Troubling but Helpful: US-Iraqi Dialogue

James Zogby’s Column

In March and then again this past week, I had the opportunity to host a televised dialogue between students in the United States and groups of Iraqis in Baghdad.  Both efforts were programs that aired on Abu Dhabi TV and both, I believe, exemplify the positive role that television can play in promoting inter-civilization discourse.

The first of these two sessions took place on March 12, just days before the beginning of the war.  For over an hour, 150 students at Davidson College, one of the U.S.’s premier liberal arts colleges, engaged in a lively give and take conversation with 100 students at the University of Baghdad.

As informative as this conversation may have been, we were all acutely aware of two asymmetries that defined the interaction.  On the one hand, the U.S. students were free to have an open debate about their government and the impending war.  The students in Iraq were not so free.  On the other hand, the students in Baghdad were living with the imminent threat of a U.S. bombardment, while the U.S. students faced no such threat. 

When asked for a show of hands for or against the war, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. students made clear their opposition to the Bush Administration’s war plans.  For their part, the Iraqi students appeared to be surprised by this display of dissent.

The U.S. students, however, were troubled by the fact that the Iraqi students would not criticize their own government and its policies.  After pursuing this subject through a number of questions, the American students were asked whether they believed that their Iraqi counterparts were being truthful in their expressions of support for the Baathi regime.  The vote was overwhelmingly negative.

It was at this point that one of the more compelling moments in the dialogue occurred.  One Iraqi young woman, clearly frustrated by this entire discussion noted,

“Yes, there are things we want to change….But right now we’re focusing on major changes, we’re focusing on stopping a war, we’re focusing on surviving through a blockade. It’s just like when the tragedy of 9/11 happened, you stopped criticizing the government, you stopped criticizing everything in general. It was a crisis, and that’s exactly what we have now.”

As moved as they were by this comment, the U.S. students were also deeply affected by the program’s end.  It was at that point when the Iraqi students were asked how many of them had lost family members during the Iran-Iraq war and how many had lost kin due to the decades of sanctions against their country.  A significant number raised their hands. 

The second discussion between Americans and Iraqis occurred last week under radically different circumstances.  The same U.S. students participated, but with Iraq in chaos, the Iraqi students had all dispersed.  With no phones, no mail, and security a major problem throughout the country, Abu Dhabi TV worked tirelessly to assemble a representative audience if Iraqi citizens.

The war is over, the dictator has been toppled and Americans are now the power in Iraq.  While we all expected that a different political discourse would prevail in Baghdad, what was clear was that Iraqis are angry at the U.S. performance, to date, in their country.

While a number of the Iraqi participants expressed their relief that the regime had been toppled, when they were asked whether they viewed the U.S. action as a war of liberation or occupation, almost 90 percent indicated that they saw the U.S. as an occupier. 

As the discussion developed, it became clear that the principle source of Iraqi anger was the chaos that prevailed in their country.  The Iraqis were quite troubled by the looting, which a number of participants accused the Americans of either allowing or even encouraging.  They were equally frustrated by the lack of security, the lack of services and the destruction of the city’s infrastructure.                

After hearing a number of Iraqis refer to this chaos as part of an American conspiracy to perpetuate their presence in Iraq, the thoughtful Abu Dhabi TV host on site in Baghdad, Jaber Obaid, attempted to push the audience to think more analytically about the situation.  The Iraqi participants would have none of it.  They responded with comments like: “if the Americans had really intended to liberate us, they should have planned for the aftermath of the war like they planned for the war itself”; “why did they protect the oil, but not the museum and the hospital?”; “why after all this time do we still not have power?” and so on.

Clearly frustrated with this situation in which they have replaced one type of powerlessness with another, one participant observed: “Before when we had such a discussion, the secret police were listening.  Who is listening now?  No one is hearing us.” 

After hearing these poignant and angry Iraqi concerns, the American side was clearly troubled.  It is interesting to note that while the majority of the U.S. participants had expressed their opposition to the war, they now felt that the U.S. had a responsibility to remain in Iraq and right this wrong-help to restore order, assist a representative Iraqi government come into existence and provide it with the support it needed to care for the needs of the people of the country.

Some of the U.S. participants, a former U.S. Ambassador, a former high ranking intelligence official and a very perceptive student, all expressed a deeper concern.  With the 2004 elections approaching, they worried that the U.S. might be tempted to put Iraq on the back burner, as it appears to have done with Afghanistan.

What emerged from this second conversation is that the U.S. has entered not just the country of Iraq, but the history of that country as well.  For better or worse, the U.S. will play a role in Iraq’s future.  The U.S. will either fulfill its stated goal of creating a free and prosperous Iraq or it will leave that country in a state worse then when it entered in March 2003.

Iraqis are now free, free not only to criticize the toppled regime, but their “liberators” as well. What these two conversations demonstrated was the importance of political discourse.  In both instances, while the two sides did come to better understand each other, too much of the discussion remained a dialogue of the deaf.  Americans during each exchange, both those for and against the war, were idealists.  And Iraqis, both before and after the war were realists.  Americans like to see themselves as pursuing values and wanted to focus on their intentions.  The Iraqis, in our conversation, on the other hand, were logically more concerned with the impact that these actions would have on their lives.  

If America is to play a better role, Americans must do a better job of listening and learning before they act-so that their ideals and intentions are informed by the realities of the people who are impacted by U.S. deeds.

These inter-civilizational dialogues make a critical contribution to our understanding and can aid in the formulation of policy.  It is a good thing that Abu Dhabi TV plans to continue them. 

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.