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a settling of accounts past due

    Fouad Ajami
    U.S. News and World Report, February 24, 2003

    There can be no joy in the expedition: This increasingly inevitable war against the Iraqi regime shall be fought in the deeply anti-American lands of the Arab world. There shall be no takers in that congenitally anti-American world for assertions of American benevolence. We shall be seen as a mighty power blowing in from afar to subdue an Iraqi regime that has continued to hold out to other Arabs the false, ruinous promise of a center of Arab technological and military power. A handful of Arabs shall rally to America's banners. In the main, that world will split into those who will take the gift of American power--deliverance from Saddam Hussein--without undue enthusiasm for the country that gave that gift, and others who have seen this campaign all along through the prism of their deep animus toward the United States.

    We have heard from the French and the Germans. They don't like American power, and they don't like their own irrelevance. We have also heard the more articulate, more sober assessments of the Iraqi threat from former communist lands--Albania, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and others--10 countries in all in eastern and central Europe that have expressed their unbending support for American goals. The remarkable thing, amid the tumult, is the eerie silence in Arab lands. Save for Qatar and Kuwait, the dominant Arab response is a mix of anti-American belligerence and a sullen, resentful silence. To listen to the lands of Araby, the crisis at hand is the result of America's rampaging power and its greed for Arab oil, its heedless bid for imperial hegemony.

    Cross hairs. There can be no reasoning with this kind of willful self-pity. The mufti of Saudi Arabia, its highest judge, spoke recently to the throngs that had come from across the Islamic world for the annual pilgrimage. A dark conspiracy, the jurist said, encircles and stalks the world of Islam. "The Islamic nation is in the cross hairs, threatened by its enemies in its morals and values." The "forces of evil," he added darkly, are at work, and the principal struggle is "at once economic and religious." A deep rot has settled on Arab lands while a "freedom deficit" leaves their inhabitants in the throes of authoritarian rule and their children prey to the recruiters of terror. About such troubles the jurist has nothing to offer--nothing save a dark message of enemies bent on Islam's ruin.

    Whether the Arabs admit it or not, there is a deep fear across their lands of what a war of liberation in Iraq may trigger. There shall be an accounting between the Iraqi people, seared by sorrow and brutality as they have been, and an Arab street that forever averted its gaze from the crimes of Saddam Hussein. It shall be a moment of singular embarrassment when the throngs in Ramallah and Cairo take to the streets for the obligatory attacks against America while Iraqis greet the unseating of Saddam as a precious gift.

    There are things the Arabs will never openly tell us about their world and its phobias. In Iraq, a victorious campaign against Saddam will overturn the rule of the Sunni Arab minority from which Saddam Hussein and his own clan hail. Greater power in a new Iraq shall come the way of the majority Shiite Arabs, and of the Kurds in the north. But neither the Shiites nor the Kurds are beloved by the Arab street. So the legend spreads that war will give Iraq over to the Kurds and the Shiites and render it vulnerable to the power of Iran and Turkey, two non-Arab neighbors. A war to disarm a terrible regime and to give its brutalized people a chance at a new beginning is thus seen as "imperial cartography"--an American exercise in redrawing the map of nation-states in the region.

    America should discount this animus and the dark theories it spawns. An old order in the Arab world fights for its life and hegemony and worries that the foreigner's big guns and ideas of democracy and reform will sweep that order and its beneficiaries and its atavisms away. The Arabs eager to give Saddam Hussein an honorable way out, and the comfort of exile, do so for their own reasons. They yearn to be spared, worried that their entrenched rule will be challenged by the kind of political world emancipated Iraqis may manage to build in the shadow of American power.

    We cannot still those fears, nor should we try. We should know the Arab world for what it is. We must decipher its ways and understand why the people in Lithuania and Latvia grasp the stakes in this war, while the crowds in Cairo and Ramallah continue to insist that American power is a greater threat than the brutal regime in Baghdad.

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