March 28, 2003
The Ugly American in Postwar Iraq
by Donald G. Mashburn

Although some naive souls thought that all our troops had to do was to show up in Iraq and Iraqis would run up the white flag. But the surprising Iraqi resistance makes the length of the war an unknown. Unknown also is what shape Iraq will be in when war ends.

Also unknown is what America’s role be in the rebuilding. The bumbling, indecisive United Nations is already jockeying for position to get its fumble-prone hands on post-war plans for Iraq. But if oppressed Iraqis are ever to see a representative government, American dollars, compassion and know-how, and comparable contributions from the British, will be major factors.

So the main question to be asked about post-war Iraq is what will America’s role be, and does the Bush administration have the “true grit” to stand against the bumbling United Nations. And just as we heard wails in French and German about “bullying” and “arrogance” by the United States, we will soon be hearing about the “ugly American,” a term that has been increasingly misapplied to American activity in foreign lands.

Originally, the ugly American was a good guy, who tried to help the local people in Sarkhan, a fictitious country in Southeast Asia. In the 1954 book, “The Ugly American,” authors William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick wrote of the failures of career American diplomats, and how communists consistently outmaneuvered them during typhoons, crop failures and famines.

The local people did receive help from some foreigners, led by Homer Atkins, a hardworking engineer, whose “fingernails were black with grease, and, “The palms of his hands were calloused.” Atkins was a homely, creased-faced man, and some of the local people gave him an affectionate nickname that translated roughly to “the ugly American.”

The authors made the title deliberately ironic, since the “ugly” American was well liked, and effective in his efforts to help the locals, while the diplomatic representatives were not prepared to deal with local realities. Over time, the label “ugly American” got switched from the good guys, and was used to refer to Americans guilty of haughty attitudes and poor judgment in foreign lands.

While victory over Iraq may be assumed, no one can predict what shape the country will be in – or how long guerrilla activity might last. One thing should be clear: Iraq will not be ready immediately for a “pure” democracy or democratic republic. The Iraqi people – who have known only terror and brutality in Saddam’s tyrantdom – can’t function as a democracy immediately.

The United Stated and Great Britain will play leading roles – as well they should – in rebuilding Iraq. But the United Nations, and Saddam’s favorite suppliers – France, Germany and Russia – will have their own ideas. It’ll be interesting to see how much they’ll want to ante up to cover war costs.

Those who opposed disarming Iraq should be told what role they play, subject to approval by the Coalition of the Willing. In the process, someone is bound to label the “doer,” the United States, the “Ugly American.”

President George W. Bush has discovered that his detractors can get ugly, as shown by some of their slogans, “No blood for oil,” and “Bush only wants Iraq’s oil.” He should be aware that other good people have worn the tag of “Ugly American.”

He should be reminded that the original “ugly American” was one of the good guys. But let’s hope some of his advisors are more literate than his critics and can guide him toward a plan for post-war Iraq that will restore the “ugly American” tag to its original meaning.

It will take some time for Iraq to achieve a decent, progressive form of government. But the key word is “decent” – a decent form of government, chosen and changed by votes of the people.

And when they have it, let us hope that they and the world remember their freedom was purchased by the blood of brave soldiers who fought to end Saddam’s tyranny.