Five short days ago, Arab TV networks had shown a Saddam speech urging Iraqis to fight, and images of the leader walking around the streets of Baghdad. Saddam's message was that he was still alive, still defending the Arab nation against the "mercenaries and the Zionists," as he likes to call the United States and Israel.
But Saddam's performance turned out to be the dying gasp of his bloody regime. His supposed defense of Iraq and the greater Arab nation came down to a hollow spectacle. And by Wednesday it had given way to the long-awaited TV images of Iraqis cheering his overthrow. The scenes were particularly jubilant in the Baghdad neighborhood called Saddam City, a dense housing project for Shiite Muslims a community historically excluded from political power in Iraq. All over the city, the ubiquitous statues of Saddam are being destroyed.
Saddam's last speech had invoked Arab grandeur, Iraqi patriotism and Islamic ideals, tapping into old dreams as Saddam cast himself as a latter-day Saladdin, the Muslim warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem. The footage of his walkabout had likewise sought to portray him as the valiant Arab knight. The footage showed Iraqis mobbing Saddam, chanting his praises and bending to kiss his hand. As a pistol in a leather holster dangled from his belt, Saddam pumped his fist in a power salute and wiped away what might have been a tear in his eye.
But it had been a pathetic last hurrah.
The Iraqis showering Saddam with affection numbered no more than 200 nothing compared to the thousands chanting "Saddam is the enemy of Allah!" in Saddam City Wednesday and included the pot-bellied party hacks and local residents who clearly still feared the consequences of failing to pay tribute to the leader. Even then, the panic in the eyes of Saddam's bodyguards told us that a larger crowd could not have been trusted to refrain from tearing Saddam from limb to limb.
The TV speech included a revealing moment when Saddam had asked the viewers, "Do you remember how the Iraqi farmer dropped the American Apache with his old gun?" Saddam was calling attention to what he called Iraq's heroic resistance. He was inadvertently acknowledging that the defense of his regime had been put into the hands of a grizzled old peasant armed with a hunting rifle. So much for uniting the Arabs, for developing the first Arab A-bomb, for "burning half of Israel," for winning the Mother of All Battles, for all the grand promises that Saddam made and could never keep.
To understand the despair and anger sweeping the Middle East, you have to realize that American tanks in Baghdad symbolize something bigger that just the fall of Saddam: the collapse of Arab nationalism.
Arabs have always dreamed that unity would reverse their fortunes and end their humiliations. Yet, Arabs have once again proved utterly powerless to decide their own fate. Not only could they not prevent the attack on Iraq, they discovered that their governments could not refuse U.S. requests for cooperation.
Arab nationalism has been wilting almost since it first blossomed during the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France disappointed the Arabs betrayed, Arabs would say by preventing the establishment of true Arab independence after World War I. The Arab defeat in their 1948 war to prevent the emergence of Israel had promoted an increasingly militant variety of Arab nationalism. Young army officers Saddam's heroes overthrew the old order in a succession of coups in key countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq.
The dream was short-lived. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser emerged as the personification of Arab nationalism after surviving the Israeli-British-French attack in the Suez Crisis of 1956. But his empty threats led to the disastrous Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel seized huge chunks of Syrian, Jordanian as well as Egyptian territory in a lightning strike.
Saddam strove to overcome those disgraces by using Iraq's vast oil wealth to build the Arabs a formidable military machine. His rule was the product of a nationalist ideology that sought to liberate the Arab world by brutally controlling its people: Iraq's ruling Ba'ath party was founded in 1947 to promote an Arab renaissance throughout the Middle East. Saddam turned Iraq's branch of that party into a front organization serving his Tikrit family mafia and his own Stalinist cult of personality. And that inevitably produced the bungling that led Iraq into the disastrous wars with Iran, Kuwait and the United States. Nasser lost a chunk of Egypt; Saddam lost all of Iraq.
Now, everybody in the Middle East is asking, "What's next?" Democracy? Revolution? Nobody knows, but conventional wisdom is that much depends on what the U.S. liberators do in Iraq. If Iraqis truly do take their affairs in their own hands, the fortunes of democrats will rise throughout the region. If Iraq crumbles in civil strife, or if the U.S. fails to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the same resolve it displayed on the Iraq issue, the outcome may be still greater extremism.
That, at least, is the fear of Arab moderates like Marwan Muasher, the Jordanian foreign minister, an experienced diplomat who has served as the Hashemite Kingdom's ambassador to Washington and Tel Aviv. "We believe that radicalization has already started in the Arab world," he told me the day the American tanks rumbled into Baghdad. "Talk to anybody on the street."
The fall of a tyrant like Saddam should be a happy day for the Middle East. But not everybody is rejoicing.