Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Although Thomas Friedman's ideas are usually shallow and foolish, they often expose, in instructive ways, the vicissitudes of the "conventional wisdom" in American foreign policy circles. An example is his column about the differences between the Iraqi resistance to American occupation and the Vietcong's resistance to American troops during the Vietnam war. Says Friedman:
The people who mounted the attacks on the Red Cross are not the Iraqi Vietcong. They are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge — a murderous band of Saddam loyalists and Al Qaeda nihilists, who are not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis.....A vast majority of Iraqis would reject them, because these bombers either want to restore Baathism or install bin Ladenism.
Now perhaps in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam war, when information sources were conflicting and difficult to assess, such a reading of history might have been excusable as a preliminary assessment. But in 2003, it is simply embarrassing to read Friedman implying that the Vietcong--a fully controlled arm of the North Vietnamese army--were somehow polar opposites to their Khmer Rouge allies, or particularly popular in the South, or fighting so that Vietnamese could "rule themselves".

Of course, Friedman isn't really interested in the truth about the Vietcong--to him, the Vietcong are more important as characters in an abstract morality play than as a real, live historical guerrilla/terrorist organization. The storyline of the play is always the same: a ragtag collection of rebels fighting for freedom against an evil oppressor ultimately win by rallying popular support to their side, winning the people's "hearts and minds". What Friedman is saying about Iraq is not that this plot doesn't apply, but merely that the plucky rebels are the Americans and their allies, not the remaining opposition.

The problem with this script is that it's based on three false assumptions:

  • That the "hearts and minds" of a national population are ever united in supporting a particular political faction. I've already dealt with this fallacy.

  • That "hearts and minds" are won through displays of kindness, fairness and generosity. As I've mentioned before, even the nicest group of soldiers in the world quickly wears out its welcome in a foreign land, simply by being foreign and military. Political support is based on much more than just individual or group conduct.

  • That winning "hearts and minds" is the (only) route to victory. How long would Saddam Hussein--or any of the current governments in the Middle East, for that matter--have lasted if that premise were correct? In practice, political factions win power through a combination of public acceptance, loyalty from a core segment of supporters, and physical intimidation.

  • These three misconceptions, taken together, lead to a long-established pattern of Western misunderstanding of foreign civil conflicts: a faction of power-hungry fanatics gains control of some area through sheer ruthlessness, then claims to have won the "hearts and minds" of the area's cowed populace. Western observers either take this claim at face value, or else attempt to challenge it by being kinder and gentler than the fanatics--in which case, the tactic fails, and the observers conclude that the ruthless fanatics must, indeed, have won the "hearts and minds" battle. The entire West then abandons the region to suffer under the pitiless reign of the fanatics.

    We can only hope that the same dynamic doesn't once again play itself out in Iraq.

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