The role of Iraqi dignity

Posted in Iraq , Broader Middle East , United States | 12-Nov-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - If President George W. Bush wants to get a better handle on the problems he's facing in Iraq and the West Bank, I suggest he study the speech made Oct. 16 by Malaysia's departing prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, to a conclave of Muslim leaders. Most of that speech was a brutally frank look into the causes of the Muslim world's decline. Though it was also laced with shameful anti-Jewish slurs, it was still revealing. Five times he referred to Muslims as humiliated. If I've learned one thing covering world affairs, it's this: The single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation.

"I will not enumerate the instances of our humiliation," Mahathir said. "We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated. ... Today we, the whole Muslim [community], are treated with contempt and dishonor. ... There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people. They feel that they can do nothing right." He added: "Our only reaction is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think properly."

One reason Yasser Arafat rejected Bill Clinton's plan for a Palestinian state was that he and many followers didn't want a state handed to them by the United States or Israel. That would be humiliating. They wanted to win it in blood and fire. Hezbollah TV had bombarded Palestinians with images of the Lebanese driving the Israelis out. Palestinian militants wanted the "dignity" of doing the same.

Always remember, the Arab-Israeli conflict is about both borders and Nobel Prizes. It's about where the dividing line should be, and it's about the humiliation that comes from one side succeeding at modernity and the other not. As Mahathir said in his speech, "We sacrifice lives unnecessarily, achieving nothing other than to attract more massive retaliation and humiliation. [But] we are up against a people who think. [The Jews] survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. ... We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also."

Which is why the Palestinians need both their own state and a new leadership able to build their dignity on achievements, not resistance.

It is the same for Iraq. Why have the U.S. forces never gotten the ovation they expected for liberating Iraq from Saddam? In part, because many Iraqis feel humiliated that they didn't liberate themselves, and America's presence, even its aid, reminds them of that. Add the daily slights and miscommunications that come with any occupation, and even the best-intended liberators will wear out their welcome. I was with my Iraqi translator one day in Baghdad, trying to enter the office of the Governing Council. The American private security guard at the door ordered me to shut my mouth until I was told to speak. Then he told my translator to sit in the searing heat while he escorted me, the American, inside to see if the Iraqi leader we were seeing was available. Both of us felt like punching that guard in the face.

"Iraq is full of angry men," Mustafa Alrawi, managing editor of Iraq Today, wrote in Beirut's Daily Star. "For example, in the area unfairly labeled as the 'Sunni triangle,' the population was badly hurt by the decision to disband the army and the policy of de-Baathification. ... Thousands of men, many of whom took pride in their rank and status, were left bewildered and confused. It must be remembered that the army ... did not fight the U.S. invasion, effectively giving their stamp of approval to the plan to topple Saddam Hussein. They have wounded pride to restore. Entire tribes feel embarrassed that they supported the invasion, only to be left out in the cold by the coalition's myopic vision of how Iraq should be run."

Never, ever underestimate a people's pride, no matter how broken they might be. It is very easy for Iraqis to hate Saddam and resent America for overstaying. Tap into people's dignity and they will do anything for you. Ignore it, and they won't lift a finger. Which is why a Pakistani friend tells me that what the United States needs most in Iraq is a strategy of "dehumiliation and redignification."

Americans will foster a decent government in Iraq only if every day they turn a little more power over to Iraqis and create the economic conditions where Iraqis can be successful. The more the United States empowers Iraqis, the less humiliated they will feel, the more time there will be to help them and the less they will need the help.