Hating America won't help Arabs
Michael Young, The Daily Star, Lebanon
If one surveys Arab opinions on the Iraq war, it will become apparent that the one attribute unifying them all is anti-Americanism. And therein lies a calamity for the countries of the Middle East.
In a unipolar world, antipathy to the United States is a convention. Gone are the days when people could situate themselves between sundry ideological poles, so that opposition to one side or the other could be peddled in the language of political dogma or principal. The emergence of a single superpower prompted a far more elemental reaction, one plain from Paris to Jakarta and Moscow to Rio: People suddenly defined themselves as either pro- or anti-American.
The Iraq war brought this dichotomy out to the extent that a compulsively anti-American Arab world was paralyzed when faced with the collapse of a totalitarian regime in Baghdad. Arabs hated Saddam, but hated the US even more, so that they could not welcome the liberation of a long-suffering people without seeming to compromise with the liberators. The Arabs and, more wretchedly their intellectuals, missed a chance to hold the US to its promises in Iraq, particularly on establishing a democracy and affecting an early military withdrawal.
The Arab world has become irrelevant to developments in Iraq. Liberated Iraqis have little motivation to listen to those who sided objectively with their tormentor; the US has no reason to listen to those who backed its defeated foe. Irrelevance is a byproduct of a worldview based on hostility. Disliking aspects of US policy may be comprehensible, but anti-Americanism is not a substitute for conviction. It's an impulse, a passion, on which very little can be built.
Witness a recent Edward Said commentary in Al-Hayat titled A Stupid War. Said argued that the Iraq war was unnecessary because it was built on a false premise that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and threatened its neighborhood. Said wrote: "Iraq is a hugely weakened and sub-par Third World state ruled by a hated despotic regime: there is no disagreement about that anywhere, least of all in the Arab and Islamic world. But that it is any kind of threat to anyone in its current state of siege is a laughable notion." Said went on to write of the war: "It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in brutal violence and cruel electronic gadgetry." Then he concluded by suggesting he was worried about the fate of Iraqi civilians, "who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally 'liberated.'"
Deconstructing a schizophrenic is never easy. But since Said mentions it, yes, Iraq was a threat to the Iraqi people Said claims to be defending. Another thought lingers: This influential man is driven by such loathing that he entirely neglected the opportunities inherent in Saddam's overthrow. His narrative leaves out a key fact: Saddam may have been detested in "the Arab and Islamic world," but only George W. Bush ever punished him for his crimes. Said laments US "imperialism," but he and his comrades have left themselves no room to advance open societies in the wake of Saddam's fall.
For all their doubts, most Iraqis will surely side against their Arab brethren if the Americans rebuild their country and make it truly democratic. One might have assumed that the Arab publics, who contend daily with autocratic regimes, would have gone along for the ride, if only to see how it might improve their lot. But no, they wager on American failure, ignoring that this might lead to a civil war that would provoke far more Iraqi distress than the US invasion ever did.
It is an unwritten, but unmistakable, aspect of the US invasion of Iraq that the Bush administration all along assumed the country's Shiite majority could more easily be broken away from the Arab world than its Sunni minority. This divorce will be consummated unless the Arabs agree to have a say in postwar Iraq. That means accepting US influence there as a fait accompli and working within its confines, even if this involves overcoming visceral anti-Americanism.
Michael Young writes a regular column for THE DAILY STAR. His weblog is www.beirutcalling.blogspot.com.