By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The New York Times
July 3, 2004
If President Bush wants to rescue his Iraqi adventure, here's a suggestion: Spend less time with C.I.A. sycophants like George Tenet and more time watching Al Jazeera television.
The Bush administration's central intelligence failure was not that it failed to tap enough telephones. Rather, it didn't bother to understand the mind-set in Iraq or the larger Arab world and it still doesn't.
The transfer of sovereignty is a useful moment to look back at what went so wrong in Iraq. As I see it, the root problem was hubris born in a Washington echo chamber, and a resulting conviction that Iraqis would welcome us with flowers.
When I visited Iraq in the run-up to the war, I met another foreigner by the pool of the Rasheed Hotel, where we hoped our conversation couldn't be bugged, and we spoke of our bafflement. Senior U.S. officials seemed genuinely convinced that our invading troops would be hailed as heroes, while ordinary Iraqis often talked about fighting U.S. troops with guns, grenades and suicide bombs. Iraqis typically hated Saddam, but also hated the idea of an invasion.
But the neocons refused to hear it. From their Washington and New York cocoons, they insisted that ordinary Iraqis welcomed an invasion. Ahmad Chalabi had told them so. Or they read it in The Weekly Standard.
They even mangled the country's name Mr. Bush called it Eye-rack yet they bet American lives that all would go well. That's "the arrogance of power," as Senator William Fulbright termed it when Democrats made similar blunders in Vietnam. (An excerpt is at www.nytimes.com /kristofresponds, Posting 505.)
Such arrogance has a long and sad lineage. The Wolfowitz of World War I was Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander who launched an offensive that cost the British 420,000 casualties. "It naturally pleased Haig to have carefully chosen and nicely cooked little tidbits of `intelligence' about broken German divisions, heavy German casualties and diminishing German morale served up to him every day and all day," Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote. "He beamed satisfaction and confidence. His great plan was prospering. The whole atmosphere of this secluded little community reeked of that sycophantic optimism."
"We know that Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again," Don Rumsfeld complained during the war. "What they do is, when there's a bomb that goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. . . . We are dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case and to the extent people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibility."
The gulf between the American and Arab realities is the subject of "Control Room," a powerful documentary by Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian-American. She looks at Al Jazeera's coverage of the war, offering a sobering reminder that there are multiple ways of perceiving the same events.
President Bush's narrative for the war was: "Altruistic Americans risk their lives to topple evil dictator and establish democracy and human rights." The Arab narrative was: "The same Yankees who pay for Israelis to blow up Palestinians are now seizing Iraqi oil fields and maiming Iraqi women and children."
I'm not a big fan of Al Jazeera, which tends to be emotional and nationalistic. As U.S. Lt. Josh Rushing astutely notes in "Control Room," Al Jazeera is the Arab version of the Fox News Channel: "It benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason American nationalism because that's their demographic audience and that's what they want to see."
If the Arab world is going to break out of its self-pitying self-absorption, it's going to have to understand American attitudes and it could do worse than switching its televisions from Al Jazeera to Fox. And if the Bush administration is going to turn Iraq around and engage the Arab world effectively, then it must try harder to escape the echo chamber and understand the Arabs and it could do worse than switching from the reassuring euphony of Fox to Al Jazeera.
Mr. Bush might even pledge that from now on, he won't invade a country before learning how to pronounce its name.