Right Hook

As violence erupts across Iraq, conservatives wonder if Iraqis are expressing their "natural" barbarity, whether AP conspired with killers to publicize grisly Fallujah photos, and if the U.S. shouldn't simply "nuke the Sunni Triangle."

Mark Follman
April 7, 2004 11:00AM (UTC)

The grisly public murder of four American civilian military contractors in Fallujah last Wednesday, with its inevitable comparison to the slaughter of American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, has sparked hot debate among conservatives about the nature of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation -- and how the United States should respond. Many on the right have called for a display of U.S. military might, while others caution that a large-scale retaliation could advance the strategic goals of the terrorists who planned and flaunted the vicious murders.

"You say Fallujah, I say Rambo!" blared USA Today contributor and syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, whose biweekly commentary appears on the right-wing clearinghouse Townhall.com. A staunch campaigner for family values, Parker offered up her own clan's consensus on how to deal with the latest Iraqi violence.


"I suppose it would be considered lacking in nuance to nuke the Sunni Triangle.

"But so goes the unanimous vote around my household -- and I'm betting millions of others -- in the aftermath of what forevermore will be remembered simply as 'Fallujah.'

"Wouldn't it be lovely were justice so available and so simple? If we were but creatures like those zoo animals we witnessed gleefully jumping up and down after stomping, dragging, dismembering and hanging the charred remains of American civilians whose only crime was to try to help them."


Once she gets that off her chest, Parker argues that the United States must stay the course in Iraq, and she does offer one notable bit of prescience:

"It is hard at such times to keep one's head, to remain calm, to rise above the impulse to exact immediate revenge. Or to cut and run, as we did under similar circumstances in Somalia not so long ago. But keep our heads we must. Calmly we must transcend the primitive lust that compels ignorant others to mug idiotically for cameras.

"Our revenge will be in facing down enemies who, though unworthy adversaries, impede the worthy goal of stabilizing a country whose future may predict our own."


National Review contributor Jed Babbin offers a more nuanced discussion of the rising threat to stability in Iraq. He says it's good that the United States is "finally taking action -- after months of diplo-dithering -- to drain the Sunni Triangle swamp." But the Bush administration's delay in doing so, he says, now has grave consequences for the rush to hand over power to a new Iraqi government.

"Because we haven't destroyed the terrorist networks in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere, it is almost impossible to see how we can turn Iraqi sovereignty over on the schedule we so foolishly announced. The president unwisely reaffirmed his commitment to the June 30 date Monday. Of the many lessons Vietnam taught us -- or should have -- one of the most important is that if you establish a schedule, it's not just yours: It's the enemy's as well ... The enemy is preparing the battlefield for their fight against any democratic Iraqi government. We must also prepare the battlefield to ensure that when a new government is ready, it can function with authority and credibility."


Interestingly, Babbin says that part of the failure to quell the insurgency and stabilize the country results from the Coalition Provisional Authority's use of the very type of American civilian security guards who were murdered last week:

"The Fallujah incident illustrates all too vividly the difference between what we have been doing and what we should have been doing. I've gotten an earful about Fallujah from the spec-ops community. The problem, they say, is not only with the mullahs and terrorists there. It is also with some of the "PMCs" -- private military companies -- we have hired to support the Coalition.

"Under contract with the CIA, these men are tasked with protecting dignitaries, making sure that Coalition installations are safe from terrorist attacks, and performing any other mission the 'customer' imposes. Most of these men are former Navy SEALs, Army special forces, Marine Recon, or Air Force PJs. When they join the civilian companies, they have the skills they need to seize ships, rescue hostages, and the other things the spec-ops guys do so well. But, as one of the former operators who worked for a PMC in Afghanistan told me, their skill sets and trained mental attitude aren't what's needed on the streets of Iraq.


"One man I spoke to was sent to Afghanistan with hardly any training. The PMC planned a patently inadequate three days of preparation to test basic skills and make an operator ready for the Afghan streets. There was apparently no training in small-unit tactics designed to create cohesion among the operators. This operator told me that the pressure to get men in the field overcame the contractor's already too-low training standards, and people were sent out long before they were ready."

A battle for (inferior) hearts and minds
Victor Hanson, a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Hoover Institution, asserts that the insurgency draws foremost from the "natural" barbarity of the Iraqis -- and the rest of the "pathological" Arab world, for that matter.

"Are the citizens of Fallujah the victims of Saddam, or did folk like this find their natural identity expressed in Saddam? Postcolonial theory and victimology argue that European colonialism, Zionism, and petrodollars wrecked the Middle East. But to believe that one must see India in shambles, Latin America under blanket autocracy, and an array of suicide bombers pouring out of Mexico or Nigeria."


Hanson accuses Arabs of rejecting modernism itself, but then says they crave it, too:

"The enemy of the Middle East is not the West so much as modernism itself and the humiliation that accrues when millions themselves are nursed by fantasies, hypocrisies, and conspiracies to explain their own failures...

"When one adds to this depressing calculus that for all the protestations of Arab nationalism, Islamic purity and superiority, and whining about a decadent West, the entire region is infected with a burning desire for things Western -- from cell phones and computers to videos and dialysis, you have all the ingredients for utter disaster and chaos."

That formula for chaos, Hanson claims, also springs from Arab laziness and ingratitude.


"How after all in polite conversation can you explain to an Arab intellectual that the GDP of Jordan or Morocco has something to do with an array of men in the early afternoon stuffed into coffee shops spinning conspiracy tales, drinking coffee, and playing board games while Japanese, Germans, Chinese, and American women and men are into their sixth hour on the job?...

"I support the bold efforts of the United States to make a start in cleaning up this mess, in hopes that a Fallujah might one day exorcize its demons. But in the meantime, we should have no illusions about the enormity of our task, where every positive effort will be met with violence, fury, hypocrisy, and ingratitude.

"If we are to try to bring some good to the Middle East, then we must first have the intellectual courage to confess that for the most part the pathologies embedded there are not merely the work of corrupt leaders but often the very people who put them in place and allowed them to continue their ruin.

"So the question remains did Saddam create Fallujah or Fallujah Saddam?"


For their part, the editors of the New York Post argued last week that the Associated Press may have helped create Fallujah -- a stunning cheap shot aimed at downplaying the grisly images and what they might say about the Iraqi insurgency.

"The fact that a small crowd of thuggish Sunni tribesmen cheered while their blood-maddened brethren hacked up charred corpses for grateful Western cameramen doesn't mean that Americans are widely despised in Iraq.

"In fact, it doesn't mean anything at all -- except that freedom's enemies in Fallujah are both savage and clever."

While the Post itself uses the nonpartisan news service's photos, it didn't hesitate to peddle a flimsy AP conspiracy theory:


"Consider: Victims of other attacks in Iraq have not generally been burned and mutilated after their deaths.

"So why the extra savagery this time? Because the cameras were there. Like their brethren in Gaza and the West Bank, these fiends know when and how to perform for maximum propaganda effect.

"And don't think that Associated Press Television just happened to turn up at the right place at the right time for the burning and hacking of corpses. After all, last week the AP had dramatic on-the-spot, perfectly timed, close-up photographs of insurgents firing RPGs at Coalition troops. Clearly, someone at AP has a mutually beneficial relationship with the insurgents in Fallujah."

(The AP responded angrily that the Post's editorial amounted to a grave disservice to professional journalism and to "the brave men and women who have risked their lives covering this story.")

The debate over military reprisal
Several conservatives with military expertise have weighed in with different ideas about how to best deal with the latest Iraqi uprisings. Writing in Opinion Journal, journalist and "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden asserts that "the gory carnival on the streets of Fallujah is not evidence of the [U.S.] mission's futility, nor is it something to chalk up to foreign barbarity." Rather, the Fallujah attacks, argues Bowden, represent a succinct strategy of its perpetrators:

"Lynching is deliberate. It is opportunistic rather than purely spontaneous, and it has a clear intent: to insult, to challenge and to frighten the enemy, and to excite and enlist allies ... Respectful treatment of the dead is the norm in all societies, and a tenet of all religions. Publicly flouting such basic dignities is a communal expression of hatred designed to insult and frighten. Display of the mutilated remains must be as public as possible. In Fallujah they were strung high from a bridge. In Mogadishu, where there were no central squares or bridges, the bodies were dragged through the streets for hours. The crowd, no matter how enraged, welcomes the camera -- Paul Watson, a white Canadian journalist, moved unharmed with his through the angry mobs in Mogadishu on Oct. 4, 1993. The idea is to spread the image. Cameras guarantee the insult will be heard, seen and felt. The insult and fear are spread across continents."

Bowden offers no specifics about what the U.S. military should do in response, though he seems to endorse a powerful reprisal, as he warns against repeating the mistakes of Mogadishu. Still, he does not discuss the potential danger to innocent civilians that a major U.S. counterattack would likely pose, nor its potential political repercussions.

"The worst answer the U.S. can make to such a message -- which is precisely what we did in Mogadishu -- is back down. By most indications, Aidid's supporters were decimated and demoralized the day after the Battle of Mogadishu. Some, appalled by the indecency of their countrymen, were certain the U.S. would violently respond to such an insult and challenge. They contacted U.N. authorities offering to negotiate, or simply packed their things and fled. These are the ones who miscalculated. Instead the U.S. did nothing, effectively abandoning the field to Aidid and his henchmen. Somalia today remains a nation struggling in anarchy, and the America-haters around the world learned what they thought was a essential truth about the United States: Kill a few Americans and the most powerful nation on Earth will run away. This, in a nutshell, is the strategy of Osama bin Laden."

Bowden further argues that it's not just the culprits themselves who should pay for the Fallujah attacks:

"The rebels in Iraq who ambushed those American security workers in Fallujah ought to be hunted down and brought to justice, but they are not the only ones responsible. The public celebration that followed was licensed and encouraged by whatever leadership exists in Fallujah. Whether religious or secular, its insult, warning, and challenge has been broadcast around the world. It must be answered. The photographic evidence should be used to help round up those who committed these atrocities, and those who tacitly or overtly encouraged it."

But conservative blogger Steven Den Best, who often focuses on military strategy, cautions against anything other than a carefully discriminating response.

"The key point to remember is this: the strategic goal of terrorism is to provoke reprisals.

"Most of the activity by insurgents in Iraq during the last year was technically guerrilla warfare. Like terrorism, guerrilla warfare developed as a way for weak forces to fight against strong ones. But guerrilla war aims to harm the enemy by direct action; that's the main distinction between the two...

"The goal of this attack [in Fallujah] is to inspire American fury. What they hope is that the Americans will be blinded by hatred and will do something extremely stupid: to punish the Sunnis collectively for the actions of the terrorist group.

"Remember, that's the basic theory behind terrorism; that's the core of the doctrine of terrorism as a form of violent warfare. It is not the terrorist act itself which helps advance the political goals of the terrorist group; it is rather the reprisal. Terrorism is a form of jiu-jitsu, a way of using an enemy's strength against himself. (In jiu-jitsu, you don't throw an opponent. You aid him in throwing himself.)"

The Iraqis' perception of an American response, argues Den Beste, is critical:

"If there are broad reprisals against the uncommitted friendly population because of the acts of the terrorists, that population will become motivated and polarized in favor of the position held by the terrorists. If the American response is viewed by the Sunnis as being directed broadly at all Sunnis, rather than being targeted specifically at those responsible for this outrage, then there's every likelihood that the Sunnis will begin to wonder whether the U.S. is actually genuine in its attempts to include the Sunnis as equal partners in the new government of Iraq. That would be a major victory for al Qaeda."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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