How to bridge two views of success in Iraq

In November 2003 as the insurgency in Iraq blossomed, I – as a US official in Iraq – tried to sort out the various actors, groups, and causes behind it. But in a meeting with top Sunni political leaders, it became abundantly clear to me that the American view and the Iraqi view about the causes were completely divergent. And that if we were ever going to help develop a sustainable democracy in Iraq, it was imperative that we analyze and understand the Iraqis' perspective and include that in any future solutions for the insurgency or the burgeoning sectarian conflict.

The following shows the divergent Iraqi and American views. Below, ways to reconcile them ...

(Iraq) The US toppled Saddam Hussein, but its troops humiliate us. Look at Abu Ghraib.

(US) We got rid of their brutal dictator, and they respond by attacking and killing us.

(Iraq) After Saddam left, chaos – looting and terror – claimed the streets of Baghdad.

(US) The people were reacting to newfound freedom after 35 years of dictatorship.

(Iraq) We have been told there are billions of dollars being spent on improving our lives, but we have yet to see it.

(US) We spend billions of our money to improve their country and reconstruct it. They are so ungrateful.

(Iraq) The world's most powerful army can't keep my neighborhood safe? This must be a conspiracy to keep Iraq embroiled in turmoil so they can stay and steal our oil.

(US) Suicide bombers are nearly impossible to detect and prevent. We're dealing with a savage method of warfare that we are ill-suited to fight.

(Iraq) The world's richest country does not fix the electricity grid or provide generators to alleviate our desperate plight. Yet, the Green Zone is lit up like a Christmas tree.

(US) We try practical projects, like rebuilding parts of the pipelines and electricity grid, and the insurgents continue to bomb them.

(Iraq) Iraq is a sovereign nation, but we believe the US still controls the reins and is holding us back. Look how the US Embassy occupies Saddam's presidential palace.

(US) Iraq has been a sovereign nation for more than two years. Why hasn't it accomplished anything? Why are the politicians so incompetent?

(Iraq) The only US presence we see is its heavily armed convoys careening through our streets, causing traffic jams and smashing or shooting anything that gets in its way.

(US) We are targeted wherever we go. Iraqis who cooperate with Americans are frequently targeted and killed by insurgents.

(Iraq) Sectarian politics and the ensuing strife is partly the Americans' fault for bringing religious parties to power when the Coalition Provisional Authority ran the country.

(US) We are the ones preventing a civil war by pressuring for a unity government and increased Sunni participation.

(Iraq) They speak constantly of democracy but no one has explained what it means and how it can work in our culture.

(US) The Arabs are not ready for democracy, as evidenced by their politics that are mostly based on sect rather than competence.

A better course

What if US policymakers realized that many Iraqis blame us for the current Islamist dominance of Iraqi politics and the worsening sectarian conflict? The Iraqis say that the US first empowered Islamist clerics and created a strict sectarian model for governance on the initial Governing Council, created by the Coalition Provisional Authority in July 2003. The subsequent Iraqi elections and governments have merely continued that precedent.

If we realized the sectarian model was a recent fabrication, not the way Iraq has always been, this would not seem to be a civil war that was destined to happen. The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites would be seen as something that could have been – and perhaps still could be – prevented.

Understanding the issues and problems from the local point of view has never been the forte of Americans, but it is especially difficult in Iraq, where security and the language barrier offer unique challenges. Travel outside the Green Zone is dangerous and limited. Moreover, practically none of our diplomats stationed in Iraq today speak Arabic and most consort primarily with top-level Iraqi officials who are isolated and unfamiliar with "ground truth."

Putting more US officials who speak Arabic or have Middle East experience in Iraq and reducing movement restrictions for US officials are key to discerning ground truth in Iraq. Deepening the understanding that many in our government have about Iraq would mitigate damaging and ignorant mistakes in our policies and actions. Decisions on military actions and those concerning Iraqi politicians should be cleared with experts in the US Embassy to assess political ramifications. The political coordination should include those operating somewhat independently of the embassy, such as the CIA, USAID, and the military. From personal experience, this would have saved much time and energy. Several times my colleagues and I saw a relationship we had painstakingly cultivated over many months destroyed by a military mistake – a wrongful detention or shooting. Moreover, lack of coordinated financial assistance and discrepant viewpoints from government agencies also undermined US policies and decisionmaking.

It is not that admitting to past mistakes will turn the situation around in Iraq. But understanding what the US has done wrong, or is perceived to have done wrong, would have an immediate impact in Iraq in two significant ways: 1) We could at once stop committing the error and do right; 2) If our error is a misperception and not true, we can set the record straight. If the US makes no attempt to understand its mistakes, Iraqis and Americans end up moving along two parallel tracks of self-made and self-perpetuated truths that never coincide. This may be successful in convincing Americans that we are doing what it takes to succeed in Iraq, but we will never actually be successful until the Iraqis perceive us so.

Janessa Gans served as a US official in Iraq from October 2003 to July 2005. She returned to Washington in March 2006 with the nonprofit organization she founded, The Euphrates Institute.

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