Wikileaks Video Confirms What Iraqis Already Assume about U.S. Forces

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In a NewsHour interview this week, New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland said Iraqis aren’t paying much attention to the Wikileaks video showing U.S. forces shooting Iraqis from a helicopter during the height of the 2007 surge of U.S. force because it confirms what they already think about the U.S. troop presence. That most Iraqis see the U.S. troop presence in a negative light still seems to surprise initial war supporters and many counterinsurgency (COIN) advocates. Here’s the exchange:

GWEN IFILL: Rod, there — on a related subject, there has been some discussion here, some controversy here about the release, the leak of a video of an Apache attack helicopter killing, among other people, some Reuters employees in 2007 in Iraq. Has that video been circulated widely there, and has there been reaction at all on the ground?

ROD NORDLAND: It has circulated widely here, but I think there was actually a somewhat muted response here, even compared to other Arab countries. Sad — sad to say, most Iraqis have a pretty cynical attitude toward the Americans. And incidents of this sort don’t really surprise them as much as maybe it does ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: So, there is no reaction at all from U.S. officials on the ground or from Iraqi officials about this particular incident?

ROD NORDLAND: Iraqi officials have been pretty preoccupied with the bombs going off today. American officials refer questions to Washington. It’s one that they really don’t want to touch.

Indeed, no one wants to touch this. The White House and Pentagon have seemed to downplay this story and not really dealt with it. Matt Armstrong commented on the Pentagon public affairs shop’s passive approach to dealing with the release, and Spencer Ackerman characterized the response as the Pentagon’s “fetal crouch.” My American Progress colleagues Zaid Jilani and Matt Yglesias both asked the important question of whether the U.S. military is trying to cover up this story. Many questions remain unanswered, yet few are talking and there’s not much of a debate about it outside of the blogsphere.


I’ve been surprised how muted the mainstream U.S. media coverage to this story has been, especially compared to foreign media outlets. In several interviews I did with foreign and new media outlets this week, I was asked why the US mainstream media and broader public don’t really seem to be paying attention to this story. And the best I can say is that most Americans are not paying attention to the fact that we’re in two wars. As I told David Dayen of Firedoglake, America’s not had a robust and engaged public discussion on the wars our country is fighting for a few years now. A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this year found that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, combined with other national security and foreign policy concerns, barely registered among the top problems facing our country today.

But it was Rob Nordland’s observation about the Iraqi reaction to this Wikileaks video that I found most interesting — and it seems accurate to me based on some conversations I have had with Iraqi friends and my reading of the Arabic press in Iraq. Earlier this week, I took part in an hour-long news interview program on Iraqiya television, and the host didn’t bring up the story. Iraqi leaders haven’t said much about the Wikileaks video either (though they do have their hands full with negotiating over a new government and dealing with an increase in attacks this week.)

Nordland’s statement that most Iraqis being cynical attitude about Americans and incidents of this sort not really surprising Iraqis is an important observation — it challenges the conventional wisdom among many Americans about the Iraq surge and how Iraqis view American forces. There is a myth perpetuated in narratives peddled by many COIN advocates that ordinary Iraqis view U.S. forces as positive and constructive, and this fundamental misunderstanding leads some analysts like Tom Ricks to make specious arguments about extending the presence of U.S. forces beyond the redeployment deadlines outlined in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.

A few months before U.S. forces withdrew from urban areas last summer, nearly three quarters of Iraqi citizens (73 percent) said in an early 2009 poll that they did not have confidence in U.S. troops (strong confidence in U.S. forces was mostly found among Kurds, and the United States doesn’t have much of a troop presence in the Kurdish regions of Iraq). And this overall negative view about U.S. troops came at a time after Iraqis had recognized there were substantial gains in security. Incidents like the one depicted in the Wikileaks video have not been uncommon in Iraq, as former U.S. Army soldier Josh Stieber told Glenn Greenwald in this interview.

Watching the killings in Wikileaks video — again it was filmed at the height of the 2007 surge- it makes sense why Iraqis don’t seem to buy the notion that the U.S. military has been operating with an effective “population-centric” strategy in Iraq, even as some Americans seem to so badly need to believe that to be so.


This morning on ABC’s This Week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Wikileaks video was “not helpful,” but added that it “should not have lasting consequences.”