Iraqi Press Adds to the Mess

May 18th, 2004

The situation in Iraq deteriorated in April to its lowest point since the war started in March 2003. U.S. forces took the fight to militias in Fallujah and to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army in Najaf, apparently in the belief that appeasement was not an option anymore. With the country in turmoil, the U.S. military seemed convinced that inaction would only obstruct the planned transfer of sovereignty.

Initially, the U.S. military must have been convinced that the offensive was bound to succeed more or less quickly. Crushing the insurgents militarily must have seemed as easy as twisting a baby’s arm. They soon realized, however, that if the fighting caused many Iraqi casualties, particularly around mosques, it would alienate the people of Iraq, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliation.

Even if ordinary Iraqis expect American troops to stop the insurgency, there is also a strong likelihood that an all-out attack would provide grist for the anti-U.S. propaganda mills of Iraqi media and turn more Iraqi citizens against the United States.

Iraq’s media is quite responsible for the current state of affairs. A comparison between the occupation of Iraq and that of Japan or Germany after World War II is largely irrelevant, but the liberties allowed the media provide food for thought. In postwar Japan, the media was so severely censored that it could only present information about the nation’s past war crimes and the benefits of the U.S. Occupation. By contrast, anti-American stories, including unfounded slander and conspiracy theories, have been rampant in the Iraqi press over the past six months.

Early last year, before the invasion of Iraq, I warned that press censorship would blemish the feat of occupation. In light of what’s happening now in Iraq, I may have been a little too idealistic.

Yet I’m not sure what to make of the recent anti-American propaganda. There also has been a lot of sharp anti-American criticism in the media of U.S. allies, including Japan, South Korea and NATO countries, but such criticism does no real harm unless it denies what is most important: the alliance with the U.S. In fact, it does not.

In Iraq’s case, harm has already been done. If the Iraqi press had been censored to the extent that it could only denounce the evils of the Hussein regime and extol the virtues of democracy, at the very least the problem with the al-Sadr group would not have occurred.

On the other hand, however, the group now appears to be losing ground. This may be part of a global trend: Anti-American rhetoric loses popular support once it is translated into action. If the al-Sadr problem is resolved in this fashion, it will follow that freedom of the press has finally prevailed in accordance with democratic rules.

There are other hopeful signs in Iraq. The situation in Fallujah may be easing, and the U.S. policy shift in favor of a central U.N. role will likely keep things moving forward in the country, at least until the world body again disappoints or draws criticism from Iraqis.

U.N. leadership is no guarantee that Iraq’s problems will be resolved differently, but the U.N. is considered more acceptable than the U.S. It may be an Iraqi illusion to pin too much hope on the U.N., but then there is no reason not to take advantage of this illusion.

There are discouraging signs as well — such as the recent cases of maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners. On balance, the prospects remain murky.

According to an ancient Chinese book on the art of war, America faces a “must-win” situation in Iraq; its only viable option is to win. Some Americans are beginning to talk of a troop withdrawal, but neither President George W. Bush nor Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry is likely allow himself to be distracted by such a view.

How should Japan deal with the U.S. at such a difficult time? I have expressed my view on television and elsewhere:

The dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq is aimed primarily at protecting the Japan-U.S. alliance. Our historical experience since the Anglo-Japanese alliance (1902-1922) tells us that as long as the alliance is firmly maintained, the security and prosperity of the Japanese nation will be assured for generations to come.

SDF casualties, if they occur, will be noble sacrifices for the long-term well-being of the Japanese people. If troops are withdrawn, their sacrifices will have come to naught and soldiers will have died in vain.

In Italy, after soldiers recently were killed and wounded in Iraq, many citizens staged demonstrations to express gratitude for their sacrifices.

Some say a true friend of America should give it critical advice. I don’t agree. What use is there in preaching to a friend in trouble. He should know his situation better and must be endeavoring to find better answers.

We should view the present situation in Iraq as offering Japan a golden opportunity to assist a “friend in need” and to ensure the long-term security and prosperity of the Japanese people.