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Research

The Power of the Pen

Cartoons pack punch prior to U.S. war on Iraq.

Colin Flint

The scene: an Arab leader with his macho mustache, looking tough and manly, brashly addresses his own people. But in the next panel, the same Arab leader appears sheepish and effete—his mustache limp and wimpy—while talking to the United States.

This political cartoon appeared in a Palestinian newspaper in late 2002, during a critical period of widespread dissent and protest against the impending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

It was one of many that appeared in a cross-section of newspapers from the Arab world collected and analyzed by Colin Flint, a geography professor in LAS. The cartoons are significant because they express the Arab world’s objections to the war, and more specifically, to the American portrayal of the imminent conflict as moral and just.

“The cartoons were a way to show dissent, primarily to Arab leaders,” Flint says. “I think the purpose of those cartoons is to show dissent among Arab populations to Arab leaders.”

Flint and his research collaborators (Gzahi-Walid Falah of the University of Akron and Virginie Mamadouh of the Univeristy of Amsterdam) focused on a three-week period in November 2002, about four months before the U.S. initiated “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Flint says U.S. leaders had waged a rhetorical campaign—internationally and domestically—to show that military actions in Iraq were indeed justified because as the world’s hegemonic (dominant) power, it was the responsibility of the U.S. to disseminate and protect its values.

Around the globe, Flint says, that argument was considered specious. Several of the cartoons portray the U.S. as having an imperialistic agenda, and depict the potential military intervention as unjust since, in their view, it was not for humanitarian reasons or in self-defense. The cartoons are critical of U.S. policies toward the United Nations, which they portray as duplicitous—while the U.S. demands certain UN resolutions, it ignores others. Some use the American alliance with Israel—a sworn enemy of the Arab nations—as evidence that the U.S. is immoral.

But most of all, the cartoons show the Arab world’s opposition to what they perceived to be a violation of political and literal boundaries.

“The rest of the world maintains the ideology of territorial sovereignty,” Flint says. “I think that’s important to emphasize. In practice, territoriality is violated all the time—economically, culturally, as well as politically. But I think the point of the cartoons was that belief that sovereignty is still a strong political force, and can be used to mobilize societies.”

The lack of a free press in the majority of the Arab nations meant that perhaps the only way to insert this critique into the court of public opinion was via a political cartoon.

“It was seen as a way of getting really anti-Arab government messages into not just the newspaper, but into the public forum, in a way that you couldn’t really write an article or an op-ed piece,” Flint says. “In a way those cartoons were the most subversive.”

The cartoons address a very specific event in time and space, but the message of the cartoons is still relevant today. They serve as a reminder of the worldwide opposition to the Iraq War before the first missiles were ever fired, something people may have forgotten six years into the conflict.

However, Flint says, the “justification for putting American troops across the globe is still ongoing.

“What I (find) myself doing is going increasingly back in time to take a look at these things. So I’m actually doing a lot of work and reading right now on the Korean War. ... To me, this was the first military act post-World War II where the United States has really assumed the role of hegemonic power.”

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill
Winter 2008