We heard a lot about “Shock and Awe” in the lead-up to this war — that is, the hammering concussions of American air power that were supposed to cow the Iraqi military if not the regime itself into submission, the swift whack of a bat that was supposed to shatter the hold of the brittle regime.
That didn’t work, of course. Loyalists and militiamen were more finely meshed into the civilian population than we thought. It took the ‘old-fashioned’ combination of armor on the ground and precision munitions from the air to grind away the Iraqi army.
But “Shock and Awe” wasn’t a misplaced phrase. We just had the date wrong. It came yesterday, with the collapse of Baghdad. And it came not in Baghdad or Kirkuk or Basra but in Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh, Amman and other capitals around the Arab world.
It’s far from the case that everyone applauded what they saw. But it seems hard to find man-on-the-street interviews that don’t carry a large measure of shock and in many cases something very like awe. (Yesterday I discussed an interview with a neoconservative in which he described the great hope of this invasion as the confrontation that it could bring about between testimonials of Iraqi liberation and the pieties and orthodoxies of anti-American arab nationalism. It was an on-the-record interview. So I can say that the neo in question was David Frum. And yesterday was a pretty good day for David’s predictive ability.) What I take most from these man-on-the-street interviews is the mix of surprise and humiliation. From Jordan there are a slew of interviews with Jordanians expressing contempt for the Iraqis dancing in the streets in Baghdad. There is something very like a sense of betrayal. This was presaged in an article from an issue or two ago in the New York Review of Books in which the author was interviewing Iraqis and Jordanians in Amman or some other Jordanian city. The Jordanians were against an invasion. The Iraqis, though regretting it, hating the prospect of civilian casualties, and insisting the Americans shouldn’t stay long, supported it. There’s a moment in the interview when the author asks one of the Iraqi women to explain the divergence of views and she says something like, “they didn’t have to live under Saddam.”
Beyond that, in these various interviews from yesterday, you see questions like: What happened to the Republican Guard? Why were we so weak? Were we lied to? We supported Saddam in spite of ourselves, knowing he was a bastard because we thought maybe he could take the Americans down a notch, strike a blow for Arab pride, and so forth. Now we’re doubly humiliated. Why are they celebrating? What happened? Why was there so little resistance? Why did Baghdad fall so quickly?
Then you see these statements which mix excitement that Saddam has fallen with shame or humiliation that it took American armor to do it and, secondarily, that perhaps they should have been more serious about the need for his fall in the first place. I think we should see very clearly the toxic potentialities of that sense of humiliation and shame.
Positive or negative, however, almost all the statements bespeak fractured if not shattered certainties. Now, it seems to me that there are a few things important to note about this. If there is one thing that history and social psychology tell us it is that ingrained idea systems can be extremely resistant and often impervious to new facts. Indeed, they can rapidly regroup and accommodate new and what may seem utterly contradictory new data. (Indeed, as good as yesterday looked and was, we should be equally careful to judge all of this on its own terms as much as we can and place these events as little as possible into the conceptual architecture of our preconceptions and imaginations.)
All of this is simply a long-winded way of saying that the window of opportunity, the window of changing expectations could prove exceedingly brief. We’re already seeing a host of things, even happening today, which could provide the building blocks of a very different image, indeed a very different reality. As the foreign media is already starting to note, the number of people who attended the statue-toppling yesterday was actually rather small — not thousands or tens of thousands, but maybe a couple hundred. Then today there is news that two Shi’a clerics were literally cut to pieces by a crowd of rival Shi’a in Najaf at the Ali Shrine. This is the steel beam in compression that the people who know this subject best have long predicted. This doesn’t necessarily nullify what happened yesterday. But it should show us how hard this is still going to be and how a very different set of images and realities could quickly push aside all the consternation those of yesterday created. Anti-war types shouldn’t let their preconceptions blind them to the palpable feelings of relief and happiness many Iraqis are feeling today. But hawks shouldn’t fool themselves into ignoring how ephemeral those images could prove.
A couple weeks ago I wrote that one of the pre-conditions for the success of democratization in post-war Japan and Germany was the shattering impact of overwhelming military defeat and the resulting shattering of confidence in the pre-war elites and ideological systems that had led the two countries into war. This could be a potentially equally shattering event. But all seems in flux and much of what is not in flux remains uncertain. The end result depends mightily on subsequent events and actions — some of which we control, some of which we don’t