Jewish World Review April 14, 2003 / 12 Nisan, 5763
The future is now
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The reaction to the American and British victory in Iraq, in Iraq itself, was as predictable as the victory, to anyone with genuine knowledge of the situation there. The gratitude to President Bush and the allies is, momentarily, intense and euphoric. It is a comet-like condition that lasts about two days, but has a tail six months long -- the time in which the hard stuff has to be attempted, of creating a constitutional order for Iraq, out of almost nothing.
After that, Iraq is likely to settle back into a mood fairly unlike gratitude, as Kuwait did by the end of 1991, and, in different ways, as the countries liberated from Communism in central and eastern Europe did: the blame for problems will be increasingly assigned to the people who are trying to fix them, and removed from the people who caused them, who are no longer there. This is human nature, which is essentially incurable; but it will take various peculiarly Arabic and Islamic cultural forms -- sometimes better, sometimes worse than their Western equivalents. (So much of human nature is a freak show.)
The U.S. soldiers will gradually be re-categorized from "liberators" to "foreigners". As we know from France and Germany, as well as the Gulf States, there is no such thing as lasting gratitude, except among the saints. There will nevertheless remain an institutional memory, should new Iraqi institutions survive, that the Americans and British are allies. And this, with any luck, will last for at least a generation to come.
This much is perfectly predictable, and I think it has been taken into account in Pentagon (if not State Department) plans for the Iraqi après-guerre. My impression is that thanks to the personal shock and awe of Donald Rumsfeld, the attitudes and work habits of the Pentagon have been transformed. But thanks to the protective instincts of Colin Powell, the State Department bureaucracy continues to work within intellectual categories that should have been declared defunct on Sept. 12th, 2001.
There will be clashes between them in the weeks and months ahead, as the Pentagon tries to do things that are new, and difficult, while State tries to sabotage with the help of the old "Arabist" hands in the CIA, the academy, and the media -- the people who still have their jobs after being proved wrong about everything. It would be politically impossible for any President of the United States to simply sack the lot of them; and from that fact a lot of diplomatic "friendly fire" can be anticipated on the road ahead.
Advantage, however, to the people who've won the war, and been proved right about everything that was at issue -- for at least the immediate future. This is no time to be glum.
What is more interesting than the predictable mood on the ground in Iraq, is the mood of the onlooking world. Something very dramatic happened this week, on live television before a vast audience. For the Arab world especially, it was an event like 9/11, but upside down and inside out.
One may hardly read every Arab mind, but from experience there is much we can know. I am speaking only from my own experience, and the reader is free to accept or dismiss it. I should think that most of the Arab world, outside Iraq and Kuwait, had been, until Wednesday, of approximately one mind in watching the coverage of the war. At the subconscious level, below quite varied rational responses, there was a powerful tendency to identify with what they took to be their fellow Arabs under assault from an alien invasion force.
The Arab media coverage -- not only the spectacularly sensationalist Al-Jazeera, but really, all the Arab media outside Kuwait -- were ludicrously one-sided, simplistic, and emotional, a kind of blood-and-guts parade of "victims of America", accentuating the violence in a quite pornographic way. The account of reality given day to day by the Iraqi information minister was very widely believed -- because people wanted to believe it. They did not rationally expect the Saddamite regime to survive the allied onslaught, but they expected, and hoped, that the Americans and British would be badly bloodied by their fellow-Arab Iraqis. They expected, and hoped, that even after they had deposing Saddam Hussein, the allies would inherit a kind of Gaza on 100 times the scale -- a mess too large for them to handle, so that they would soon give up on it and hightail home, rather as the U.S. did in 1983 after the Hizbullah massacres of Marines in Beirut.
Moreover, the pressure to conform, outwardly, within societies that remain very traditional, and communal, and constrained by tyranny from the top down, is more than we in the West can easily imagine. Even those who privately hated Saddam, could either sing with the choir or stay extremely silent. (Certain Iraqi exile and mostly Maronite Christian communities excepted.)
The sight of Iraqis in Baghdad pulling down the statue of Saddam, beating its face with their shoes, and kissing photographs of President Bush thus arrived like a missile into what Fouad Ajami has so discerningly called, "the dream palace of the Arabs" -- the collective fantasy into which powerful media such as Al-Jazeera had been playing. It was no mere surprise; it was a profound shock to the entire nervous system of the Arab world. It was the first shock on anything like this scale since June 1967, when another generation of Arabs woke to the discovery that tiny Israel had destroyed the massed armies of all the most powerful Arab states, in just six days. But that did not happen with the immediacy of live television.
There have been scattered reports in the Western media about reactions around the Arab world; I've heard back from my own e-mail sources in Sana (Yemen), Cairo, Riyadh, Algiers, Beirut, Amman, and East Jerusalem. And it is precisely the same story everywhere, the same audience reactions when the joy of the liberated Baghdadis was presented on screen, and almost without commentary. Wherever this spectacle appeared, there was weeping, anger, then flicking off the TV. But the anger previously concentrated by the Arab world 's media and leaders upon the United States, Britain, and Israel, was suddenly deflected upon the same media and leaders; or else meaninglessly against the euphoric crowds in Baghdad. Those who swore were suddenly swearing not at CNN but at Al-Jazeera, not at George W. Bush, but at Saddam, and Saudi sheikhs, and Hosni Mubarak. Suddenly, all at once, this terrible recognition that they had been lied to -- lied to by everyone; lied to on an extraordinary, systematic scale; told the biggest Lie that had ever been told.
In the West, where there are (except perhaps in France and Germany) genuinely two sides to the debate, that part of the audience that had been lied to could turn immediately to the side proved not to have been lying. There are outlets, alternatives.
The reality is that in the Arab world, a vast audience that has been told and has been living in a lie, a fantasy about reality itself, has nowhere to turn. Vast numbers of people, who live in much closer-knit communities than we do, are suddenly left to think and rethink everything they know, and all by themselves. This is an extraordinary, collective, psychic disaster.
What comes of it is utterly unpredictable. We cannot guess whether this common experience will feed or quell the Arabs' accumulated anger. We can only pray that a moment has come, when the whole Arab world will begin to dismember an invisible Berlin Wall that holds it in captivity, that traps everyone in fear and ignorance and hatred and unfreedom. For the alternative must be an even more radical flight from reality, an even more desperate collective effort to deny the facts right before their eyes. (I am cautiously hopeful.)
This is a very large event: with ramifications, too, over the rest of the planet. Take, for comparison, the situation in Russia, and put yourself in the position of Russian TV viewers, taking in the same scene from Baghdad.
They know what their army does to Grozny, in Chechnya, and how little thanks they get for it. The Russian military brass had moreover been telling pan-Slavic TV audiences that the Americans only do "non-contact" wars, that they are sissies who rely on technology and get locals to do the icky ground fighting for them, as in Afghanistan. I've seen the same message repeated endlessly in Russian media websites. Imagine the shock, for people accustomed to this view, of now seeing plainly the U.S. on the ground, in Baghdad, taking fire, with very low casualties -- and in charge, after barely three weeks of war.
The obvious questions present themselves to the more independent Russian mind: "How come Brits and Yanks can pull this off, and all Putin's soldiers can do is spread carnage? How come Putin's special-op elites kill more civilians re-taking one lousy concert hall than the Yanks do taking Baghdad? Are we really so well served by that old KGB officer?"
On a lesser scale than for the Arabs, it's another humiliation, and thus another opportunity for consequential change; for failure is the great liberator.
This is the big thing that has happened. For better or for worse, this was a
week in which the future of the entire planet was shifted; in which what was
left of the 20th century rumbled obtrusively into the past. We are now in an
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