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Arabs See Danger, not Hope, in Iraq

Most think the war heightened instability in the region. Even allies mistrust the United States' intentions.

March 14, 2004|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is "The Stakes: America in the Middle East." He recently returned from the Middle East.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — On the eve of the Iraq war a year ago, I conducted a public opinion survey in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. It was no surprise that the vast majority of Arabs, like many around the world, opposed the war. Most striking was their profound mistrust of American foreign policy and of the stated U.S. objectives in Iraq. Unlike American predictions, the large majority of people in the region anticipated that the Middle East would be less democratic, that terrorism would increase and that the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace would diminish as a result of the war. One year later, this view has grown stronger.

To begin with, the talk of democracy in Iraq has not captured the Arab public's imagination, for two important reasons. One, Arabs have seen very little of it in their countries. Many Middle East governments that tacitly or overtly supported the U.S.-led war have been anxious about public anger at and opposition to the war, and they have further clamped down on civil liberties. The role these governments have assumed in the war on terrorism -- the Saudi's get-tough policy with militants, for example -- has also entailed greater restrictions on freedom.

Second, even those who recognize the obvious benefits of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship have not observed in "liberated" Iraq an outcome they desire. This may change, but for now what they see there frightens them and threatens their core traditional values. The absence of personal security, the near-collapse of Iraqi society, the daily hardship, the unpredictability and instability of the situation -- all are barriers to Arabs seeing post-Hussein Iraq as a political model worthy of emulation.

Talk of democracy in the Middle East unexpectedly turns to the "China model." It's doubtful most truly understand what that model is, except that it means incremental economic and political progress without diluting social norms and unleashing personal insecurity. Still, it plays directly into the hands of Arab governments reluctant to embark on major reforms that might undermine their hold on power.

To many Arabs, the Middle East today is less stable and thus more hospitable to international terrorism of the Al Qaeda brand. Few believed Al Qaeda had any roots in Iraq before the war, but many now believe that Iraq, because of its instability, has become a breeding ground for the terrorist organization and its allies. As a result, they fear the region could become even more unstable.

Contrary to the Bush administration's prediction that the momentum of victory in Iraq would generate a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, most in the Arab world see the prospects of peace to have significantly diminished. The administration has spent most of its energy on making Iraq secure and governable, and now the U.S. presidential campaign has begun in earnest. This doesn't make for a situation ideal for active U.S. diplomacy. In any case, most believe that the administration deliberately avoids the Arab-Israeli issue, which remains central to their attitudes toward the U.S.

There are many democrats in the Arab world who want to believe that positive change is possible and that the U.S. means what it says. But even among this group of natural U.S. allies there is a lack of trust in U.S. intentions and discomfort with being associated with America's plans.

The war's effect on Arab governments has been different from the effect on public opinion. Not all the governments have the same attitude about the war. Kuwait, for one, is mostly pleased with its outcome. In general, though, the war and its aftermath have made most Arab governments nervous. What has made them especially nervous is the seeming unpredictability of the administration's foreign policy. A powerful nation is frightening enough, especially when it is angry. But an unpredictable powerful nation is even more frightening. To many Arab government officials in the region, the administration's decision to go to war with Iraq seemed to go against traditional U.S. interests as they understood them; many initially believed that the war was unlikely without greater international support.

Although many Arab governments don't believe it's in America's interests to topple them, they cannot be sure. If there is a reassuring circumstance, it's an increasing sense among Arab officials that America's ability to deal with new crises in the region has been significantly undermined by its continuing difficulty in Iraq.

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