Orientalism in Full Force: Edward Said, Liberals, and Iraq

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the original publication of Edward Said’s classic Orientalism, in which Said presented a meticulous critique of how Western discourse functions to maintain global social hierarchies by perpetually "Othering" non-Western peoples. While the book almost immediately acquired canonical status within sectors of academia, its lessons remain largely unlearned among liberal intellectuals and commentators, and perhaps even among many of those who would claim to admire Said’s work. 

One of the most stunning examples of liberals’ continued ignorance of the book’s main argument is the frequent neglect and/or distortion of the views of the occupied population in Iraq. The inability of subject peoples to speak for themselves is a central assumption of Orientalist thought, and one which continues to characterize most liberal mainstream "criticism" of the Iraq occupation.

Polls have consistently found strong majorities of ordinary Iraqis agreeing that the US occupation incites more violence than it prevents, and that the violence would not increase after a US withdrawal. On the contrary, they say, a US departure would lead to improved security and chances for political reconciliation (1). Despite all the euphoria in the West over the alleged successes of the US "surge," 67-70 percent of Iraqis stated in August 2007 that "security ha[d] deteriorated" and that "the surge ha[d] hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development"(2). An October 2007 US Defense Department poll found that only 12 percent of Iraqis "had at least some confidence" in the occupying forces to reduce violence (3).

Most liberals who criticize the war pay little attention to these findings, however. Liberal critics fall into one of two categories with respect to Iraqi public opinion. The first group argues that the chaos in Iraq is tragic and that Bush has mishandled things, but that the US cannot withdraw because of its "moral responsibility" to the Iraqi people (4). The second group argues that the US must tear itself away anyways, for our own good. A US withdrawal from Iraq would let Iraqis down, but we should withdraw despite Iraqis’ reluctance to let us go. Both groups of critics agree that Iraqis want us to stay. 

Disdain for Iraqi opinions extends to other issues as well. For example, mainstream defenders and critics of the war almost universally praise the US-backed Iraqi oil bill as a way of ensuring "an equitable division of oil wealth," and fault the Bush administration and the Iraqi government for failing to push the bill through the Iraqi Parliament. Absent from the discussion is the fact that the privatization of Iraqi oil is opposed by a solid two-thirds majority of Iraqis—a remarkably high percentage given the pervasive propaganda in support of the US-backed proposal (5). That percentage includes much of the Iraqi labor movement, which the occupying forces have brutally suppressed using the very same anti-labor laws that Saddam used (6). But commentators almost unanimously take it for granted that ordinary Iraqis would welcome our magnanimous plan for what we call "revenue sharing."

In short, mainstream commentators who do take "Iraqi views" into account often make highly-misleading implications about what ordinary Iraqis think and want. Usually the term "Iraqis" implicitly refers to the Iraqi government, not the Iraqi people. This distinction is crucial since the Iraqi government favors a continuation of the occupation for its own survival.

More frequently, though, commentators completely dodge the question of Iraqis’ opinions. Ignoring or downplaying those opinions is justified because Iraqis are not yet mature enough to make responsible decisions for themselves. As Said might say, Iraqis exhibit a "rejection of rationalist modes of thought" and therefore need a responsible father-figure to make decisions for them (7). This implicit assumption reveals a metaphor present throughout much critical commentary: the characterization of the US as a responsible father and of Iraqis as delinquent children.

When asked recently how she would justify a US withdrawal to the Iraqis (who, remember, want us to stay), Hillary Clinton replied, "I would say ‘I’m sorry, it’s over. We are not going to baby-sit a civil war’" (8). Clinton is by no means the only liberal to employ the "babysitting" analogy. Barack Obama has voiced the same opinion verbatim (9). New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is even more explicit:

By now it should be clear that Iraq is going to be what it is going to be. We’ve never had sufficient troops there to shape Iraq in our own image. We simply can’t go on betting so many American soldiers and resources that Iraqis will one day learn to live together on their own—without either having to be bludgeoned by Saddam or baby-sat by us. (10)

Here Friedman combines several common motifs. He conjures the image of a benevolent, burdened giant who is victimized by a stubborn population of childlike delinquents who insist on perpetuating the cycle of violence and driving up their father’s blood pressure. The US is a kind-hearted and patient, if sometimes bumbling, parent; Iraqis are recalcitrant children who just can’t seem to behave in a dignified, civilized manner. And Friedman’s biggest lament is that we didn’t invade with enough military power "to shape Iraq in our own image," which is an inherently noble goal of course. The ascendance of Thomas Friedman to the status of a widely-renowned best-selling author, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, and "arguably the world’s most influential and popular foreign-policy thinker" (11) is an interesting commentary on the dominant intellectual culture of the US and Western Europe.  

Other critics are less explicit yet no less condescending toward Iraqis, and their criticisms betray many of the Orientalist tendencies that Said critiques. They generally paint a picture of an irrational, ungrateful, and violence-prone Iraqi population who refuses to put its own house in order, and of a US doing everything in its own power to help Iraq. In a Fall 2006 piece entitled "Lost in the Desert," Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd lamented that "the Iraqis evince not the slightest interest in a secure environment" (12) We must bear in mind, as the Times editors remind us, that "America can’t want peace and democracy for Iraq more than the Iraqis" (13). Neither column mentioned the various ways in which the US has deliberately obstructed democracy and reconciliation: by backing laws and policies which exacerbate sectarian tensions; by facilitating the rise to power of misogynistic and theocratic officials (14); by its repeated efforts "to shelve or dilute" elections like the January 2005 ones (15); by pushing its oil law proposal against Iraqis’ wishes; by maintaining Saddam’s draconian labor laws to suppress the Iraqi labor movement; and most obviously, by invading and occupying Iraq in spite of overwhelming popular opposition. Instead, as usual, the US appears as a caring parent perpetually burdened by its delinquent children.

The lack of attention to Iraqis’ views on the occupation is just one way in which liberal "criticism" of the last five years has subtly reinforced many of the unspoken assumptions upon which military imperialism is premised. The war may be bad, but Iraqi opinions do not figure in to the decision about how to proceed. Such assumptions are hundreds of years old, yet among mainstream intellectuals they are as fierce and vicious as ever. I’m not sure if Said would laugh or cry.




(1) For a short summary and links to key Iraqi public opinion polls since 2004, see Kevin Young, "Iraqi Public Opinion: The US Occupation in Slogan and in Fact," ZNet (online), 9 January 2008. Available at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16156.

(2) Quotes from "US Surge Has Failed—Iraqi Poll," BBC News (online), 10 September 2007. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6983841.stm. For full text of poll results see "Iraq Poll September 2007" (poll commissioned by BBC, ABC, and NHK news agencies). Available at http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/resist/2007/09bbciraqipoll.pdf.

(3) US DoD, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," December 2007, 26, 54n.

(4) Friedman, "Make Them Fight All of Us"; "Signposting the Exit," The Guardian, 21 September 2005: The occupation "must discharge its responsibilities" before withdrawing.

(5) Oil Change International, "Iraqi Oil Law Poll: June-July 2007." Results and relevant links available at http://priceofoil.org/iraqi-oil-law-poll-june-july-2007/.

(6) David Bacon, "Saddam’s Labor Laws Live On," The Progressive (December 2003); Kathlyn Stone, "Iraqi Labor vs. Big Oil: A David and Goliath Story," Counterpunch (online), 24/25 February 2007. Available from http://www.counterpunch.org/stone02242007.html; Lee Sustar, "Iraqi Workers Strike Against U.S. Oil Grab," Socialist Worker (online), 22 June 2007. Available from http://www.socialistworker.org/2007-2/636/636_01_OilStrike.shtml. 

(7) H.A.R. Gibb quoted in Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 106. The original edition was published by Pantheon in 1978.

(8) Quoted in Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, "For Clinton and Obama, Different Tests on Iraq," NYT, 12 February 2007.

(9) Quoted in Philip Sherwell, "Barack Obama ‘the New Jack Kennedy,’" Telegraph, 14 January 2007.

(10)  Friedman, "Iraq Through China’s Lens," NYT, 12 Sept. 2007.

(11) From the July 2006 issue of The Washingtonian, quoted in Norman Solomon, "How I Was Wrong About Thomas Friedman," Media Beat (online), 1 November 2006. Available from http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2984.

(12) Dowd, "Lost in the Desert," NYT, 22 Nov. 2006.

(13) "Democrats Find Their Voice" (editorial), NYT, 17 Nov. 2007.

(14) See Yifat Susskind, "Violence against Women under US Occupation: Iraq’s Other War," Counterpunch (online), 8 March 2007; Kavita N. Ramdas, "Iraqi Women’s Bodies are Battlefields for War Vendettas," Alternet (online), 19 December 2006. Available from http://www.alternet.org/story/45540/; Juan Cole, "The Iraqi Constitution’s Downside for Women," The Globe and Mail, 1 September 2005. Available from http://www.juancole.com/2005/09/iraqi-constitutions-downside-for-women.html; Vivienne Walt, "Marked Women," Time (19 July 2004). Available from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040726-665048,00.html; Dahr Jamail and Ali Al-Fadhily, "No Safety for Women in Iraq," Alternet (online), 15 December 2006. Available from http://www.alternet.org/story/45476/ .

(15) "Winds of Change in the Middle East" (editorial), Financial Times, 5 March 2005.

Leave a comment