Friday, August 19, 2005

The main cause of Arab indifference was that Saddam's crimes threatened to imply the Arabs' inability to responsibly manage their own emancipation

It is politically,
notes the Daily Star's Michael Young (as he writes about those of the Iraq war's critics who, legitimately, bemoaned Washington's coddling of Arab dictators (but then refused to endorse the exception to the rule in Iraq)"),
that Arab societies, specifically liberals, failed to see the advantages in the removal of Saddam, regardless of their antipathy to the Bush administration. Here was an opportunity to cheer on the emergence of an Arab democracy, with deep implications for democracy at home, and it was missed. More disturbing was that this need never have contradicted Iraqi sovereignty. Washington could have been repeatedly reminded by Arab democrats keen to see the Iraq project succeed for their own good, that true democracy meant, after a period of stabilization, allowing Iraq to be free of foreign interference. Yet other than from the Iraqis themselves, the argument was rarely heard in the Arab world; advantageous pragmatism was supplanted by stubborn attachment to principle--"principle" that, in yearning for American failure, ignored how Iraqis suffered from the ensuing carnage.

Saddam's fall was welcomed by shamefully few Arabs (I recall how, on the day of his capture, a liberal Arab intellectual living in the U.S. mainly regretted that this would bolster George W. Bush's popularity ratings): The "humiliation" of seeing an Arab leader toppled by Western armies far outweighed that of seeing one of the most talented of Arab societies, the Middle East's Germany, subjected to a ferocious despotism responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Nor was there much interest regionally in the discovery of the Baath's mass graves. One reason was the secondary concern that many Arab societies have for Saddam's foremost victims--the Shiites and Kurds; but the main cause of indifference was that Saddam's crimes, if acknowledged, threatened to imply the Arabs' inability to responsibly manage their own emancipation.

In other words, applauding his ouster meant admitting that the Arab world could produce no better, and deserved no better than Western armies in its midst. This rationale was nonsense, but spawned a cliché that Arab intellectuals routinely peddle: that Arab reform must come "from within"--though the notion would have been laughable in Baathist Iraq. Arab societies must indeed open up from inside, but absent an echo, sometimes a determining one, from outside--including the option of foreign military action--little will change.

… For all these reasons, American achievement in Iraq could have been looked on with greater self-interested approval and imagination by the Arab publics. It never was.

How the U.S. adventure in Iraq ends is anybody's guess. However, its repercussions will be felt, first, by the Arabs themselves. By refusing to profit from the prospective democratic upheaval that Saddam's removal ushered in; by never looking beyond the American messenger in Iraq to the message itself; by lamenting external hegemony while doing nothing to render it pointless, Arabs merely affirmed their impotence. The self-pitying Arab reaction to the Iraq war showed the terrible sway of the status quo in the Middle East. An inability to marshal change for one's benefit is the stuff of captive minds.

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