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Methods Matter in War on Terrorism


Tallahassee Democrat, Dec. 2, 2003

Max Paul Friedman teaches the history of U.S. foreign relations at Florida State University.

Reuters reported last week that the Pentagon's code name 'Iron Hammer' for its latest offensive in Iraq is an echo (almost certainly unwitting) of the Nazis' 'Operation Iron Hammer,' an air campaign intended to destroy Soviet power plants in World War II. This is not the first time American officials have stumbled into infelicitous language because of their lack of attention to history. But the gaffes are not merely symbolic; they represent a deeper failure that can have serious consequences. In December 1998, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Iraqi targets in what was dubbed 'Operation Desert Fox.' The purpose was to punish Saddam Hussein for not cooperating with weapons inspectors and demonstrate America's resolve.

But as any graduate of West Point must have known, the original 'Desert Fox' was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Nazi Germany's most skillful general, who led the tank campaign against Allied forces in North Africa. Critics of U.S. attacks on Iraq, observing that the missile strikes caused an unknown number of civilian deaths (including that of Leila al-Attar, Iraq's leading woman artist), had a field day with that one. Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, President Bush promised to launch a 'crusade' against terrorism. To Muslims around the globe, the word invoked centuries of bloody invasions by Christian zealots. Bush stopped using the term. The Pentagon then hurriedly renamed the attack on Afghanistan 'Operation Enduring Freedom,' after critics pointed out that its first choice, 'Operation Infinite Justice,' was sacrilegious to Muslims who believe that infinite justice can come only from God.

More recently, the president failed to reprimand Lt. Gen. William Boykin for giving speeches in uniform calling the struggle against terrorism 'a battle with Satan' that America would win because it is 'a Christian nation.' The general likes to show photos he took of black streaks in the sky over Mogadishu he says are 'demonic forces.' He claimed President Bush was 'appointed by God,' and said of a Muslim warlord in Somalia, 'I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.' Boykin remains deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence - an appointment that defies satire, and not one that instills confidence in the Pentagon's analytical ability in a conflict that is deadly serious.

A poor choice of words is not a crime. But the names given to military operations and public speeches by high military officials should serve a public relations purpose, whether by justifying a given military action, or trying to rally support for it. In all these instances, though, the opposite effect is produced: the 'iron hammer' landed on our own thumb. Beyond such P.R. failures, the verbal gaffes are rooted in a deeper problem. U.S. officials who use such terms are reflecting their lack of knowledge of history and their disregard for cultural sensitivity. The trouble is not merely that this leads to unsuccessful symbols. The trouble is that it leads to unsuccessful policies.

The turn to 'Iron Hammer' tactics like dropping 500-pound bombs on targets in urban Baghdad, what Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, calls 'using a sledgehammer to crush a walnut,' is unlikely to harm the underground resistance there (especially if we can't find the walnut in the first place). But it is likely to undermine the campaign to win Iraqi hearts and minds.

Administration figures who cheerily predicted grateful Iraqis showering American troops with flowers and sweets had not spent much time thinking about the tradition of resistance to foreign occupiers. When President Bush urged Turkish troops to participate in the occupation, he did not consider what this would mean to Iraqis, who used to be ruled by the Ottoman Empire. American authorities soon found themselves in conflict with their own handpicked Iraqi allies in the provisional government, who were aghast at the idea of seeing Turkish soldiers back in their streets.

French President Jacques Chirac is now restraining himself from indulging in a celebratory 'I-told-you-so' as the Bush administration alters its diplomatic policy to be more in line with France's call for a speedier transfer of power to Iraqis. Chirac has explained his original opposition to the war and his eagerness to see Iraqi sovereignty restored as coming in part from his memory of France's long, doomed campaigns to quell nationalist movements in Indochina and Algeria. History does not allow us to predict the future, but it does offer insight into contemporary conflicts and warnings from past failures. At least for leaders who pay attention to the past.