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Jewish World Review May 19, 2003 / 17 Iyar, 5763

Michael Barone

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Statues fall, minds change |
In the jumble of images on our television screens, it's difficult to understand just what's happening in the Middle East. But the most important thing that's happening is invisible. Minds are changing.

And have been since April 9, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by jubilant Iraqis. What people in the Middle East had been seeing and reading in Arab media was a story framed by the assumptions of pan-Arab nationalism. Innocent Iraqis were being killed. The Americans were mired down. Iraqis would stubbornly resist an attack on Baghdad. The Arab media, wrote Abdulhamid al-Ansary in the Saudi English-language Arab News, were "decidedly on the side of the Iraqi regime." Then suddenly, as the pictures of the statue being pulled down in Baghdad flashed on al Jazeera, it became clear that all these things were lies. Iraqis hated Saddam. There would be no titanic battle of Baghdad. As the story of the coalition victory unfolded, it became clear that the Arab media had not just gotten a few facts wrong; the picture of the world it had presented was utterly inconsistent with reality.

Only occasionally in history does a people learn, suddenly, that the view of the world it had been presented and in which it mostly believed was utterly wrong. Germans and Japanese had that experience in 1945; Russians and Eastern Europeans already knew that Soviet propaganda was nonsense in 1989. We cannot know for sure exactly how, and how many, minds have changed in the Middle East over the past six weeks and how they will change in the future. Polls are not reliable in authoritarian countries, and many people are reluctant to admit they have changed their minds.

Two-way street. But we know this much. Until April 9, the variously tyrannical regimes of the Middle East had sought to direct the discontent of their people outward--to British and French colonialists half a century ago, to Israel, to the United States. Most Arab intellectuals and journalists have been happy to connive in this; as we know from Stephen Hayes in the Weekly Standard, Saddam Hussein lavishly bribed every Arab journalist he could. But now, as Arabs watch the Iraqi people decide how to create a decent polity, their discontent will be directed at least partly inward--to the question of how to build a decent society. To be sure, many Arab journalists and intellectuals will try to keep the focus outward, to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. But, as Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland notes, some of the focus will be inward, too.

Before the Iraq war, we were told by many experts that the Arab "street" would rise if the United States attacked. But the Arab street is no longer one-way. "Now there are more conversations about how the Palestinian issue has been exploited and used to avoid tackling other injustices. The calls for democracy are becoming better organized," Frida Ghitis wrote in the Miami Herald after April 9. "Traditional institutions are coming under criticism." This does not guarantee good outcomes. But some fears seem misplaced.

Americans worried that the Shiite majority in Iraq would embrace Iranian-style fundamentalism. But reports suggest that opinion among Shiite Iraqis is much more variegated and, as Iraqis learn more about how Iranians hate the mullah regime, its banner will be rejected, as was the banner of pan-Arabism held aloft by Saddam. Nor are Iraqis likely to follow traditional Arab media and intellectuals in making the cause of the Palestinians their first priority. They may have noticed that the Palestinians sided with Saddam. They have more urgent business at home.

The Arabists of the State Department's Near Eastern Bureau have long urged a policy of colluding with Arab tyrannies in directing their peoples' discontent outward, to Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. George W. Bush announced a different policy last June when he insisted that the United States will not press Israel to make concessions to terrorist-supporting Palestinian leaders. He directed the attention of the Palestinians--and, by implication, all Arabs--inward. Building decent societies in these nations is difficult, dangerous work. But it is already starting in Iraq, and however the Arab media try to disparage it, they cannot erase the pictures of April 9 or prevent minds from changing.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone