December 15, 2003

Arab Reaction Watch Brian Whitaker

Arab Reaction Watch

Brian Whitaker for the Guardian:

"The shock, for some, was not Saddam's arrest, but the manner of it: the pathetic, passive figure shown on television revealed the king [ed. note: President really] finally stripped of his clothes.

That has never happened to an Arab leader before in living memory, as several pointed out. The tradition in the Middle East is that leaders stay in office until they die, even if they have become unfit to rule.

People in several Arab countries wondered privately what would be the impact of Saddam's humiliation on their own king or president. From now on, they suggested, he would not sleep easily at night for fear that one day he might be paraded on television in the same bedraggled state.

Beyond sending a shudder through the palaces of Arab capitals, many were doubtful that Saddam's capture would have much effect outside Iraq."

Rapid analysis: Yes, it's doubtless a real shock to many in the region that an Arab leader has been deposed (and kept alive) rather than assassinated (Sadat) or allowed to enjoy maximum power until succumbing to a natural death (Assad, King Hussein, etc).

There is some befuddled happiness, doubtless, in the proverbial Arab street to see a tyrant brought down from lofty heights (most especially, in Iraq, where unlike the lofty-headed, noble Indymedia types sitting down amidst the comforts of Seattle and such, they well know the stench of tyranny having endured its brutalities for so many years).

Sadly, however, for we are dealing with very complex emotions, this pleasure is soured by the humiliation born of having had the tyrant dethroned by U.S. forces. There's no point trying to whitewash the deep mistrust (hatred?) against the U.S. harbored by many in the region. The reasons are many. The causes complex. But it's a reality. And we need to think of innovative ways to handle that.

Put differently, bitching about ingrates in Saudi and Egypt won't achieve our policy goals in the region. So, what would?

1) The hard work of creating a democratic polity in Iraq would, of course, help greatly. Beating back the insurgents and turning over power to the Iraqis relatively quickly (but not per a hastily derived Iraqification exit strategy) would be a huge boon.

Aside from the immense import of the region seeing a democratic Arab polity in its midst, the world would also witness Iraqis under transparent control of their oil revenues and the like.

What a coup that would be! How far that would go to silence moronic critics in Berlin, Paris and Cairo who say it was all about a neo-colonialist land grab for petrol.

2) We need to systematically communicate real American values (rather than let our often crap pop culture speak for us) and policy goals to the Muslim world. The President should do this directly more often in speeches. He should dispatch regional specialists to do the same too, in Arabic, in varied fora ranging from satellite T.V., Internet chat rooms, cultural exchanges etc, academic conclaves, etc.

3) We should also encourage this type of thing going on in Yemen.

Money grafs:

"The militants saw themselves as so devout that only arguments based on Islamic texts would hold any sway with them. Instead of leaving them to fester in jail, therefore, the president decided to challenge their beliefs by engaging them in religious debate.

He appointed an Islamic cleric, Judge Humoud Hattar, to go into the prisons and reason with the men, using his profound knowledge of Islam and considerable powers of persuasion.

This was no easy task: the judge, a moderate, had objects and insults hurled at him, has been called a traitor and a government stooge, and received anonymous death threats.

Heading a committee of five, he persisted over many months and finally decided that possibly almost 100 men were fit for release, having "seen the error of their ways".

Now he believes that 90 per cent of al-Qaeda's network has been dismantled in Yemen. "People I am reasoning with see themselves as such devout Muslims that I believe they are sincere when they say that they are now against violence and killing," the judge said."

Who knows? Maybe this judge is being hoodwinked and released prisoners who will resume their killing, terrorist ways. But, and pending greater diligence on this effort and monitoring of those tapped for release, these are the types of initiatives that Don Rumsfeld had in mind when he mused (remember the leaked memo?) about whether we were really winning the war on terror, ie. finding a way to reduce the pool of those flocking to madrassas for succor, education and, so often, anti-Western indocrination.

4) Finally, another critical aspect in all this is appearing to act the "honest broker" as between the Arabs and Israelis. Without resolution of the conflict in the Holy Land even a fully democratic, viable Iraq, with U.S. forces out, won't do the trick in terms of materially moderating Arab's views of the U.S.

I'm certainly not calling for appeasement style policies vis-a-vis the terror tactics employed there. But I would like to see more active nudging of the parties towards real and serious thinking about so-called final status issues. More on that later when I get back to writing about the Geneva Accord.

Bottom line: Great news about Saddam. Our troops, military command, and civilian leaders (not least POTUS) deserve much hearty praise. A brutish thug who orchestrated so much barbaric killing, including the "Kurdish Hiroshima" (Samantha Power's phrase), is now in inglorious captivity. All right-thinking individuals should rejoice.

But no time to rest on our laurels. Much work yet to do!

Posted by Gregory at December 15, 2003 02:35 PM
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