America is once again knocking on the doors of the Muslim world through its occupation of hapless and helpless Iraq. Except that the reasons for this ghastly and continuing carnage make no sense even if the paramountcy of America’s national interest is duly acknowledged by all those who do the thinking for the Arab and Muslim world and its teeming millions.
Not many people know that Saddam was a trained lawyer and that his claim over Kuwait was based on sound legal grounds. Kuwait had always been an integral part of Iraq under British rule. It was separated from Iraq by Great Britain because huge oil reserves were discovered under the sand and seabed. Moreover, even after Kuwait was carved out of Iraq, the new Kuwaiti Assembly overwhelmingly voted for union with Iraq in 1938.
Saddam was by no means comparable to Nasser; therefore his downfall and eventual execution elicited no howls of outrage or outpourings of national grief amongst Iraqis or even the rest of the Arab world. Now he is merely another footnote in Iraqi history quite forgotten within a span of few years since America’s invasion of that ill-starred country. Despite all personal flaws and weaknesses, Saddam had managed to keep Iraq together for decades with a modicum of economic stability and its corollary, political peace, Can America’s handpicked regime in Iraq do the same for any extended period of time after the Marines are gone?
Since most of the other Arab states have been badly co-opted and compromised by America, Arabs are the laughing stock and the butt of jokes from Washington to Vienna. Paradoxically, it was always America – not Uncle Sam – that had pride of place in Arab hearts with its ideas of democracy, free enterprise and individualism. Alas, that dispensation is a dead letter today as is America’s ideological appeal traditionally enshrined in the personalities of George Washington and Abe Lincoln.
America’s stated objective: To make Iraq safe for democracy - had all the aura and appeal of missionary zeal and missive though no one can quite identify the crude considerations that lay beneath it. Was it the access and control over Kuwaiti oil that was the lynchpin of America’s military strategy in the two Gulf wars? Or was the objective- to strike at the only stable Arab power that had the gall to defy America - and thereby destroy the last remaining symbol of Arab sovereignty, nationalism and ethnic pride?
The Shah is gone – and with him the tolerant and humane face of Persian Islam that was so open and receptive to Western ideas of modernity and secularism. Now America must grapple with another personality- the seemingly barbaric face of Jehadi Islam as represented by the hoary Osama Bin Laden and his Afghan cohorts. America may also be forced to confront the nightmarish prospect of pitting its power and purpose against the Muslim masses from Brunei to Birmingham and the poisonous terrorism that springs from there. Unwittingly America has locked horns with Arab pride and much of the Muslim world that has not been co-opted by Washington’s largesse and strong-arm tactics. Behind the seeming disarray in the Arab world caused by Iraq’s successive defeat in the Gulf wars runs a permanent thread of resentment against America’s power and purpose as it affects the Islamic world in general and the Middle East in particular.
And with the diminishing of space within the Arab world brought about by the flood of Western goods and ideas invading their once protected markets and ideological enclaves, there is a perception that the effusive Arab and Muslim welcome to America and Americans cannot continue even though Mubarak, Gaddafi and other Arab leaders pretend to the contrary. There is real hostility in the Green Crescent against Uncle Sam and his depredations against Muslim Iraq. The little modernity and liberalism that the Arab world had attained through decades of experience with home-grown socialism is now in danger of being rolled back and capped with another kind of Islam that is totally unpalatable and uncharitable to America and its ragtag coalition of Britons, Australians and other Westerners.
America stands solitary and alone - especially now with the adoption of the doctrine of exceptionalism that affirms its superiority in the comity of nations and arrogates to itself the right to act as a global police power. Daily America is persuaded to believe that the Arab and Muslim world are its permanent friends by the motley crew of allies and friends who flock to and are fed in the White House with promises of moolah and munitions in order to find happier hunting grounds back home. The sagas of King Hussein and Musharraf are too well documented elsewhere to merit mention here. Suffice to say that everyone gets a crumb or a dollop from the White House. So great is the embarrassment felt by these guests at the prospect of going home empty-handed! The very self-worth and self-esteem of these leaders is indissolubly linked to being appointed, anointed and rewarded by the White House in order to get that iota of legitimacy in the eyes of those who truly matter in their own countries. These people - certainly not the rank and file of the Arab and Muslim masses – value American friendship because it results in concrete and tangible gains.
The basic, fundamental and underlying flaw in America’s foreign policy is the failure to appreciate and accept that the Arab and the rest of the Muslim world cannot be shaped to fit in with America’s concept of democracy. Much of the American and European superstructure of democracy is built on a sound economic system; hence its continuing appeal and success. On the other hand, the reality of life, especially in its economic aspect, is so bitter and sordid in the Arab world that America is seen as a gilded nation whose vision of the good life is simply eons away and attainable only after several rebirths and reincarnations. Hence arises the cruel dichotomy between America and the Arab nations – indeed with the rest of the Muslim world!
In the Arab and Muslim world it is almost impossible to rise to any ideal of the good life because the economic means to attain that life simply do not exist. Much of the Arab world outside the West is mired in inertia, languor and apathy because the chronic hunger present there does not allow otherwise. Indeed, highly motivated criminals can rouse the masses to embark on any great enterprise by simply feeding them properly - something that no elected government has been able to do so far!
The irrational appeal of Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban supporters has found a fertile and receptive ground in the Muslim imagination precisely because the American occupation of Iraq has driven that country into a deeper deprivation than was its usual lot. Where restraint and compassion were expected of the Great America – violence, mayhem and discord have been sown to compound the misery of the Iraqi people. That is why the entire Muslim world, barring its Westernized leaders and elites, stands united against America – the Great Satan!
Sensible Arab and other Muslim leaders who were sensitive to the Western liberal pulse had desperately tried from time to time to arrive at some democratic arrangement within their own countries. The Shah’s offer of a constitutional monarchy in Iran, Marshall Ayub Khan’s basic democracy in Pakistan and Sukarno’s guided democracy in Indonesia were some notable concessions made by these leaders to the very great demand for democracy made by the West. However, these leaders could not garner support for their regimes from the West even though they were radical departures from previous institutions and great improvements as well!
Hence arises the lopsided confrontation between America and the Arab world over the former’s handling of post-Saddam Iraq. Nothing more would please the Muslim masses of the Green Crescent than to see America retreat into isolationism behind its own ocean boundaries and thereby end the sufferings of the people of Iraq.
Kamal Wadhwa is a Honors graduate in Literature from the University of Chicago. He has also studied political science and economics at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. He has spent over fifteen years in Iran before the Shah’s downfall and one year in Ethiopia before Haile Selassie’s ouster from power. Kamal Wadhwa’s articles, book reviews and poems have appeared in leading periodicals of India and some have been published in overseas journals notably the UK Law Journal.