by Lawrence Pintak
Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom"
-- President George W. Bush press conference, April 13, 2004
Operation Resolute Sword. That's what the U.S. military in Iraq is calling its effort to crush rebellious Shiite forces. Osama bin Laden could not have chosen a more inflammatory name.
Who comes up with these things? Why not just stage a photo-op with President Bush in Richard the Lionheart regalia?
One would have thought -- or at least hoped -- the Pentagon would have learned its lesson after Muslims objected to Washington's original name for the war on terror, Operation Infinite Justice, on the grounds that only God has the power to mete that out.
Or that the outrage over the president's off-the-cuff reference to a "Crusade against terror" in the days after 9/11 would have made the administration hyper-sensitive.
But now some military scribe has coined a name right out of the Crusades -- which, after all, is precisely what opponents claim the U.S. is waging in the Middle East. The invasion of the Christian armies to "liberate" the Holy Lands may have taken place a millennium ago, but it continues to live in the psyche of many Arabs.
"Wonderful sights were to be seen," wrote Crusader Raymund of Aguiles, describing the slaughter of 40,000 Muslims as the Soldiers of Christ breached the walls of Jerusalem in 1099. "Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city."
If you doubt the continuing impact of that event, just note al-Qaeda's official name: The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders.
The Pentagon is steadfast in its claim that it continues to win the military battle in Iraq. While that may be debatable, there is no doubt it is losing the PR war -- in Iraq and across the Muslim world.
"Fierce Falluja fighting recalls Vietnam," announced al-Jazeera this week, over images of jubilant resistance fighters framed by plumes of black smoke. "No To Occupation," proclaimed Egypt's al-Ahram, beneath a picture of Shiite demonstrators. "Blood Raining on Iraqi Nation," read a front-page headline in the Tehran Times.
"It seems that occupation massacres are the extension of the former regime's ones," wrote columnist Abdulwahab Badrakhan of al-Hayat, the largest-circulation newspaper in the Arab world.
And as if a name dripping with the blood of history were not enough, the Pentagon completed the Crusader symbolism by using its 21st Century sword to smite the occupants of a mosque: dropping a 500-pound laser-guided weapon on the compound surrounding a Sunni Muslim house of worship, leaving some 40 dead.
At the same time, a Marine colonel said of the siege of Falluja, which has reportedly claimed almost 300 Iraqi lives and left some 400 wounded, "The mission is going particularly well." It was eerily reminiscent of the immortal Vietnam line: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
Powerful images. Powerful words. Powerful propaganda.
What next, an assault on the shrine of Ali, one of the most revered Shiite saints, where Muqtadar al-Sadr is rumored to be holed up?
"A mosque has special status under the Geneva Convention," explained the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who said insurgents had been firing from the Falluja compound. "[But] it can be attacked when there is a military necessity."
The U.S. might be on firm ground in Geneva, but in the Muslim world's court of public opinion it is setting itself up for the death sentence.
"Excuses may be presented," scolded Indonesia's Jawa Pos in an editorial, "But intentional or not the attack to the mosque that killed worshippers Š must be condemned" and will "broaden anti-American attitudes in all parts of the world."
Iraq has become Osama bin Laden's wet dream. His goal was to unite the Muslim world against the U.S. With the historic enmity between Sunnis and Shiites being -- at least temporarily -- set aside to face the common enemy in Iraq, and rising outrage among Muslims from West Africa to Southeast Asia, bin Laden must be watching with wonder and joy.
America prides itself on its advertising savvy. Yet an administration that waited to announce the invasion of Iraq until the autumn of 2002 because, in the words of White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," appears to be oblivious to the impact its words and actions have on perceptions in the Middle East and beyond.
"I want YOU to invade Iraq," said an apocryphal recruiting poster featuring Osama bin Laden that circulated on anti-war web sites after 9/11. And so we did. Historian Barbara Tuchman had a phrase for it: "The march of folly," which she defined as "the pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest."
Meanwhile, the echoes of America's first fatal encounter with the power of a radicalized Shiite populous continue to be heard. Videotaped scenes of blindfolded civilian hostages in Iraq recall the grainy black-and-white images of the first American captives collected on the streets of Beirut exactly 20 years ago. Some were held for up to seven years -- long after U.S. troops withdrew.
As the Marines retreated behind barbed wire and dirt berms, then abandoned the country altogether, those of us attempting to cover the fallout of U.S. policy in Lebanon found ourselves inexorably transformed from reporters to targets and, for the unfortunate few, to hostages. Eventually, American reporters, like U.S. Marines and diplomats and their European allies, followed in the footsteps of the Crusaders, whose ruined fortresses are still evident across that war-ravaged country, forced to leave Lebanon to the Lebanese.
Suicide bombings. Troops under siege. Civilian hostages. A president promising to "stay the course."
Were she still alive, Tuchman might have had something to say about the lessons of history. But it is unlikely Tuchman's books have many readers inside the Coalition compound in Baghdad, whose occupants still talk of progress, even as they refer to the area outside their razor-wire as "The Red Zone."
To the rest of the world, that's called Iraq.
Reprinted by special permission
April 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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