What the Arab Silence Means

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Although they have no love for Saddam, no Arab government, with the exception of Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family, with its bitter memories of Iraq's 1990 invasion of their country, supports the Bush administration's war against Iraq. That includes regimes with long-standing strategic relations with the U.S., like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Sure, these governments are discreetly helping with the U.S. military effort. But they are doing so only grudgingly, under American pressure.

Throughout the Arab world, you hear predictable warnings about the coming American colonialism. Officials say that the war is all about oil, or about protecting Israel. You see a lot of hand-wringing about the suffering of ordinary Iraqis. But the deepest Arab opposition to the war is motivated by something genuine and understandable: Arabs are afraid that America's war will lead to a catastrophe. "Regardless of what people say," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal told me last month, "the issues are never manageable, especially in such a complicated country as Iraq."

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Arabs are very concerned that the collapse of Saddam's iron-fisted, centralized order will lead to the fragmentation of Iraq along sectarian lines. They fear that the power vacuum created by the end of 24 years of Saddam's absolute rule will ignite an orgy of sectarian struggles and vendetta killings among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. They worry that this, in turn, will prompt the intervention of Turkish and Iranian military forces seeking the protection of their respective interests. The dread is that America's war will turn Iraq into "another Palestine," a consuming crisis that feeds Middle East instability for decades to come.

President Bush says he has no desire to see Iraq disintegrate. For Arabs who stayed awake—his address to the American people came at 3 a.m., Baghdad time—Bush pointedly told Iraqis that "we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free." But Arabs are skeptical.

More than anywhere else in the Middle East, Iraq is a country emptied of democrats and democratic institutions, thanks to Saddam's quarter century of total repression. Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, sees the Iraqi army as Iraq's only credible unifying organization. "It is not in the heritage of Iraqi people to live together without having a strong central government," he explains. So is Saddam II on the way, courtesy of Uncle Sam? Few Iraqis will be thrilled.

Many Arabs predict that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops will in effect become another faction in the country's violent politics. Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, head of the Supreme council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has already warned that U.S. liberators may soon become hated occupiers. Arab regimes worry that an occupation will be Osama bin Laden's dream come true: a rallying cry for Islamic extremism not just in Iraq but throughout the Middle East. While Arab governments are wary of a U.S. occupation and its colonialist overtones, they equally fear the consequences if the Bush administration, after seeing too many G.I. casualties, withdraws from Iraq before the country is put on a sound footing.

Everything may depend on what sort of war it turns out to be. "If it is a military campaign of two or three days, everything becomes easier," a U.S. official told me several months ago when war was becoming more likely. "But if we get bogged down two or three months, with civilian casualties and destruction, it is a different story. This could unleash the breakup of Iraq. It is hard to break a cycle of collapse. Nobody can really say we have the means of handling the problems of Iraq after Saddam is gone."

If all goes according to plan, the sky's the limit. But if it doesn't, America's standing in the region will suffer another decline. Even before the first shot was fired, a new Arab American Institute/Zogby International poll showed that negative Arab views of the U.S. jumped in the past year. In Jordan and Morocco, only 10% and 9 %, respectively, viewed the U.S. favorably, compared to 34% and 38% last year. In Saudi Arabia, favorable views of America dropped from 12% to 3%.

Another serious Arab concern is what Jordan's Queen Rania calls the "hope gap." Apart from fearing the consequences of a new war, Arabs are depressed by their inability to do anything to prevent the American attack. Arab anti-war protests have been notably smaller than those in Western countries, but only because Arab governments have severely curtailed them. Governments in the Arab League, torn by dissension over how strongly to oppose the U.S. plans, couldn't even get it together this week to send a promised peace mission to Baghdad.

For Arabs praying for the best, the story of the previous Western invasion of Iraq offers them little comfort. British forces seized Basra and then Baghdad from the Ottoman Empire in World War I, later forming the modern state out of three unconnected provinces inhabited by Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Iraqi nationalists quickly became disillusioned with their new, Western masters. The Revolution of 1920 left hundreds of British casualties. The British, America's main ally in this latest invasion, managed to implant a friendly monarchy. But the Hashemites were finally overthrown in a coup d'etat in 1958. It was in those bloody days that Saddam Hussein's terrible political career was born.

Scott MacLeod's Mideast Diary column will appear every Tuesday