Despite the low popularity of the war in Iraq, a swift military pull-out of Iraq could have disastrous results both for Iraqi and United States foreign policy. “There are no easy answers or quick solutions [to the Iraq War]…it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences,” asserted General David Petraeus in his September Iraq report. But a slow drawback of troops remains insufficient for some radical activists. “Let us move to reconciliation, diplomacy, a peace process, and end this illegal, unconstitutional, immoral, occupation of a country that never attacked us,” screamed Code Pink cofounder, Medea Benjamin, as she was forcibly removed from a Heritage event assessing General Petraeus’ report.
Ironically, diplomacy has already begun to take center stage among Iraqi transition teams, without the total withdrawal that Code Pink promotes. U.S. Marine Corps Colonel James D. McGinley told a Heritage audience this October that the U.S. military has been developing transition teams designed to ease control over into Iraqi hands. “What we tried to do was instead of transitioning slowly and eventually turning authority over, we tried to take an approach to transition team training that said let’s turn authority over first and let them make small mistakes—things that are not crucial, later on we’ll fix,” noted Colonel McGinley. He routinely prioritized diplomatic relations with local Iraqi leaders over strictly military objectives.
Colonel McGinley’s presentation provided practical suggestions for other transition teams, including placing the translator to the right of the speaker—so that the interested parties don’t miss each other’s nonverbal cues by focusing on the translator—emphasizing cultural similarities over myriad cultural differences, and providing translated documents so that Iraqi leaders can personally analyze policy proposals without an intermediary. The Colonel provided the governor with a translated presentation, in which the visuals, conversation, and slides were in Arabic. “Matter of fact, at one point, I went to hurry a slide and the governor put his hand up because he knew that there was something more that he still wanted to read before we flipped to the next slide. And at that point I thought, now that’s the effective communication,” argued Colonel McGinley. That way, he knew that the governor was completely engaged by the presentation.
The need for extensive nation-building in Iraq has forced the U.S. military to think outside of its normal parameters, he argued. Although traditional military skills involving combat tactics, security enemy zones, and reconnaissance have proven invaluable survival skills for those serving in Iraq, Colonel McGinley has found that non-military skills such as construction work, computer skills, and communications were most valuable for fulfilling transition team objectives. “…each one of [my transition team is] trained as a rifleman, first as a marine, but their most important skills were things that looked more like civilian skills to most of us,” said Colonel McGinley. As a result, Colonel McGinley has found the diverse talents and civilian-minded outlook of reserve soldiers more suited to the Iraqi environment.
Hardly a conflict of occupiers arbitrarily imposing a foreign will upon an oppressed people, Colonel McGinley’s soldiers lived side-by-side with Iraqi police, sharing barracks, the mess hall, and other facilities with Iraqis in an environment where just a single insurgent could murder the entire force en masse. Colonel McGinley admitted that he “was afraid from the moment I got [to Iraq] and stayed afraid the whole time.” However he considered the foiled assassination attempt which occurred during his tour of duty “good news” because “that meant we were being effective.”
In addition, cultural miscommunications often complicate Iraqi-U.S. relations. Colonel McGinley recounted difficulties getting the local Iraqi police and highway patrol to help construct an American station because of work-ethic differences and conflicting gender roles. In the Iraqi rural areas “women typically do heavy manual labor” he noted. “The men typically don’t do that as part of their role in society,” he added.
Hospitality is a key aspect of Middle Eastern cultures and often takes more time than U.S. military officers consider efficient or are willing to spare. To overcome these cultural barriers, Colonel McGinley suggested that Americans emphasize religious similarities. “Actually, I had a couple of watchstanders tell me that they were more comfortable with me because they felt that I was a man of faith. If I had not had any faith whatsoever—I might not be Muslim, but as long as I had some faith they found a common background,” he said.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.