Monday, April 19, 2004

Mainstreet Iraq 2

Ron Harris's dispatch on Marines fighting at Al-Qaim, near the Syrian border is a good point of departure to discuss the political and cultural aspects of the war in Iraq because it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign so far. From the military point of view American performance has been incomparable. But its political and cultural aspects have been strangely stunted. Part of the problem arises from an American reluctance to wage war on the political and cultural institutions of another society.

The US military dominance of the battlefield and its ability to suppress the activities of criminal gangs has meaning only if it creates the necessary space to peaceably alter the dysfunctional aspects of Middle Eastern society which are the wellsprings of terrorism. What is the use of American military superiority if it simply provides an opportunity for Al Jazeera to spread its propaganda via the newly licit satellite dishes? The normal metrics of military success should also have their cultural analogues. The GWOT cannot be considered won until 90% of the viewership in the Middle East watches something other than Al Jazeera. The campaign in Iraq cannot be considered a success until Baghdad becomes the cultural capital of the Arab world, producing not less than 200 Arabic films a year: comedies, family dramas, stories of Arab boys who have triumphed over adversity to become doctors, scientists and explorers in outer space. Until the day when an Iraqi boy looks at an aircraft and dreams of flying to the moon instead of turning it into a 150 ton bomb the war will not be won. It must be our goal to create a system of education which would make attendance at a madrassa a stultifying experience by comparison: dreaded as a dark place of bad food,  harsh punishments and ignorant men. One of our objects must be to create a situation where a degree at the Al-Azhar Islamic university has as much relative value as a correspondence certificate from the Maharishi University. We must work for the day when the Jihadi ninja suit becomes the working attire of a carnival clown.

And the Marines cannot do this with their rifles or valor alone. The problem, as the Belmont Club has pointed out repeatedly, is the exact opposite of that posited by the Press. It is not the soldiers but the cultural force of the nation that is missing in action. We on the home front have let our soldiers down. It is a disgrace that initiatives such as Spirit of America are forthcoming only after a year into the campaign. It is nothing less than scandalous that al-Hurrah, a coalition television station, is only now taking the airwaves. Historians of the future will wonder how a cultural elite, paid on scales unseen before, could have sent 20 year old boys into battle before settling into sofas and jeering them from afar.

In truth, what US soldiers and Marines have accomplished at Qaim, a border town steeped in lawlessness and depravity, is nothing short of miracle. The fact that in recent engagements, they were alerted to danger by the behavior of the inhabitants and have been approached, however timidly, by the people with whom they cannot even converse is astounding in itself.

Although the military conflict will be won the ground, political victory in Iraq will be won on the American front. Many tens of thousands of Americans must be trained to speak Arabic and to understand the cultural terrain of the Middle East better than the inhabitants know it themselves. Only then can the business, personal and scientific relationships which are the true foundation of nation building take place. And on that day the power of the nation will stride forth to the aid of their sons who have served so long and with such little thanks.