The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

Commentary I: Comments on War in Iraq Essays

 Gerald Webster

Department of Geography, The University of Alabama, 202 Farrah Hall, Box 870322, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0322    U.S.A.

I would like to thank Professor Falah and The Arab World Geographer for inviting me to comment on these nine essays. They provide an array of interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on the on-going conflict in Iraq. The authors represent a valuable cross-section of backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines. A full commentary would greatly exceed my space allocation, so I will first focus on a few notable points in each of the essays, concluding with some brief thoughts of my own.

Approximately half of the essays note the power and influence of language and the media in the conflict. Lustick, for example, points out that the U.S. uses labels like “liberation,” “administration,” and “nation-building,” while many Arabs see “conquest,” “occupation,” and “exploitation.”  He suggests that such “semantic skirmishes” are among the first volleys of a “long discursive war” over how the current intervention will be used to define future relationships between the U.S. and the U.K., on the one hand, and the Muslim world, on the other. Lustick argues that the views of many in the Muslim world “match Osama Bin Laden’s preferred narrative—war against the infidel invaders, revolution against existing Muslim regimes, and the development of weapons of mass destruction for use against the Christians and Jews occupying Muslim lands.” His points are clearly of great importance—the actions of the U.S. and the U.K. may well have confirmed the veracity of Bin Laden’s charges in the minds of many Muslims. If Anglo-American forces are not to be viewed as the “new Mongols,” their rebuilding effort must be masterful and they must depart Iraq in months and not years.

Reuber’s essay also focusses upon the power and use of language in preparing nations for war, in this case in the development of a “good reason” for “just war.” He argues that “geopolitics is a war of discourse on space, power, and politics” that is used not only to define “Good and Evil, but also to locate and confine such stereotypes in space, creating different territories separating “us” from “them.” To counteract these efforts, Reuber suggests that political geographers adopt a critical geopolitics that “aims at the disclosure and the deconstruction of such geopolitical rhetorics and language games.” Clearly, this is an important and invaluable task, and the conflict over Iraq has produced a quantity of rhetoric that will take time to review and analyze fully. In this project attention should also be paid to how such geopolitical divisions are redressed after the end of large-scale hostilities. In short, at the end of the war what efforts will be necessary to undo the Othering effected to justify the war at its initiation? I fear that the counterproductive, if not patently false stereotypes, emanating from this war will remain embedded in national world views for generations to come.

Hixson’s essay also includes significant focus upon the use of imagery in the pursuit of “Iraqi freedom,” though in the broader context of the U.S.’s selective use of “Manifest Destiny.” Hixson’s thesis is that American actions demonstrate “a remarkable degree of continuity in foreign policy throughout U.S. history, rooted in perceptions of national identity, with ‘America’ as the standard bearer of freedom worldwide.” From this perspective, just as Manifest Destiny sanctioned 19th century conflicts so the U.S. could “civilize” others, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is justified by the U.S.’s perceived obligation to democratize the world. Hixson views the justification for this “identity-based foreign policy” as being “rife” with an “array of double standards and contradictions.” He does not believe that the American people comprehend these contradictions sufficiently to “rein in the nation’s runaway militarism.” But a possibly more important question is Why? The American public did accept that Iraq was a threat to the United States and embraced the invasion with substantial support. Dissident voices were quickly vilified with slogans of “love it or leave it,” characteristic of the Vietnam era. I suspect this patriotic or nationalistic fervour has more to do with the galvanizing events of September 11th than with Saddam Hussein.

Sidaway’s essay also concentrates on communications, in this case, the contrasts between the presentation of the war by the media in the U.S. and U.K. and that in Aljazeera and other Arab world outlets. While accusing the American networks of “scandalous jingoism,” Sidaway argues that Fox was among the worst, due to its twisting of “everything into a manifestation of either ‘American patriotism’ or its ‘terrorist enemies’.”  Despite these concerns, Sidaway notes that “the overall media coverage of the Gulf War of 2003 had something of a different (and perhaps unexpected) feel; precisely by virtue of the role of the alternative sources such as those Aljazeera feeds.” Although my access to such alternative sources was largely limited to the Internet, it was clear that Aljazeera had an effect on worldwide coverage (e.g., Jayasekera 2003). Most notably, the media, including these alternative sources, became part of the story, as complaints about coverage and bias were included in both the television and print media. Sidaway suggests that these “images from elsewhere” decentred the English-language Western media, providing for “alternative interpretative frameworks for critical understanding.” CNN and other U.S. media clearly provided a more “sanitized” version of the war, with far fewer images of dead bodies and destroyed buildings than were shown on Arab outlets, including Aljazeera (Zwirko 2003). Some in the U.S. were clearly hostile to Aljazeera’s coverage as being biased in the same manner those in the Arab world were critical of Fox and CNN (Qusti 2003). A fuller examination of these differences may well shed substantial light on media independence, bias, and influence over the development of national, if not nationalistic, world views.

Dijkink’s essay includes a number of thoughtful points, including the use of geographical dichotomies (e.g., Old vs. New Europe), and the psychological war that the West has seemingly lost, due to the invasion’s confirming Arab suspicions about the West’s intentions. He also discusses the role of the state in international law, the role of the “strongest state” in the international system, and the difficulties faced by those overseeing the reconstitution of the Iraqi state. Given that the process of “rebuilding” Iraq is underway, I found this discussion of substantial interest. Dijkink argues that in the absence of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime, there are “no real binding factors among the three cultural groups in Iraqi society.” Thus how will Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Kurds be peacefully drawn into a stable liberal democracy, particularly if the structure is implemented by “external actors”? Given the distrust, if not animosity, among these groups, as well as their nationalist sentiments, the task, whether undertaken by Iraqis or overseen by Americans, will surely face monumental obstacles (Akbar Dareini 2003). If, for example, a confederation is created, its constituent first-order civil divisions will be dominated, in different parts of the country, by Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, respectively. These divisions may well be viewed as the incubators of separation among a Kurdish north, a Sunni centre, and a Shiite south. While the long-term roles of Kurds in Turkey or Shiites in Iran are unknown, the potential for devolution, if not balkanization, clearly exists. In short, was Saddam to Iraq what Tito was to Yugoslavia? If so, winning the peace will be far more difficult than winning the war.

Khashan’s essay characterizes the Anglo-American forces as the “new Mongols,” alluding to the sacking and burning of Baghdad in the mid-13th century by Hulagu’s Mongol armies. The use of this parallel is important because it illustrates contrasts in the cultural senses of time and history between the United States and the Arab world. In the Arab world the Mongols and the Crusaders are not ancient history but, in part, define the region’s current world view and understanding of its all too common past negative experiences with external forces (e.g., Kandell 2003). I do not believe that many in the West adequately appreciate this cultural difference, a fact made clear in President Bush’s use of the word “crusade” in reference to U.S. efforts in the region some months ago. Khashan’s comments also demonstrate a sense of outrage over the invasion and the general American “obsession with violent solutions.” He also clearly believes that the British and the Americans used Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for the invasion, whereas “predatory capitalism, Protestant fundamentalism, and Washington’s powerful Zionist lobby” were the true motivating factors. Such claims underscore the problems the Bush administration and the United States will face if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq.

Farhan’s selection echoes the heartfelt indignation over the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq found in Khashan’s essay. Noting Baghdad’s central role in the history of civilization and culture, he states that “it is a strange geopolitical emblem for our time: the world’s technological most ‘advanced’ power attacking a nation sited at the very beginnings of West Asian and Western civilization.” He too doubts the veracity of claims that the invasion was undertaken to “liberate” the Iraqi people for the installation of “democracy.” Calling such motivations a “sham,” Farhan holds that the war is about oil and the subsequent “bonanza in the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq.” Buttressing his argument is the fact that American troops prevented widespread destruction of Iraq’s oil fields, while not securing the Iraqi National Museum, the latter arguably both a national and world treasure. Its destruction bore an eerie similarity to the destruction of Kuwait’s National Museum in 1990, and one must wonder why such priceless artefacts of world cultural heritage were not secured as a first order of business. Farhan also notes the apparent “double standard” utilized by the Americans and the British as the foundation for the invasion, a standard that apparently does not apply to other dictators and regimes in and out of the region. This theme emerges in several of the essays and is clearly hard to easily refute.

Shuraydi’s contribution also echoes many of the themes emerging in the other essays. Holding that the attack on Iraq was illegal without a second UN resolution, he argues that the purpose of United States’ decision to militarily “dismantle Saddam Hussein’s regime” was to demonstrate the “new role of the U.S. as the sole unchallenged global power.” Shuraydi claims that this “new vision” can be traced to the 1997 “Project for New American Century.” He argues that the Bush administration has been “hesitant and secretive to publicly provide the true motive for the war” and that there is a “hidden agenda” for the U.S.’ “war on Iraq.”  The Bush administration’s enunciation of the motives for war in Iraq are viewed as suspect in many of these essays. Clearly administration spokespeople did not stay “on message” in their explanations, which variously emphasized weapons of mass destruction, terrorist ties, regime change, and liberating the Iraqi people. While many Americans have now concluded that the purpose of the war was “all of the above,” these variable emphases have been interpreted as “mission creep” or duplicity in other parts of the world and are damaging U.S. credibility (e.g., Hakki 2003). Shuraydi also notes the difficulty the Bush administration faces as it seeks support for its “Road Map for Peace.” While I am encouraged by the initiation of any new discussion between the Palestinians and Israelis, I must agree with him that it is an “almost impossible task” given the current political climate.

Dalby’s contribution reiterates several themes already noted in the other essays, including the double standard’s providing the foundation for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. In multiple places he notes that the Bush administration has “relied on a strange assumption that the Iraqi people understood the world in a similar manner to American political leaders” and that American exceptionalism is too easily “invoked to justify all sorts of actions.” As he states, “the early stages of the war suggested that once again assumptions of political rationality do not easily translate across cultural and language barriers.” His point is well taken and this dilemma will continue to bedevil American policy, until U.S. political leaders accept that their world view is not uniformly embraced by all the nations of the world. Dalby also comments on the work of Pentagon scholar Thomas Barnett and his 2003 article in Esquire magazine, which includes a map depicting the geographical locations of threats to the world system. In Barnett’s vision, there is a functioning, globalized “Core,” which is threatened by an unconnected “Gap” of places not incorporated into the world system. The Gap includes virtually all of Africa and Southwest Asia and is viewed as dangerous because it is disconnected. As a result, it is “a strategic threat environment,” requiring U.S. attention (Barnett 2003). Dalby comments that this view “relies far too much on a simplistic division of the world into geographical categories that suggest indigenous causes in the remote periphery as the sources of all troubles, and simultaneously denies the importance of the connections between the core and the periphery that are a source of at least part of the contemporary violence.” His point is well taken and critical comment on Barnett’s thesis is needed to prevent the U.S. from sliding back into the simplistic geopolitical views of the past century.

Concluding Comments


These nine essays provide a wide-ranging and interesting analysis of the on-going conflict in Iraq. Between them there are several near universal themes, including the unclear motives for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the power of rhetoric and “semantic skirmishes” in the conflict, and the adoption of a double standard, used to target Saddam Hussein and not other dictators with similar profiles. Less was included about the role of the UN or alternatives to the present conflict. For example, what if a second resolution had been passed in the UN? Would such a resolution have reduced or negated objections to the invasion? In the absence of a second resolution sanctioning military action, what options should have been selected? Should the UN inspectors have been given as much time as needed to search for weapons of mass destruction, even if that meant that sanctions remained in place for yet another decade? In spite of my lack of support for the recent bloodshed, I also have substantial reservations about the logic of the UN’s actions over the past decade with respect to Iraq. If the UN was going to use sanctions, the body should have known that those most hurt by their imposition were also those it wished to help. To sit and wait indefinitely for a megalomaniac to comply with UN demands victimized the Iraqi people and did little to create the circumstances for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

A second issue pertains to the true motives for the invasion, a topic discussed in most of the essays. The Bush administration claimed several motives for invading Iraq, including the destruction of weapons of mass destruction, the eradication of terrorist connections, the removal of a brutal and violent dictator, and the liberation of the Iraqi people. The early emphasis was upon weapons of mass destruction and the argument that such military action was defensive in a post-September 11world. But nearly two months after the initiation of hostilities, no substantial cache of such weapons has been found. Was there a break down in U.S. intelligence, were the weapons destroyed as maintained by Iraqi officials, or have Anglo-American forces simply been unlucky in the search? I think the answer to this question is critical to many. While Americans appear to have accepted alternative explanations for the use of the U.S. military, other countries will certainly seize upon the lack of weapons of mass destruction as evidence of ulterior motives. One motivating factor not highlighted in these essays is presidential legacy. I believe the current President Bush viewed his legacy and that of his father as being tied to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Thus Saddam Hussein’s removal was viewed as unfinished business, a final chapter in the administration of the first President Bush and a central element in the future legacy of the second President Bush.

A final topic given variable emphasis in the nine essays pertains to the future of Iraq, the “Middle East,” the UN, and the role of the United States in world affairs. I agree with those who suggest that the reconstitution of Iraq with the existing animosities among its three largest ethno-religious groups is problematic, and I fear it may be impractical, if not impossible, given the country’s experiences over the past century (Kandell 2003). Clearly, a balkanized Iraq has implications for the region as a whole, in terms of territorial divisions and destabilization. While I agree that the relevance of the UN has been damaged, I do not believe it will become irrelevant. First, the United States relies too heavily upon the body to be dismissive of it for too long. Second, it is exactly times like these that can demonstrate the importance of an international body such as the UN. The question is now whether the UN and its member states are up to the task of reinforcing, if not redefining, the body’s role in international affairs. The UN is far too critical to the long-term success of any road map to peace for it to shrink from its role in the wake of the current conflict.



Akbar Dareini, Ali. 2003. Iraqi Shiite leader urges ‘modern Islamic regime.’ Birmingham News 11 May: 3A.

Barnett, Thomas P.M. 2003. The Pentagon’s new map: It explains why we’re going to war, and why we’ll keep going to war. Esquire. Accessed 17 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Hakki, Mohamed. 2003. The two Americas. Al-Ahram Weekly Online. 1–7 May. Accessed 17 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Jayasekera, Rohan. 2003. Iraq: Al-Jazeera and free expression: Shooting the messenger. 3 April. The Freedom of Information Center. Accessed 17 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Kandell, Jonathan. 2003. Iraq’s unruly century. Smithsonian, 2 May (14): 44–53.

Qusti, Raid. 2003. Study in contrast: CNN vs. Al-Jazeera. Arab News, 26 March. The Freedom of Information Center. Accessed 17 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Zwirko, Walt. 2003. Embedded journalists’ reporting questioned. Dallas Morning News, 8 April. The Freedom of Information Center. Accessed 17 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

 (Submitted 11 May 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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