Jewish World Review March 5, 2003 / 1 Adar II, 5763
John H. Fund
Sunday morning with the BBC
The debate was part of BBC's prime-time program "Panorama," which is the rough equivalent of "60 Minutes." When I arrived at the Mayrose Diner at 21st and Broadway on Sunday morning, I found 10 New Yorkers gathered over coffee. On a jumbo screen television, an equal number of Jordanians were waiting to talk eight time zones away.
The American group comprised seven supporters of intervention and three critics, roughly the division found in the American opinion polls. They included a former New York mayor, Ed Koch, a former prosecutor, a taxi driver, a nurse who lost a brother in the World Trade Center bombing, and a peace activist. Because of the requirement that they be fluent in English, the Jordanians tended to be well educated and many had had experience living in America. They included a dentist, a Catholic priest, an engineer, and a spokesman for the Islamic Action Front, a leftist opposition party. With no exceptions, all of the Jordanians opposed toppling Saddam Hussein by military force.
In my first comment, I zeroed in on the curious choice of Jordan as a stand-in for all Arab sentiment on the Iraq question. Some 70% of Jordanians are Palestinian Arabs and are fiercely hostile to all aspects of American foreign policy. Indeed, a poll taken by "Panorama" for the debate found that only 22% of Jordanians surveyed believed Iraqis would be better off if Saddam left power. That contrasted with 87% of Americans who felt Iraq would be better off after liberation. I contended that the place chosen to represent Arab opinion may have been the most pro-Saddam place on the planet. The percentage of Iraqis that want their maximum leader removed is far higher than 22%. Iraqis are just unable to express that opinion under Saddam's Orwellian totalitarianism.
Egypt, whose 70 million people represent a third of all Arabs, would have been a better choice, and we might have seen more diverse viewpoints from a group gathered there. In 1991, 84% of Egyptians told pollsters that they supported intervention to liberate Kuwait from Saddam's tyranny. That's a far different attitude than Jordanians expressed at the time.
Mr. Koch pointed out that many Jordanians had openly supported Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- 58% of West Bank Palestinians backed the invasion in one survey -- and noted press reports that the streets of Amman had been filled with cheering crowds on the day the World Trade Center terrorists struck. The Jordanians flatly denied the press reports of celebrations and were silent on their opinion of Saddam's 1990 invasion.
I also learned that President Chirac's move to split Western opposition to Saddam has helped him become the most popular Western leader in the Arab world. Over the weekend, adoring crowds greeted Mr. Chirac on a state visit to Algeria. The BBC poll found that 89% of Jordanians thought the French president had shown the greatest leadership so far in the Iraqi crisis, while 5% for President Bush felt that way.
What's clear is that Mr. Chirac's refusal to enforce last November's U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq disarm has done nothing to improve that body's standing in the world. Even the Jordanian participants were largely hostile on the role of the United Nations. A few said the world body might be helpful in removing all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East -- a formulation aimed at Israel's nuclear deterrent -- but others declared that the United Nations was under the thumb of America.
The alleged perfidy of Israel came up early in the program. An attractive Jordanian housewife who had studied in America pointed out that Israel was in violation of U.N. resolutions just like Iraq and asserted that those must be addressed as well. But resolutions seeking to disarm weapons of mass destruction are certainly more pressing than those condemning West Bank settlements. Mr. Koch also interjected that Saddam's wars of conquest against two neighboring countries -- Iran and Kuwait -- had resulted in the deaths of more than a million people.
The dynamics of the debate format inevitably meant that the anti-war members of our American group felt shortchanged in the time they had. I wish we had heard more from them. Jean Carey Bond, a peace activist who traces her anti-war activity back to the Vietnam War era, made an eloquent appeal on camera for slowing down the drive to war. Off camera, she had even more interesting views. She explained to me how Americans had to understand that many Arabs credit Saddam -- rightly or wrongly -- with improving his nation's economy and enhancing the quality of life of the Iraqi people. How many of them would hold a different view if they were allowed to visit Baghdad, I thought.
The program, moderated in New York by Nisha Pillai and in Amman by Gavin Esler, never had any of us engage in give-and-take debate, partly due to sound difficulties. It became clear from the start that there was going to be no agreement and that soundbites would substitute for genuine dialogue.
The level of hostility found in some overseas circles to American foreign policy objectives shouldn't surprise anyone. I'm old enough to remember when majorities of people in Western Europe opposed the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles to counteract new Soviet missiles aimed at the theater. History shows that was the right course of action, and along with President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I'm also old enough to remember when leftists of all stripes opposed American intervention in Grenada as well as support for the contras in Nicaragua. The people of both countries have shown their gratitude for our help and today live in freedom. And I'm old enough to also remember how many countries were hesitant to join the Allied coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, fearing that it would turn out horribly. History too has proven them wrong.
Since nothing works in moving world opinion like success, I am willing to bet that if "the coalition of the willing" acting with or without further U.N. approval succeeds in ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, world attitudes will shift quickly. As television screens are filled with scenes of Iraqis spitting on portraits of a toppled Saddam and pouring forth tales of the torture and degradation they suffered under his regime, I suspect the
BBC would find it difficult to reassemble the Jordanian panel that was so
eager to confront me and my fellow New Yorkers last Sunday. Their silence
will speak volumes.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
02/28/03: Shut Up, They Explained: If you can censor this, thank a teacher