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Mullen: Cultural sensitivity needed in Middle East

JCS chairman says trust and partnership can help to quell conflict

Featured in National Security
Mullen: Cultural sensitivity needed in Middle East
Adm. Mike Mullen, JCS chairman, says that greater understanding of Middle East culture can help to resolve conflict in that region. Photo by James V. Carroll

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that trust and a partnership borne of understanding – not simply military might – is needed to quell conflicts and establish law in troubled regions of the Middle East. Speaking at The American Legion’s 91st National Convention on Aug. 25, Adm. Mullen stressed the need for cultural awareness in conflicts overseas.

“Despite all that’s been done to bring stability to that region, really since the end of World War I,” Mullen said, “we are still learning about the various cultures that shape the region’s landscape. Because understanding takes time and without consistent engagement – a willingness to see things from another’s perspective – there will always be a trust deficit. And where trust is lacking, partnerships falter.”

During his address, Mullen referred to British military officer T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who played a key role in leading the Arab Revolt during World War I. “During World War I, (he) and a few others committed themselves to learning the customs, the languages and the cultures of the people of the Middle East. They fought beside them, earned their friendship. But, most importantly, they won their trust.”

This principle of combining a strong military force with cultural sensitivity applies equally to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mullen said. In his words: “We cannot win from the Pentagon.”

“You have to be there,” he said. “You have to see and hear firsthand what the issues are. You can’t hope to see problems through someone else’s eyes if you aren’t looking into those eyes.”

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