When American troops pulled Saddam Hussein from his hole two years ago, a Saudi newspaper editor expressed the conflicting emotions coursing through the Arab world.
"On the one hand, we are very happy, relieved that this man is out of the picture and he will not threaten us anymore," Khaled M. Batarfi told the New York Times. "On the other hand, to see him so humiliated he is an Arab president, after all."
Pride is a formidable force, even a deadly one, irrespective of culture. In the lands of Araby, a sense of injured pride permeates the landscape.
Twelve centuries ago, an Arab empire stretched from Persepolis to the gates of Paris. While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, Arab scholars preserved the heritage of the classical world, Arab intellect advanced the frontiers of science and medicine and Arab genius created the glories of Granada and Baghdad.
This lost legacy has a calamitous grip on the Arab psyche. Where an illustrious empire once stood, a score of dictators and corrupt potentates now stumbles from disaster to disaster. By almost every meaningful measure economics, political systems, literacy, health care the Arab world rivals the outposts of the underdeveloped world.
A modern group of Arab scholars, working under the auspices of the United Nations, issued an Arab Human Development Report in 2002 detailing these failures. "The predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality," the report mutedly notes, "seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure."
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida earn sympathy, if not outright support, among otherwise sensible people across the region by hearkening to their glorious past and juxtaposing it with an inglorious present.
The leaders who preside atop this feeble institutional structure came together last week in Cairo. Their goal was to restore some of the dignity lost to the U.S.-led coalition that toppled and then captured a fraudulent symbol of Arab strength and then created in Iraq the conditions for a new political destiny.
Under the tent of reconciliation, the Arab League gathered Iraqis of all political, ethnic and confessional backgrounds. Their final statement shows the decrepit influence of traditional Arab vainglory. It condemns violence targeting Iraqi citizens and institutions. But, capitulating to the demands of Sunnis supported by their Arab League brethren, it also recognizes a "right of resistance," which in practical terms gives sanction to attacks against coalition forces.
Outside the Sunni establishment, few Iraqi leaders support this moral subterfuge. Massoud Barzani, regional president of Kurdistan, told his National Assembly, "We consider them as liberators," reports the Iraqi newspaper Al Mendhar.
More significant is the Cairo statement's call for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. Not because, as some opponents of Iraq's liberation would have it, Iraqis want a return to the days before the United States allegedly "broke" their country, when Saddam's machines of torture were grinding out human carcasses and his security forces were filling mass graves.
They issued their call because of pride not in a lost past but, rather, in a hopeful future. In two weeks, Iraqis will go to the polls to do something almost completely unheard of in the Arab world: elect a permanent government in a freely contested, multiparty election.
A truly free and representative Iraqi government will not necessarily do things to the liking of policy-makers in Washington. But an Iraqi government either unwilling or unable to assert its sovereignty is not one for which Americans should sacrifice their lives. The joint statement represents a pivotal point in the evolution of an independent, democratic Iraq.
The Cairo statement, the trial of Saddam, the increasing role of Iraqi forces in securing their own country, elections, the contentious voices of democracy: Iraqis are liberating themselves. For that, the Iraqi people and the nations who helped them can be justifiably proud.