The Psychological War at Home and Abroad

As the Bush administration abandoned the psychology of diplomacy and war with Iraq became certain, the U.S. public was repeatedly assured that the battle plan would produce rosy results. This pro-war psychology was occasionally tempered by warnings that, inevitably, some U.S. service persons might be killed. What the public was not prepared for psychologically, because it was never mentioned, was the equally likely event that Americans would become prisoners of war.

In the war’s opening hours, accidents took allied lives but Iraq captured no troops. Then pilots went missing, as did at least 14 ground soldiers. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television soon broadcast pictures of dead and captured U.S. soldiers that western media rebroadcast, creating shock and outrage in America. Officials from the President on down warned that the pictures could constitute war crimes under the 1949 Geneva Conventions (signed by the U.S., UK, and Iraq), and perpetrators would be held responsible. In view of Iraq’s horrible treatment of prisoners during the 1991 Gulf War, Washington rightly insisted that Iraq treat all prisoners “humanely” and protect them “against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Psychologically, this stance resonated with the public’s perception, again created by the administration, that Saddam is evil incarnate.

Although the administration is absolutely correct in its position on U.S. war prisoners held by Iraq, Washington’s habit of ignoring multilateral remedies suggests there are other audiences being courted.

On the domestic scene, some analysts suggest that the White House would like to shift the focus of human rights groups from questionable practices at U.S. detention camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Mindful of the psychological impact of the pictures from Somalia of U.S. servicemen killed during the failed 1993 raid, the administration may also want to preclude any pictures suggesting U.S. vulnerability. This applies to Arab television and, in the event a U.S. unit takes significant casualties, to “embedded” press whose transmissions can be limited by military commanders for any “operational” reason.

In the war zone itself, the Pentagon’s battlefield psychological campaign–radio broadcasts and 25 million leaflets warning Iraqis not to use chemical or biological weapons and instructing them on how to surrender–has so far failed. Six days into combat, only 4,000 had surrendered, belying reports that an Iraqi division of 10,000 men had given up. For days, western forces repeatedly declared as “secure” towns (Umm Qasr) and key infrastructure (the bridges at Nasiriyah), only for new fighting to begin. U.S. and UK combat formations as well as logistical convoys traveling through “cleared” areas were being attacked, causing more losses and rekindling questions about the wisdom of the war plan’s “rolling start.”

The strategic psychological war effort also struggled. The “decapitation” strike, which might have stopped the war before it really began, failed. In fact, Iraq’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, went to Cairo March 24th for an Arab League summit. Before the fighting started, administration spokespersons predicted that invading forces would be enthusiastically welcomed as liberators, but even in the Shi’ite-dominated south, the welcome has been mixed, with independent journalists reporting the presence along roadways of numerous small groups of civilians, allegiance unknown, carrying AK-47 rifles. UK forces, having declared Basra a military target because of armed resistance, reported fighting within Basra, possibly between pro- and anti-Saddam adherents. (Just how widespread the fighting is remains unclear.) What is clear, despite Bush administration predictions, is the overall lack of enthusiasm for the “liberators.” While some reticence undoubtedly springs from residual fear of Saddam loyalists, it is also true that hatred of Saddam does not necessarily translate into love for invading foreigners whose bombs kill civilians.

The psychology of “coalition” is also suffering strategic strains. Turkey restricted its cooperation to overflights of its territory and is defying U.S. pressure to not send troops into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The U.S. is racing to build a credible ground force presence in the north, ostensibly to provide a third front against Baghdad, but also to tamp down any fighting between Kurds and Turks. South Korea’s parliament delayed a vote to authorize deployment of medics and military engineers to Iraq, while Jordan renewed a call to end the fighting. Unfortunately, having launched a preventive war to effect regime change, the White House cannot stop until Saddam surrenders (unlikely), is killed, or organized military resistance ends.

In his March 20 address announcing that hostilities had begun, President Bush pledged a “sustained commitment” to help Iraq become “a united, stable, and free country.” Turning this pledge into reality means winning the physical battle quickly, with minimum deaths and negative publicity, and then the psychological battle among the U.S. public, the Iraqi public, people in the wider region, and in multinational fora. As conditions stand now, Washington is ahead only with the first audience. Once the occupation of Iraq begins, it may soon find that the U.S. public has tired of war.