The culture gaff

Little else has irked me more than the cultural faux pas committed repeatedly by the Bush Administration and in the reporting and conduct of the war against Iraq. I should like to point out four examples of such cultural chinks, as it were, in the American armor.

The war is not against Islam. Ever since President Bush uttered the word “crusade” to describe America's resolve in combating terrorism, the apologists for moral relativism have gone to great length to stress that the war against terror and against Saddam Hussein's regime is not a war against Islam.

On one of Boston's TV stations one often sees the reporting of the news about the war preceded by the image of the American flag waving above the Iraqi flag. The Arabic inscription in the middle of the Iraqi flag, allah akbar, means “God is Great,” and it is a Moslem religious call as well as being a rallying cry. With this image of the warring flags, it is difficult to discount the thought that this indeed is not a war against Islam.

The enemy must behave as morally bankrupt. In the first few days of the war, the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a reporter about how he often puts himself in the mind-set of the enemy. An Iraqi soldier, pounded by American resolve, he said, should give up fighting for a dying regime and therefore surrender, topple the regime, or join the coalition forces in order to be a part of the future of Iraq. To an Iraqi, Mr. Rumsfeld's transference sounded like he, in the shoes of an Iraqi soldier, would commit an act of cowardice (surrender) or (treason) in order to survive.

The Secretary's estimation of a besieged Iraqi soldier's decision-making matrix shows abject disrespect of what truly should motivate an Arab, or a Moslem, fighting for his faith and homeland, especially in the context of a civilization steeped in warfare, martyrdom, courage and honor. Regardless of its merit, it is wrong for Mr. Rumsfeld to assume publicly that an Iraqi soldier is or ought to be deemed as morally inferior.

With every soldier, be he a well equipped American or a helpless Iraqi, martial honor must be presumed. The paradigm offered by Mr. Rumsfeld perhaps says more about Mr. Rumsfeld's own warrior mores and personal choices, which I hope none of our troops shares. If an American soldier ever dared to behave toward his own commander or cause in a way prescribed by Mr. Rumsfeld he would be court-martialed on the spot, if not removed from office.

Uncle Tom is better than Uncle Sam. Two among the prominent faces representing the American military and political interests in this war are of Middle Eastern origin. Zalmay Khalilzad is of Afghan (non-Arab) origin, a Moslem, and has served the Administration as a special envoy on Afghanistan and Iraq. Lt. General John Abizaid, is of Lebanese origin and is the voice of the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. His knowledge and love of Arabic is well documented and is obviously of sufficient rigor to cause him to refer to the Persian Gulf as “Arabian” Gulf in his briefings.

It is doubtful if the American cause in the Middle East is better served by these two individuals. While the American mosaic represents people from all cultural, national, religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds, to the most of the Middle East this country's face, Uncle Sam, is a lanky, nordic-looking WASPish type, with an Anglo-sounding name. In a morally-neutral context, one is, as one should be, proud of the accomplishment of one's Afghan and Arab brothers in America. In the present context, however, the Middle Eastern street views each of them as a “sell-out,” a token, inserted by the Bush Administration in the cultural slot in order to make the American cause persuasive to the locals.

The terrible Turks did us in. The Bush Adminsitration sent Mr. Khalilzad to Turkey in February and March in order to “negotiate” the access for the American ground troops into northern Iraq. In the best of worlds, the Turks would look at Mr. Khalilzad as one of their own (Middle Eastern, Moslem) and allow the cultural affinity to forge a common political and military objective. But then the Bush Adminsitration made the mistake to “sweeten” the deal, openly and unabashedly, by offering Turkey a generous economic package. Apparently, the Adminsitration did not give it a moment's thought how such overtures insulted the Turks.

Turkey is a country poised on the verge of realizing its dream of finally becoming a “European” country by virtue of gaining admission into the European Community. It was wrong for the Bush Adminsitration to have presumed that it could “negotiate” with the Turks in a bazaar-like manner. Mr. Khalilzad could have spoken business, Western-style, with his Turkish counterparts. In the past four decades, the United States has given to Turkey billions of dollars in military and economic aid, credits, grants, and investment guarantees. While the Bush Administration could have insisted quietly on calling-in America's past favors, publicly the Adminsitration should have reminded the Turkish people that much of their country's economic survival and prosperity has hinged on the generosity of the American taxpayer.

In a working democracy, no parliamentarian could be expected to survive in the next elections if he or she was seen as selling out Turkish sovereignty. The Turks were expecting to be treated with respect. In gaining their support in the Iraq campaign, one should have played to their sense of gratitude and fierce loyalty instead of acting on the stereotype of a Fez-wearing venal Turk.

Ultimately, in this war, as in others, hearts and minds are won by communicating in the language of others. In that regard, we often speak to others in their language, but the message that we deliver often assumes that the audience is a knave, fool, or rascal. Ultimately, the joke will be on us, as it was when the Reagan Administration sought to court the Islamic Republic with a copy of the Bible, cake, and a (was it?) a key.


Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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