Dana E. Abizaid
March 7, 2011
Published in Hurriyet Daily News.

As the United States continues to wage a costly war in Afghanistan and engage in aggressive saber rattling with the Islamic Republic of Iran, policy-makers in Washington rely on the repetition of three main “truths” to justify U.S. policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

These “truths” are derived from a firm belief in the righteousness of the American cause and are rarely examined. In fact, they are spoken from a preconceived position of power and predominance that precludes analysis. However, recent events in the Muslim world demand that the Barack Obama administration critically analyze these notions if the U.S. wishes to avoid further bloodshed and costly foreign interventions.

The classic case of an American official realizing that such “truths” need to be analyzed involves the work of the late U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. McNamara left the U.S. government in 1968, but refused to leave the lessons he learned from his service behind, documenting 11 by the time his memoir was published in 1995. Though all are relevant today, one stands out in relation to the current U.S. mentality that has engineered nearly a decade of constant war.

“Our judgment,” McNamara says, “of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image as we choose.”

If the United States hopes to pacify the lands where its military occupies resistant peoples and to establish solid relations with revolutionary governments forming in the Muslim world, it is imperative to consider McNamara’s statement in light of three perceived American truths.

Truth 1: The infallibility and invincibility of the U.S. military

An uncritical certainty in the use of military might to effect social, political, economic and religious reform in the Muslim world betrays a lack of understanding of the cultures the U.S. military is now engaged with, not to mention a poor reading of history. Such firm, though misguided, confidence leads to audacious displays of staged bravery as well as inflammatory, exaggerated, and counterproductive rhetoric.

President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Lincoln in May 2003 comes to mind as does his “Bring it on!” statement a few months later.

More recently, Obama’s belief that increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would stabilize a nation torn asunder politically, religiously, and economically and defeat a homegrown insurgency betrays an uncritical continuation of his predecessor’s policies.

Truth 2: America’s enemies are extremists while the U.S. is rational

Frequent use of terms like “extremist” has served to obfuscate any understanding of what America’s enemies are fighting for, since the term packs with it a powerful anti-American and uncivilized wallop that does not need to be explained. This takes on greater significance when one considers the fear trumpeted by U.S. media outlets and public officials that the revolutions currently gripping the Middle East will fall into the hands of Islamic radicals. Thus, it is unthinkable the Muslim Brotherhood or any other homegrown Islamic political party could possibly represent the best interests of the people. Even more incredulous is that Taliban ranks may be filling with young men not necessarily fighting for Mullah Mohammed Omar, but for the removal of foreign forces from their villages and cities. The equation is simple: Islamic political parties = extremist = Taliban style governance = terrorist state (Taliban-style governance in Saudi Arabia exempted, of course).

A brief look, however, at the price tag on America’s current wars, and its actions at Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Guantanamo Bay as well as support for the fallen Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt and continued support for the Saudi Wahabbi monarchy could very well be perceived as extreme. Yet, using that term to describe the U.S. or its allies would be akin to calling them “terrorists,” a major faux pas that would instantaneously ostracize the speaker from any “rational” conversation. Therefore, we struggle within the confines of language constructs that prevent us from understanding our own role in the conflicts, let alone the motivation of our enemies.

Truth 3: Iran as the personification of evil in the Middle East

The U.S. government and media speak with disdain and disbelief that Iran would dare interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, Iraq or Afghanistan.

These statements are uttered without a hint of irony, even though the U.S. has reserved for itself the right “to remake” the entire region. The fact that Iran, surrounded by the U.S. military on three sides (Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf), may feel threatened by a U.S. administration determined to use force rather than diplomacy, is rarely considered as the Islamic republic explores ways to further their national interests and survival.

Moreover, as the second-leading democracy in the Middle East behind Israel, Iran is much closer to the American model of self-government than our besieged allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Though post-election protests in 2009 ended in bloodshed and show trials, one now cringes at the daily video of how our staunch allies in the region are cutting down their own protesters with sniper fire. Also, as Shiite Muslims, Iranians are the sworn enemies of Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nevertheless, the belief that Iran is the incarnation of evil hinders any diplomatic dialogue and strategic cooperation, unfortunately foreshadowing more conflict and instability in the region.

It is certainly unrealistic to expect that the U.S. government and media can reform these three basic beliefs overnight. They are solidly embedded in our education system, woven into our historical narrative, and prevalent in subtle, though daily reminders that seep into our news broadcasts and entertainment.

On the other hand, it is not unrealistic to believe that a conversation challenging these three “truths” could be initiated. In this case, it would be beneficial to lean on the words of former Defense Secretary McNamara, a man whose convictions, charts and equations allowed for only one possible outcome in Vietnam: victory. That victory rested on the assumption that the Vietnamese people agreed with U.S. foreign policy objectives. Few were asked.

Accordingly, U.S. policymakers need to ask themselves, Arabs, and Afghans if our efforts at maintaining or creating stability in the Middle East and Afghanistan are worth the price tag in blood and money. This requires a re-examination of how we perceive and speak about our enemies, as well as the truth about ourselves and our allies.