The euphoria of the West during the first week of the war with Iraq was premature and exaggerated.
Americans are short-sighted and naive to boast that Iraq is not going to be another Vietnam. Militarily, of course, they are right. Although the war is likely to last for months, there is little doubt that Iraq ultimately will be defeated.
Politically, however, the war with Iraq will be the granddaddy of all Vietnams. For when the shooting stops, it won't be President Bush's coalition - that posse of desperados and bounty hunters that is about as politically powerful as a dead leaf - that will determine the political trends of the region. It will be the bitter and resentful grass-roots sentiments of hundreds of millions of Arabs.
I would estimate that three-quarters of the people of the Arab world stand with Iraq - not in support of its occupation of Kuwait, but in its confrontation with the United States. Every day that Iraq holds out against the U.S. and strikes against Israel, that grass-roots emotional support for Iraq grows stronger.
Even in the shorter term, this tremendous grass-roots pressure is likely to result in serious political turmoil throughout the region, including changes in regimes and leaders.
Understanding the contemporary frame of the Arab mind is essential in order to grasp the terms of reference with which we have viewed the mounting conflict with the United States these past five and a half months, and thus the terms of reference which will dictate events in the aftermath of war.
The Arab world reached a historic turning point in the 1980s: People lost their fear. After the low-water mark of 1982, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese capital of Beirut were being shelled from the hills by Israel, supported by the American navy, during the Israeli invasion - which the high-minded Americans now seem to have conveniently forgotten - the Arab people were fed up.
The Arabs had been so beaten down over the decades by their own autocratic leaders, by their inability to manifest their sense of pan-Arab unity, by their inability to do anything about Israel, by their inability to forge productive and honorable relations with the great powers, that they had hit rock-bottom.
Defeat seemed so total that renewal was the only way out. And, as elsewhere in the world such as Catholic Poland, large numbers of people turned to God when they gave up on the temporal order. From Jordan to Egypt, from Algeria to Lebanon, it was Islam that initially gave Arabs the strength to fight back.
No longer were Arabs willing to suffer the regional disequilibrium with Israel and the tradition of such Western imperial military powers as Britain, France and the United States playing games and drawing Arab borders based upon their own colonial interests and on the wishes of the Israeli lobby in Washington.
And no longer were Arabs willing to put up with domestic autocracy and tyranny or the economic and social inequity that characterized the Arab world for so many decades. Starting with the Palestinian and Lebanese Shi'a resistance to Israel in southern Lebanon, the intifada and the struggle for democracy in Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon, Yemen and other places, Arabs began saying in the 1980s that they were willing to take more destruction than an enemy or oppressor could throw at them, including, as now in Iraq, death by high-technology machines.
Even though most Arabs don't support the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's fearlessness in standing up to our enemies - Israel and America - appeals to the new spirit of the Arab world - a spirit that says "We'd rather die on our feet than live groveling on the ground."
Saddam is, of course, no Santa Claus. He is a rough man. He kills people ruthlessly. He has lived by the gun all of his life. Yet, this unlikely, autocratic man has become the very medium of a new Arab fearlessness that aims to cast off oppression and subjugation both from abroad and at home.
Indeed, the great paradox of this conflict is that it is in precisely those Arab countries where the people have started to achieve democracy, where people are free to speak out and express themselves - such places as Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and among Palestinians - that the support for Saddam is so fervent and widespread.
The U.S. is supported by only the mercantile autocracies. Egypt, as always, is an exception because of its obsequious political servitude resulting from dependence on American aid and its powerful self-reliance on its own national identity - which allows it, in fits of cash-laden confusion, to wander away temporarily from its greater home within the family of Arab nationalism.
Inconveniently for the West, the more free and democratic Arab countries become, the less sympathetic they will be to foreign designs for the region. The more Islamic and anti-Western they will become.
Already, for example, the speaker of the House in the Jordanian assembly belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds a plurality there. In Algeria, the Muslim Brotherhood has a majority of local assembly seats. In both places, however, their success has depended on their agreement to play within a pluralist framework and by the democratic rules.
Saddam was not the chosen leader of these Arabs seeking a new order. Ironically, it was the Americans who made him the Saladin (the Muslim sultan who led the Arabs against the Crusaders) he always aspired to be.
After he invaded Kuwait, every Arab country without exception, far from praising him, called on him to withdraw at once, and many Arab leaders undertook immediate and fervent diplomatic action to secure such a withdrawal. But the Saudis and the Egyptians panicked and called in the Americans.
The minute American forces landed in the region, the whole equation changed. The issue was no longer Iraq occupying Kuwait. It was Iraq standing up to the arrogant West, holding out for a solution to the many regional economic and political problems that plague us.
For all of us now, Iraq symbolizes the willingness to get up off our knees and confront our enemies. And the longer Saddam drags out the war, the more he will elicit support and redeem the sense of humiliation felt by Arabs for years.
1991, New Perspectives Quarterly
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