Monday, September 10, 2007

The Return of the Non-Native


This morning’s Wall Street Journal brings down the curtain on a whole era of thinking about foreign policy.

I think of it as the “scratch an Iraqi and you’ll find a Westerner” school of thought, the idea that if you could just decapitate the Iraqi government, hold elections and install a few McDonald’s, every Iraqi’s inner American would emerge and flourish.

It looks like the military, or at least the Marine Corps, has gradually realized this isn’t the case, and the hunt for Americans who can understand Iraqi psychology and interaction at the ground level is as urgent as the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

That is to say, anthropology is cool again.

In “To Understand Sheiks in Iraq, Marines Ask ‘Mac’” details the adventures of William “Mac” McCallister, a former marine self-tutored in Iraqi tribal customs and politics. He’s now working as a private contractor for the Marine Corps in Iraq, explaining the ins and outs of dealing with Sunni sheiks and helping marine commanders be more effective on the ground, particularly in meetings.

For example, conducting business with sheiks is radically different from conducting a meeting in the U.S., where everyone is expected to speak at room temperature and physically violent motions are usually seen as weakness. But that same reserve is counterproductive in Iraq, McCallister tells the WSJ:

“The Iraqis expect the grand gesture. It’s one of their rituals,” says Mr. McCallister. “You show them no respect when you don’t offend.” He compares discussions among tribal sheiks to symphonies. They often begin quietly, he says. Then they grow hotter often [sic] elevating into screaming matches before the debate calms down again.

The Marines say they have emulated this in meetings with tribal and government officials. In June, [Brig. Gen. John Allen], who says he prides himself on not losing his cool, was meeting with the governor of Iraq’s Anbar Province in a hotel restaurant in Amman, Jordan. With security improving, Gen. Allen told the governor he wanted his help to reopen Anbar’s criminal courts, which had been shut down after threats of violence caused many of the judges to quit. The governor was noncommittal.

Gen. Allen says he slammed his fist on the table, causing silverware to clang and heads to turn. “You have got to want those courts to open more than I do!” he says he yelled. “We are going to have the first trials in Anbar by Aug. 1!” Today, thanks to the governor pushing, the trials have started. The Anbar governors regularly refers to the conversation with Gen. Allen as a turning point.

At first, U.S. commanders incorrectly assumed that sheiks ruled as dictators, Mr. McCallister says. But a sheik’s power is actually defined by his ability to “attract others to him,” he says.

Ladies and gentlemen, for once, it really is all about soft power.

McCallister has become an expert in this field largely on his own, although his Special Forces training undoubtedly included more than a bit of training in diplomacy, persuasion and skills useful in persuading people not to try and kill or oppose you.

The U.S. could benefit from about a thousand more of these bush Ruth Benedicts fanning out across Iraq and soaking up the culture, and I’d love to hear news of any formal DoD or State program that helps or grooms these kinds of people.


Anonymous said...

um, just one thing. does this so-called expert even speak arabic?

Earl C. Woodruff said...

Gotta hand it to the Marines when it comes to knowing how to handle the situation on the ground. But then again, I'm still kind of weepy from watching Sands of Iowa Jima last night. There, I said it. Semper Fi

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