Occupational therapy

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Many in the antiwar lobby claim that the Iraq war was the first stage in America's Middle East colonialist conspiracy. If true, then perhaps we're witnessing a new era of therapeutic colonialism. Coalition forces in Iraq often seem more interested in helping Iraqis recover from years of "emotional repression," than in forcing them to submit to their new rulers.

From the fleeing leaders to the looting masses, the people of Iraq and their response to recent events have been discussed in psychological terms. And the solution, it seems, is a form of occupation that allows Iraqis room for self-expression, while helping to channel their released emotions into forming a new government. It appears that coalition forces are executing a kind of "occupational therapy" in Iraq.

Such is the coalition's emphasis on Iraqi self-expression that British forces in Basra initially encouraged residents to loot. The aim, according to a senior British officer, was to "send a powerful message that the old guard is truly finished." British officials described the chaos in Basra as "natural exuberance," while one officer professed his joy at watching these "people who have been oppressed" finally getting a chance to release their "pent-up emotions."

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Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, not known for being emotionally switched-on, said the looting was like an emotional outburst. As one report summarized: "The way Mr. Rumsfeld sees it, some lawlessness is understandable among the Iraqi people because, he says, they have been repressed for so long. He says the liberation of those pent-up emotions can lead to what he calls an 'untidy period.'" For coalition officials, the postwar looting seems akin to primal therapy, an outlet for repressed Iraqi feelings.

Old Baath Party stooges have also come in for a bit of psychological profiling. British psychologist Jane Firbank claimed that Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who became a cult figure with his wildly optimistic assessments of the war, was suffering from "emotional hijack syndrome," in which natural emotions were overruled by the all-powerful Iraqi regime. As for the Iraqi people - one report claims that, after years of repression, their "psychological wreckage could be harder to clean up than the bombed buildings and broken bridges."

With old rulers suffering from "emotional hijack syndrome" and a population that looks like so much "psychological wreckage" (better, I suppose, than being "collateral damage"), it is not surprising that Maj. Gen. Tim Cross, the most senior British official involved in rebuilding Iraq, claims that the coalition's main aim is to boost Iraqi self-esteem. Under the headline "Most important task is rebuilding Iraqi morale" in The Times (London), Major General Cross called on Iraqis to "get themselves into a new mindset," and, in true therapy-speak, said that coalition forces "are not teaching them what to do, or how to do it, but are enabling them to do the things themselves."

After an initial postwar meeting in Nasiriyah, Cross and others involved in remaking Iraq issued a "13-point plan" for democracy. Thirteen-point plan? Sounds like the famous 12-step recovery plan for addiction and dependency.

How long will this psychobabble go on? If Iraqis refuse to accept a continuing US presence, will it be a sign of Post-Hussein Anti-American Syndrome? If they decide to build a government that doesn't fit in with the coalition's 13-point plan, will that be evidence of Iraqi Attention Deficit Disorder? Will Iraqis need the helping hand of occupational therapy forever?

Whether or not the war was the start of a new colonialism, the way in which the Iraqis have been discussed looks as patronizing and insulting as how the old colonialists viewed their third-world charges. In the old days, imperialists justified their foreign ventures as part of the "White Man's Burden," where they had a duty to civilize the ignoramuses "over there." Now we seem to have the Psychotherapists' Burden - where part of the coalition's role is to put the post-Hussein basket cases on the right track toward responsible adulthood and self-government. Is that really liberation?

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of www.spiked-online.com.

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