Arab fears for region have substance

March 31, 2003

SANA’A, YEMEN – If truth is the first casualty of war, one has to wonder what that does in the socalled battle over hearts and minds of people, not only in Iraq, but across the Arab world and beyond.

During months of diplomatic poker at the UN, we heard the Americans tell of the pressing need to disarm Saddam Hussein. We were told another 9/11, or worse, would happen unless Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were found and destroyed.

When inspectors couldn’t find such weapons quickly, the Americans tried, with flimsy evidence, to link Iraq to terrorism. Al-Qaida has actually been found in Yemen far more than in Iraq.

Washington also was willing to let Saddam take the money he’s amassed during his reign of terror — reportedly $7 billion U.S — and disappear into exile.

No luck. In the Middle East, it’s more important to save face than save your skin.

Now, however, its real plan for Iraq is coming to light. It’s never been to simply disarm Saddam. It’s to get rid of him, one way or another, so the Americans can set up shop and reshape the Middle East into a kinder, gentler place where, for one thing, the flag of democracy flies and economies run free.

Invade a dysfunctional region of the world to fix it — that’s the plan according to reports in the media, such as Time magazine. Opinions may vary if such a grand vision is worthy, let alone possible. But isn’t it strange it never even got debated before Baghdad was hit?

There are a few things to consider. First, a conquered Iraq won’t turn into any post-Second World War Germany or Japan. Arab Muslims want to preserve the past more than work for some future economic miracle. Frankly, the work ethic on this side of the world is valued differently. That means resources such as Iraqi oil might always be handled by outsiders.

Second, despite Washington’s hopes, a post-Saddam Iraq will not in itself bring peace to the occupied territories in the Palestinian-Israeli battleground. It’s the conflict between Arabs and Jews, not Saddam’s despotism, that causes Israel’s strife. Of course, Saddam plays on that. Indeed, it’s a wonder he didn’t immediately begin to fire Scuds at Tel Aviv last week.

Most importantly, while some Iraqis will welcome the Americans as liberators, some won’t. That’s because they’re xenophobic when it comes to occupation. The Middle East, remember, was under colonial rule for part of the 20th century.

Mohammed Abbas, former editor-in-chief of the Baghdad Observer and now a colleague of mine at the Yemen Times, tells me some Iraqis still don’t forgive Britain for staying for two decades after “liberating” Iraq after the First World War.

“They still hate them,” he says.

This is where things get messy. Arabs here, I’ve discovered, live with a terribly profound feeling of defeat, inferiority and powerlessness. In my observation, they have fears that permeate everything they are and everything they do.

Some people in Yemen, a country with a political love-in with Washington because of Sana’a’s official anti-terror stance, even fear a U.S. invasion. That’s partly why several protesters, including an 11-year-old boy, were shot dead by Yemeni police when a recent demonstration moved to the U.S. embassy in this capital city.

“It seemed to me that death was nothing for them,” said one eyewitness at the scene. Protesters here see Afghanistan. They see Iraq. They know the West’s colonial history in their region and they connect the dots. Next thing you know, somebody’s boy is in a pool of blood.

So my worry is while the Americans will eventually get Saddam and win the war, they’ll lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world. Suicide bombers and snipers and others who see an updated version of western colonialism will bring their own intefadeh to Iraq. Bloodshed could then spread to who knows where, including North America.

Of course it’s easy to think those who see Pax Americana on the doorstep of the Middle East are over-reacting. But considering the wounds of this region and America’s quiet plans for Iraq, can you blame them?

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March 31, 2003 • Posted in ,
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