February 06, 2005

Iraq Perceptions: A Deemphasized American Influence

Through 22 months of occupation and war here, the word "America" was usually the first word to pass through the lips of an Iraqi with a gripe.

Why can't the Americans produce enough electricity? Why can't the Americans guarantee security? Why can't the Americans find my stolen car?

Last week, as the euphoria of nationwide elections washed over this country, a remarkable thing happened: Iraqis, by and large, stopped talking about the Americans.

With the ballots still being counted here, the Iraqi candidates retired to the back rooms to cut political deals, leaving the Americans, for the first time, standing outside. In Baghdad's tea shops and on its street corners, the talk turned to which of those candidates might form the new government, to their schemes and stratagems, and to Iraqi problems and Iraqi solutions.

That's exactly the point, isn't it?

Meanwhile, 'Nam is springing to mind again!

It's now a week since Iraqis flooded the streets for their first free election in decades, and America, midwife to the birth of Arab democracy, is still in relieved thrall. Sunni clerics urged boycotts; the French dripped ridicule; terrorists promised to wash the streets with the blood of anyone foolish enough to cast a ballot. And 6 in 10 eligible Iraqis - roughly equal to the turnout in President Bush's own victory last November - voted anyway.

Honestly, has there ever been an election so inspiring?

Unfortunately, yes. Ponder the first sentences of one dispatch from this newspaper's archives: "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election," it reads, "despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong."

That appeared in September 1967. Last week, Mr. Bush proclaimed that Iraq tests "our generational commitment to the advance of freedom." In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson's State of the Union proclaimed a test of American will to "keep alive the hope of independence and stability for people other than ourselves."

Posted by Gregory at February 6, 2005 01:15 AM | TrackBack (10)
That appeared in September 1967. Last week, Mr. Bush proclaimed that Iraq tests "our generational commitment to the advance of freedom." In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson's State of the Union proclaimed a test of American will to "keep alive the hope of independence and stability for people other than ourselves."

What the people who find such comfort in this do not seem to understand is that it is freely acknowledged that we failed that test in 1967, and that we are therefore more determined than ever to not fail it today.

Ironically, they're the same people who caused us to fail it in 1967.

Posted by: Brian Jones at February 7, 2005 03:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Please elaborate on who "the same people" are and how they "caused" failure in 1967.

Posted by: Guy at February 7, 2005 04:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Guy --

John F. Kerry and Edward Kennedy for two.

CBS television (Walter Cronkite) for another.

As to 'how' they managed the disaster, you have not been paying attention for the last 20 years or so.

It is long past time you did your homework. So far you get an F.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at February 7, 2005 09:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Without getting into a debate of dubious value over who lost Vietnam, I think it's worth noting that the analogy being drawn between the Vietnamese and Iraqi elections hinges on two ideas: that the insurgency in question has massive popular support and that the elected government does not. It's probably more useful to try to debunk the Iraqi half of the equation doesn't hold than the Vietnamese half.

Posted by: Guy at February 7, 2005 10:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

With all due respect, the two situations are not parallel.

Note that Khanh had staged a coup in 1965, but Quat staged another after 3 weeks. then 4 months later Ky and Thieu took over, the 10th government in 20 months. Over the next year friction increased between buddhists and catholics, with some battles between catholic and buddhist ARVN units. Johnson told Ky and Thieu to have elections, and in 6 months or so they did. 80% of the eligible voters voted. Thieu won with 35% of the vote. In the next election Thieu was unopposed.

The vietnam elections didn't actually mean much, because they were for a puppet government that was utterly dependent on the USA. Their policies were made by us. So it didn't much matter who won the elections.

But in iraq the elections might be real. They might not be a puppet government at all. If they prove it by throwing us out and by running things without our help, and then having new elections, then it will turn out the elections were a real turning point.

It's only if they let us keep making the decisions that the elections will look like an unimportant sham.

Time will tell. This election might turn out to be far more important than the vietnamese election of 1967.

Posted by: J Thomas at February 8, 2005 04:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It looks like we're going to start finding out the answers to J Thomas's questions fairly soon -- by current count Sistani's slate will probably gather a majority of the seats in the assembly. Those guys probably don't want us to leave immediately, but they'd like to get occupation forces out of there as soon as possible.

Posted by: Guy at February 8, 2005 09:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Are you sure about that? Saying "We'll throw the Americans out as soon as we get power" was a great way to build up one's electoral slate. But as the election neared, many Iraqis backed away from such unrealistic claims. What if recent US administration statements that it'll take years to build up sufficient Iraqi security forces are on target? Do you think these guys want to risk going it on their own?

Posted by: Jon Marcus at February 9, 2005 10:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think they're trying to balance two opposing forces -- the need to provide internal and external security, and the unpopularity of the occupation (which to some degree undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government). As long as the first force predominates, then they'll let the American forces stick around. But as Iraqi forces get stronger, the insurgency weakens and/or various pressures to end the occupation mounts, the balance will sway in the other direction. So it could be on the short end of "years".

Posted by: Guy at February 10, 2005 02:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think those are the two forces they're trying to balance.

The occupation provides absolutely no security to iraqis. Innocent iraqis get killed at occupation checkpoints, they get killed in occupation raids and airstrikes, they get kidnapped by occupation targetted strikes. The main way the occupation makes things safer for innocent iraqis is by preventing the insurgency from going to stage 3. That is, whenever the insurgents make a big point of taking another city we can destroy another city like Fallujah.

We prevent the insurgents from building up to a conventional army that crushes the untrained iraqi army and takes Baghdad. If we trained the iraqi army to call in airstrikes we could do that mostly without ground troops, except that we prefer to have airbases in iraq near the hotspots, and so we need ground troops to protect the bases and to protect the supply convoys going to the bases.

But we do essentially nothing to stop the insurgents from killing any iraqi they want to kill. We are pretty much useless at improving security. And our presence is the central rallying cry for the insurgents.

I think the two opposing forces that iraqi politicians have to balance is the iraqi desire to get rid of us, versus our desire to stay there.

They have the example of Al Sadr. He said US forces out of iraq. We put out a warrant for his arrest and said we'd "kill or capture" him. We specificly said he couldn't run for office. We have captured or killed a number of his closest friends and supporters. We attempted to kill his whole movement, risking the shia's holiest shrines to do it. With Al Sadr we announced what we were doing -- if another politician keeps asking for us to go after we warn him not to, whyever would he think that "insurgents" wouldn't kill him pretty soon?

That was how Saddam treated them. Why would they think we're different?

Do you think we're different about that?

Posted by: J Thomas at February 10, 2005 03:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Can not really say either way. If we leave Iraq what then . Will islamic extremist take over.

Some people do not want to put effort into making country work.

Many examples world wide they just want to live not work to make country better or democratic. It is hard for us to belive but most third world countries most people are just trying to survive.

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Posted by: jeff at February 10, 2005 10:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We will be in Iraq for Years.

Just like Korea we will always have to have soldiers to protect are little project over in the Middle east.

Younger generation hates us in Korea figure that one out.

Really do not see any way out the iraq police will never be up to strength and why not use are soldiers and not pay for it.

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Posted by: keith at February 10, 2005 10:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"and our presence is the central rallying cry for the insurgents."JThomas

It's shame that such a bright person would be so badly mis-informed.

The rallying cry for the Saddamite insurgents is to regain power. America will stay until Iraqis can suppress those forces on their own and not a day longer.

Posted by: Terry Gain at February 12, 2005 10:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Terry, I'm sure there are Ba'athist insurgents whose central goal is to regain power. But I'm also reasonably sure that the one thing all the insurgents can agree on is that they don't want foreign soldiers in iraq.

Kind of like most of the world believes that the USA invaded iraq for the oil, but our rallying cry was clearly the WMDs. You believe the insurgents are doing it to bring the Ba'ath back to power, but their rallying cry is the US military.

Of course we say we're there to get rid of them, while they say they're there to get rid of us. And the two sides play cowboys and indians with live ammo and innocent civilians get killed by both sides.

Posted by: J Thomas at February 13, 2005 01:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yeah, it's too bad the Vietnamese people lost the Viet Nam war. The Vietnamese people are in a worst situation today, than had America succeeded. They're still waiting for the opportunity to elect their government.

America succeeded in Japan, South Korea (compare them to the North), Taiwan, allied with the Thais, the Brits won in Malaysia and ran Hong Kong. Compare their histories post-WWII to where we failed: Laos, Viet Nam, China.

Would you rather have been born in Taiwan or South Vietnam? North or South Korea? Thailand or Laos? The big picture is that American success is good for ordinary people. This applies to today in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.

I was watching C-SPAN this morning and callers commented on the question 'Can America and Europe find common ground?' For every Democrat caller, it was America's fault. America is wrong, arrogant, the President is a liar, the elections in Iraq were great BUT..., Americans are uninformed, Europeans are more nuanced.

This is the number one problem for the Democrats, the do not love this country, they think America is fundamentally wrong, evil if you want to go even farther left for excitement. You cannot win a majority of Americans to vote for the idea that the world would be better, if only America stayed out. Where's FDR, Truman and even LBJ today?

Posted by: Jabba the Tutt at February 20, 2005 01:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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