saving the Baathists is our restraint and desire to use Fallujah as a training ground for Iraqi security.

    The development of a governing structure is coming along, and is far far ahead of the previous gold standard for these things, the occupation of Germany and Japan, where it was 4 – 6 years before we let them off the leash.

  34. thoreau,

    The course you suggested was tried by America in the 1930s. The end result was WW2.

    I’m all for nipping this one in the bud. So far, for a world war, 10 to 20K casualties a year is cheap. 600 American soldiers killed in a year? That was a moderately bad day in WW2. Or an average for two days. Not to mention sucking up 50% of our economy vs. 3% to 4%.

    Let us do the interventions when they are easy. Because hard will involve mushroom clouds.

    The policy you suggest was quite good when we had the Brits to keep order in the world. Since they are no longer up to the job (they have the spirit – they just lack the material and manpower) we have become the world’s policeman. It sucks. But there is a worse posibility. A world with no police.

  35. M. Simon:
    “Actually, WMDs have been tunring up regularly.”

    Provide evidence please. Links?

    “What we do have is definite evidence of WMD programs just waiting for funds to rapidly expand.”

    “WMD programs” was just an expression of the pro-war camp lowering the bar and still trying to make it sound like a credible threat. Could you imagine if the Bush administration had said, “we have to go to war because Iraq has WMD programs just waiting for funds to rapidly expand” and the American people then swallowing it?

  36. Let us do the interventions when they are easy. Because hard will involve mushroom clouds.

    Are you seriously suggesting that Iran will nuke the US if we don’t invade soon? My understanding is that Iran is seeking nukes to deter invasion, and if sentiments like yours (invade ASAP!) become more common in this country, it will only further motivate the Iranians to arm themselves.

    I’d rather let the reform process run its course.

    I realize that a hands-off approach won’t work in every country. But Iran seems to be one place where it will work.

  37. It seems to me that we should aid the opposition in Iran. Full-on invasion on our part would be a bad idea, but air support and special forces and supplying weapons to the opposition could pay big dividends.

    It appears to me that the Iranians are a little more ready for a free market republic than the Iraqis. Simply standing aside and watching it play out is dubious ethically, since we are partially responsible for the situation there, and we would benifit from a good outcome.

  38. Don-

    Standing by and doing nothing is ethically dubious if you’re confident (not the same thing as certain, since nothing is certain) that your involvement could improve the outcome or hasten a good outcome. But if there’s a very strong possibility that your involvement could hinder progress then it is ethically better to stand back.

    For instance, if US involvement with reformists made Iranians more skeptical of reformists, that would be a bad thing.

    If it created a backlash of nationalist sentiment (“Keep the foreigners out of this!”) that would be a bad thing.

    If US funding for reformists attracted some ethically dubious types who had a knack for saying whatever their US handlers want to hear in exchange for money, that would be a bad thing.

    If US-funded reformists handled their funds with all of the care and scruples of other government contractors, that would be a bad thing. It would ruin the credibility of the reform movement.

    I don’t claim to have certain odds on these possible outcomes, but we should give careful thought to these possibilities before we rush in with confidence that our involvement will help the situation.

  39. John H.,

    Actually WMDs have been tunring up regularly. The problem is that there is no 10,000 ton stockpile so there are no dramatic headlines. Just dribs and drabs.

    What we do have is definite evidence of WMD programs just waiting for funds to rapidly expand.

    So you have to ask yourself: would waiting for Iraqi WMD success have been an American failure?

  40. thoreau,

    I was expounding on American culture from the point of view of our enemies.

    Personally I’d much rather be conquered by “Bay Watch” than sharia.

    However there are people who believe “Bay Watch” is defeatable by military means. Those people will need a military counter solution. Iraq is a start.

    BTW why not liberate Iran? Don’t we owe it to the Iranian people for messing around in their political affairs in the past?

  41. I can think of a lot of reasons to not liberate Iran. One is that the process from within already seems to be underway, and the best reforms are the ones undertaken internally. Another is that the Iranians have no reason to trust the US gov’t after our interventions in the past. They may like American people and culture, but they have no reason to trust our gov’t to act in their best interests.

  42. I should elaborate: If we invade, and the Iranian people don’t trust our gov’t to act in their best interests, from their perspective they’ll have good reason to fight against us. Meddling could end up short-circuiting the reform process already going on.

    It’s easy to look in the mirror and see our wealth, our power, and the righteousness of our values. It’s easy to see these things and fool ourselves into thinking that there’s no situation in the world that can’t be improved by the involvement of the US federal gov’t. It’s harder to step back and realize that even the best government in the world can’t solve every problem, especially problems in other countries, and that some situations might sort themselves out without our active intervention. I think Iran is one of those situations.

    I won’t comment on Iraq in this post, since that dead horse has already been thoroughly flogged by many people (myself included).

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