Fallacy of the Mirror Image


The trouble with the war in Iraq is the same as the trouble with the war in Vietnam a generation ago. Washington completely misunderstood the Iraqi people, just as an earlier generation misunderstood the Vietnamese.

American policymakers frequently make the mistake I call the "fallacy of the mirror image." They assume that other people are a mirror image of ourselves and will therefore react as we would. This is rarely true.

I used this example before, but it’s very telling. We all know how Americans would react to the accidental death of a loved one. They’d be on the phone to a lawyer, wanting to sue and put a dollar figure on the death of the loved one. But early in the war, when an American officer showed up at the door of an Iraqi family whose son had been killed by mistake and asked the father what compensation he wanted, the Iraqi replied, "Ten dead Americans."

Then there was the boy in the early days of the war who lost his family and his arms and legs. Valiant efforts were made to save his life, and he eventually was flown to England and fitted with prosthetics. The Western press made the kid a big deal, probably because they thought it reflected well on the West. But when the boy was finally well enough to hold a press conference, what did say? Thank you? No, he said he hoped and prayed the men who wiped out his family were burned alive. The press instantly lost interest in him.

Our culture puts about the highest value on money and therefore tends to view negatively any conditions that might hinder the making of money. While the Arab culture has no objection to making money, personal honor, family and tribal loyalties and vengeance — all three of which are largely absent in our culture — rank very high in theirs.

Therefore, on what basis do any of the self-appointed experts in Washington suppose that the Iraqi Shiites, battered and persecuted and murdered for generations by their Sunni overlords, are going to forgive them? We set up a system that empowered the Shiites, and now we’re saying, "Hey, guys, let bygones be bygones."

In fact, Washington defines victory in Iraq as reconciliation between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. That is, instead, a definition of failure, because it is not going to happen. To say that if we leave there will be a blood bath is to say we will never leave. There is a reason why all Iraqi governments have been powerful central governments long on coercion and short on democracy. The reason is, it’s the only way a nation with a divided population can be ruled.

Not only do the factions hate each other, about the only thing that unites them is hatred of us.

The Bush administration should give up, admit it made a colossal blunder and bring the American troops home. It has stupidly created an Islamic government, which will be a natural ally of the Iranians. There is no way to undo it short of finding another Saddam Hussein and installing him as a dictator.

Washington seems to have an infinite capacity for self-delusion. The essential question regarding the surge and new security plan has yet to be asked. What will happen when the U.S. soldiers leave? The violence will resume, of course. It’s kindergarten-level knowledge that insurgents make themselves scarce when conventional military forces move in. So, of course, there will be a temporary reduction in violence, but how long do you want Americans living in Baghdad? Forever?

Someone should tell our child president that he is more likely to find a real Easter Bunny than he is those secular, liberal democrats he seems to believe are in Iraq and Iran. They don’t exist in that part of the world.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.