New York Times
July 2, 2005
President Bush has the bully pulpit, but Saddam Hussein has the hot novel. Bootleg copies of his latest work are selling briskly in the Middle East, and not just because of the free publicity he got when Jordan banned it this week. Say what you will about Saddam, he knows his audience.
The critics have not been kind to the prose and the plot, but they miss Saddam's strength. He's a marketer. He is said to have finished the novel just as the war was beginning, when American leaders were fantasizing about their troops' being welcomed as liberators. But Saddam knew enough to give his novel a surefire title for the post-invasion era: "Get Out, You Damned One."
It's a naked appeal to xenophobia, an impulse that's far more ancient and widespread than the yearning for democracy that President Bush talked about this week. Yet it's been curiously underestimated by conservatives who used to pay close attention to just this sort of instinct.
When liberal intellectuals dreamed of a socialist world with a selfless "New Man," conservatives realized that he'd be as greedy as ever. When some feminists envisioned the end of gender stereotypes, conservatives insisted there were ingrained differences between the sexes. Yet when American troops met resistance after the war, conservatives dismissed the early insurgents as "dead-enders" and expected Iraqis to join Americans in quickly vanquishing the thugs.
In those early days, when the memory of Saddam was still fresh, you could walk down a street in Baghdad and be greeted by an Iraqi stranger thanking you for bringing freedom. But even back then there were plenty of Iraqis like Saleh Youssef Sayel, who proudly told me of the reaction of his 5-year-old son, Mustafa, to an American soldier.
"The soldier tried to shake his hand, but my son refused," he said. "He knew enough English to say, 'No. You go.' Later he told me he wanted a gun to kill Americans. This is a natural feeling. Nobody wants a stranger in your house or your country."
The natural impulse to dislike outsiders is so strong that it barely matters who the outsiders are.
When experimental psychologists divide subjects into purely arbitrary groups - by the color of their eyes, their taste in art, the flip of a coin - the members of a group quickly become so hostile to the other group that they'll try to deny rewards to the outsiders even at a cost to themselves.
And when the members of a group really have something in common, like family ties, they're willing to fight outsiders even if it means their own deaths. Xenophobia produced genetic rewards for hunter-gatherer clans. When the evolutionary psychologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked whether he would lay down his life for his brother, he replied, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."
Iraqis have their own version of that line: "My brother and I against my cousin; my cousin and I against the world."
Because marriage between cousins is so common in the Middle East - half of Iraqis are married to their first or second cousins - Arabs live in tightly knit clans long resistant to outsiders, including would-be liberators. T. E. Lawrence learned that lesson when trying to unify Arabs early in the last century.
"The Semites' idea of nationality," he wrote, "was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive policies, an organized state, an extended empire, were not so much beyond their sight as hateful in it. They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it."
Today's liberators in Iraq like to attribute the resistance to Islamic fascists' fear of democracy and hatred of the West. But those fascists know that an abstract critique of Western ideology isn't enough to attract followers. In their appeals they constantly invoke the need to expel foreigners from their soil, a battle cry that is the great common denominator of suicide bombers around the world.
Maybe, as President Bush hopes, Americans can stay long enough in the Middle East to jump-start democracy and reduce the long-term risk of terrorism. But in the meantime, they're bound to face resistance, no matter how noble their intentions.
During the Civil War, Union soldiers were amazed to see poor Southerners without any stake in the slavery system defending it in suicidal charges. But there was a simple explanation, as a barefoot, emaciated Confederate captive famously put it when a Union soldier asked him why he kept fighting: "Because you're here."