The problem with modern Arabs, peoples and governments alike, is not that they have been consistently defeated in almost every war they fought, ever since gaining independence in the second part of the twentieth century. Rather, it is the continuing incredulity with which they choose to deal with these defeats. The central role that the Arab collective memory still assigns to Arab peoples, in both the historical process and the divine scheme, is so out of touch with contemporary reality that Arabs have almost no choice but to continue to fall back upon conspiracy theories to explain this seemingly illogical situation to themselves and make it more acceptable somehow.
This should not be too surprising. Incredulity and paranoia have always been the natural reactions of the traumatized, and modern Arabs seem to have been born this way. Dealing with this situation will indeed prove America’s most serious problem in Iraq and the Middle East.
Scenario one: Another stupefying defeat!
Even if the United States came to Iraq armed with all the good intentions in the world, this almost schizophrenic condition of the modern Arab is enough to give them the headache of a lifetime. The fact that the United States is not necessarily so well-intentioned, and that the Arabs have many objective reasons not to view them as such, including America’s lust for oil and its continuing, unquestioning support of Israel, will make the situation even worse.
This, however, is not necessarily conducive to an immediate resort to violence or armed resistance. The situation is worse than that. It more likely will result in a society characterized by political and social apathy, nihilistic individualism, and ever more pronounced segregation along religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and clan lines. The last things people in such circumstances will be seriously concerned with are issues related to democratization and civil society building, though they are bound to adopt these labels in their socio-political discourse.
In fact, such issues are likely to instigate the ire of the masses, leading to a situation where their rulers are forced into assuming either the traditional role of benign dictators, interested mostly in pacifying the situation and not rocking the boat, or the role of aggressive despots, imposing some of the necessary reforms by force and ruthlessly cracking down on any opposition or resistance.
Noting that the Iraqis have already had enough of despots, and that supporting aggressive, reform-oriented dictators could prove quite self-defeating for the United States, we are more likely to see the institution of some form of benign dictatorship in the days ahead. This situation is not without its problems, of course. Benign despotism, in a country and a region as unstable as the Middle East, and where popular sympathies will (forever, it seems) lie with the few rapidly growing Islamic fundamentalist groups, is bound to lead to continued reliance on the United States to both protect the regime and to make the tough political, economic, and even social decisions. As such, popular ire will in time be diverted (or, rather, re-diverted) toward the United States, a development that is bound to lead to the rise of a “popular” resistance against the “invaders.”
The term “popular” here might be a bit misleading, however. The resistors will still cling to existing fault lines between religions, sects, ethic groups, tribes, and clans, reflecting the de facto ghettoization of the country and leading to a situation where the role of central authority will prove too limited, and where the U.S. army is expected to keep the peace. As such, the Americans will soon find themselves in a position similar to that of the Syrians in Lebanon during its bloody civil war. They will be hated by all groups, but they will have (or need to have) willing henchmen and allies in each.
The Americans, being the foreigners that they are, and not nearly as informed of the inner workings of Arab societies as the French and British had been during the heyday of their Middle East colonial ventures, will simply not be able to assume the role expected of them, unless they are supported by a group of “well-fed” native advisors from Iraq and the neighboring countries, who can help advise on how different ghettoes and enclaves can be administered and pacified. Eventually each ghetto/enclave will have to be absorbed, more or less individually, into the fabric of the globalized international economy. Once the first ghetto/enclave has undergone such an absorption, sheer envy will lure the rest to fall in line, one at a time.
This is indeed how the dominos of the Middle East are likely to fall in time: not to the temptation of democracy and civil society building, but to the more visceral allure of consumerism (this is probably what the Europeans were counting on when they came up with the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, still to be signed by Syria). Since the cost of all this, which is the humanity of all involved, invader and invaded, rulers and ruled alike, has been, historically speaking, quite acceptable, the above prediction may not be far off the mark.
There could still exist a less cynical alternative scenario.
Scenario two: Arab post-incredulous reactions
The U.S. military presence in the Arab heartland creates a new internal crisis for the Arabs, internal in both the social and psychological sense of the word. Simply put: the U.S. presence shames and humiliates the Arabs, because it serves as a reminder of their continuing impotence, that is, their continuing inability to fend for themselves, be it against foreign invaders or internal dictators. The fate of the Arab peoples, it seems, is something that remains in the hands of “others,” and there is nothing more humiliating than having your choices in life dictated to you by a perceived hostile father figure attempting (from inside or outside) to endear himself to you.
Yet, the incredulity here is obviously situation-specific and not an inborn trait of the culture. People are unable to accept what they see because it is obviously a façade. Conspiracy theories abound, because people have no way of knowing what is behind the façade, and because the region itself is the product of a conspiracy of sorts (which is a not unreasonable way of looking at the Sykes-Picot Accord).
A rational post-incredulous reaction is a possible development in this context. People here are capable of looking beyond the moment to see the opportunities that can be generated. Priority will be given to developments and processes that can help alleviate any lingering feeling of shame and humiliation. As such, popular participation in the political process will likely be far from casual and will reflect a genuine desire on part of the people to take part in the reshaping of the country and its future.
Although such developments could complicate the situation in the short run, as they will involve many disputes between rival political factions representing various religious and ethnic groups, they will, nonetheless, lead to the establishment of a stable, semi-democratic Arab state that could serve as a model for the entire region. Such a situation will seem to fulfill of the expectations of both the U.S. administration and the Iraqi people, and is undeniably the most positive development one can expect from the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
Which is it?
Which scenario is more likely to take place? This will, in no small part, depend on the volume and quality of participation in the political process within the next few months. A larger, more active, and accommodative political participation will favor the second scenario. Otherwise, the United States should prepare itself for a prolonged, direct, and not-too-friendly involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, even on the most intimate levels. In other words, they had better prepare themselves for involvement in exactly the kind of venture that the British and French failed in: colonial rule in all its pretenses at development and modernization in the fields of politics, law, economics, and social norms.
To be more exact, both scenarios will have their champions and advocates in the near future. The more educated and intellectual classes will opt for Scenario Two, but the great majority of the Iraqi people might be inclined toward Scenario One, where conservative and religious forces will be dominant. Sheer numbers will decide the rest.
The simple must: The long and arduous path toward credibility
Be that as it may, The United States has a major credibility problem in the region that it can no longer ignore or dismiss. The incredulity of the Arabs, a phenomenon that was clearly manifested in the inaccurate and clearly anti-American coverage of the war throughout Arab media (even in the recently established Arab news channel, al-Arabiya, which supposedly came specifically to give a more balanced view than the one offered by Al-Jazeerah), is related in no small part to the persistent lack of credibility of the United States in the Arab world.
The causes of the credibility gap are numerous, and both sides have contributed heavily to it throughout the preceding decades. The most important element in this regard is, of course, unwavering support of Israel by the United States, even at a time when flagrant violations of human rights by the latter have been clearly observed and documented. In the case of Iraq, the situation is further complicated by the U.S’s all-too-publicized support of Saddam’s regime throughout its war with Iran, and by its failure to support the popular uprisings against Saddam in 1991.
Still, complicated or not, now that the United States is here and seems bent on staying for an appreciable amount of time, the credibility gap needs to be addressed. While the road map seems to be one gesture in this regard, much still needs to be done in order to compensate for the negative perception that most Arabs now have vis-à-vis America and the Americans. Supporting initiatives that promise to give greater exposure to U.S. history, values, and way of life is one way of dealing with this situation.
Other activities should focus on supporting the establishment of new, really independent, Arab media outlets. The ones that already exist, such as the Abu Dhabi space channel and Al-Arabiya, being owned and operated by Arabs with close ties to certain established Arab regimes, are not really independent and tend to operate within certain established parameters. Even Al-Jazeerah, which assumed quite an anti-U.S. stand during the war (this at a time when the Qatari government was hosting the Central Command of the coalition forces), seems to operate within parameters established by the Qatari government. As such, not a single word of criticism was addressed against the government for its involvement in the war. As the war against the Iraqi regime unfolded, it seems the role of Al-Jazeeerah, was, if not to directly divert attention from the Qatari government duplicity in the war, then to make the whole thing seem irrelevant by glossing over it.
The necessary independent outlets should be financed through special funds established for this purpose by the United States and its European allies, and should be operated by intellectual Arab expatriates known for their open criticism of Arab regimes and medievalistic cultural traits. While these intellectuals may not be on the whole pro-American, they are also not necessarily anti-American. Their stands vis-à-vis America and American values would vary depending on the issues involved and their particular political visions. This, and their honest criticism of Arab regimes, should give them more credibility in the Arab world than would be the case if they dedicated themselves to defending American policies directly.
To go back to political issues, there are three achievements needed here if the Americans are to maintain credibility over the long haul.
First, they need to succeed in their efforts to rebuild Iraq, and enable it to emerge once more and within a short period of time, as the major Arab state it used to be: rich, stable and, more importantly, independent.
Second, the Americans need to re-launch the peace process and, this time, see it through. The current violent stalemate is draining the potential for goodwill necessary for the establishment of peace. As such, the road map needs to work (which means that the Unitd States will have to push Israel really hard in order to secure acceptance, something it has traditionally been unwilling to do); a Palestinian state needs to emerge, and soon; a suitable solution for the Jerusalem issue needs to be found; and a peace deal with Syria needs to be reached (regardless of whether the United States seeks to achieve this with the current Syrian regime in place, or over its dead body, so to speak).
Third, the Americans need to find a suitable settlement for the issue of Iraqi Kurds, otherwise, their achievement in Iraq is bound to come to naught. Unhappy Kurds will make the Iraqis, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Syrians quite nervous and equally, if not more, unhappy. For, as they say, one bitter ingredient is more than enough to ruin the salad. This could start the whole ball rolling again.
A final note
One thing that should be made clear is that now that the Americans are here, and seeing that one of their declared goals in the region is to support the process of democratization, their very presence has, for the foreseeable future at least, changed the nature of the game between existing regimes and opposition groups, including democracy and civil society activists. Indeed, a certain amount of polarization seems to have taken place whereby an U.S. failure or faux pas will have very negative consequences on the future of democratization in the region. In a sense, the future of democratization in the region and the future of America’s adventurism therein are now intertwined, necessitating the adoption of pragmatic approaches to the United States on the part of all concerned, especially democracy and civil society advocates.
The United States also needs to be very careful as to how it conducts regional policies from now on. If the current crisis with Syria’s rulers, for example, ends up being resolved in a manner that would allow the Syrian regime to claim diplomatic victory, it will have serious consequences for the country’s civil society advocates and the future of democratization therein. In this case, the beneficiaries of the status quo will see themselves as having a mandate to behave as they wish internally, having diffused the “U.S. bomb” on the one hand, and seeing that the Europeans have consistently failed to exact any kind of real concessions with regard to internal political developments in Syria, on the other. In fact, the status quo beneficiaries will see themselves justified in their position, and they will feel that their adherence to the status quo is the reason for their survival and continuity. As such, they will continue to oppose any attempt at change and will crack down on any remaining voices calling for change.
Now that the Americans are here, they need to understand the potential implications of their presence in our midst. They need to be firm and sure-footed, and they need to realize that they cannot afford to be of two minds about anything. A vision needs to be developed and clear policies for regional change advocated and implemented in co-operation with internal elements. Otherwise, the consequences will be catastrophic for all. Its military victory in Iraq is the beginning of a long commitment that the United States cannot afford to turn its back on. It had ample opportunity to do so before the war had started, and it chose not to. It is too late to do so now.
This paper was presented during a multilateral meeting in Europe.