Cover Story

The mind is easier to win than the heart

Even in a pro-Western Arab capital, U.S. officials face an unexpected "wave of emotionalism" over the war in Iraq

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

The shooting war may be over in neighboring Iraq, but at the American embassy in Amman, Jordan, there's a definite sense of being under siege. Jordanian soldiers in blue-and-black camouflage uniforms guard the perimeter, automatic weapons at the ready. A high wall rings the sprawling compound. Through a series of turnstiles there's an open plaza, like a no man's land, followed by another wall with a doorway that opens into a screening area. Visitors first pass through a metal detector, then submit to a hand-wanding while their bags are scanned in an adjoining room. Thick metal doors are the only way in or out. A skylight overhead has been blacked out. All electronics, from cameras to cell phones, have to be left here. Finally, an escort arrives to lead visitors across yet another no man's land and into the sanctuary of the embassy itself. But even inside, past all the guns and walls and screening devices, the sense of siege persists. It's not the hostility of the local population that has embassy staffers on edge. They've been prepared for that for months now. What they didn't expect was the not-so-friendly fire coming from back home. From Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh, saber-rattling conservatives have been blasting the State Department's handling of the Iraq crisis. Blamed first for failing to avert the war and then for failing to "sell" it, American diplomats in the Middle East find themselves at the middle of an unexpected firestorm. "We've done a little soul-searching," admits Justin Siberell, the American press attachZ in Amman. "There's a sense in Washington that we failed out here in the field to get across the president's message. But it was, I tell you, a very difficult environment." Indeed, diplomacy looks a lot harder from here in the Arab world than it does from Atlanta or South Florida. Jordan, in particular, was no easy sell for the American point of view, even though the present ruler, King Abdullah, is moderate and Western-oriented like his late father, King Hussein. "The Kingdom," as it's always referred to here, guarantees religious freedom, and perhaps 10 percent of the population considers itself Christian. Women can appear in public with their heads uncovered, and few wear the long, black abayya so common in the Gulf. Jordan has even taken the radical step of recognizing Israel, and travel between the two countries is relatively easy. Yet despite such leanings, Jordan has long had a fairly close relationship with Iraq, its larger neighbor to the east. As far back as 1990, when the rest of the Arab world was united against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Jordan remained officially neutral. Rich Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia responded angrily, and economic reprisals all but crippled an already struggling economy. But Saddam proved an important benefactor. Iraq became Jordan's largest overall trading partner as well as its sole source of crude oil, half provided at no cost and the other half deeply discounted. Jordan converted that goodwill into much-needed cash by pricing gas at the pumps at higher-than-market rates, essentially underwriting its national budget with cheap Iraqi oil. A U.S.-led war in Iraq, of course, would jeopardize that cozy relationship-and that was just one of many local crises American diplomats had to defuse. While President Bush worked for months at home to sell the war on such broad issues as terrorism and self-determination, Arabs in the Middle East had more localized, immediate concerns. "Months and months before the war, we developed some strategies," Mr. Siberell recalls. "We tried to define some of the issues and concerns that we would have to deal with locally.... We looked at the specific concerns we could predict-the trade question, the oil question, the fear of missiles maybe falling on the way to Israel-and we responded to each of those things with specific initiatives." To ease concerns about oil, for instance, the U.S. mediated negotiations between Jordan and the still-sulking Saudis, guaranteeing a steady supply through the southern port of Aqaba. The American ambassador, Skip Gnehm, argued constantly and publicly that an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein-and thus free of United Nations sanctions-would be an even better trading partner than the current Iraq. When President Bush asked Congress for a $1.1 billion supplemental appropriations bill for aid to Jordan, the embassy promoted the move heavily, without even waiting for congressional approval of the request. And the U.S. military calmed security fears by deploying Patriot missiles in Jordan, ready to shoot down any Scuds launched from next door. "We were trying to understand and respond to the specific local concerns that we could anticipate, and I think we addressed those quite effectively," Mr. Siberell says. "Before the war, people were saying, 'What are we going to do about oil? What are we going to do about our economy?' They don't say that now. They got the message about all that we were going to do for them. They know about the $1.1 billion in additional assistance. They know that we helped in their oil negotiations. They know that we had Patriots here to defend their airspace. We were effective in getting those messages out." But no rational explanations or cost/benefit analyses could hold back what Mr. Siberell describes as a "wave of emotionalism" that washed over the entire Middle East once the shooting actually started. "When the war began, it was, for many people, just another invasion of an Arab country, and the appropriate response was to be outraged, to be on the side of your Arab brother as he defends himself against the Western invaders." Arab media, both the new regional satellite channels and the local papers, stoked the fires of anti-Americanism. Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite channel was widely expected to be the key to Arab sentiment, but American diplomats found that newspapers around the region were, if anything, more incendiary than the big broadcasters. "The papers really played to the emotion of the Arab street," according to Mr. Siberell. Gruesome photos and sensational headlines made for brisk sales, and rival papers often seemed to compete for the title of most emotional coverage. A week into the conflict, for instance, Amman's Al Arab daily carried the banner headline: "Baghdad is not so easily invaded." Then, in a secondary headline: "325 martyrs and 4,000 civilians wounded in the first week of the war." Al Arab's two competitors responded the next day with sensational reports of their own. "Iraqi civilian martyrs in the most savage strikes on Baghdad," blared the headline of Al Rai on March 29, while Al Dustour led with a "Savage massacre in Baghdad" and followed with headlines on "Military failure in South; U.S. asks for 120,000 more soldiers." Everywhere in the region, Iraqi war dead were referred to as "martyrs," Americans were "invaders," and battles were either "slaughters" or "massacres." Iraq's information minister, who gained a kind of bemused cult following in the West for his daily denials of the obvious, was quoted in all three papers as an authoritative, reliable source. "A strong resistance to the American tanks," reported Al Arab on the very day Baghdad fell. "Invaders use banned weapons." Even more damaging than the charged language, however, were the photos published at the top of every newspaper every day: crying children, bereaved mothers, dismembered bodies. Often the pictures appeared with no context or explanation. In one, for instance, a frightened girl peers out from a doorway with tears in her eyes. There's no reason given for the tears, but Arab readers are left to assume she has been somehow victimized by the invaders. In other cases, local papers published outright distortions of the facts. Every newspaper in the region, for example, carried a photo of two traditional Muslim women, fully covered in their abayya, being searched by a U.S. soldier facing away from the camera. The picture, provided by the French press association (AFP), made clear in the caption that the soldier was a woman, but only one of Amman's three daily papers bothered to include this key fact. The other two papers dropped the feminine marker in the Arabic word for "soldier," leaving readers to assume the two women were being patted down by a man-a violation tantamount to rape in Muslim cultures. The Arab public, not surprisingly, reacted with outrage. An American tourist was gunned down on the streets of Amman shortly after the war broke out, and diplomats' families were evacuated. Americans who couldn't leave the country were assigned embassy "wardens" to keep them updated on the terror threat and possible evacuation plans, if needed. International schools varied their schedules, calling students and teachers each morning to let them know the time and place of the day's classes. After months of careful planning and meticulous preparation, Mr. Siberell admits the embassy was caught off guard by the intensity of the anti-American backlash. "I think we did a pretty good job of addressing the Jordan-specific issues before the war. But what we couldn't get at was the sort of broader, pan-Arab stuff, this torrent of emotion that overpowered all rational arguments. There was just no reason here." As the Pentagon works to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, the State Department is scrambling to rebuild America's image. Mr. Gnehm has gone on a public-relations offensive with the Jordanian media, and U.S. aid for Iraq-including 28,000 metric tons of grain-is being routed through the port of Aqaba with great fanfare. While such steps may win a few reluctant friends in Jordan, the larger, pan-Arab sentiment is harder to address. Colin Powell's visit to Syria is clearly intended to send the message that America has no plans to occupy the entire Middle East, but as long as American troops have to remain in Iraq, Arabs will surely be skeptical.

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