Winning Iraqi hearts and minds

Unless America wins support from the Iraqi people, a prolonged guerrilla war could result.

March 30, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

As coalition forces continue the push into Iraq, it is important to realize that history is full of cautionary tales for great powers that assume overwhelming military superiority will bring easy victory over an outmatched opponent.

If the people of Iraq see these troops from the United States and Britain as forces freeing them from an oppressive dictator, then the war could be short and the transition to peace easy.

But if they instead view the troops as illegitimate invaders of their nation, then that could help form an indigenous opposition, leading to a lengthy struggle.

The important fight is for the hearts and minds of people on all sides of the military struggle.

"It becomes a battle over legitimacy, not just physical power," says John D. Steinbruner of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Whenever people accept the purpose of the war as legitimate, they rally to it. But if you lose the battle for legitimacy, you are in very, very big trouble."

Without the discovery or use of chemical or biological weapons, Steinbruner says this battle is going on now in Iraq.

"The logic was that the brutality of this regime had so alienated people that they were ready for liberation," he says. "This blissfully ignores the regional supposition in the Arab world that this war is all about Israel and oil and has nothing to do with the local population."

Spencer C. Tucker, a professor of military history at the Virginia Military Institute, says there were similar differences in perception when the United States got involved in Vietnam.

"I really think we went into Vietnam with the best of intentions, but we were seen by the Vietnamese as foreign invader, a continuation of the French occupation," he says.

The result was a prolonged guerrilla war that eventually broke the political will of the United States.

Much of that was due to Vietnamese nationalism, a potent fuel for indigenous opposition.

Benjamin Barber, the University of Maryland, College Park professor who is author of Jihad vs. McWorld, says people can hate their government but still fight for their country. "Probably the most powerful force of the last couple hundred years is nationalism," he says. "If you invade a people's country, no matter how badly run it is, some are going to detest that."

Barber, whose new book, Fear's Empire: Terrorism, War and Democracy, is due out this year, says Josef Stalin was able to use nationalism to rally Russians in World War II.

"Stalin was certainly rather like Saddam Hussein in that he was deeply distrusted by his people," he says. "But he was able to transform a war to defend communism into a war to defend the motherland. The Russians fought brilliantly even though they were opposing forces that outgunned them considerably because this was turned into a nationalist war against the invader."

Ted Robert Gurr, director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park says Hussein is trying this.

"Saddam Hussein is playing the nationalism card to try to bolster his support," says Gurr. "However much you dislike your own dictator, at least he's yours. You resent somebody else coming in to reconstruct your society and your government."

If a guerrilla-style opposition emerges, lacking the military might to confront the great power directly on the battlefield, it always resorts to unconventional tactics -- and is always condemned for it.

After the United States occupied the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, it faced an insurgency from rebels who had previously fought the Spanish. Eventually they adopted guerrilla tactics.

"This was denounced as a cowardly way of fighting, a war of savages, not a man's war," says Paul Kramer, a historian at the Johns Hopkins University.

This was even true during the American Revolution, another example of an outmanned force outlasting its powerful opponent.

"Obviously, countries that are at a disadvantage technically adopt strategies and tactics that are not necessarily pleasing to the powers they are fighting," says Tucker. "During the Revolution, Americans adopted guerrilla tactics ... Look at Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina. Washington employed riflemen who had great success picking off British officers, a tactic the British thought unsporting and unfair."

Fighting against such an unconventional war can sometimes lead to tactics that further alienate the indigenous population.

The war between the British and the Boer settlers of South Africa between 1899 and 1902 was one of the first that subjected a major power to skilled guerrilla tactics. In response, the British invented the concentration camp, forcing the rural population into these disease-ridden camps, then burning their farms and fields to deny Boer troops sustenance. It worked militarily but planted deep-seated bitterness among Afrikaners that grew into a nationalist movement that led to apartheid.

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