The death of the sadistic sociopath Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shouldn’t bring a tear to anyone’s eye, but it is primarily a short-lived public relations triumph for the Bush administration that may mask an actual victory for the Sunni insurgency.
Inside the Washington beltway, public relations is often more important than reality. Good policy is less important than posturing to appear that progress is being made solving important public problems. This sleight of hand avoids hard choices, wins elections, and keeps politicians in office. The approach has worked so well at home that U.S. administrations have taken it on the road to use in their military adventures abroad. Because many Americans are accustomed to nasty villains on TV and in the movies, U.S. administrations demonize authoritarian foreign leadersfor example, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were compared to Adolf Hitler by the Clinton and Bush administrations before the U.S. bombing beganor use their formidable public relations operations to enhance the reputation of mere mortals into poster boys for evil. In the latter case, the U.S. government’s propaganda machine has made al Qaeda the most overrated organization in the world and its leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the controlling force behind worldwide violent Islamic jihadeven though they act mainly as inspiration for the movement.
Similarly, in Iraq, the U.S. government needed a villain to personify the rather faceless Iraqi insurgency. The vicious and brutal Zarqawi fit the bill perfectly. The Bush administration demonized Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists as the instigators and dominant force of the much larger Sunni insurgency to demonstrate that foreigners were causing most of the problems in Iraq rather than Iraqis who wanted to oust the occupying superpower. After building up Zarqawi and the jihadists, the administration could now shore up sagging public support for the war at home by nailing the bad guy in classic Hollywood fashion.
Yet the administration’s public relations coup is likely to be temporary and do a favor for the Iraqi insurgency and maybe even bin Laden and Zawahiri. Although Zarqawi was charismaticto those jihadists who were especially bloodthirstyand drew foreign fighters into Iraq, his cruel tactics made even bin Laden and Zawahiri cringe. Zawahiri sent Zarqawi a letter asking him to turn down the volume a bit, but Zarqawi ignored him and remained ever maniacal in his indiscriminate slaughter. Since the al Qaeda leadership thought Zarqawi was giving the radical jihadist movement bad publicity, perhaps even bin Laden and Zawahiri breathed a sigh of relief when Zarqawi bit the dust.
The larger Sunni insurgency certainly did. The Sunni nationalists, who make up about 90 percent of the insurgency, had long had enough of Zarqawi. His butchery and foreign origin (he was Jordanian) had made him extremely unpopular with most Sunni Iraqis. To be successful, it is critical for an insurgency to maintain the support of the population, which provides cover and sustenance. Zarqawi’s activities were counterproductive to this end.
By killing Zarqawi, the U.S. government no longer has a wellknown “evil doer” to rally lagging U.S. public support for the war and has made it more likely that the Iraqi guerrillas can retain Sunni popular support for their insurgency. And the killing doesn’t even get rid of the foreign jihadists in Iraq, who will continue to contribute to sectarian violencenow an even bigger problem for the U.S. occupation than the Sunni insurgency. The decentralized structure of the jihadist organizations makes it tough to kill the beast by simply cutting off the head.
Thus, Zarqawi’s death has probably helped the larger Sunni insurgency, will do little to slow the escalating sectarian violence, and may even come as a relief to the al Qaeda leadership. As with the killing of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, the cheering within the Bush administration probably will be short-lived.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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