The Iraq War & ISIS began with a Cultural Miscue

The Iraq War has cost America 3 trillion dollars, claimed over 100,000 lives, and helped create ISIS. So, what triggered this spectacular catastrophe? 


Many factors caused the Iraq War, but the precipitating cause seems to be the West’s inability to grasp the most basic element of Middle Eastern cultures: the desire to maintain honor.

The USA believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This conclusion was never based on any facts or reports, but implied through cultural reasoning. Former Vice President Dick Cheney explains the thought process in this video:


Transcript: “How do you explain why Saddam Hussein, if he had no program, wouldn’t come clean and say, “I haven’t got a program. Come look”? Then he would have sanctions lifted. He’d earned $100 billion more in oil revenue over the last several years. He’d still be in power. The reason he didn’t was because obviously he couldn’t comply and wouldn’t comply with the U.N. resolutions demanding that he give up his WMD.” (“Meet the Press,” NBC, Sept 14, 2003).

Cheney’s logic is simple: If Saddam Hussein was truly innocence, he would allow UN access to prove it. He didn’t come clean, so therefore he must be guilty of possessing WMDs.

But the answer to Cheney’s question—“Why didn’t Hussein come clean?”—is simple: honor. The West completely missed the fact that Saddam Hussein was acting strong to save face.

James Bowman explains in Honor: A History that the West’s faulty intelligence “lies in the Western inability to understand that Arab honor culture and in particular the ‘tyranny of the face.’ Simply put, Saddam Hussein lied because he was part of an honor culture that demanded he lie.”

This sort of error is common, as cultures naturally misinterpret each other’s actions. Understanding honor-shame won’t fix all of the world’s problems, but it can help us avoid some unnecessary ones.

Photo Credit: Hadi Mizban / AP

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3 Comments on “The Iraq War & ISIS began with a Cultural Miscue

  1. Good point. The misreading of Saddam Hussein may be an example of misreading the whole society. I felt from the beginning that the American decision to invade was based on the assumption that if you just scratch the surface of Iraqis, you will find that they are Americans underneath, with individual freedom as one of their highest values. If given a chance by having a tyrant removed, they will create their own government that guarantees their freedom, and they will be forever grateful to their liberators. Hindsight says otherwise. Cultural awareness could have given us foresight, but we did not have it. Tragically we still don’t.

    • Yes, there is this assumption that people in all cultures want “freedom” and “liberty” just like Western democracies. For sure people don’t bondage and oppression, but they are looking for more than individual liberties and freedoms the way we may assume.

      Because of this, Western governments continue to misread international affairs—e.g., Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, China’s antics in the South China Sea, the rise of ISIS, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the decay in Afghanistan, the factions in Iraq, the defiance of North Korea.

  2. An interesting point! I wonder how this can be applied to South China Sea tensions, the Philippines, even “the Donald”?

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