The Quest to Dominate the Arab World

by Brenda Heard

Sample leaflet dropped by US forces. See

‘Shock and Awe’—the phrase is back in the headlines. As we have watched the bombs bursting onto Libya over the past two days, we cannot help but recall the ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing of Iraq eight years ago this week. The phrase that defined that assault was launched into popular usage in January 2003 with the pre-invasion tremors from America. Now, eight years later, the media is divided over whether we are witnessing another blast of ‘shock and awe’. Having lost much of its original meaning, the phrase has taken on two identities. When used by political-military pundits, it euphemistically suggests a quick and clean campaign to eliminate evil forces. When used by the general public, it has settled into a synonym for ‘wow’.

In their prologue to the 1996 report Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance [1], Harlan Ullman and James Wade spoke of  ‘a time when uncertainty about the future is perhaps one of the few givens’. Their solution? Control that future. America’s world supremacy in military power, coupled with its expanding technology industry, presented ‘an unusual opportunity’ to seize the power that had ‘tantalized and confounded’ war strategists throughout history: ‘destroying the adversary’s will to resist before, during, and after battle’.

As we now watch the global contest of wills playing out in the Middle East, it becomes painfully obvious that dominance, the end goal of ‘shock and awe’, will never be quick and clean. While the American stated objective of displacing Saddam Hussein was indeed met, eight years of angry and bloody chaos have darkened Iraq to an extent unforeseen in the sterile analyses of Ullman and Wade. And while the Americans cling to the strategic position they captured in Baghdad, the entire region has grown impassioned with resistance.

The doctrine of shock and awe, openly cheered by those who imposed it on Iraq in 2003, sought ‘to render the adversary impotent’. Conventional military spending—the soldiers and weaponry required to overpower—was acknowledged to be expensive. The use of Rapid Dominance was seen as more efficient. It was packaged as a means of saving both lives and dollars. The frontline of well-armed infantries could be mitigated by a frontline of ‘operational environment control’—by shock and awe.

Smug with a sense of superiority, the designers of the self-designated ‘revolutionary’ approach to warfare bluntly declared their aim and how they meant to achieve it:

”Dominance” means the ability to affect and dominate an adversary’s will both physically and psychologically. Physical dominance includes the ability to destroy, disarm, disrupt, neutralize, and to render impotent. Psychological dominance means the ability to destroy, defeat, and neuter the will of an adversary to resist; or convince the adversary to accept our terms and aims short of using force. The target is the adversary’s will, perception, and understanding. The principal mechanism for achieving this dominance is through imposing sufficient conditions of “Shock and Awe” on the adversary to convince or compel it to accept our strategic aims and military objectives. Clearly, deception, confusion, misinformation, and disinformation, perhaps in massive amounts, must be employed.

And so began a campaign of intimidation. On 17 March 2003 President George W. Bush’s televised address to the nation warned the people of the world:

All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end. Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing.

For their own safety, all foreign nationals, including journalists and inspectors, should leave Iraq immediately.

Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.

As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.

The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near.

His clichéd words were echoed in some 40 million leaflets dispersed upon the Iraqi people warning them that to resist his will would be futile. It would be deadly. The bombs soon made this point clear. And another 40 million leaflets drove home the American intention to overcome the Iraqi people’s right, even their desire, to protest the aggression.

In December 2010, after so many thousands of deaths in Iraq that they blur into a tragedy we can barely stomach to look upon, nearly eight years after his so-called revolutionary shock and awe techniques were put into practice, Harlan Ullman defended the theory. The Iraqi people had been shocked, he said, but had not been sufficiently awed. While the invading forces had demonstrated their ability to ‘impose overwhelming fear, terror, vulnerability, and the inevitability of destruction,’ Ullman conceded that

To our detriment, a grave and potentially fatal weakness in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq and before that in Vietnam was little or no cultural understanding, a flaw the U.S. military has been urgently trying to rectify since the Iraqi insurgency began in earnest in late 2003.

He thus concluded that there surely was ‘good reason to give shock and awe another chance’.

The campaign of shock and awe used by the American-led forces in Iraq bears eerie similarities to that used repeatedly for decades by the Western Israeli Alliance against the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. These campaigns have resulted in similar failures. But is has not been due merely to a lack of ‘cultural understanding’. It has been due to discounting a principle that transcends the various borders of the Arab world. That fundamental principle, demonstrated with resistance, is simply a dignity that cannot be subdued.


[1] A publication of the US National Defense University, which can be read in full at  See also the report’s precursor ‘Mission Capability Packages’ (January 1995) by US Defense Department’s David S. Alberts, advisor to the Shock and Awe report:

Originally posted at

2 thoughts on “The Quest to Dominate the Arab World”

  1. “little or no cultural understanding, a flaw…”

    Yes, their flaw is they don’t understand the culture of resistance to occupation of one’s land.

    Ironically, even George W. Bush was aware of that culture. He said it in a TV speech. People don’t like to be occupied.

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