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Editorial-Winning Hearts and Minds

Winning Hearts and Minds

by Dr. Charles McDaniel


A troubling aspect to the present reconstruction of the world order is the fine line in decision-making either to "win over" or "wall off" the hearts and minds of a people. Terrorism is said to have forced our hands in these decisions; yet the criteria by which one national or ethnic group is granted entry to the global society even as others are rejected remain largely undefined. The strategic interests of the industrialized world undoubtedly are a factor, but caprice appears to influence these choices as well. Some, like the Iraqis, are selected for democratization, a process that includes the modernization of that country's institutions and major capital investments in its infrastructure. Other peoples, such as the Palestinians, are written off as a lost cause. Their fates are the internment camps like the ones being constructed by the Israeli government in its system of settlements, inaccessible highways, and concrete walls. Chechnyans, Tamils, Punjabis and many other ethnic and religious groups are potential candidates for this system that Professor Marc Ellis of Baylor's Center for American and Jewish Studies has described as "ghettoization."

How is it that Iraq was selected to become the beacon of democracy in the Middle East? Did it arrive at some undefined threshold of suffering that triggered Western (and specifically American) intervention? Does it pose a greater threat to the global order than North Korea or Iran? If Operation Iraqi Freedom was initiated for humanitarian reasons, how can we now resist intervening in the ethnic cleansing presently underway in Sudan? If it was a utilitarian decision, how much longer can we avoid action to curb the obvious threat posed by Kim Jong Il? Did American policy-makers weigh the probability of success against the investment required for Iraq's liberation and determine that Iraq is the best use of the developed world's limited democratization resources? These questions do not result from cynicism or second-guessing; they are intended to point out the need to arrive at consistent methods by which we target nations for "value reconstruction" and the necessity for constant reassessment of these efforts.

Many of the claims used to justify the Iraq War are true. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator who posed a real threat not only to Iraq's neighboring states but also to populations within its borders. He exhibited the willingness to use the most heinous weapons against Iranian soldiers and even his own people and assuredly would have done the same to Israelis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and others had he been given the opportunity. Yet the Saddams of the world have persisted throughout history. He will assume a position in the pantheon of political infamy alongside Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, and others who, sadly but assuredly, will follow. The brutality and irrationality of particular regimes must be elements of the decision to forcibly democratize an oppressed people, but they should not be exclusive criteria.

The calculus by which we target nations for future liberation is, in certain ways, a repugnant analysis that will often defy humanitarian instincts. Utilitarianism, for example, in the project to achieve global democracy, is a necessary, albeit distasteful, tool. It involves recognition that some nations are of greater value to the global democratization effort than others. But the utilitarian approach itself will have negative consequences at least in winning the "hearts" of a people. Those left behind because their value to global strategic interests is insufficient or because the probability of success is too low will likely become the seedbed for future terrorism. This realization heightens the necessity of choosing wisely in these efforts. Moreover, it amplifies the need to better distribute the world's limited democratization resources. We need to design tertiary methods for democratic expansion to those countries where direct intervention is deemed inadvisable for whatever reasons. Failure to do so, just as the dichotomy of present decision-making (to intervene or abstain) will result in a dualistic world of good and evil and the perpetual construction of ethnic and religious ghettos.

The decision to "wall off" a people is a conscious choice to establish a perpetual enemy, irrespective of the wrongs or threats that contributed to that choice. It is a conscious judgment, not a twist of fate. It is a decision of political finality that asserts the futility of politics. Moreover, the choice to ignore one nation's need for political reconstruction renders somewhat arbitrary the decision to win over the hearts and minds of another people who, by measures beyond the national interests of developed countries, are no more deserving than those denied entry into the community of nations. Yet such painful decisions are inevitable due to the persistence of disenfranchised peoples and totalitarian regimes.

How do we go about winning the hearts and minds of a people? The first challenge in answering that question is defining exactly what we are winning them to. Liberal or illiberal democracy, a Western or Islamic economic system, a constitutional or Shariah-based legal order-any combination of these are possibilities. Lack of clarity in specifying the end-in-view may be catastrophic in its consequences. Yet Iraq and other societies targeted for reengineering must have a hand in their self-definition to achieve legitimacy and have any possibility of success. A fine balancing act is necessary in determining the degree of external definition and involvement required for the reconstruction of a nation's social institutions. The more detailed the level of involvement, the finer the balance necessary for success in winning hearts and minds. These are complex issues indeed and require the very "nuance" in decision-making that the administration has recently dismissed.

If the goal of the Iraq War is to win the hearts and minds not only of Iraqis but of all people oppressed in dictatorial or fundamentalist regimes throughout the world, then we must seek multiple vantages from which to observe our efforts with some detachment. We must attempt to assess this infinitely complex project not only from the perspective of those being democratized but also from the viewpoints of those left behind and even those who are hostile toward it. The "opportunity cost" of the Iraq War is that of not distributing democratization resources to other countries in similar straits. Moreover, we must ask whether institutional reconstruction of selected countries is either wise or, more crassly, cost effective. In both spreading democracy and eradicating terrorism, is it prudent to place so many of our eggs in the basket of Iraq? More importantly, is it possible that our sheer determination will be our undoing-that American involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq's civil and political institutions will ultimately backfire for its cultural ignorance and excessive confidence in the power of collective reason? Many of those now supporting American participation in the institutional reconstruction of Iraq are of the same political ilk as their conservative predecessors who correctly professed the impossibility of the centrally planned state. Cultural reengineering projects on such a grand scale are rarely successful in history.

The immediate decision has been made. We are in Iraq and will remain there until something has been accomplished. But the ongoing and noble enterprise of spreading freedom in the world must deal with massive cultural complexities; thus, it will require constant reassessment and revision to changing circumstances. Political concerns may work to stymie that objective analysis. Election campaigns will place a premium on the need to paint rosy our efforts in Iraq and elsewhere, regardless of realities. Domestic politics, therefore, emerges as perhaps as great a threat as fundamentalist factions or mass anti-Western sentiments to the success of these foreign policy initiatives. It would be ironic indeed if candor regarding our successes and failures becomes the ultimate casualty in the campaign to spread freedom and democracy. And it will be tragic if the desire to "save face" in Iraq perpetuates policy dogmatics that prevent necessary adaptation along the learning curve of democratization.