In Iraq, Talk Tough and Carry a Big Stick

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

During the major combat phase of the Iraq war, which concluded last year, one important corner of the country escaped the ravages of battle: Fallouja. The Army entered Baghdad from the southwest and the Marines from the southeast. In the north, peshmerga fighters and special forces took the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. In the western desert, Army Rangers sought phantom weapons of mass destruction. But with no Republican Guard division stationed nearby, the sprawling western suburb of Fallouja was largely spared -- even from the postwar frenzy of looting that devastated other parts of the country.

When occupiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Fallouja, they were stretched thin, with responsibility not just for the Fallouja-Ramadi corridor, which is home to more than 1 million Iraqis, but also for the entire western third of the country. And why were they stretched so thin? Because the U.S. completely misread Iraqi society.

Mistake No. 1 was not understanding the societal importance of force. Mistake No. 2 was not understanding the societal importance of pride.

The U.S. expected that once Saddam Hussein was defeated, the need for force would simply fade away. This was a war against a dictator and his cronies, the reasoning went, not against the Iraqi people. So once the bad guys were removed from power, the rest of the Iraqis would pull together with those who had ousted Hussein to form an enlightened and democratic society.


But things don’t work that way in Iraq. As far back as memory extends for most Iraqis, the spoils (and the power) have gone to the tough. Brutality -- and the fear it inspires -- have been the central organizing principal of Iraqi society. That can’t just be turned off overnight.

In a place like Fallouja, which never felt itself to have been “conquered” during the war, it was only a matter of time before the hands-off and “soft power” American approach to peacekeeping would be viewed as a sign of weakness.

In Washington, where I spent last week talking with military types, there was widespread frustration about the situation in Iraq. Our troops today are expected to do it all, and in large measure they succeed. They are unmatched on the battlefield, and increasingly skilled at peacekeeping and “stability operations.” One of the strengths of our forces is their inherent humanity and absence of brutality. But in Iraq, that doesn’t seem to be enough.

It’s no wonder that a lot of soldiers -- and many of their commanders too -- yearn for a clearer definition of their role. On the battlefield, however awful things get, there is enormous clarity. The purpose is unequivocal and the enemy obvious.

Ironically, some Iraqis also seem to long for the clarity of war. The people of Fallouja weren’t physically defeated and haven’t been made to pay for their support of the old regime. If you haven’t been defeated, and the occupiers seem to want to be friends and to “rebuild,” it is no wonder that those who were deprived of the power they once wielded have slowly gained the confidence to retake the offensive -- and their country.

The U.S. assumed its offer of peace and hope would be accepted as an act of kindness. But it was tendered to an Iraqi population that has been fighting brutal wars for more than 20 years -- in Iran, in Kuwait and within its own borders. Iraq is a country filled with men who have not only lived with but embraced violence.

The president insisted last week that what is happening in Iraq is “not a popular uprising.” The latest conventional wisdom on Iraq is that the U.S. will have a hard time winning hearts and minds after so many casualties and so much destruction. This is wrong. It’s not that there has been too much force -- that is something Iraqis understand.

In its absence, in places like Fallouja, a certain type of Iraqi pride has gone unchecked. And that is the second thing America has ignored at its peril.

The Iraq I got to know during the years following the 1991 Persian Gulf War was an enormously proud country. It was a nation able to overlook its own contradictions and flaws, a place where intense nationalism allowed people to at once loathe and respect Hussein. Throughout Iraq, and not just in the Sunni Triangle, people took pride in Hussein’s grand design. Iraq’s healthcare systems, schools and socialist infrastructure were unique in the Arab world. Then as now, Iraqis were united in their pride: Their country was the one Arab nation that really stood up to the United States.

If some Iraqis have rallied around Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, it is because he is not George W. Bush, not L. Paul Bremer III, not some American lackey on the Governing Council. And the U.S. needs to understand this if it is to find a way out of the current dilemma.

In the short term, force may be necessary, because it is what Iraqis understand. But in the long term, Iraqis need an Iraqi leader. For now, many seem to be looking for any leader willing to stand up to the occupation -- as Iraq, in their perception, once proudly stood up to the world. Sadr taps into all sorts of resentments and fills a vacuum. He is a homegrown leader like Saddam Hussein, a familiar leader who understands force and pride.

The U.S. can probably subdue Fallouja and dislodge Sadr, but it can’t truly win the war in Iraq by doing so. The limitation of the American approach is that, as long as no genuine Iraqi leader emerges to lead, there will be no shortage of Sadrs promising the Iraqis what they know best: continued conflict.