April 2, 2003
Can Arabs trust George Bush’s vow to liberate Iraq? Only an Arab fool would entrust his life, and that of his family, to the word, the steadfastness, or the courage of an American president.
Many U.S. Republicans rightly disdain Democratic President Bill Clinton’s token response to repeated terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad, and Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s failure over 444 days to stand up to the Iranians after they seized 66 hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Teheran. But as every Arab knows, President Carter’s Republican successor, Ronald Reagan, turned tail soon after Hezbollah’s suicide bombing of 241 Marines in Beirut and Reagan’s successor, George H. Bush, returned Iraq to Saddam Hussein immediately upon victory, for fear of being labelled an aggressor.
Somalia, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the list goes on and on, with one feckless U.S. president after another fearful of taking the decisive action needed to deter future atrocities against Americans. In short-sightedness of a different kind, a succession of U.S. presidents turned their backs on Pakistan after it helped the U.S. drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989.
In the minds of many Arabs, however, no U.S. president rivals Bush the Father as the most perfidious U.S. president of them all. It was he who encouraged the Kurds and the Shiites to rise up against Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, when it served American interests to do so. And it was he who then allowed Saddam to rearm himself and decimate the very peoples that he exhorted to action. The estimate of Shiite dead as a result of this American treachery – Saddam’s helicopter gunships mowed down the Shiites within earshot of American troops – ranges from 40,000 to over 100,000. The estimate of Kurdish dead after Bush washed his gentlemanly hands of his commitments is 30,000, with an estimated two million forced to flee their land.
Trust the son of this elder Bush, who placed little value on his own word and who valued Arab lives even less? As Arabs say, "the son of a duck is a floater" – our equivalent to "like father, like son." Arabs in Iraq have no reason to trust Bush the son, or Americans in general, for they have never shown an abiding interest in anything Arab except oil. Neither do Arabs outside Iraq have a reason to respect American prowess. The riveting round-the-clock reports they see daily on Al-Jazeera, the Arab-government-funded satellite network, tell of Iraqi victories and U.S. setbacks, reinforcing the contempt many Arabs feel for American weakness, and reinforcing their sense of despair that nothing in the Middle East will change as a result of the bombing. Powerless to rail at their own oppressors, they rail at the Americans. As expressed in another Arab proverb, "He who is scalded by the soup blows on the yogurt."
And yet more than 1,000 years of history demonstrates that most Arabs, like most oppressed people everywhere, crave freedom. Many hope against hope that Bush Jr. will liberate them, that he has not come to Iraq to steal its oil, that he will oust Saddam and then leave, that he will redeem the perfidy of his father.
For now, they must repress this hope. In the earliest days of the current war in Iraq, liberated Shiite villagers who expressed their gratitude to the invading armies saw the armies abandon them in their drive north. In a replay of 1991, Saddam’s men returned to the villages and butchered their residents. Shiites elsewhere who learned of these events will not be so quick to express their gratitude until Saddam and his regime are unquestionably put to rest. And when the gratitude does come, it will be fleeting, for it will not be rooted in trust. Arabs will have no reason to trust President Bush, and even if they did, they would have no reason to trust the U.S., a country that replaces its presidents every four or eight years, a country whose half-measures over the last half-century have compromised any principled policies that it might have espoused for the Middle East.
Bush chose well in choosing to liberate Iraq first. The country is largely secular and its people largely sophisticated. Since the Kurdish north escaped Saddam’s grip in 1991, its fledgling democracy has seen prosperity and a vibrant press: Where once the north’s Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians had access to three media outlets – the official Iraqi government newspaper, radio station and TV channel – today more than one hundred bring them bracingly diverse perspectives. If any Middle Eastern dictatorship is ripe for experiments in democracy, it is Iraq.
But even if he succeeds in Iraq, Bush cannot redeem all that America has done over the decades in his remaining time as president. He cannot resolve the disputes between the Kurds and the Turks, the Shias and the Sunnis, the Israelis and the Palestinians, let alone placate the French and Germans, the Russians and Chinese. He cannot be all things to all peoples, and he mustn’t try. "If you cannot be a lighthouse, at least be a candle," says another Arab proverb, preaching moderation.
That candle can burn bright by simply making America synonymous with steadfastness, a quality that America has sorely lacked and that Bush readily possesses. A steadfast America that promotes democracy and economic freedoms would truly shock and awe, and make of Bush a redeemer.
Lawrence Solomon is a columnist with the Financial Post.
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