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The Great Satan

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 7, 2004
salon.com

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It is hard to sleep while traveling in the Arab world, not because of the ubiquitous street noise of Cairo, the deafening quiet of Doha, or the searing heat and humidity of Bahrain but, rather, because of the images on Arab news networks. Two stories in succession: soldiers entering a home in the middle of the night ... terrified women and children ... all the men of the household rousted from their beds, handcuffed, blindfolded and led away to detention. Bethlehem? Ramadi? What difference does it make to viewers of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya? In Arab eyes, the United States and Israel are now one.

To the neoconservatives, the fact that there is little, if any, daylight between Washington and Jerusalem is largely a good thing, and the overwhelming anti-Americanism that the U.S.-Israeli relationship seems to produce among so many in the region is the fault of Al-Jazeera, not U.S. policy. The level of denial about what is wrong in the Middle East is so strong and pervasive within the administration that from the State Department and the Pentagon to the Old Executive Office Building and even commanders in Iraq there is an effort underway to lay blame for Washington's current dismal image in the region at the doors of the Al-Jazeera studios. To be sure, there is plenty on Arab TV networks that distorts U.S. actions and intentions, but couldn't the same be said of Fox News?

The fact remains that the "new Arab media" is not Washington's problem. Rather, the combination of the way the United States handled the run-up to the war in Iraq, the occupation of that country and the Bush administration's close identification with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon compromises Washington's ability to manage its relations with the Arab world -- and has contributed to unprecedented anti-Americanism throughout the region. Even among the few Arab liberals and reformers, the United States is no longer a beacon of freedom and justice, but a purveyor of cynical double standards and a self-interested supporter of repressive authoritarian regimes. "I have lost faith in the United States. We don't have democracy because Washington supports this terrible regime," laments one liberal opponent of the Egyptian government.

To have a good foreign policy, one needs good assumptions about the world. When it comes to the Middle East, those at the policymaking level of the Bush administration seem to have strong views about the region, but they have precious little grasp of its politics, history and culture. For example, throughout 2002 and early 2003, the American public was told that Iraqis would celebrate with U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad when Saddam Hussein fell and that the Iraqi people would assist in a relatively smooth rebuilding of the country. There were, of course, stirring images of U.S. Marines helping Baghdadis pull down the statues of Saddam in Firdous Square on April 8, 2003, but there were no large-scale celebrations. Not because Iraqis were unhappy to see Saddam go but because of their manifest mistrust of the United States. Why would anyone expect Shiites to celebrate and assist the United States after the first Bush administration abandoned them to Saddam in the spring of 1991? Was it realistic to believe that the Sunni population -- a minority that prospered in Iraq under Saddam -- would help the United States raze the very institutions that had privileged this group since the founding of modern Iraq?

Historical perspective was severely lacking in the policy process. If the administration had considered Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, some of the overly optimistic assumptions about Iraq might have given way to cogent analysis. In the summer of 1982, then Minister of Defense Sharon sought regime change in Lebanon. Upon their entry to Shiite west Beirut, Israeli soldiers were welcomed with rose petals and candy. Yet this enthusiastic welcome turned to hostility as Israel's Lebanese Christian Phalange allies proved unable to generate the requisite legitimacy among Lebanon's sectarian and political factions to effectively rule the country. Subsequently, the Israelis became entangled in Lebanon's complex politics, and the Israeli Defense Force's occupation of Beirut and southern Lebanon became brutal. Sound familiar?

Not only is the current administration seemingly unable to draw the appropriate lessons from its closest regional ally's own disastrous experience with regime change, but the Bush team has also been unwilling to consider the counsel of experts and allies. As a result, Washington seems to believe that a sheer demonstration of strength will bring the Arabs along. It has not happened, and it is not likely to happen. Egyptian, Qatari, Bahraini, Jordanian and Saudi officials all flatly refuse to even consider sending forces to Iraq to assist the United States. As one Egyptian official said, "We understand the complexities of Iraq, but the Bush administration refused to listen to us. Under no circumstances will the government send Egyptian forces to Iraq."

To be sure, past Arab advice has been cynical and self-serving, but in the months preceding the war Washington's Arab allies actually had fairly good advice for the administration. For the most part, our Arab allies counseled Washington not to go to war because Saddam was a paper tiger, but if there was going to be war, the United States should do everything possible to make its occupation short. Toward that end, the Iraqi military -- save the Republican Guards and special Republican Guards -- should be left intact not so much to help U.S. troops but as an "employment program." In addition, Baathist functionaries, not hardcore party members, are an important resource, with expertise to offer in administering the country. Finally, Washington must do everything possible to prevent the centrifugal forces of Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite politics from pulling the country apart.

The fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority is now looking to recruit Baathist civil servants to assist in the reconstruction and hand-over of sovereignty on June 30 vindicates what Arab officials said from the start. It may be too late, however. Demobilized officers, recruits and civil servants either have thrown in their lot with the insurgents or are too afraid to be seen as collaborators. As far as holding the country together, the transitional administrative law that was signed on March 8 makes an admirable effort to bind the three major Iraqi communities together and process their grievances through democratic institutions. Yet the Shiite leadership repudiated the document almost immediately. For now, Iraq is being held together by the force of U.S. arms and Tammany Hall-style politics in which U.S. commanders, with varying degrees of success, are buying off the quiescence of Iraqi tribesmen, religious leaders and other political figures.

It is not only in relation to Iraq that there has been a distinct lack of shura (consultation), a concept that is critically important in Arab political culture but also on the issue of greatest importance to Arabs: the Arab-Israeli conflict. As one Saudi official noted in Riyadh, "Iraq is a minor irritant in comparison to the administration's handling of the situation in Palestine."

Once again, Arab advice on this issue must be taken with a grain of salt. Former members of the Clinton administration, who spent eight long years shepherding the peace process, become visibly pained when they hear Arab interlocutors demand that the United States do more to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The tight bond between the Bush administration and Sharon's government sows tremendous ill will in Arab capitals, making it more difficult to secure Arab cooperation.

In the eyes of much of the Arab world, Sharon, the man they hold responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, is a war criminal. "Do you realize how calling Sharon a 'man of peace,'" as President Bush did in April 2002, "sounds to the Arab ear? It's as if Bush told the Jews that the Nazis were peaceful," declared one Western-educated Arab intellectual. While this is a ghastly comparison and Washington must work with the Israeli leader, the Bush administration's support for practically any initiative that emerges from the Israeli prime ministry leaves Arab officials cold. It has gotten so bad that one Arab diplomatic source grumbled, "We have no expectation that the present administration will actually change U.S. policy, but at least [it should] make a show of trying to rein Sharon in."

Shortly before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to the Western White House in mid-April, Egyptian diplomats were frantically searching for an effective way to impress upon Bush and other administration officials the Arab fear that Jerusalem's proposed unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was a prelude to an Israeli effort to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank.

Indeed, the Mubarak visit is instructive of the administration's tone-deaf approach to its Arab allies. The shortcomings of Egypt's authoritarian regime are well known -- and Mubarak's sometimes overly cautious approach has contributed to a deadlocked peace process -- but Egypt is the largest and most powerful country in the Arab world, rendering it an important partner for the United States. Over the course of the past year Cairo has, in fact, played a constructive role in a coordinated effort with the United States, Israel and the Palestinians to bring an end to suicide bombings. Given the importance of this issue, it was stunning how the administration thoroughly humiliated the Egyptian president. After cordial and productive talks between Bush and Mubarak on April 12, the U.S. president -- standing with Sharon -- publicly repudiated standing U.S. Middle East policy regarding Israeli settlements, Israel's borders and the status of Palestinian refugees two days later.

With that encounter on April 14, Sharon achieved what no other Israeli prime minister has been capable of doing: The U.S. president publicly and explicitly aligned U.S. policy with Jerusalem's concept of a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The problem for the Egyptians was not only the change in policy but also that it came so close on the heels of the Bush-Mubarak meeting, creating the impression that the Egyptian president either approved the change or, more likely, was too weak to do much about it. Either way, the administration's actions were deeply embarrassing to the Egyptians.

It was not surprising then that shortly after these events Jordan's King Abdullah, who presides over a country in which only 6 percent of the population has a favorable opinion of the United States, canceled his late-April trip to Washington. He finally met with Abdullah yesterday, in a day filled with all sorts of damage control by the Bush administration.

What's worse, it was unnecessary for the president to publicly renounce U.S. policy. After all, the Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Saudis and Syrians -- indeed the entire Arab world -- recognize the reality of any solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: Israel is likely to retain a number of settlements in the West Bank including Maale Adumim, the Gush Etzion block and others that abut the Green Line. Moreover, Palestinian refugees will not be permitted to return to the lands they lost during Israel's creation.

The administration and its Israeli partners are under the impression that Washington's public recognition of this eventual reality will permit more pragmatic Palestinian leaders to emerge. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both the cultural sensitivities of the Palestinians, who are likely to resist what they regard as American and Israeli dictates, and Arab political dynamics. In the current climate of anti-Americanism, in which extremists frame the terms of debate in the Arab media, there is little reason to believe that any Palestinian leadership would or even could submit to a Washington-blessed Israeli plan to deny what the Palestinians regard as their historic and just claims. These mythic leaders would have no credibility or legitimacy in Palestinian and Arab eyes. Rather than encouraging a more forthcoming Palestinian position, the administration's coordination with the Israelis is likely to make it more difficult to draw the Palestinians into negotiations. From their perspective, there is now nothing left to negotiate.

The administration's approach to Arab-Israeli peace brings the larger and more fundamental problem of current U.S. Middle East policy into sharp relief: lack of credibility. The yawning gap between the principles that ostensibly guide the United States in the world -- freedom, justice, decency and national self-determination -- and objective reality produces outrage among Arabs. The recent revelations of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison further reinforce the image of the United States not as a liberator, but as yet another repressive colonial power.

The president's "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" is an empty phrase so long as U.S. Army reservists, intelligence officers and private contractors are emulating the practices of Saddam's sadistic intelligence organizations. The words of editorial writers in the May 4 edition of the Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yom are particularly revealing: "In the minds of Arab citizens, Abu Ghraib's pictures exactly match the ugly image of America, the occupier and the invader. All this talk by America of democracy and a greater Middle East is being exposed as a lie."

At least the abuse of Iraqi prisoners does not seem to be an administration policy. Far more worrying is the situation in Fallujah, where the security environment has deteriorated to such a degree that the CPA is engaged in a search for an acceptable Iraqi general to assume control of the city. In a moment of clarity, U.S. officials determined that Jassim Mohammed Saleh -- a senior officer in Saddam's Republican Guard -- was not, after all, an appropriate choice to rule the troubled city. The CPA and Central Command have settled on a former intelligence officer and reported opponent of Saddam, Mohammed Latif, to take over security operations in Fallujah. Regardless of Latif's profile, however, the decision to place a former Iraqi military officer in charge is a further blow to American credibility. Fallujah can be seen as a microcosm of all that has gone wrong in Iraq.

For all the talk of Iraq as a model of Arab democracy that will ultimately sweep away other authoritarian regimes in the region, at a moment of crisis the Bush administration has fallen back on a tried-and-true method of establishing order in the Arab world -- i.e., support for the military strongman.

Given this turn of events, it does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that as the security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, the United States would seek to place an additional Iraqi general in charge, but this time in Baghdad. Rather than be a model for the region, Iraq would take a place alongside other military-dominated regimes of the region like Egypt, Algeria and Syria. And with this outcome, everything that the Arab world has been saying all along about U.S. intentions and credibility would be confirmed. The false assumptions that guided the Bush administration into Iraq have clearly come back to haunt it. Indeed, it is fair to say that the neocons have been mugged by the reality of Arab politics.


Steven A. Cook is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.