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Why likening the Capitol to a war zone could further damage America’s reputation

Since a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, lawmakers and members of the media have frequently drawn comparisons between what occurred in Washington and the violence that Americans are more accustomed to seeing unfold in war zones abroad.

In more recent days, as thousands of National Guard troops have mobilized in the nation’s capital in preparation for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, some have likened Washington to “the Green Zone” — the heavily fortified area of Baghdad that was secured following the U.S. invasion of the country.

But those comparisons are insensitive and devoid of the context that led to the invasions of countries like Iraq by American forces, and the images of Washington with a heavy military presence could undermine U.S. foreign policy efforts going forward, experts warn.

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“I think a lot of people have heard over the years many diplomats and politicians and analysts saying that the Middle East is not ready for democracy,” said Omar Al-Nidawi, an Iraq analyst and program manager at the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center. “And they see what happens in the Capitol on January 6, they say, ‘well, you know, it looks like the incompatibilities are not unique to a certain part of the world or to a certain culture — they’re universal,’” Al-Nidawi said. “So I think it’s a bit of a call for reflection and humility in that respect.”

For Al-Nidawi, comparing the situation in Washington to Iraq diminishes the suffering of the Iraqi people. He points out that sectarian violence in Iraq claimed 3,000 lives a month at the height of the post-invasion violence. “There are generations of young people in Baghdad who grew up not knowing what their city looks like because of the thousands upon thousands of 12 and 16-foot concrete barriers that were erected … whether to protect vital government areas or military bases or to prevent sectarian death squads from entering certain neighborhoods,” he said.

Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq initiative at the Atlantic Council, agrees. If there is one parallel between Baghdad and Washington, it’s that both of them “established a little Green Zone to protect American officials,” Kadhim said. “The Green Zone wasn’t to protect the Iraqis. Same thing here — there is no protection for anybody who lives on the East side of Washington, right?”

For some around the world, the way Americans responded to the insurrection by pro-Trump mobs felt like a double standard. Former President George W. Bush released a statement after the attack saying “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.”

That sentiment shows a complete lack of understanding of how the situation in the U.S. compares to coup d’etats in Latin America, to name one example, said Lucia Dammert, a professor at the University of Santiago of Chile and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Dammert, appearing on PBS NewsHour Weekend, said that when unrest led to coups in Latin American countries in the past, “the American embassy was involved in some of those situations.”

Kadhim echoes Dammert’s point. “We really need to be more thoughtful when we talk about these things. What made Baghdad a city that became used as a reference to violence and lawlessness was [Americans’] doing. We screwed up,” he said.

Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, agrees that drawing comparisons between the destruction wrought by wars to the Capitol insurrection is irresponsible, but she does recognize some worrying parallels, including the danger of foreign interference to shape the political landscape.

“Russian interference in the 2016 election was a factor,” Slim said, noting that while Russia’s efforts to get Trump elected were not violent in nature, their deliberate spreading of misinformation to sow discord online did amount to a type of “cyber warfare” that continued through the 2020 election. “When foreign interference can affect the psychology of a nation, it is a type of warfare that is more difficult to combat than conventional weapons,” she said.

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The possibility that foreign adversaries spread misinformation to convince Americans to fight against their own government reminds Al Nidawi of how Iran and other Arab countries intervened in Iraq, fearing how the U.S. was shaping that nation’s political systems. Al Nidawi says foreign interference in U.S. politics is contributing to a “gap in our understanding of reality as a society.”

Americans have always felt secure in their military power, Slim said, but “I think Trump showed that America has become similar to other countries, and that foreign elements can impact our domestic dynamics in a dramatic way.”

The most serious damage from the events of Jan. 6 may have been to the U.S. image as a stable democracy. “I belong to many WhatsApp groups with people from the region,” Slim said. “You have people who basically said this shows how fragile American democracy is. They say, this democracy that America keeps talking about, and in the past tried to export, is not as people think it is.”

Slim says that skeptics of U.S. foreign policy may point to the current instability in Washington and beyond as evidence of internal division throughout the country, as well as of just how fragile “the world’s greatest democracy” is.

Yet she points out that some people she speaks with overseas recognize that many U.S. institutions managed to survive the last few years of disruption. She says that unlike in Russia, where a local official could get “thrown out from the balcony” for disobeying an order from President Vladimir Putin, Georgia election officials were able to uphold the law even after a threatening phone call from Trump.

Still, the images of angry Americans storming the U.S. Capitol won’t fade anytime soon. Kadhim imagines the impact on Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken, who will “go to countries around the world and lecture them about democracy and about the rule of law … after [Americans] have trashed their elections willingly.”

In June, Kadhim noted, Iran will have a presidential election. “Do you think with a straight face we can go on and tell them what to do with their election?”