Perspectives on US Foreign Policy During the Iraq War

by Akshata Bailkeri

It was five in the morning, and the sun was just peeking out from behind the hills of endless sand. He was tired and thirsty but completely aware that in the nearby village there would be turban-wearing people armed with guns and weapons, ready to strike at any given moment. This was his first time on duty in Iraq, but he had heard enough stories to be prepared for any attack from these damn Hajis. Carefully, he stepped down the road through the village’s first row of houses, armed with a loaded gun. Hearing the soft crunch of a foot on gravelly sand, he swiveled and pointed the gun directly at…a little girl? The frightened Iraqi girl stood still. Curiosity had drawn her out, but faced with the firearm, she was paralyzed. With shaking hands, she held out the glass of water she had just filled at the village well. Shocked, he lowered his weapon and drank gratefully. Why this sudden gesture of kindness? After all, he thought, they hated us…and they were all aligned with Hussein, weren’t they?

But could a small girl be capable of such hatred?

* * *

Unfortunately, like this imagined soldier, many in the United States held prejudicial attitudes toward Iraqis during the war. It wasn’t hate that drove many Americans to these conclusions; rather, it was ignorance fostered by the media. In essence, the media in the US—and the Middle East—played the blame game. With the end of the Iraq War, scholars have been able to assess the war as a whole and understand its complexities. One of the most interesting parts of the global  aspect of the Iraq War is the way the conflict was portrayed through Al-Jazeera and the major US media sources. Each country’s media placed their own country on the “right” side of the war, which tended to warp how individuals perceived their own country’s role in the war. Truly, the globalization of media has influenced the points of view of the US and Iraq on the US foreign policy during the Iraq War.

Discussing the war raises one of the most important questions: How did the US government justify the war in Iraq? In the buildup to the war, the Bush-Cheney administration stated: “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction… he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us” (“How the Bush Administration Sold the Iraq War”). This statement has seen much debate, but one thing is clear: the wording resonated with the American fear of terrorism after the attack on September 11th, 2001.  In fact, “three-quarters of Americans approve of the decision to go to war with Iraq—almost the same as the 79% who approved of the first Persian Gulf War as it got underway a little more than 12 years ago” stated a special report (Newport et al) at that time. Apart from the belief that Hussein held weapons of mass destruction and could have potential terroristic uses for them, the majority of Americans likely justified the war with the belief that Iraq would be helped if relieved of their dictator. The media conditioned this approval.

However, hindsight offers a different perspective on the war on Iraq. According to a Gallup survey, “ten years after the United States invaded Iraq, 53 percent of Americans now view the war as a mistake—but with a majority of Republicans still standing behind the effort…” (Terkel). This illustrates how, over the course of the war, the opinions of the public dropped from 75% approval to 47%. Soon after the invasion, the general public learned that the premise under which the United States invaded Iraq was false. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, indeed, but he had no weapons of mass destruction. The perceptions of the US on the action taken towards Iraq began positively but later ended with regret.

The Iraqi point of view sheds new light on how Iraqis interpreted the United States’ actions during the Iraq War. This perspective is often understated in documents about the war. Indeed, most accounts of the war come from the perspective of soldiers and journalists in the war, not the Iraqis themselves. In fact, because the journalists themselves were “embedded” with the US army, this likely allowed misrepresentation of the war. By ignoring the Iraqi population, the American understanding of the war became skewed. The general public heard only one side of the story. Due to this unbalanced viewpoint, Americans are not able to understand the Iraqis view. For example, contrary to what some Americans may believe, the Iraqis interpreted the removal of the Iraqi army in a negative manner. The journalist Mark Thompson, in the critique, “What the Iraqi People Think of Our War Against Their Nation,” condemns “the many ways in which the Bush administration bungled the occupation, especially in the early days, are well known. The unforgivable occupation mistake Iraqis mention again and again is the disbanding of the Iraqi army. It is difficult to overstate how huge a blunder that was.” The eradication of the Iraqi army by the US army triggered the dislike of the Iraqis towards the US.

Thompson argues that most Iraqis didn’t mind the death of Saddam Hussein; rather, they were angrier about the US taking away their main defense system. Its citizens ran the Iraqi army, not the corrupt government, so they felt that the US infringed upon their key defensive strategy against their own government. What the US assumed was a helpful strategy ended up being the cause of most of the Iraqi anger. Many Americans mistakenly assume that they did the Iraqis a favor by getting rid of Hussein, but they fail to understand that the Iraqis would have liked to take care of their own country. By shoving our way into Iraq, the US illustrated its power, not its empathy.

In “The Rise of the Rest,” Fareed Zakaria addresses the concept of nationalism and its effect on America’s political relations with other countries. He states, “when the United States involves itself abroad, it always believes that it is genuinely trying to help other countries better themselves. From the Philippines and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, the natives’ reaction to U.S. efforts has taken Americans by surprise” (Zakaria 614). In other words, the countries on the receiving end may interpret a seemingly helpful action differently. The US may have thought its actions would help the Iraqi people escape the dictatorship of Hussein, but the Iraqi people themselves perceived our invasion as detrimental to their force. When discussing the war on Iraq, Zakaria illustrates how the US invasion in Iraq was more a show of power than it was a helpful endeavor:

Despite the reluctance, opposition, or active hostility of much of the world, the United States was able to launch an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country and to enlist dozens of countries and international agencies to assist it during and after the invasion. It is not just the complications of Iraq that have unwound this order. Even had Iraq been a glorious success, the method of its execution would have made utterly clear the unchallenged power of the United States — and it is this exercise of unipolarity that has provoked a reaction around the world. (Zakaria 620)

The politics behind the move to invade Iraq stretched beyond the democratic ideals that the US preached. The true irony was that the US wanted to free Iraq from a dictator, but it dictated its own terms on Iraq right after. The US took away Iraqi forces and armies, rendering them weak. The Bush-Cheney administration would argue otherwise, but testimonies show that Iraq wanted to handle its problems by itself, not with the assistance of the US. As Zakaria aptly puts it, “that sense of being governed by one’s ‘own,’ without interference, is a powerful feeling in emerging countries…” (615).  Rather than handing the control of the country to its citizens, the US essentially took over the country by imposing its own conditions upon it. This discrepancy between how the US perceives itself in the war and the effects of US intervention is clearly shown through the differing news from the Iraqi and American newspapers and media.

Both the Iraqi and American vantage points were highly influenced by media. The globalization of the world certainly included the globalization of news and media sources, but this wasn’t always a positive phenomenon. An article from MSNBC later outlined the Bush-Cheney administration’s manipulative strategy into getting into Iraq:

Paul Pillar–then one of the CIA’s top terrorism analysts—says in the documentary that the 9/11 attacks ‘made it politically possible for the first time to persuade the American people to break a tradition of not launching offensive wars.’ But to achieve the goal, secret intelligence was twisted, massaged, and wildly exaggerated. ‘It wasn’t a matter of lying about this or lying about that,’ Pillar says. ‘But rather—through the artistry of speechwriters and case-presenters—conveying an impression to the American people that certain things were true.’ But those things were not true. It’s worth watching to see how it was done. (How the Bush Administration Sold the Iraq War)

Furthermore, the manner in which the news was covered during the war was also warped. In fact, “throughout the war, reporting about the Iraqis was often negative, describing either the suffering of the civilians or their defeat on the battlefield. Nevertheless, criticism of the Iraqis was restrained in most countries, with the exception of the United States, in which about 55% of the evaluations of Iraqis were negative” (Kolmer). This illustrates how US news coverage tended to create negative impressions of the Iraqis—which likely further justified the war. Only American papers reflected the military actions in a positive manner. European papers portrayed the bloodshed and casualties of the war, rather than diminishing its brutality.

Nonetheless, the news sources in the Middle East weren’t always much better.  The papers were often riddled with anti-American sentiment and illustrated unfavorable reviews on the attack as well. While the anger was warranted, the perception of America as a whole was skewed. Christian Kolmer and Holli A. Semetko contend, in “Framing the Iraq War: Perspectives from American, U.K., Czech, German, South African, and Al-Jazeera News”: “Al-Jazeera also focused on the Allies, but with a … critical tone …” (Kolmer). Al-Jazeera, the popular news source from Qatar, obviously tried to show a negative image of the US and its allies in the war. Similarly, the newspapers tended to spend more time on aspects of the war that positioned the US in a negative light. Often, the rest of the world critiqued America’s aggressive political roles in Iraq; thus, many Middle Eastern papers devoted more time in judging the US by the way it handled its foreign affairs. For example, Kolmer and Semetko state, “…Al-Jazeera, and news in Germany and South Africa—countries that did not support the actions of the United States and the United Kingdom in Iraq—devoted a considerable share of the news to the political aspects of the war.”  Thus, by focusing on the parts of the war that would portray the US in a very negative light, the media managed to skew events to their interpretation.

The Iraqis themselves offer their viewpoints on the events taking place in their country. One current Iraqi blogger, Salam Pax, articulates his views on the invasion of Iraq. He reflects:

And can one ever forget the never-ending Iraqi civilian casualties. To be honest, I still have no idea how to refer to April 9, 2003. For a while, one of our short-lived early governments called it “Baghdad Liberation Day” but that feels like a contradiction in terms as foreign forces stormed the city and that usually is described as an invasion. On the other hand, I never really could bring myself to describing it as the “Fall of Baghdad.”I thought we were never going to let that happen although after five years of mostly death and bloodshed my beloved city is certainly not what it used to be. I don’t want to say fallen. But Baghdad is unquestionably and deeply hurt. (Al Jazeera English)

Pax’s feelings about his experience reflect the agony of many Iraqis who believe that Iraq still has a long way to go before it fully recovers. The juxtaposition of the “Baghdad Liberation Day” with the American invasion illustrates how Iraq just moved from one tyrant to another: first, Saddam Hussein and then, the United States. In the process of liberating Iraqis, the US chained them to its rules and regulations by refusing to let them govern themselves. Hearing from the Iraqis allows the US to understand that it grossly underestimated both the amount of bloodshed of the invasion and the consequences of such a drastic move.

Furthermore, the media coverage of the war was usually seen from one perspective: that of the United States. According to Thompson, the writer for Time Politics, “most of what we read and hear about Iraq comes from the perspective of journalists, soldiers and commentators. There seemed to be, to me, a shortage of Iraqi voices in the discussion of the war, especially in books.” Underrepresented perspectives of the Iraqis on the war made way for an uneven understanding of the motivations and consequences of the war. By ignoring the Iraqi perspective, the US population was given a very one-sided view of how it should perceive Iraq and its leaders, which in turn predisposed the American population toward the anti-Iraqi propaganda fed by the media outlets.

Similarly, in his essay, “Moral Disagreements,” Kwame Appiah discusses the idea that morals are a matter of perspective. His understanding of globalization is derived from the idea that “when notions of rightand wrong are actually at work, they’re thickly enmeshed in the complications of particular social contexts” (657). Thus, if one was to connect this idea to the media portrayal of the US foreign policy in the Iraq War, one could see that varying perspectives on the issue (Iraqi vs. American) have influenced the way the war was portrayed. Texts from both sides essentially described two different wars, each placing their own country on the “right” side of it. Iraqis considered themselves the victims of hostile invasions, whereas Americans considered themselves the expanders of democracy. As Appiah asserts, “Indeed, it’s often part of our understanding of these terms that their applications are meant to be argued about. They are, to use another piece of philosopher’s jargon, essentially contestable“ (666). Each country had its notions of what it felt was correct at that point. Hindsight, of course, offered its own logic, but at the beginning of the war, no one could effectively predict what was to come. No matter that each side believed itself to be right; each belief was “essentially contestable” to the other’s. Therefore, while these countries became a part of the global world, the morals that they lived by differed because of the varying perspectives. As mentioned before, this very discrepancy is depicted in the media through newspapers, internet and television.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that not all people agree that the media misrepresented information. Many people feel that statistically, the current 47% approval of the war is almost the same as a fifty-fifty split, so the media was not, in fact, contributing much to misperception. However, several sources, as shown in this paper, illustrate how the media conditioned this approval. Thus, in all, one can clearly see the immense impact the globalization of media has had on the perceptions of the Iraq War. This illustrates how important—and dangerous—media can be due to the risks associated with the discrepancies in news sources. If anything, this teaches us the dangers of blindly trusting the media, which is colored by its source’s own perspective, not just fact.

Works Cited

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        657-666. Print.

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        Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

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        Time, 22 June 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Zakaria, Fareed. “The Rise of the Rest” From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Ed.
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        611-623. Print.