| Out of the box
Within the past month, Iraq has been the scene of jubilation and some angry protests. Major fighting has ended, but major reconstruction has yet to begin. Regional reaction has ranged from relief to resignation and despair. What firm conclusions, then, can be drawn about reactions to the war from the Arab world'
The region is still in shock over the speed and ease with which the American and British forces swept into Baghdad. This is all the more true because pro-Iraq, anti-American propaganda broadcasts by regional media outlets were widely accepted in the Arab world. Muhammad Said al-Sahaf, the former Iraqi information — or rather disinformation — minister, became famous in America for his outrageous misstatements of fact, including his steadfast denial that US forces were even in Baghdad. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which Arab viewers actually believed his reports, but indications are that they certainly wanted to believe in a ferocious Iraqi resistance.
To cite two examples, when I appeared on a panel discussion programme on Lebanese television, I was shouted down by Arab co-panelists, who insisted that US forces were carpet-bombing Baghdad’s residential neighbours. Al-Jazeera, which is a fairly typical example of Arab media coverage, presented one expert who claimed that the United States of America was only able to capture Baghdad because it used nuclear weapons to incinerate thousands of Republican Guard troops.
In considering Arab reaction to these events, one must first establish the type of information and analysis available to that audience. By doing so, it is possible to conceive a view very different from that which was engendered by Western media coverage.
Not surprisingly, the primary reaction in the Arab world — from politicians, the media, opposition leaders, and establishment intellectuals — was very much along the lines of traditional thinking. Victory over Iraq was seen as one more humiliation by Western imperialism and international Zionism. Saddam Hussain is viewed as either a failure because he didn’t fight to the last Iraqi, or the victim of a criminal conspiracy. While many Arab intellectuals who now condemn the US action once claimed to revile Saddam as an oppressive dictator, few of them rejoiced at his actual downfall and the liberation of the masses who suffered from his rule.
As for the war’s future implications, pan-Arab nationalists insist that greater Arab solidarity is needed to redress their weaknesses. Islamists suggest that Saddam’s failure was caused by a failure to apply Islam by that regime. Egyptian leaders are once again proposing an Arab security system, led by Cairo, which would mediate all disputes without the need for foreign intervention. Al-Qaida says that the Iraqi defeat merely underscores the inadequacy of conventional military and vindicates their reliance upon guerrilla terrorist tactics.
None of this is necessarily the last word, of course. What we have seen so far is only the first act of a longer-term drama. Much hinges on what reactions we might see to the scenes still to come, including the establishment of a new Iraqi government, the turnover of oil assets to it by the US, the institution of Iraqi democracy, the departure of US forces, and the enjoyment of a better life by Iraqis. The Arab reaction following some or all of these developments will be more important than the initial response to the war itself.
Equally valid is the reality that what is largely seen by observers is the official version of the reaction, coming from sources interested in downplaying the significance of these events. Arab governments in general, state-owned media, establishment intellectuals and journalists, and leaders of militant opposition groups have a vested interest in defending the Arab status quo, denouncing US policy, demanding resistance, and rejecting the need to draw lessons.
There are, however, some within the Arab world who take a different view of events. First and foremost, there are the Iraqis themselves, at home and abroad, who are very pleased with the outcome of the war and the fall of Saddam. They are grateful to the US for liberating them, even though questions about what it should do now remain controversial.
It should be understood, though, that there is an enormous gap between these Iraqi perspectives and what the rest of the Arab world hears or seems to think. Arab media sources present a disproportionately high number of anti-American Iraqi voices, at the expense of potentially dissenting moderate views that applaud Saddam’s downfall, which are usually expressed nowadays by Kuwaitis, Saudis, and to a lesser extent, those from the other Gulf Arab states.
One argument, commonly articulated by more moderate Egyptian and Lebanese intellectuals, might be called Saddam exceptionalism. Their point is that Saddam was such a terrible dictator and such a threat to the region that the US was justified in overthrowing him. Even if they do not support broader political change or any further action by the US, they are glad to see the end of Saddam’s rule
Indeed, this argument is popular because it fits well with a popular moderate spin on the traditional perspective: that Saddam was terrible in part because his adventurism and extremism provoked US intervention, which all Arabs should oppose out of nationalistic considerations. Paradoxically, the fact that Saddam forced the US to attack him provided one more reason why Arabs who generally oppose US intervention should be glad that American forces eliminated him. The implication is that without Saddam in the picture, everything can go back to normal.
There are also some Arab liberals — most prominently in Kuwait — who are enthusiastic about the idea of regional change and democracy. They view the war and its outcome not as an Arab defeat, but as the potential basis for the greatest of all Arab victories: the creation of successful, developed, peaceful society where human rights are respected.
One trend accelerated by the war is the rapidity with which some Arab states have embraced at least some gesture toward political change. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia seem more open to talking about serious change and considering new ideas than Egypt, Syria or even the Palestinians. This is an important trend to watch closely in the post-Saddam west Asia.
At the same time, it is easy to overestimate any direct effect of events in Iraq on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saddam’s downfall removed a man whom the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, saw as his greatest Arab ally and arguably offers the lesson that it is better to work with the US and avoid extremism. But developments on that other front seem to be going along the same lines as they were before the war. There is a great debate in the West about the impact of the Iraq war and its aftermath on the Arab west Asia. Some believe it is going to create a new and enlarged constituency that advocates democracy, reform, and moderation. Others expect that there will be little effect or perhaps even a backlash against the US intervention. Though there are several indicators so far, conclusions and closure will remain elusive for some time. The final act of this drama remains to be played out not only because of the time needed for Arab response to develop but also because Iraq itself is in an early stage of transition.