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foolguy... one arab speaking up, finally!

  1. Snooker

    5,748 posts.
    IRAQ AND THE ARABS' FUTURE
    Fouad Ajami
    Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003

    There should be no illusions about the sort of Arab landscape that America is destined to find if, or when, it embarks on a war against the Iraqi regime… An American expedition in the wake of thwarted UN inspections would be seen by the vast majority of Arabs as an imperial reach into their world, a favor to Israel, or a way for the United States to secure control over Iraq's oil…

    America ought to be able to live with this distrust and discount a good deal of this anti-Americanism as the "road rage" of a thwarted Arab world--the congenital condition of a culture yet to take full responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds. There is no need to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and givens of the region. Indeed, this is one of those settings where a reforming foreign power's simpler guidelines offer a better way than the region's age-old prohibitions and defects. Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world…

    In the 1970s and the 1980s, the political and economic edifice of the Arab world began to give way… Islamism blew in like a deadly wind. It offered solace, seduced the young, and provided the means and the language of resentment and refusal. For a while, the failures of that world were confined to its own terrain, but migration and transnational terror altered all that. The fire that began in the Arab world spread to other shores, with the United States itself the principal target of an aggrieved people who no longer believed that justice could be secured in one's own land, from one's own rulers. It was September 11 and its shattering surprise, in turn, that tipped the balance on Iraq away from containment and toward regime change and "rollback."…

    The Islamists' apparent resurgence in recent months was born of their hope that the United States may have lost the sense of righteous violation that drove it after September 11, and that the American push in the region may have lost its steam… The "axis of evil" speech of President George W. Bush last January had caused among the Islamists genuine panic. A measure of relief came in the months that followed. They drew new courage from the bureaucratic struggles in Washington and from the attention that the fight between Israel and the Yasir Arafat regime attracted some months later.

    …Thus far, the United States has been simultaneously an agent of political reaction and a promoter of social revolution in the Arab-Muslim world. Its example has been nothing short of revolutionary, but from one end of the Arab world to the other, its power has invariably been on the side of political reaction and a stagnant status quo. A new war should come with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform.

    America's open backers will be Kuwait and Qatar… In the main, however, the ruling order in the Arab world will duck for cover and hope to be spared. Rather than Desert Storm, the Arab rulers will want the perfect storm: a swift war, few casualties, as little exposure by themselves as possible, and the opportunity to be rid of Saddam without riding in broad daylight with the Americans or being brought to account by their people… A new campaign against Iraq would find a deeply divided verdict in the region on the Iraqi menace. There are those who…will doubt that the ruler in Baghdad and his military apparatus have at their disposal weapons of mass destruction. Others will see Iraq's weapons as proof that Arabs have come of age in the modern world…

    Given the belligerence and self-pity in Arab life, its retreat from modernist culture, and its embrace of conspiracy theories, there are justifiable grounds for believing there are no native liberal or secular traditions to embrace the United States and use its victory to build an alternative to despotic rule. Few Arabs would believe this effort to be a Wilsonian campaign to spread the reign of liberty… They are to be forgiven their doubts, for American power…has been built on relationships with military rulers and monarchs without popular mandates. America has not known or trusted the middle classes and the professionals in these lands. Rather, it has settled for relationships of convenience with the autocracies [and has tolerated] the cultural and political malignancies of the Arab world…

    The solitude of the United States is more acute than it was during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. In that expedition, there was local cover for what was in truth an imperial campaign against an Iraqi state that threatened to shred the balance of power in the gulf. There were even Muslim jurists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt who issued fatwas that sanctioned the expedition of the foreign power… Saddam…had broken the code of the ruling Arab order for which he had posed as a trusted warrior against the Iranian revolutionary state. But for the vast majority of Arabs, Operation Desert Storm was an Anglo-American campaign of hegemony. A predator had risen in the region and a great foreign power, the inheritor of Pax Britannica in the Persian Gulf, had checked his bid for hegemony.
    Saddam had sacked a country, but there was an odd popular identification with him, and crowds saw him as the bearer of a lofty Arab endeavor. The gullible saw him as a Robin Hood, an avenging Saladin fighting "the Franks" and their local collaborators, erasing the colonial boundaries imposed after World War I. It may be heretical to suggest it, but the Iraqi ruler would have won a "free" election among Arabs in 1990-91… No great Arab hopes are pinned on the Iraqi ruler this time around… The crowd may shout itself hoarse against the Americans, but its bonds with the Iraqi ruler have been weakened…

    For American power, there are two ways in the Arab world. One is restraint, pessimistic about the possibility of changing that stubborn world, reticent about the uses of American power. In this vision of things, the United States would either spare the Iraqi dictator or wage a war with limited political goals for Iraq and for the region as a whole. The other choice, more ambitious, would envisage a more profound American role in Arab political life: the spearheading of a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point…

    The first option would hark back to Desert Storm… The balance of power had been restored, and the internal order of the Arab states did not concern George H.W. Bush… The authority that the United States gained in the aftermath of Desert Storm was used to bring together Arabs and Israelis at Madrid in 1991. George H.W. Bush had resisted "linkage" between the Persian Gulf and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he was to make it the cornerstone of U.S. strategy after the guns had fallen silent... For Iraq itself, there was to be no Wilsonian redemption. Bush had called upon the Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands." His call had been answered in the hills of Kurdistan and in the southern part of the country, where rebellion erupted in Basra, then spreading into the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala… But with the help of the regime's helicopter gunships, the rebellions were crushed with unspeakable cruelty…

    In the intervening years, however, the ground has shifted in the Arab world, and the stakes for the United States have risen. The Iraqi dictator has hung on [and] the familiar balance of power in the region sent America's way the terror of September 11. [Islamic insurgents] could not win in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria, or on the Arabian Peninsula. So they took to the road and targeted the United States… They did not strike at America because it was a patron of Israel; rather, they drew a distinction between the "near enemy" (their own rulers) and the "far enemy," the United States.

    …The targeting of America came out of this terrible political culture of Arab lands. If the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, could not avenge himself against the military regime of Hosni Mubarak for the torture he endured at the hands of his country's security services, why not target Mubarak's U.S. patrons? A similar motivation propelled the Saudi members of al Qaeda. These men could not sack the House of Saud [so] the war against America was the next best thing…. Bin Laden got the crisis in Saudi-American relations he aimed for. Those 15 young Saudis were put on those planes to challenge the old notions about the stability of the monarchy. Grant the devil his due: bin Laden knew the premium the dynasty placed on its privileged relationship with the United States. He had an exquisite feel for the regime's cultural style, its dread of open disagreements and of scrutiny. He treated the House of Saud to its worst nightmare… The Saudi population had changed; it was younger, poorer, and more disgruntled. Its airwaves crackled with bitter anti-Americanism, and a younger breed of radicalized preachers had challenged the standard Wahhabi doctrine of obedience to the rulers… The royal family was cautious: it rode with America but let the anti-Americanism have its play.

    The case for war must rest in part on the kind of vision the United States has for Iraq. The dread of "nation-building" must be cast aside… But there will have to be a sustained American presence if the new order is to hold and take root. Iraq is a society with substantial social capital and the region's second-largest reserves of oil. It has traditions of literacy, learning, and technical competence. It can draw on the skills of a vast diaspora of means and sophistication, waves of people who fled the country's turbulent politics and the heavy hand of its rulers…

    Iraq may offer a contrast, a base in the Arab world free of the poison of anti-Americanism. The country is not hemmed in by the kind of religious prohibitions that stalk…the Saudi realm. It may have a greater readiness for democracy than Egypt, if only because it is wealthier and is free of the weight of Egypt's demographic pressures and the steady menace of an Islamist movement. Iraq should not be burdened, however, with the weight of great expectations. This is the Arab world, after all, and Americans do not know it with such intimacy. Iraq could disappoint its American liberators…

    But America could still be more daring in Iraq than it was after Desert Storm. To begin with, the bogeyman of a Shi’ite state emerging in Iraq…should be laid to rest… As the majority population of Iraq, they have a vested interest in its independence and statehood. Over the last three decades, they have endured the regime's brutality yet fought its war against Iran in 1980-88. Precious few among them dream of a Shi’a state. The majority of them are secularists who understand that the brutalized country will have to be shared among its principal communities…
    A more likely outcome would be the rise to power of a different kind of Shi’ism: more at home in the secular world, granting the clerics a political and cultural role of their own while subordinating them to secular authorities, as is the case in Lebanon. In the scheme of historical development of the Shi’a tradition, the triumph of clerics has been a relatively recent phenomenon--more a feature of Iran since 1979 than of the Arab world.

    A new regime in Iraq might be willing to bid farewell to virulent pan-Arabism. The passion for a Palestinian vocation in a new Iraq may subside, if only because the Palestinians have been such faithful supporters of Saddam Hussein. The norm has been for Iraq…to stoke the fires of anti-Zionism knowing that others closer to the fire--Jordanians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, and Lebanese--would be the ones consumed. A new Iraqi political order might find within itself the ability to recognize that Palestine and the Palestinians are not an Iraqi concern. A new ruling elite…might conclude that offering a bounty to the families of Palestinian suicide "martyrs" is something that a burdened country can do without…

    The pan-Arabism that has played upon Iraq and infected its political life has been a terrible simplification of that checkered country's history, a whip in the hands of a minority bent on dominating the polity and dispossessing the other communities of their rightful claims. Iraq had been a country of Kurdish highlanders, Marsh Arabs, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Turkmen, Assyrians, Jews, and Chaldeans. But only the Sunni Arabs came into power--the city people, the privileged community of the (Sunni) Ottoman state. British rule had worked through the Sunnis, for the British had rightly assumed that a ruling community that included 20 percent of the population would be easily subordinated to foreign tutelage. In a cruel historical irony, the Sunni Arabs emerged with the best of alternatives: they were at once the colonial power's proxies and the bearers of a strident, belligerent ideology of Arab nationalism. The state remained external to the body politic, an alien imposition
    .
    Oil and terror gave that state freedom from the society and the means to destroy all potential challengers. The regime grew more clannish, more relentless, more Sunni, and more Arab… The Assyrians were destroyed in a military campaign in 1933. Then the Jews were dispossessed and expelled. There remained the Shi’ites, the Kurds, and the Turkmen to contend with…..

    Saddam did not descend from the sky; he emerged out of his world's sins of omission and commission. The murderous zeal with which he went about subduing the Kurds and the Shi’a was a reflection of the deep atavisms of Arab life… Iraq and its "maximum leader" offered the fake promise of a pan-Arab Bismarck who would check the Persians to the east and, in time, head west to take up Israel's challenge. An Arab world rid of this kind of ruinous temptation might conceivably have a chance to rethink the role of political power and the very nature of the state… The sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqis and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.

    If and when it comes, that task of repairing--or detoxifying--Iraq will be a major undertaking. The remarkable rehabilitation of Japan between its surrender in 1945 and the restoration of its sovereignty in 1952 offers a historical precedent…. Granted, no analogy is perfect: Iraq, with its heterogeneity, differs from Japan. America, too, is a radically different society than it was in 1945…lacking the sense of righteous mission that drove it through the war years and into the work in Japan. Yet… the Japanese precedent is an important one. In the space of a decade, imperial Japan gave way to a more egalitarian, modern society. A country poisoned by militarism emerged with a pacifist view of the world… The victors tinkered with the media, the educational system, and the textbooks. Those are some of the things that will have to be done if a military campaign in Iraq is to redeem itself in the process…
    A culture that looks squarely at its own troubles should think aloud about the rage that is summoned on behalf of the Palestinians while the pain of the Kurds, or the Berbers in North Africa, or the Christians in the southern Sudan, is passed over in silence. This righteous sense of Arab victimhood--which overlooks what Arab rulers do to others while lamenting its own condition--emanates from a political tradition of belligerent self-pity. The push should be for an Arab world that acknowledges its own economic and political retrogression and begins to find a way out of those crippling sectarian atavisms.

    From the Kurds, there are now proposals for a federal, decentralized polity that would keep the country intact while granting that minority the measure of autonomy they were promised…. That federalism would look different in an Iraqi setting, but there may lie Iraq's salvation. It would be a departure from the command states dominant in the Arab world and in the centralized oil states in particular. [The Kurds] have been repeatedly betrayed, and that terrible history has bred in them habits of fratricide and sedition. But the Kurds ought to be given credit for what they have built over the last decade in their ancestral land in northern Iraq, albeit under the protection of Anglo-American air power. Kurdistan has thrived… An attempt is being made at parliamentary life. This achievement is fragile and could crack, but…the Kurds appear to control the zone they rule, which consists of 10 percent of Iraq's land and 15 percent of its population. Arabs are not given to charitable views of the Kurds, but the Kurds could bring to the debate about a new Iraq the experience and the poise gained during self-rule…

    The Arab world could whittle down, even devour, an American victory… It may reject the message of reform by dwelling on the sins of the American messenger. There are endless escapes available to that Arab world. It can call up the fury of the Israeli-Palestinian violence and use it as an alibi for yet more self-pity and rage. It can shout down its own would-be reformers, write them off as accomplices of a foreign assault. It can throw up its defenses and wait for the United States to weary of its expedition. It is with sobering caution, then, that a war will have to be waged. But it should be recognized that the Rubicon has been crossed. Any fallout of war is certain to be dwarfed by the terrible consequences of America's walking right up to the edge of war and then stepping back, letting the Iraqi dictator work out the terms of another reprieve. It is the fate of great powers that provide order to do so against the background of a world that takes the protection while it bemoans the heavy hand of the protector. This new expedition to Mesopotamia would be no exception to that rule.

    (Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
    at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.)

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