Twenty One Days That Changed The Middle East

Beyond all the assumptions related to the oil interests that supposedly engineered the US-British intervention in Iraq, it remains that while trying to unveil a truth we should not veil others. When some observers mention the oil and business interests of the USA in the Gulf, as the “true cause” that motivated the Bush administration, they sound as if they were pretending to re-invent the wheel. What’s new about that? Since the discovery of oil in the desert of Arabia and the Gulf, a little more than a century ago, there have always been “true motives” that helped shaping the current face of the Middle East, and it is unlikely that this is going to change soon. A good part of the 20th century’s Arabo-Islamic ideological discourses revolved around this axis, identifying with unmatched passion zeal, nationalism, and nationalization as means of liberation from the imperialist greed. From Muhammad Musaddaq’s é revolt é in Iran in the fifties, to the theories of Ali Shariaati, Abu Al Hassan Bani Sadr, and Khomeini, the Shiites of Iran é and maybe they were not alone- have been confronted with realities upon which they had little control, if any. In the Arab world, where the Sunnites are a majority, the evolution was not much different. The vision of the Middle East, from Jamal Abd al Nasser to Saddam Hussein, has been always that of a confrontation between two civilizations around the wells of oil.

It is almost the rule é not the exclusion against all rationality- that the leaders of sovereign states could be to that extent obsessed by the fear of being invaded and subdued into a Western custody. In some countries, such paranoia is erected into a real doctrine of state. One of the main functions of the intellectual elite consists in maintaining alive the fiction that the Arabs é and in general the Muslims- are the target of a broad Judeo-Christian conspiracy, aiming at maintaining them under the yoke of a new-colonialism.  This fear is evoked now and then to justify the systematization of authoritarian states with tentacled security services. During the cold war, the paranoia reached a climax with the militant movements that the Arab states have joined.  The horizontal division of the world into free-liberal states (West) and communist block (East) consecrated a vertical division between the poor (in the south) and the rich (in the north). The Bandoeng conference emerging from the conjugated action of some leaders of the Afro-Asiatic block, as well as the creation of the non-aligned movement, insufflated a spirit of revolt against the international order following up the end of the Second World War and the Breton-Woods agreements. But the revolt was mainly rhetoric. It never fulfilled any of its demands. Moreover, the diplomatic palaver it created remained dissociated from the reality of the third-world countries, several of which were receiving the assistance from the Western countries they were pretending to fight. Many of those leaders would not stay in power during decades  é as they did- without the support of the Western states they were feigning to challenge.

But this disabled militant-ism that inspired Arab and Muslim leaders of that time, could not explain how for instance:

These regimes were unable to cope with democratic demands, and respect press freedom and other Human Rights.

Despite their alliance with Moscow, they discovered their impotency when confronted with a modernly organized new state, which is Israel.

They failed even to fulfill the most elementary promises about development and social welfare, despite their potential wealth, as the Algerian example points out well before the greatest Iraqi failure.

Something was wrong indeed. But in the Arabo-Islamic world, it has never been easy for the intellectuals to cast the light about the mistakes and the misdeeds, for reasons of safety that concern their families and relations as well as their own persons. Yet, beyond the coercion exerted by the agents of the state, which is to some degree the lot of all the countries if we exclude democracies, there is another kind of oppression much more hypocrite, because it is latent, deceiving, sometimes clever and based on argument. This is of course an intimidation exerted by intellectuals on other intellectuals, for the sake of the state é not to say the police of state. Sometimes, opponents against other opponents or dissidents practice this kind of psychic terrorism. We saw some of it recently in practice during the Iraqi crisis: it is still going on, although it has been weakened by the quick collapse of Saddam. The Palestinian cause is another fertile field for psychical terrorists to intimidate their opponents.

Why hide it anymore? The intellectual terrorism in the Arabo-Islamic world may be even more harmful than the ordinary terrorism, if I dare say é considering the fact that anyway terrorism is never something ordinary or natural. I am not talking about what is called “state-terrorism”, but I mean something quite different, though no less obnoxious. I mean for example that kind of behavior particular to the elite, whereby an intellectual é or a group é is singled out and judged as “betraying” the nation, or the principles, or the doctrine, or even the religion. And it sounds as if a unique group has monopolized the criteria of “good behavior” thus acquiring the right to terrorize those who are judged deviating.

However, it is not accurate to assume that those who monopolize and judge and terrorize are always those who are close to the rulers. For although this is likely true in many parts of the Arabo-Islamic world, there are also other groups no less coercive and dominating, whose influence could be sourced in the allegation that they are the alternative. The fact that they are trusted as efficient players inside a country, could be as empowering for them as their rivals. Whence the delicacy of any attempt to challenge them, or even to argue with them in order to show their deficiency.

There are so many examples about this topic. Let’s stick to the last events.

Since their liberation, the Iraqi intellectuals are today speaking freely, and they are pointing out to the failure of the é Arab elite é-with some exceptions- and the Arab media to support them, or at least to refrain from supporting the regime of Saddam when the Americans and the British decided finally to rid them from it. Some questions cannot be easily avoided. For example:

How would you explain the fact that with the exception of Kuwait, there was not a single Arab country that hurried to greet the Iraqis for their recently acquired freedom? Why the Arab governments that assisted the US-British coalition in the deliverance of the Iraqi people from its tyrant, seemed so ashamed about that? And if we leave the governments for their conscience, – they have never been much courageous anyway- what can we say about the elites? Here also, we can state the vacuum of the intellectual desert: How many Arab intellectuals had had the courage to say that what happened in Iraq was a war of liberation and not an invasion, as the majority of them claimed? How many of them talked about a “Baghdad Spring”, referring to that famous day of April 9, 2003, when we saw the Baghdadis dragging in the mud the statues of Saddam? How many Arab newspapers and magazines evoked these events without linking them to degrading terms, like “invasion”, “occupation”, and US-British é aggression é, while all the journalists and commentators were seeing the Iraqi joy exploding in the streets? Why was it forbidden to the Iraqis to express their joy in the eyes of an important part of the Arab elite? And that was so obvious that some important journalists went to the extent of charging the Iraqi street, pretending that those who dared to throw down the statues of the dictator and those who greeted the American and British soldiers in the Iraqi cities were a é handful of thugs and lackeys é. Thus the citizens who spontaneously expressed their happiness were guilty of é collaboration é with the invaders of their country!

Some Iraqi intellectuals note that the Arab media not only supported Saddam before the war, but it remained on his side even after the collapse of his regime. The liberation was not for the Arab media an opportunity to reconsider its strategy. It focused mainly on the looting and the anarchy and all the negative sides of the event, neglecting the positive aspects. The Arab media, for example, ignored the great demonstration of Shiite Iraqis, presenting it as if it were concerning a minority. Thousands of people were on the streets, they said. The Iraqis observers are speaking about millions. The difference is hardly negligible. Moreover, not a single Arab TV invited experts and scholars to comment this event from the Shiite optic, they contend. Instead of that, some of these TV are not ashamed of giving long broadcasting hours to former Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohamed al Douri, so that he could brighten the dark face of the regime he was representing. He and former Minister of information M. Said Assahaf would be even hired by Arab TV, according to some rumors, which could be interpreted as a hostile gesture toward the expected new regime in Iraq, since these two persons are on the lists of the wanted by the courts.

Some Arab media, it is true, did not refrain from charging the Iraqi leaders é formerly exiled- of  é corruption, deviation, treason, and conspiracy with the Western powers é, etc. That’s why some of these leaders reacted with much nervousness: Ahmed Chalabi was not alone to reject bluntly any role for the Arabs in the making of the Iraqi government. We can state that the same stance is prevailing with other former exiled, like the Kurd Talabani or the Shiite Mohamed Baqir al Haqim. Mr. Brahim Salah é speaking for Talabani- said é we cannot have a normal relationship with the Arab League, before the Arabs apologize officially for their silence and support to the crimes of Saddam é.

Whether the Arabs would apologize or not, is not here the point. But the fact that they have supported Saddam in his last days is undeniable and unjustifiable in the eyes of many Iraqis. The fact also that they charged the Iraqi nationalist leaders of various disparaging epithets, in respect to their relationship with the USA and the British governments, does not play in the favor of a next involvement of the Arab League in the shaping of the Iraqi regime.

Naturally, the image that one may recall in such an occasion is that of General De Gaulle, the French leader, coming back home in an American armored vehicle. At the time, nobody said that De Gaulle was the lackey of the British and the Americans. He is merely the hero who said no to the Nazi occupation, and if he collaborated with the British and the Americans, it was well for the purpose of liberating his country. So what’s wrong with those Iraqi militants who opposed Saddam Hussein, and since opposition was not permitted, found themselves naturally cooperating in their exile with British American allies who promised to help them rid their country from the dictatorship? The point here is that if the majority of Arab intelligentsia admits honestly at least that the regime of Saddam Hussein was as hateful and horrendous as any paltry dictatorship, they remained helpless as to how should it be brought down. They wouldn’t hear of any coup, because a coup is always a step toward the darkness. They wouldn’t hear of any guerilla, because it is vain against such a regime, and the revolts of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south showed it. They wouldn’t hear of any military intervention, especially when it is led by the Americans and the British, because neither of the latter has a crystal-clean record as regards intervention for democracy and freedom, as it is believed. The USA and the British have not always been the friends of the democrats abroad: they have also supported hateful dictators. And some of these horrendous regimes are still in power thanks to the support of Uncle Sam and H.M. government.

So what? According to the view widely spread in the Arab world prior to the war, the Iraqi people should be patient and wait under embargo and sanctions until Saddam Hussein decides to go of his own. And what if he never decides to go? What if he afforded another quarter of a century as President of an exhausted Iraq? What if even when he passes away he leaves one of his sons éeither Uday or Kusay- at the head of the state, as late Hafiz al Assad did, thus proving all the ridicule of the republican pretensions in some Arab countries?

The Arab elite éwith some few exceptions of honest people, many of whom live in the West- did not seem to care about these questions, or otherwise we should have known it. The way this elite tackled the Iraqi crisis showed how misguided and mystified some intellectuals could be when confronted to a complicated problem that has evolved from a local issue to a regional one, before growing into an international major crisis. Because of misjudgments, and pre-conceived notions about the relations between the Arabo-Islamic world and the West, – notions that were still sticking to the Cold war era- the Arab elite missed a historic opportunity to be present and active in the shaping of a great event in that region of the world: The liberation of Iraq in 21 days was and will stay a great achievement of our time. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Iraqis who took part in the event and a few elite of Arab journalists and scholars, the majority of Arabs and Muslims either mistook the fight for a é Jihad against the Jews and the Christians é, as hundreds of people volunteered for the lost cause of defending a crumbling dictatorship, or merely stayed outside the theatre while condemning the é invasion and the occupation é of a sovereign Arab country, and anyway looking with great suspicion to the event. The question was: How could democracy come to Iraq on tanks and missiles? However, when they saw the Iraqi people expressing spontaneously the joy of deliverance in the streets, the other Arabs (the outsiders) lost all their previous landmarks. It was as if an earthquake destroyed all the laborious media-political build up prevailing prior to April 9,2003. The Arab elite did not yet wake up from the shock.

This is the first time in all the modern history of the Arab world, that an Arab people while expressing the feelings of deliverance put the rest of the Arabs on the margin.

Some time would be necessary before the Arabs realize the gravity of this situation that dissociated them from the reality of the Iraqi people.

A historical rapprochement is inevitable: in 1967, the Arab media was expecting victory in the war against Israel. When the Israelis were destroying the Egyptian planes in their airports, the media were boasting about the defeat inflicted to Israel by the Arabs. Etc.

That’s why, it is inevitable to make the rapprochement between the hilarious figure of Mohammed Said Assahaf, Iraqi information Minister, and some colleagues in the Egyptian media in 1967, among whom the no less famous Ahmed Said, Radio Sawt Al Arab’s great speaker. In both cases, the Arabs were lying and fooling themselves. But if the 1967’s crushing defeat bred a wide stream of literature that focused on analyzing the event from all sides, I expect that with time, what happened before and during and after the 21 days of war in Iraq would not have less an important impact on the Arab intellectual production.

Arguing about what brought the Americans to Baghdad, and whether it is oil or desire of freeing another people, is pointless in the present context. Once more, I would evoke other examples and other battles: American intervention during world war, Marshall plan, Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, etcé Where is oil in these battles where American youth sacrificed themselves? Today, it is easy to label those who talk this way as é naive é, which is precisely one of varied methods of exerting intellectual terrorism with those who proffer a different opinion. There are others to be sure.

But you do neither need to be left wing nor right wing, to own the truth. What is truth anyway, if not a matter of viewpoint? We are not talking about mathematics, but rather about human projects and endeavors, where doubt is an obliged necessity, and certainty is but a mirage. The é politically correct é is quite a relative notion, which varies from a country to another, from a social-ethnical group to another, and from an era to another. In short, it is a matter of ideology. But what cannot be accounted as ideological rant concerns the events that happen in the real world and shape the future. When you fail to catch their meaning, you position yourself outside history. That’s exactly what happened to the Arab elite é with little exceptions- concerning the Iraqi issue.

Nonetheless, even when we assume that the ambiguity of the American dealing with the Palestinian problem sent false signals to the Arab elite, this is hardly an argument justifying their apathy, or worse, their condemnation of an intervention é that whatever its motivations é has anyway liberated the Iraqis from their oppressor. And because the Israeli applauded opportunistically the intervention, the Arabs thought that it would make sense to take the opposite side, at the expenses of the Iraqis. Then, it was easy even to find another great motivation behind the American behavior: Helping Israel getting rid of Saddam, as if the latter was ruling Israel not Iraq. Some even pretended that it was Sharon who pushed Mr. Bush to plan the invasion of Iraq.

Yet, what if he really did? If Sharon is blind to the extent of giving the Iraqis the opportunity to have a democratic government, why should that be bad?

So, oil and Zionism opened Bush’s appetite for Iraq, and much more. That’s the analyze prevailing. To give it credentials, the Bush administration should but fail in Iraq, and prove against all expectations that the next scenario would imply for example a civil war between Iraqi ethnic-political factions, which revealed to be unable to cope with the situation or to bring it to a credible solution based on a democratic choice. Additionally, to help the Arab paranoia increase to a é honorable é post-Saddam dimension, Bush administration should help Sharon transform Abu Mazen’s new government, into an Israeli ploy, and Abu Mazen himself into a puppet without any ties with the Palestinian national ground. And finally, to crown this policy or to elevate it to the level of the é new strategic environment é, Bush administration should either attack Syria or Iran, or both, without further palaver.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.