If you can't pronounce it, don't try to invade it

October 27, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

If the United States actually is going to invade Iraq and occupy it for a while, at least people in charge of this idea might start pronouncing it correctly.

It's not eye-rack as the leaders of the Washington cabal advocating invasion and occupation tend to pronounce it. It's ih-rock.

The failure to pronounce properly the names of places where the United States has sent troops and tried to take charge is symptomatic of historical failures going back at least as far as Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the pronunciations always seemed to have a sort of U.S. Southern twang to them. This may have been because President Lyndon B. Johnson was a Texan and so many of the U.S. military were from the South. Vietnamese places sounded like music scores, body parts or automobile parts: Kan-toe, My Toe, and Cam-ran.

In the early 1980s, U.S. military advisers appeared in Lebanon, along with a contingent of U.S. Marines. Many of the advisers were veterans of Vietnam, and place names in Lebanon were inflicted by the twang. So, Choueifat, a suburb of Beirut overlooking the airport where the main Marine contingent was stationed, was called something like chewy-fat. The home of the Lebanese president was correctly pronounced Ba'ab-dah, but in the U.S. military vernacular, it became bob-duh. The Lebanese military headquarters at Yarzeh was Yarzee.

Mysteries of politics

Hardly any of the U.S. military group in Lebanon seemed to speak Arabic, or to comprehend Lebanon's history or politics. They were there mostly because the Israelis had invaded Lebanon, occupied Beirut with the help of Lebanese Christian militias and had left the United States in a pretty untenable, dangerous position.

The American mission seemed obsessed with restoring a sort of status quo ante in which Christian dominance in Lebanon would be restored, a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon would be signed and the Lebanese army, in tatters after a decade of civil war, would be restored with greater sectarian balance among the Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the Druze.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz actually got the Christian-dominated Lebanese to sign a peace agreement with Israel in May 1983, but Shultz hadn't bothered to consult Syria. So, the agreement was stillborn.

Five months later, a suicide truck bomber killed 241 Americans at the Marine barracks in Beirut. The Marines were gone within a few months. The U.S. advisers hung around a while longer, but the Lebanese army never became a formidable force in Lebanon.

Today, Syria runs Lebanon, an occupation that the United States effectively sanctioned after Syria joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Syrian-condoned Islamic militia, runs South Lebanon. Hezbollah masterminded that attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983.

This was not what Americans had in mind for Lebanon when the Reagan administration committed to the country. What they did have in mind, of course, was naive, to say the least, and fatal.

Iraq is similar to Lebanon in some disturbing ways, apart from the Bush administration's apparent inability to even pronounce the name of the country correctly.

To be sure, the U.S. government and the American people know more about Iraq than they did about Vietnam and Lebanon in the beginning of those experiences. The U.S. oil industry was intimately involved with Iraq for decades. America has fought a war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein has been a prominent American headache ever since. Intelligence-gathering and war-making resources are infinitely more sophisticated than they were four decades ago when the United States began its involvement in Vietnam, or 20 years ago when it was dragged into the Lebanon quagmire.

Factions to consider

Still, like Lebanon, there are complicated factions in Iraq whose behavior in the event of an attack and an occupation is wholly unpredictable.

The Kurds in the north, the very people against whom Hussein used chemical weapons, are getting along quite well as the conduit for much of Iraq's smuggled oil and other illegal commerce. Their loyalty historically has gone to the highest bidder. They also tend to fight among themselves.

The south is predominantly Shiite, a historically repressed and impoverished part of the population with strong ties to neighboring Shiite Iran. (In Lebanon, the United States had no sense of the stunning potential for upheaval from the Shiite population - until it was too late.)

In the center are the Sunni Muslims who have historically dominated the country. They are estimated to be about 34 percent of Iraq's population, compared to a little more than 60 percent who are Shiite. Their dominance would inevitably be challenged by the Kurds and the Shiites.

One very important element exists in the Iraqi calculation that did not exist in Lebanon or Vietnam: Iraq's vast oil resources raise the stakes enormously and dangerously, because all the parties will want to control them. And if it looks to any of them as if the American occupiers are controlling the oil for their own profit, or for the profit of one part of the population over another, expect lethal consequences.

These are but a few of the complications America faces with Iraq. It's good that the talk of war and occupation has stalled a little: more time to learn the language, and to understand the potentially fatal nuances.

Better still, maybe an invasion and a long occupation won't be necessary at all.

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