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
Because many Americans are accustomed to nasty villains on TV and in
the movies, U.S. administrations demonize authoritarian foreign
leaders—for example, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were compared
to Adolf Hitler by the Clinton and Bush administrations before the U.S.
bombing began—or 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 jihad—even 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
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 charismatic—to those
jihadists who were especially bloodthirsty—and 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
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 well-known
“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 violence—now 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 a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.