In Iraq, we have been losing not clashes of arms but clashes of perceptions. Our enemies understood early on that they could not defeat American troops in combat. But they were clever enough to realize they didn’t need to. Instead, they could win a war of ideas.
Their strategy was audacious: They would target their enemies--“occupiers,” “infidels” and “collaborators” -- only opportunistically and sporadically. Their most lethal weapon, the suicide-bomber, they would deploy against ordinary Iraqis shopping in the market, waiting on line for jobs, sitting in cafes.
One might have expected the fabled “Arab Street” to erupt over the slaughter of fellow Arabs. It did not do so. Muslims around the world ought to have been furious over seeing their co-religionists killed in cold blood. They were not.
Nor were Europeans outraged at the mass murder of innocents. On the contrary, many expressed something close to admiration for what they persisted in calling the “Resistance.”
The media, for their part, were not diligent in reporting on the affiliations, motives and strategies of the killers – whom they referred to as “insurgents” or “militants” or something equally non-judgmental. They talked about “the violence,” and the “security situation”– as though the cause of the bloodshed was not specific individuals, groups and regimes but a force of nature, like a hurricane or a tornado.
The White House, the Pentagon and the State Department allowed this spin to go almost unchallenged – and eventually to become the dominant “narrative.” What could they have done instead? They could have made the truthful case – forcefully and relentlessly -- that ruthless fanatics were intentionally killing innocent Iraqis; that civilized people do not excuse such barbarism, no matter the cause or grievance; that principled people fight and defeat it.
On a BBC radio show, an interviewer asked if I agreed that the situation in Iraq was dire: I said I thought it was: Iraqi non-combatants -- men, women and children -- are being murdered by the score. So surely, I added, the one thing we must not do is turn the country over to those dispatching the killers.
Startled, he suggested that the presence of Americans was responsible for the violence. I asked him to be more precise: Is it the sight of Americans that causes people to kill one another? Or is it perhaps our smell?