The Nation's Pulse

All Heart

Winning hearts and minds begins at home.

By 6.23.06

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So much for our "special relationship." Results from a new Pew Research poll show that British support for the War on Terror has dropped from 63 percent in 2004 to 49 percent. That's not the War in Iraq, folks, but the War on Terror. More than half of Brits believe fighting terrorism has made the world more dangerous. Not for the terrorists, mind you, but for the British (though admittedly sometimes the two are one and the same). Apparently the world is made more dangerous by seizing the Canada 17 before they can behead the Canadian Prime Minister. And capturing Saddam. And killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Did you know that U.S. troops in Iraq are a bigger threat to Middle East stability than the nuke-seeking Iranian mullahs? That, at least, is the opinion of the majority of America's so-called allies in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Russia. The Pew poll also reported that fewer than a third of the people in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey have a favorable view of the U.S. It's enough to make you want to grab your ball and go home.

Only it is not the U.S. acting like spoiled little brats. It is the rest of the world. Sure, nobody likes being the 90 lbs. weakling, constantly getting Arabian sand kicked in his face by the bully Saddam or Mullah Omar. Nor is one particularly pleased when Uncle Sam steps in and knocks the crap out of bully and gets the girl. Naturally the weakling is going to be resentful. In the Middle East that resentment takes the melodious form of chants of "Death to America!" In Europe it's forcing the U.S. to go it alone, and then complaining about the U.S. always going it alone.

Perhaps we're just not getting our message out. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan the Pentagon has employed a combined strategy of hard power (draining the swamp) and soft power (hearts and minds). The military has had a good deal of success killing the bad guys, but minimal success with its P.R. offensive. The fact is hearts and minds, as a military strategy, has never worked for the U.S. It was first employed in Vietnam. I need not remind you to what effect.

And it has proven a great deal harder to win Iraqi hearts. First, Iraqis, like all people who have long suffered under a dictator, are immune to propaganda. Second, 30 years of anti-U.S. rhetoric will hardly be erased by a few pro-American stories planted in Arab media, or Bush and Blair broadcasts from a flying TV station. Third, most Iraqis suspect the real aim of the U.S. and its allies is first and foremost acquiring Iraqi oil. And last, post-invasion charm offensives simply don't work. There is too much suspicion, too many hard feelings. It's like the old saying: "How can we miss you if you won't leave?"

Part of the difficulty is how Americans see the Iraqis. The U.S. doesn't regard the Iraqis so much as a conquered enemy, as victims and allies. The problem is most Iraqis don't see themselves as America's ally, but its bitter enemy. And not a defeated enemy either. Why should they? The eternal jihad is still being waged. Unlike most defeats there were no reparations to pay, no territory lost, no peasants uprooted from their homes. No guilt at all. Just a lingering bitterness.

AT FIRST BLUSH, THE selling of Hearts and Minds seems like a no-brainer. After all, the U.S. does not invade countries to occupy territory, but only to free a people from a cruel, murderous dictatorship, if and when U.S. interests are at stake. Most Iraqis, save the Sunnis, were delighted to be rid of Saddam, but didn't regard the invasion as liberation, so much as an assault upon Iraqi honor. Most hoped the U.S. would immediately pull out (even before Saddam was apprehended). Once Saddam and his sons were captured or killed the Iraqis again announced that it was time for coalition forces to go. Of course, if the troops had gone the country now would be embroiled in an even bloodier civil war, Turkey and Iran may have entered the fray, and worst case, a living and breathing Zarqawi would be running the show.

What's more, the U.S. charm offensive has been no match for a sizable and hostile Arab press against whom the non-Arabic-speaking Americans are at a distinct disadvantage. Iraq is no Vietnam, where mostly everyone was an illiterate peasant and televisions were as plentiful as hen's teeth. Iraqis are plugged into satellites and Online newspapers which revel in showing gory, uncensored images. According to Cambridge University's Makram Khoury-Machool, not a single Arab newspaper favored U.S. intervention, and the hostility of the press has only increased as the occupation drags on. "They have been united in conveying the message that the coalition consists of 'invaders,'" Khoury-Machool writes, "and in representing the Iraqi people as an aggressed Arab nation alongside the Palestinians: occupied, humiliated and suffering under siege." Arab commentators have a near monopoly in which to push their views that coalition spokesmen, be they military or political, are professional liars and spin monkeys, and the occupation illegitimate. As Arab television journalist Hisham Diwani told his live audience: "As an Arab journalist...you cannot stay aloof and not condemn the actions of the occupation. This is your role as a journalist: it gives the occupying coalition forces no hope of winning the Iraqis' hearts and minds."

Dr. Khoury-Machool concludes his essay "Losing the Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds" with this bit of intel: "In this war, it is the suffering Iraqis who have gained possession of the overwhelming majority of Arab hearts and minds." That about says it all. The fact is the U.S. has a hard time winning the hearts and minds of Frenchmen, Canadians, Germans and South Americans. It seems odd to think a few Pentagon flaks could win the love of millions of Arabs. Some have proposed the U.S. double the size of the State Department, and reconstitute the United States Information Agency as a separate entity. Or that the U.S. triple its overseas aid. Maybe hire a P.R. firm for an image makeover with Arab- appeal. This strikes me as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For now the U.S. should concentrate on draining the swamp, and leave the courting for later.

I take that back. Hearts and Minds did work once. John Adams, who coined the phrase, said the American Revolution was won not on the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of the American people. That's a good place to start. If President Bush wants to win this war, he'd do well to first win over the American people. Right now, with nearly half of the population convinced the war is a mistake, W. has a lot of courting to do.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.