Weapons of Mass Distrust

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I realized that Arab tempers were getting out of control when an Egyptian friend told me that her mother—a cultured, well-traveled, sweet-natured grandmother—throws her shoes at the television set whenever President Bush comes on the screen. Forget whether the coalition is winning the military conflict against Saddam Hussein. After less than two weeks of fighting, the public relations war for Arab hearts and minds may already be lost.

That could be a rash judgment. Yet, it is the view as I hear it from many Westernized Arabs, including top businessmen, academics, government officials, students and ordinary folks, as well as from some old diplomatic hands in Western embassies around the region. Rarely have I heard such scathing, widespread criticism of the U.S. in the Middle East. Listen to a relatively polite sampling from leading dailies in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, countries with long-standing, friendly and strategic ties with Washington:

  • "(American troops) are purely forces of invasion and occupation that are motivated by hatred and obsessed with a sprit of subversion."
  • "Does Bush know now that his actions are the answer to the question, 'Why do they hate us?' "
  • "This war, which is illegal according to international law and immoral by any standards, is about oil and America's strategic dominance of the Middle East, no more, no less."

    If it sounds as if the draining of the swamp of Middle East extremism is on hold for now, the Arab opposition to the war should have come as no surprise. In September 2000, bitterness toward the U.S. began to harden again. One reason was the breakdown of the U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which the U.S. blamed on the Palestinians. Another reason was what Arabs saw as American backing for Israel's strong military response to the Palestinian intifada. In any discussion about Bush's policies, no Arab will fail to remind you that the President once called hard-line Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace."

    The September 2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon generated more bitterness, because of a feeling that in general America unfairly blamed Arabs and Muslims for the nasty deeds of a group of fanatics.

    Now, following Operation Enduring Freedom, which has been unable thus far to bring Osama bin Laden to book for September 11, Arabs are treated to prime-time coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As they see it, there are too many operations and not enough freedom. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak predicted this week that the war could produce not simply another Bin Laden, but 100.

    The Bush administration's highly-publicized failure to get United Nations backing for the war gravely undermined the chances of ever winning Arab official or public support for the war. Some Arabs may differ over whether the Bush administration launched the war for oil, Israel and world domination, or for the sake of disarming a madman who possesses weapons of mass destruction. Either way, most reject Bush's calculation that America's aims are worth the human and political toll the war is taking. Daily footage of funerals and hospital wards shown on Arab satellite channels is only confirming the worst Arab fears. The Iraqi resistance, even though much of it is mounted by Saddam's most appalling thugs, is filling the Arab breast with an unexpected burst of national pride.

    U.S. officials caution that these are early days. "The Arabs love a winner," they explain. Perceptions will change once Saddam is gone, the Iraqis are finally free to express their gratitude, and the Bush administration embarks on the admirable task of helping Iraqis build the first Arab democracy.

    But by the look of the war, barring a an unexpected uprising, coup or decapitation strike on Saddam's hiding place, there may be much death and destruction in Iraq before it is all over. I'm guessing that the leveling of Baghdad, if that tragedy were to occur, would counteract Iraqi joy at Saddam's demise.

    Winning Arab hearts and minds, however, is not a lost cause. If the Bush administration exhibits a huge, selfless effort to put Iraqis on their feet again after the war, that will help. Views of the U.S. will improve further if the Bush administration really does promote democracy and withdraws from Iraq quickly. Equally important would be a robust effort to achieve a fair settlement of the 55-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict and play midwife to a sovereign Palestinian state.

    Arabs are skeptical, but they haven't totally closed their minds about the U.S. What is certain is that in the coming days or weeks, as a Western army captures a major Arab Muslim capital, the story of the Middle East—and America's role in it—will be re-written. Whether intended or not, the Bush administration's policy has turned out to be a big gamble.

    I was talking with one of Egypt's leading human rights activists, who was flying off to London for a conference on Arab reform. He has faith in America. He thinks U.S. firepower will finish off Saddam, the U.S. will foster democracy in Iraq and freedom will spread throughout the region. Then he paused. "A prolonged bloody war, with lots of civilian casualties? It would be a MEGA-disaster. Rejection of any American involvement in the region will become ingrained in the Arab psyche."