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Regional Fears About Iraq

April 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Arab reaction, we turn to Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As- Safir. He also has a weekly show on al-Arabiya, the Arab cable news channel based in Dubai. And Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland; he’s also the author of The Stakes, about Arab and Muslim perceptions of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Well, Shibley, anger toward Jordan for folding so quickly, shock that the Americans were able to be in Baghdad right away, continuing anger at the United States. Give us a tour of what you think are the main points of Arab public opinion now.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The Arab public is certainly stunned and also in denial. I mean let me contrast this in a way with the defeat in 1967; 1967 was a very difficult painful defeat for Arab states in the ’67 War when Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria all at once. At that time clearly people did believe that Arabs had a chance of winning. They, in fact, believed that the Arabs would win the war and there was a stunning, stunning realization that the Arabs didn’t win.

In this case I think when people went into the war, no one really believed Iraq has a chance of winning and in that sense they saw the U.S. as an aggressor trying to defeat the weaker nation. However, during the first two weeks that have war because there were surprises in a way, because it wasn’t quite as easy as people predicted in the first week at least, many people in the region came to believe the press that in fact, Iraq had a chance and so the rapid fall of Baghdad after this two-week period in which people came to believe maybe they have more of a chance to delay, at least to put up the fight, that really resulted in a stunning I think realization to the Arab world. That’s one.

But then there is the realization that this regime of Saddam Hussein is much more ruthless than they had come to acknowledge for themselves. The resentment of America was so strong that it blinded many to what was going on in the ground and to the extent to which the Iraqi people wanted to liberate themselves from this man. The pictures they saw not only in terms of people welcoming the U.S. forces celebrating the fall of the regime also the looting, anarchy sort of an expression of repression over such a long period of time were more stunning I think in a way than the American victory itself.

RAY SUAREZ: Hisham, lot of the people interviewed by Western reporters in other Arab capitals at first denied that those people celebrating in the streets were, in fact, Iraqis. Many said, well, they were probably Kurds, and they were probably actors. Is it now sinking in something happened in that country?

HISHAM MELHEM: Very reluctantly. Most Arabs did not want to realize or to accept that fact that a major Arab state, one of the two or three major Arab states, as we used to say in the old days, Iraq could have been a contender for the leadership position in the Arab world, not only for the swift collapse of that house of cards but also for the incredible descent of a whole country and a whole society into hell when Iraqis themselves were sacking their own cities, their own museums, their own hospitals. And the Americans were watching essentially. They did not want to believe that. They felt that yes Iraq will lose eventually but maybe the Americans will get their nose bloodied in this fight and then if the Iraqis are going to go down, let them go down fighting. That did not happen.

There was a great deal of denial and unfortunately many Arab intellectuals, many people in the Arab media perpetuated this myth of Iraq that Iraq is somewhat exceptional place, that Saddam has a strong regime. Nobody wanted to admit or discuss openly and honestly that this is a brittle regime, that this is a regime led by hollow men. To me when I was watching the Kurds, four and a half million people collaborating with the Americans put that on the side, watch the Shiites most of them in the south and center, either welcoming guardedly the Americans or watching them suspiciously and adopting a “wait to see” attitude. The only way to explain it was to see it as a function what that regime did to those people over the last 35 years for the average Kurd, the person or the party that violated Kurdistan was Saddam. For the Shiite, the party or group that violated their sanctuaries and religious places was that regime in Iraq.

And that many Arabs didn’t want to admit; many Arabs were ashamed and today the Arab world looks like a house with no roof because the Arabs in this moment in the modern day history look impotent, weak, vulnerable, unable to determine their own present let allow their own future — when an expeditionary force of 300,000 men and women come across the oceans to change a regime, to change a country probably to remold in America’s image and they are frightened and also that reaction should be seen as a function of the depth of alienation that Arabs in general regardless of political backgrounds feel vis-à-vis the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you heard Hisham talking about a brittle regime but in the state controlled presses in many countries in the Arab world on the news satellite channels, are the public seeing the torture chambers, are they seeing mass graves, are they seeing the evidence now and the personal testimonies that you’re hearing from Arabs on the streets in Iraq that this was a bad place to live before the Americans got there?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I think so. Clearly I watched the media on I regular basis and pictures are being shown on television. There is even there some denial about the degree to which that was the case and how much of this is staged managed and so forth. You have those reactions in many parts of the Arab world but I think you have more of a realization. I think people coming to grips with it the extent this was pervasive in Iraq and the extent to which it’s pervasive in many other parts but you also get particularly caller who call in on these shows on Arab television people saying he’s a dictator we have other dictators but he was targeted because he’s serving U.S. interests not because he was a dictator. You have that kind of thing coming out, but I want to just go back very briefly to what Hisham said and I think is a very important point here, aside from the stunning, surprising unfolding of events is that you have to put this in historical perspective here.

I mean, Iraq in the late ’70s was on the verge of a breakthrough. It was about to become maybe the nation that was going to become the first Middle Eastern tiger, a rich country, a strong country. And this was the secular regime that was going to liberalize, that was going to bring about Arab greatness and instead the minute this man became president he took his nation on a nightmarish trip through the Iran/Iraq War, through the Kuwait War, through the international sanctions and this really is a collapse of a paradigm that has dominated the thinking and so clearly right now there is not only despair pertaining to the state of the affairs in the Arab world but there is a vacuum. There is a total vacuum clearly the Arab League has not done its job. It’s failed. It has not presented –

HISHAM MELHEM: Also the major Arab states were on the margin.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: All the states.

HISHAM MELHEM: A great state like Egypt — 70 million people — was on the margin. Saudi Arabia was on the margin; a tiny state like Qatar of 125,000 citizens provided the United States with the biggest air base in the Gulf and in that state, and ruled by a man who came to party through a military coup overthrowing his father, not answerable to anybody, that state not even qualified to be a city state was more influential determining the outcome of the war than a major state with 7,000 years of history, 70 million people like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Unlike 1991, these countries were marginalized, and when you add to them Syria now, which is on the defensive, Iraq now is in shambles, that’s why the Arabs feel vulnerable for the first time since 1967, since the defeat in 1967.

RAY SUAREZ: But if Iraq was on the verge of a breakthrough — and granted most Arabs who now inhabit these countries weren’t alive in 1967; they weren’t alive in the ’70s — how come there has been so much reluctance to late culpability for the destruction of Iraq at the door of the people who were running Iraq rather than at the door of the United States?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, you know, the reality there was a lot of resentment of that regime early on — recall even in the 1980s countries like Syria and many in Lebanon opposed regime to the extent of supporting Iran and not the Arab state in that war. Sure in the Gulf, they felt more threatened by Iran at the time; they rallied behind Iraq largely because of the fear of the Iranian-Islamic Revolution. Look at Kuwait. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, people did rally and clearly there was a window of opportunity there. So it was not a unified picture but what has transpired, I think, is that people were always blinded by suspicions of American intentions, by growing resentment of America, and by the Arab-Israeli issue, which clearly has blinded people to the reality that is happening inside Iraq itself.

RAY SUAREZ: Now are the passions, Hisham that you and the professor are talking about a product of the moment, and really is there a window for the United States here to do one thing or another to change the way this is perceived, one, two, five years from now?

HISHAM MELHEM: The passions are there because again of that history. Every time, Ray, an American official talks about spreading the values of democracy and parliamentary elections and empowerment to people in the Middle East, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are running against their past 50-year history; they are running against a certain legacy in which Americans used to believe that there was something called Islamic exceptionalism, i.e., democracies is incompatible with Islam, and therefore they were in bed with the worst Arab autocrats and dictators, with the worst dictators of Turkey during the military war and the ruler of the shah of Iran at that time.

When you talk about freedom and democracy nowadays, people are going to look at you suspiciously with very good reasons. That’s one. The United States is not a benign power with a certain history, a certain interest, has certain alliances with a country like Israel for instance. That sense of humiliation and anger Arabs feel because they were defeated repeatedly at the hands of Israelis with support from the American supporters — so now the United States is going to act as the sole master in terms of shaping, determining the future of a major Arab country.

Ray, for us Arabs, not Iraqis, Baghdad occupies a place similar to the place that Athens and Rome occupies in the modern history or the ancient history of Europe. So the demise of a place like Baghdad is painful to all of us and the United States should be aware of this. If they are going to reshape the future of the Middle East in their own image, if they’re going to start building a new empirium, beginning with Baghdad, then they will… I can see hundreds and thousands of young recruits going Osama bin Laden’s way. And we will all lose in the Middle East — anybody a reformer, who’s a democrat, who’s a liberal. And I think that’s the biggest tragedy for challenge for the United States today.

RAY SUAREZ: Hisham, Professor, thanks a lot.