A Sharp Point in Iraq’s ‘Pointless’ Violence

Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His latest book is "The Future of Political Islam" (Palgrave, 2003).

As Iraq descends into ever greater bloodletting -- mostly now visited by Iraqis and outsiders upon other Iraqis -- it is tempting to describe all this violence as “mindless,” a spasm of senseless nihilism. Yet, sadly, there is a fairly coherent rationale behind these ugly events and their ruthless perpetrators. And even though, fortunately, fewer Americans are dying these days, there can be no doubt that Washington itself is the sole focus of the campaign, regardless of how many Iraqis die.

From day one of the American occupation, radicals -- both secular/nationalist and Islamist -- had two strategic choices. The first was to limit their targets to U.S. forces and facilities in Iraq, making it abundantly clear that the United States is the sole overwhelming threat to Iraq and the Muslim world. The second was to attack anyone and anything that facilitated any aspect of the U.S. operation, even if it was providing benefits to the Iraqi public. Thus the United Nations and the Red Cross became valid targets, not for their services but because they furthered the broader American game plan for power in the region. In the same vein, Iraqi-staffed police and security officials became part of the American infrastructure of power and control and now are being targeted. Clearly, this second strategy has prevailed -- an astonishingly bloody-minded vision that says a lot about the current defensive state of mind of the region as a whole. But regardless of who the actual targets are, it’s clearly a message being directed at the United States.

The bolder the scope of the U.S. master plan -- quite bluntly described by top U.S. policymakers as a bid to “remake the face of the Middle East” -- the harsher the response from the radicals. It makes no difference to them whether innocent Iraqi civilians pay the ultimate price for associating with the U.S. The whole point is to make sure that the U.S. learns that such interventionist projects are flights of dangerous folly. Radicals seek to drive home the point that Americans should never contemplate for even a moment the ambition of visiting American military force against the Muslim world ever again. If Iraq has to twist in the wind in tortured chaos for a year, so be it if that is what it takes to ensure that the U.S. will be permanently traumatized by messing with Islam.


Sadly, this entire rationale and state of mind may now be taking root across the region. If this happens, the radicals will have won a truly major victory. In their calculus, the price paid by a few thousand sad victims might be relatively modest if the long-range result is to crimp any future American plans for invasion and occupation of Muslim lands anywhere. What bigger victory could the radicals hope for? How many in the West, especially in the U.S., will be eager for a reprise of the Iraq experience?

Once the United States is deterred from its efforts to control the region, then Muslims can set about dealing with their own regimes and building their own future. But in the radical view, the building phase can come only after the region is cleansed of foreign power, whatever the attendant human costs.

Vicious and bloody-minded, yes, but this vision is hardly nihilistic. It represents a radical reading of the course of contemporary history in the Middle East. It helps turn fashionable debate over a “clash of civilizations” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Few if any Muslims wish to perpetuate a Pax Americana in the region, even if they deplore the violence of Iraqis upon Iraqis. And even though discomfited by the ugliness of such radical tactics, nearly everyone understands the rationale for rejection of the invader. Sadly, Muslims don’t have to be terrorists to have some sympathy for keeping the U.S. out of their face, even if they flinch at the cost.

Intuitive Muslim understanding of this rationale is why it will be hard to get very many Iraqis, or even others in the region, to sincerely root for the success of the U.S. project in Iraq, however benign or constructive it might seem to Americans. This is classic rejectionism: no to anything imported from the United States -- not because the product is all bad but because the intentions of the bearer are deeply suspect.

Most Iraqis will wish that this particular lesson was not being written in their own society and cities, but they sense in their bones how and why this is happening and what the very long-range implications are. And they don’t feel they have the power to stop the violence, at least right now.