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Jewish World Review April 11, 2004/ 21 Nissan, 5763

Mark Steyn

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Don't let Iraq's tempest in a teacup rattle you

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |
The coalition approach to Iraq was summed up a year ago by a British colonel. Explaining how they were trying to secure Basra without blowing up buildings and causing a lot of death and destruction, he said, ''We don't want to go in and rattle all their teacups.''

The avoidance of teacup-rattling remains a priority. Last week in Fallujah, American troops had rockets fired at them from a mosque. So they fired back, but with the state-of-the-art laser-guided weaponry that kills the insurgents but leaves the mosque virtually untouched. I'd have been quite happy to see it blown up with the old-school non-laser imprecise munitions. But leveling mosques is felt to be insensitive, so on we go, avoiding the rattling of teacups, whether Sunni or Shiite.

The problem with this deference to the locals is that, partly in consequence, most of the folks who are getting rattled are on our side.

So how bad are things in Iraq?

Answer: not very. Fallujah is not the new Mogadishu, Muqtaba al-Sadr is not the new Ayatollah Khomeini and, despite what Ted Kennedy says, Iraq is not ''George Bush's Vietnam.'' Or even George Bush's Chappaquiddick.

Here's a good rule of thumb: The Pentagon's demonstrated in two wars now that it's got beyond Vietnam. If a politician or pundit can't, pay him no further heed. If Sen. Kennedy wants to give rhetorical aid and comfort to the enemy, he could at least be less lazy about it.

Now here's the more important question: Are the Iraqi people on the American side?

Answer: No.

Let me flesh that out. Eleven months ago I was in Fallujah. What a dump -- no disrespect to any Fallujans reading this. I had a late lunch in a seedy cafe full of Sunni men. Not a gal in the joint. And no Westerners except me. As in the movies, everyone stopped talking when I walked through the door, and every pair of eyes followed me as I made my way to a table.

I strongly dislike that veteran-foreign-correspondent look where you wander around like you've been sleeping round the back of the souk for a week. So I was wearing the same suit I'd wear in Washington or New York, from the Western Imperialist Aggressor line at Brooks Brothers. I had a sharp necktie I'd bought in London the week before. My cuff links were the most stylish in the room, and also the only ones in the room. I'm not a Sunni Triangulator, so there's no point pretending to be one. If you're an infidel and agent of colonialist decadence, you might as well dress the part.

I ordered the mixed grill, which turned out to be not that mixed. Just a tough old, stringy chicken. My tie would have been easier to chew. The locals watched me -- a few obviously surly and resentful, the rest wary and suspicious. But I've had worse welcomes in Berkeley, so I chewed on, and, washed down with a pitcher of coliform bacteria, it wasn't bad.

Why didn't they kill me? Because, as Osama gloated after 9/11, when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they go with the strong horse. And in May 2003, four weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the coalition forces were indisputably the strong horse. And so, even when a dainty little trotting gelding of a newspaper columnist comes in through the door, they figure he's with the strong horse crowd and act accordingly.

Would they have liked to kill me? Well, I'll bet one or two would have enjoyed giving it a go. And, if they had, I'll bet three or four more would have beaten my corpse with their shoes. And five or six would have had no particular feelings about me one way or the other but would have been generally supportive of the decision to kill me after the fact. And the rest might have had a few qualms but they would have kept quiet.

That's the point to remember: The Iraqi people don't want to be on the American side, only on the winning side. Right now, those two positions happen to coincide; 99.99 percent of Iraqi Shiites aren't involved in the troubles of the last week. This guy Sadr is a junior-league blowhard. ''If they come for our leader,'' says one of his commanders, ''they will ignite all of Iraq." No, they won't. The vast majority of Iraq will remain un-ignited.

Look at those pictures of the atrocity in Fallujah: the remains of four corpses, and a bunch of savages dancing around them. In all those photographs, can you add up more than a hundred men? And half of them are punk kids under 11. There are 300,000 people in that city. A few score are depraved enough to cheer on the killers of four brave men; 299,900 of the town's population were either disapproving or indifferent.

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And in the Arab world, the indifferent are the biggest demographic. They sit things out, they see which strong horse has jostled his way to the head of the pack, and they go along with him. The Turks. The British. The British-installed king. The thug who murders the king. The thug who murders the thug who murders the king.

The passivity of the Arabs, the sensitivity of the coalition and the defeatism of the media is a potentially disastrous combination. Rattling teacups gets you a bad press from CNN and the BBC. But they give you a bad press anyway. And in Iraq, the non-rattling of the teacups is received by the locals not as cultural respect from Bush and Blair but as weakness. In that cafe in Fallujah, as a parodic courtesy, the patron switched the flickering black-and-white TV from an Arabic station to the BBC, which as usual was full of doom and gloom.

The Iraqis will go with the winning side. And, though the Americans had a bad week last week, the insurgents had a worse one, losing as many men in seven days as U.S. forces did in the last year. The best way to make plain you're the winning side is to crush the other guys -- and rattle their teacups so loudly even CNN can't paint it as a setback.

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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004, Mark Steyn