Saddam's downfall has not heralded a new Middle East. The primary concern of Arabs across the region today is the emerging civil war in Iraq and its potential breakup as a state, which threatens to spread a virus of instability across the region. Pro-Western Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are increasingly concerned about growing Iranian influence in post-Saddam Iraq, while Turkey is concerned about the creation of a de facto Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq that may spur greater agitation by Turkey's own Kurdish minority. President Bush's belated acknowledgement that things are bad in Iraq, despite the U.S.'s massive investment of blood and treasure over nearly four years, is hardly comforting to Washington's allies in the region.
As loathed as Saddam's regime may have been among Arabs, many nonetheless viewed him through a nationalist prism. From Morocco to the Gulf, there was widespread admiration for Saddam's willingness to stand against the U.S. and Israel. On the Arab street, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was therefore viewed as an imperialist Western assault on Arabs and Muslims rather than the war of liberation from an odious oppressor, as the Bush Administration had depicted it.
The negative and often conspiratorial view of U.S. goals in Iraq has only been reinforced by Washington's management of post-war Iraq, which has been plunged into the worst turmoil of its history. Instead of frightening other Arab dictators into mending their ways, Saddam's fate will likely encourage them to cling to power at any cost: if you leave office, you run the risk of being executed by your enemies.
The war's architects had hoped that toppling Saddam would set in motion a train of events that would see liberal democracy triumph in the Arab world. Instead, the biggest beneficiary from his demise has been Islamic fundamentalism. Saddam's execution marks the final nail in the coffin of Arab nationalism, a secular ideology of pan-Arab unity and independence. Originating with the Arab Revolt against Ottoman domination of the Middle East nearly a century ago, the ideology took on a militant edge following Arab independence after World War II. Partly as a reaction to Israel's defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 war, Arab nationalism promoted militaristic societies led by warrior leaders who espoused dreams of victory and grandeur. The tragic result has been decades of tyranny, conflict and stagnation for millions of Arabs rather than the blossoming of an Arab renaissance. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser became Arab nationalism's first populist leader with his nationalization of the Suez Canal. But a decade later, he blundered the Arabs into the devastating 1967 war with Israel that spelled the beginning of the end for Arab nationalism.
Saddam fancied himself as the new Nasser when he became Iraq's president in 1979, championing the Palestinian cause and fighting a eight-year war to curb Iran's Islamic Revolution. Many countries including the U.S. supported Saddam as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, which they deemed a greater long-term political threat to Western interests than Arab nationalism. But Saddam followed Nasser in blundering his way to defeat, starting with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Saddam's hanging has removed the last Arab strongman willing to fight the fundamentalists in the name of Arab secularism. (The sole remaining candidate is Syrian President Bashar Assad, but his lack of military clout and key alliance with the non-Arab Islamic Republic of Iran undermine his claim to the mantle.) Nor is there much prospect that liberal Arabs will present a new, democratic alternative any time soon. Instead, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, the future increasingly belongs to the Islamic fundamentalists. Judging by the escalating conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories as well in Iraq, that is a future that may be best described as bleak.