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Israel, Iraq, And The US [Edward Said]
by Saima Alvi
14 November 2002 18:01 UTC
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ZNet | Iraq
Israel, Iraq, And The US
by Edward Said; Al Ahram; October 10, 2002  

Many parts of Lebanon were bombed heavily by Israeli warplanes
on 4 June, 1982. Two days later the Israeli army entered Lebanon
through the country's southern border. Menachem Begin was prime
minister, Ariel Sharon his minister of defense. The immediate
reason for the invasion was an attempted assassination in London
of the Israeli ambassador, but then, as now, the blame was
placed by Begin and Sharon on the "terrorist organisation" of
the PLO, whose forces in South Lebanon had actually observed a
cease-fire for about one full year before the invasion. A few
days later, on 13 June, Beirut was under Israeli military siege,
even though, as the campaign began, Israeli government spokesmen
had cited the Awali River, 35 kilometres north of the border, as
their goal. Later, it was to emerge without equivocation that
Sharon was trying to kill Yasser Arafat, by bombing everything
around the defiant Palestinian leader. Accompanying the siege
was a blockade of humanitarian aid, the cutting off of water and
electricity, and a sustained aerial bombing campaign that
destroyed hundreds of Beirut buildings and, by the end of the
siege in late August, had killed 18,000 Palestinians and
Lebanese, most of them civilians. 
Lebanon had been wracked with a terrible civil war since the
spring of 1975 and, although Israel had only once sent its army
into Lebanon before 1982, had been sought out as an ally by the
Christian right-wing militias early on. With a stronghold in
East Beirut, these militias cooperated with Sharon's forces
right through the siege, which ended after a horrendous day of
indiscriminate bombing on 12 August, and of course the massacres
of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon's main ally was Bashir Gemayel, the
head of the Phalanges Party, who was elected Lebanon's president
by the parliament on 23 August. Gemayel hated the Palestinians
who had unwisely entered the civil war on the side of the
National Movement, a loose coalition of left-wing and Arab
nationalist parties that included Amal, a forerunner of today's
Hizbullah Shi'ite movement that was to play the major role in
driving out the Israelis in May 2000. Faced with the prospect of
direct Israeli vassalage after Sharon's army had in effect
brought about his election, Gemayel seems to have demurred. He
was assassinated on 14 September. Two days later the camp
massacres began inside a security cordon provided by the Israeli
army so that Bashir's vengeful fellow-Christian extremists could
do their hideous work unopposed and undistracted. 

Under UN and of course US supervision, French troops had entered
Beirut on August. They were to be joined by US and other
European forces a little later, although PLO fighters began
their evacuation from Lebanon on 21 August. By the 1st of
September, that evacuation was over, and Arafat plus a small
band of advisers and soldiers were lodged in Tunis. Meanwhile
the Lebanese civil war continued until about 1990, when a
concordat was fashioned together in Taif, more or less restoring
the old confessional system which remains in place today. In
mid-1994, Arafat -- still head of the PLO -- and some of those
same advisers and soldiers were able to enter Gaza as part of
the so-called Oslo agreements. Earlier this year Sharon was
quoted as regretting his failure to kill Arafat in Beirut. Not
for want of trying though, since dozens of hiding places and
headquarters were smashed into rubble with great loss of life.
1982 hardened Arabs, I think, to the notion that not only would
Israel use advanced technology (planes, missiles, tanks, and
helicopters) to attack civilians indiscriminately, but that
neither the US nor the other Arabs would do anything at all to
stop the practice even if it meant targeting leaders and capital
cities. (For more on this episode see Rashid Khalidi, Under
Siege, New York 1986; Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, London 1990;
more specifically on the Lebanese civil war, Jonathan Randall,
Going All the Way, New York, 1983). Thus ended the first
full-scale contemporary attempt at military regime change by one
sovereign country against another in the Middle East. I bring it
up as a messy backdrop to what is occurring now. Sharon is now
Israel's prime minister, his armies and propaganda machine once
again surrounding and dehumanising Arafat and the Palestinians
as "terrorists". It is worth recalling that the word "terrorist"
began to be employed systematically by Israel to describe any
Palestinian act of resistance beginning in the mid-1970s. That
has been the rule ever since, especially during the first
Intifada of 1987-93, eliminating the distinction between
resistance and pure terror and effectively depoliticising the
reasons for armed struggle. During the 1950s and 60s Ariel
Sharon earned his spurs, so to speak, by heading the infamous
Unit 101, which killed Arab civilians and razed their houses
with the approval of Ben-Gurion. He was in charge of the
pacification of Gaza in 1970-1. None of this, including the 1982
campaign, ever resulted in getting rid of the Palestinian
people, or in changing the map or the regime enough by military
means to ensure a total Israeli victory. 

The main difference between 1982 and 2002 is that the
Palestinians now being victimised and besieged are in
Palestinian territories that were occupied in 1967 and where
they have remained despite the ravages of the occupation, the
destruction of the economy, and of the whole civilian
infrastructure of collective life. The main similarity is of
course the disproportional means used to do it, eg, the hundreds
of tanks and bulldozers used to enter towns and villages like
Jenin or refugee camps like Jenin's and Deheisheh, to kill,
vandalise, prevent ambulances and first-aid workers from
helping, cutting off water and electricity, etc. All with the
support of the US whose president actually went as far as
calling Sharon a man of peace during the worst rampages of March
and April 2002. It is significant of how Sharon's intention went
far beyond "rooting out terror" that his soldiers destroyed
every computer and then carried off the files and hard drives
from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of
Education, of Finance, of Health, cultural centres, vandalising
officers and libraries, all as a way of reducing Palestinian
collective life to a pre- modern level. 

I don't want to rehearse my criticisms of Arafat's tactics or
the failures of his deplorable regime during the Oslo
negotiations and thereafter. I have done so at length here and
elsewhere. Besides, as I write the man is quite literally
hanging on to life by his teeth; his crumbling quarters in
Ramallah are also still besieged while Sharon does everything
possible to injure him short of actually having him killed. What
concerns me is the whole idea of regime change as an attractive
prospect for individuals, ideologies and institutions that are
asymmetrically more powerful than their adversaries. What kind
of thinking makes it relatively easy to conceive of great
military power as licensing political and social change on a
scale not imagined before, and to do so with little concern for
the damage on a vast scale that such change necessarily entails?
And how do the prospects of not incurring much risk of
casualties for one's own side stimulate more and still more
fantasies about surgical strikes, clean war, high technology
battlefields, changing the entire map, creating democracy and
the like, all of it giving rise to ideas of omnipotence, wiping
the slate clean, and being in ultimate control of what matters
to "our" side? 

During the current American campaign for regime change in Iraq,
it is the people of Iraq, the vast majority of whom have paid a
terrible price in poverty, malnutrition and illness as a result
of 10 years of sanctions, who have dropped out of sight. This is
completely in keeping with US Middle East policy built as it is
on two mighty pillars, the security of Israel and plentiful
supplies of inexpensive oil. The complex mosaic of traditions,
religions, cultures, ethnicities, and histories that make up the
Arab world -- especially in Iraq -- despite the existence of
nation-states with sullenly despotic rulers, are lost to US and
Israeli strategic planners. With a 5000-year old history, Iraq
is mainly now thought of as either a "threat" to its neighbours
which, in its currently weakened and besieged condition, is rank
nonsense, or as a "threat" to the freedom and security of the
United States, which is more nonsense. I am not going to even
bother here to add my condemnations of Saddam Hussein as a
dreadful person: I shall take it for granted that he certainly
deserves by almost every standard to be ousted and punished.
Worst of all, he is a threat to his own people. 

Yet since the period before the first Gulf War, the image of
Iraq as in fact a large, prosperous and diverse Arab country has
disappeared; the image that has circulated both in media and
policy discourse is of a desert land peopled by brutal gangs
headed by Saddam. That Iraq's debasement now has, for example,
nearly ruined the Arab book publishing industry given that Iraq
provided the largest number of readers in the Arab world, that
it was one of the few Arab countries with so large an educated
and competent professional middle-class, that it has oil, water
and fertile land, that it has always been the cultural centre of
the Arab world (the Abbasid empire with its great literature,
philosophy, architecture, science and medicine was an Iraqi
contribution that is still the basis for Arab culture), that to
other Arabs the bleeding wound of Iraqi suffering has, like the
Palestinian cavalry, been a source of continuing sorrow for
Arabs and Muslims alike -- all this is literally never
mentioned. Its vast oil reserves, however, are and, as the
argument goes, if "we" took them away from Saddam and got hold
of them we won't be so dependent on Saudi oil. That too is
rarely cited as a factor in the various debates racking the US
Congress and the media. But it is worth mentioning that second
to Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the largest oil reserves on earth, and
the roughly 1.1 trillion dollars worth of oil -- much of it
already committed by Saddam to Russia, France, and a few other
countries -- that have been available to Iraq are a crucial aim
of US strategy, something which the Iraqi National Congress has
used as a trump card with non-US oil consumers. (For more
details on all this see Michael Klare, "Oiling the Wheels of
War," The Nation, 7 Oct). A good deal of the bargaining between
Putin and Bush concerns how much of a share of that oil US
companies are willing to promise Russia. It is eerily
reminiscent of the three billion dollars offered by Bush Senior
to Russia. Both Bushes are oil businessmen after all, and they
care more about that sort of calculation than they do about the
delicate points of Middle Eastern politics, like re-wrecking
Iraq's civilian infrastructure. 

Thus the first step in the dehumanisation of the hated Other is
to reduce his existence to a few insistently repeated simple
phrases, images and concepts. This makes it much easier to bomb
the enemy without qualm. After 11 September, this has been quite
easy for Israel and the US to do with respectively the
Palestinians and the Iraqis as people. The important thing to
note is that by an overwhelming preponderance the same policy
and the same severe one, two, or three stage plan is put forward
principally by the same Americans and Israelis. In the US, as
Jason Vest has written in The Nation (September 2/9), men from
the very right-wing Jewish Institute for National Security
(JINSA) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP) populate
Pentagon and State Department committees, including the one run
by Richard Perle (appointed by Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld). Israeli
and American security are equated, and JINSA spends the "bulk of
its budget taking a bevy of retired US generals and admirals to
Israel". When they come back, they write op-eds and appear on TV
hawking the Likud line. Time magazine ran a piece on the
Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, many of whose members are drawn
from JINSA and CSP, in its 23 August issue entitled "Inside the
Secret War Council". 

For his part, Sharon has numbingly repeated that his campaign
against Palestinian terrorism is identical with the American war
on terrorism generally, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qa'eda in
particular. And they, he claims, are in turn part of the same
Terrorist International that includes many Muslims all over
Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, even if Bush's axis of
evil seems for the moment to be concentrated on Iraq, Iran and
North Korea. There are now 132 countries with some sort of
American military presence, all of it linked to the war on
terror, which remains undefined and floating so as to whip up
more patriotic frenzy and fear and support for military action
on the domestic front, where things go from bad to worse. Every
major West Bank and Gaza area is occupied by Israeli troops who
routinely kill and/or detain Palestinians on the grounds that
they are "suspected" terrorists and militants; similarly, houses
and shops are often demolished with the excuse that they shelter
bomb factories, terrorist cells, and militant meeting places. No
proof is given, none asked for by reporters who accept the
unilateral Israeli designation without a murmur. 

An immense carpet of mystification and abstraction has therefore
been laid down all over the Arab world by this effort at
systematic dehumanisation. What the eye and ear perceive are
terror, fanaticism, violence, hatred of freedom, insecurity and,
the ultimate, weapons of mass destruction (WPD) which are to be
found not where we know they are and never looked for (in
Israel, Pakistan, India and obviously the US among others) but
in the hypothetical spaces of the terrorist ranks, Saddam's
hands, a fanatical gang, etc. A constant figure in the carpet is
that Arabs hate Israel and Jews for no other reason except that
they hate America too. Potentially Iraq is the most fearsome
enemy of Israel because of that country's economic and human
resources; Palestinians are formidable because they stand in the
way of complete Israeli hegemony and land occupation. Right-wing
Israelis like Sharon who represent the Greater Israel ideology
claiming all of historical Palestine as a Jewish homeland have
been especially successful at making their view of the region
the dominant one among US supporters of Israel. A comment by Uzi
Landau, Israeli internal security minister (and member of the
Likkud Party) on US TV this summer stated that all this talk of
"occupation" was nonsense. We are a people coming home. He was
not even quizzed about this extraordinary concept by Mort
Zuckerman, host of the programme, also owner of US News and
World Report and president of the Council of Presidents of Major
Jewish Organisations. But, Israeli journalist Alex Fishman, in
Yediot Aharanot of 6 September, describes the "revolutionary
ideas" of Condoleeza Rice, Rumsfeld (who now also refers to
"so-called occupied territories"), Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz,
Douglas Feith and Richard Perle (who commissioned the notorious
Rand study designating Saudi Arabia as the enemy and Egypt as
the prize for America in the Arab world) as being terrifyingly
hawkish because they advocate regime change in every Arab
country. Fishman quotes Sharon as saying that this group, many
of them members of JINSA and CCP, and connected to the AIPAC
affiliate the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs,
dominates Bush's thinking (if that's the right word for it); he
says, "next to our American friends Effi Eitam [one of the
Israeli cabinet's most remorseless hard-liners] is a total

The other, more scary side of this is the unchallenged
proposition that if "we" don't pre-empt terrorism (or any other
potential enemy), we will be destroyed. This is now the core of
US security strategy that is regularly drummed out in interviews
and talk shows by Rice, Rumsfeld, and Bush himself. The formal
statement of this view appeared a short time ago in the National
Security Strategy of the United States, an official paper
prepared as an over-all manifesto for the administration's new,
post-Cold War foreign policy. The working presumption is that we
live in an exceptionally dangerous world with a network of
enemies that does in fact exist, that it has factories, offices,
endless numbers of members, and that its entire existence is
given up to destroying "us", unless we get them first. This is
what frames and gives legitimacy to the war on terrorism and on
Iraq, for which the Congress and the UN are now being asked to
give endorsement. 

Fanatical individuals and groups do exist, of course, and many
of them are generally in favor of somehow harming either Israel
or the US. On the other hand, Israel and the US are widely
perceived in the Islamic and Arab worlds first of having created
the so-called jihadi extremists of whom Bin Laden is the most
famous, and second of blithely overriding international law and
UN resolutions in the pursuit of their own hostile and
destructive policies in those worlds. David Hirst writes in a
Guardian column datelined Cairo that even Arabs who oppose their
own despotic regimes "will see it [the US attack on Iraq] as an
act of aggression aimed not just at Iraq, but at the whole Arab
world; and what will make it supremely intolerable is that it
will be done on behalf of Israel, whose acquisition of a large
arsenal of weapons of mass destruction seems to be as
permissible as theirs is an abomination" (6 Sept). 

I am also saying that there is a specific Palestinian narrative
and, at least since the mid-1980s, a formal willingness to make
peace with Israel that is quite contrary to the more recent
terrorist threat represented by Al-Qa'eda or the spurious threat
supposedly embodied by Saddam Hussein, who is a terrible man of
course, but is scarcely able to wage intercontinental war; only
occasionally is it admitted by the administration that he might
be a threat to Israel, but that seems to be one of his grievous
sins. None of his neighbours perceives him as a threat. The
Palestinians and Iraq get mixed up in this scarcely perceptible
way so as to constitute a menace which the media reinforces time
and time again. Most stories about the Palestinians that appear
in genteel and influential mass-circulation publications like
The New Yorker and The New York Times magazine show Palestinians
as bomb-makers, collaborators, suicide bombers, and only that.
Neither of these publications has published anything from the
Arab viewpoint since 9/11. Nothing at all. 

So that when administration flaks like Dennis Ross (in charge of
Clinton's side of the Oslo negotiations, but both before and
after his stint in that job a member of an Israeli lobby
affiliate) keeps saying that the Palestinians turned down a
generous Israeli offer at Camp David, he is flagrantly
distorting the facts, which as several authoritative sources
have shown, was that Israel conceded non-contiguous Palestinian
areas with Israeli security posts and settlements surrounding
them all and with no common border between Palestine and any
Arab state (eg, Egypt in the south, Jordan in the east). Why
words like "generous" and "offer" should apply to territory
illegally held by an occupying power in contravention of
international law and UN resolutions, no one has bothered to
ask. But given the power of the media to repeat, re- repeat and
underline simple assertions, plus the untiring efforts of the
Israeli lobby to repeat the same idea -- Dennis Ross himself has
been singularly obdurate in his insistence on this falsehood --
it is now locked into place that the Palestinians chose "terror
instead of peace". Hamas and Islamic Jihad are seen not as (a
perhaps misguided) part of the Palestinian struggle to be rid of
Israeli military occupation, but as part of the general
Palestinian desire to terrorise, threaten, and be a menace. Like

In any event, with the US administration's newest and rather
improbable claim that secular Iraq has been giving haven and
training to the madly theocratic Al-Qa'eda, the case against
Saddam seems to have been closed. The prevailing (but by no
means uncontested) government consensus is that since UN
inspectors cannot ascertain what he has of WMD, what he has
hidden and what he might still do, he should be attacked and
removed. The whole point of going to the UN for authorisation
from the US point of view is to get a resolution so stiff and so
punitive that no matter whether or not Saddam Hussein complies
he will be so incriminated with having violated "international
law" that his mere existence will warrant military regime
change. In late September, on the other hand, in a Security
Council resolution passed unanimously (with US abstention),
Israel was enjoined to end its siege of Arafat's Ramallah
compound and to withdraw from Palestinian territory illegally
occupied since March (for which Israel's excuse has been
"self-defense"). Israel has refused to comply, and the
underlying US rationale for the US not doing much to enforce
even its own stated position is that "we" understand that Israel
must defend its citizens. Why the UN is to be sought after in
one instance, ignored in another, is one of those
inconsistencies that the US simply indulges in. 

A small group of unexamined and self-invented phrases such as
anticipatory preemption or preventive self-defense are bandied
about by Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues to persuade the
public that the preparations for war against Iraq or any other
state in need of "regime change" (or, the other somewhat rarer
euphemism, "constructive destruction") are buttressed by the
notion of self-defense. The public is kept on tenterhooks by
repeated red or orange alerts, people are encouraged to inform
law enforcement authorities of "suspicious" behaviour, and
thousands of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians have been detained,
and in some cases arrested on suspicion. All of this is carried
out at the president's behest as a facet of patriotism and love
of America. I still have not been able to understand what it
means to love a country (in US political discourse, love of
Israel is also a current phrase) but it seems to mean
unquestioning blind loyalty to the powers that be, whose
secrecy, evasiveness and willful refusal to engage with an alert
public, which for the time being doesn't seem to be awakened
into coherent or systematic responsiveness, has concealed the
ugliness and destructiveness of the whole Iraq and Middle East
policy of the Bush administration. 

So powerful is the United States in comparison with most other
major countries combined that it can't really be constrained by
or be compelled to obey any international system of conduct, not
even one its secretary of state may wish to. Along with the
abstractness of whether "we" should go to war against Iraq 7000
miles away, discussion of foreign policy denudes other people of
any thick or real, human identity; Iraq and Afghanistan seen
from the bombsights of a smart missile or on television are at
best a chess board which "we" decide to enter, destroy,
re-construct, or not, at will. The word "terrorism", as well as
the war on it, serves nicely to further this sentiment since in
comparison with many Europeans, the great majority of Americans
have had no contact or lived experience with the Muslim lands
and peoples and therefore feel no sense of the fabric of life
that a sustained bombing campaign (as in Afghanistan) would tear
to shreds. And, seen as it is, like an emanation from nowhere
except from well- financed madrasas on the basis of a "decision"
by people who hate our freedoms and who are jealous of our
democracy, terrorism engages polemicists in the most
extravagant, if unsituated, and non-political debates. History
and politics have disappeared, all because memory, truth, and
actual human existence have effectively been downgraded. You
cannot speak about Palestinian suffering or Arab frustration
because Israel's presence in the US prevents it. At a fervently
pro-Israel demonstration in May, Paul Wolfowitz mentioned
Palestinian suffering in passing, but he was loudly booed and
never could refer to it again. 

Moreover, a coherent human rights or free trade policy that
consistently sticks to the endlessly underlined virtues of human
rights, democracy, and free economies that we are constitutively
believed to stand for is likely to be undermined domestically by
special interest groups (as witness the influence of the ethnic
lobbies, the steel and defense industries, the oil cartel, the
farming industry, retired people, gun lobby, to mention only a
few). Every one of the 500 congressional districts represented
in Washington, for instance, has a defense or defense-related
industry in it; so as Secretary of State James Baker said just
before the first Gulf War, the real issue in that war against
Iraq was "jobs". When it comes to foreign affairs, it is worth
remembering that only something like 25-30 per cent (compare
that with the 15 per cent of Americans who have actually
travelled abroad) of members of Congress even have passports,
and what they say or think has less to do with history,
philosophy or ideals and more to do with who influences the
member's campaign, sends money, etc. Two incumbent House
members, Earl Hilliard of Alabama and Cynthia McKinney of
Georgia, supportive of the Palestinian right to
self-determination and critical of Israel, were recently
defeated by relatively obscure candidates who were well-financed
by what was openly cited as New York (ie Jewish) money from
outside their states. The defeated pair were berated by the
press as extremist and unpatriotic. 

As far as US Middle East policy is concerned, the Israeli lobby
has no peer and has turned the legislative branch of the US
government into what former Senator Jim Abourezk once called
Israeli-occupied territory. No comparable Arab lobby even
exists, much less functions effectively. As a case in point the
Senate will periodically issue forth with unsolicited
resolutions sent to the president that stress, underline, re-
iterate American support for Israel. There was such a resolution
in May, just at the time when Israeli forces were occupying and
in effect destroying all the major West Bank towns. One of the
drawbacks of this wall-to-wall endorsement of Israel's most
extreme policies is that in the long run it is simply bad for
Israel's future as a Middle East country. Tony Judt has well
argued that case, suggesting that Israel's dead end ideas about
staying on in Palestinian land will lead nowhere and simply put
off the inevitable withdrawal. 

The whole theme of the war against terrorism has permitted
Israel and its supporters to commit war crimes against the
entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, 3.4
million of them who have become (as the going phrase has it)
non-combatant collateral damage. Terje-Roed Larsen, who is the
UN's special administrator for the occupied territories, has
just issued a report charging Israel with inducing a
humanitarian catastrophe: unemployment has reached 65 per cent,
50 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and
the economy, to say nothing of people's lives, has been
shattered. In comparison with this, Israeli suffering and
insecurity is considerably less: there aren't Palestinian tanks
occupying any part of Israel, or even challenging Israeli
settlements. During the past two weeks Israel has killed 75
Palestinians, many of them children, it has demolished houses,
deported people, razed valuable agricultural land, kept everyone
indoors under 80-hour curfews at a stretch, not permitted
civilians through roadblocks or allowed ambulances and medical
aid through, and as usual cut off water and electricity. Schools
and universities simply cannot function. While these are daily
occurrences which, like the occupation itself and the dozens of
UN Security Council resolutions, have been in effect for at
least 35 years, they are mentioned in the US media only
occasionally, as endnotes for long articles about Israeli
government debates, or the disastrous suicide bombings that have
occurred. The tiny phrase "suspected of terrorism" is both the
justification and the epitaph for whomever Sharon chooses to
have killed. The US doesn't object except in the mildest terms,
eg, it says, this is not helpful but this does little to deter
the next brace of killings. 

We are now closer to the heart of the matter. Because of Israeli
interests in this country, US Middle East policy is therefore
Israelo-centric. A post-9/11 chilling conjuncture has occurred
in which the Christian Right, the Israeli lobby, and the Bush's
administration's semi-religious belligerency is theoretically
rationalised by neo-conservative hawks whose view of the Middle
East is committed to the destruction of Israel's enemies, which
is sometimes given the euphemistic label of re-drawing the map
by bringing regime change and "democracy" to the Arab countries
who most threaten Israel. (See "The Dynamics of World Disorder:
Which God is on Whose Side?" by Ibrahim Warde, Le Monde
Diplomatique, September 2002 and "Born-Again Zionists" by Ken
Silverstein and Michael Scherer, Mother Jones, October 2002).
Sharon's campaign for Palestinian reform is simply the other
side of his effort to destroy the Palestinians politically, his
life-long ambition. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, even Jordan have
been variously threatened, even though, dreadful regimes though
they may be, they were protected and supported by the US since
World War II, as indeed was Iraq. 

In fact, it seems obvious to anyone who knows anything about the
Arab world that its parlous state is likely to get a whole lot
worse once the US begins its assault on Iraq. Supporters of the
administration's policy occasionally say vague things like how
exciting it will be when we bring democracy to Iraq and the
other Arab states, without much consideration for what exactly,
in terms of lived experience, that will mean for the people who
actually live there, especially after B-52 strikes tear their
land and homes apart relentlessly. I can't imagine that there is
a single Arab or Iraqi who would not like to see Saddam Hussein
removed. All the indications are that US/Israeli military action
have made things a lot worse on a daily basis for ordinary
people, but this is nothing in comparison with the terrible
anxiety, psychological distortions and political malformations
imposed on their societies. 

Today neither the expatriate Iraqi opposition that has been
intermittently courted by at least two US administrations, nor
the various US generals like Tommy Franks, has much credibility
as post-war rulers of Iraq. Nor does there seem to have been
much thought given to what Iraq will need once the regime is
changed, once the internal actors get moving again, once even
the Baath is de-toxified. It may be the case that not even the
Iraqi army will lift a finger in battle on behalf of Saddam.
Interestingly though, in a recent congressional hearing three
former generals from the US's Central Command, have expressed
serious and, I would say, crippling reservations about the
hazards of this whole adventure as it is being planned
militarily. But even those doubts do not sufficiently address
the country's seething internal factionalism and ethno-
religious dynamic, particularly after 30 debilitating years
under the Baath Party, UN sanctions, and two major wars (three
if and when the US attacks). No one in the US, no one at all has
any real idea of what might happen in Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or
Egypt if a major military intervention takes place. It is enough
to know, and then to shudder, that Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis
are the administration's two major expert advisers. Both are
virulently and ideologically anti-Arab as well as discredited by
the majority of their colleagues in the field. Lewis has never
lived in the Arab world, and what he has to say about it is
reactionary rubbish; Ajami is from South Lebanon, a man who was
once a progressive supporter of the Palestinian struggle who has
now converted to the far Right and has espoused Zionism and
American imperialism without reservation. 

9/11 might have provided a period of national reflection and the
pondering of US foreign policy after the shock of that
unconscionable atrocity. Such terrorism as that most certainly
needs to be confronted and forcefully dealt with, but in my
opinion it is always the aftermath of a forceful response that
has to be considered first, not just the immediate, reflexive
and violent response. No one would argue today, even after the
rout of the Taliban, that Afghanistan is now a much better and
more secure place from the standpoint of the country's still
suffering citizens. Nation-building is clearly not the US's
priority there since other wars in different places draw
attention away from the last battlefield. Besides, what does it
mean for Americans to build a nation with a culture and history
as different from theirs as Iraq? Both the Arab world and the
United States are far more complex and dynamic places than the
platitudes of war and the resonant phrases about reconstruction
would allow. That is obvious in post-US attacks on Afghanistan. 

To make matters more complicated, there are dissenting voices of
considerable weight in Arab culture today, and there are
movements of reform across a wide front. The same is true of the
United States where, to judge from my recent experiences
lecturing at various campuses, most citizens are anxious about
the war, anxious to know more, above all, anxious not to go to
war with such messianic bellicosity and vague aims in mind.
Meanwhile, as The Nation put it in its last editorial, the
country marches toward war as if in a trance, while with an
increasing number of exceptions, Congress has simply abdicated
its role of representing the people's interest. As someone who
has lived within the two cultures all my life it is appalling
that the clash of civilisations, that reductive and vulgar
notion so much in vogue now, has taken over thought and action.
What we need to put in place is a universalist framework for
comprehending and dealing with Saddam Hussein as well as Sharon,
the rulers of Myanmar, Syria, Turkey, and a whole host of those
countries where depredations are endured without sufficient
resistance. Demolishing houses, torture, the denial of a right
to education are to be opposed wherever they occur. I know no
other way of re-creating or restoring the framework but through
education, and the fostering of open discussion, exchange and
intellectual honesty that will have no truck with concealed
special pleading or the jargons of war, religious extremism, and
pre-emptive "defense". But that alas takes a long time, and to
judge from the governments of the US and the UK, its little
partner, wins no votes. We must do everything in our power to
provoke discussion and embarrassing questions, thereby slowing
down and finally stopping the recourse to war that has now
become a theory and not just a practice. 


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