How the Middle East is really being
remade By Nir Rosen
A few weeks prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US
Council of Foreign Relations held a dinner attended
mostly by thirtysomething PhDs to discuss the intended
consequences of the war. The participants were exuberant
about the opportunity liberating Iraq presented to
remake the Middle East. The "transformation of Iraqi
society" would be a model and guide for the subsequent
transformation of Arab society en masse, they enthused.
Ecstatically, they spoke of how first the Iraqis, then
other Arabs, would learn of
civil society, and how it could lift them out of the
morass in which they found themselves.
criticism of Iraqi and Arab society was based on pity
and academic disdain, rather than vitriol and hostility.
The Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula were pointed
to as special examples of a blighted society in
desperate need of uplifting. These "artificial
societies" were regarded as the worst example of what
dark turns Arab culture could take. The diners eagerly
convinced each other that Arab culture and society
needed a sharp and devastating blow that would "shock
and awe" them, so that the English-speaking West could
get its attention. They also assumed that after its
liberation, a supine Iraqi population, unshackled from
its old political masters, would lie quietly while
American academics worked their magic and miraculously
presented them with a new society.
were not the ones proffered to the US public. Deputy
Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz confessed to Vanity
Fair magazine that the weapons of mass destruction
claims were a useful "bureaucratic argument", and "the
one issue everyone could agree on". As has been revealed
in recent books by former White House anti-terrorism
coordinator Richard Clarke and insider journalist Bob
Woodward, the war against Iraq had been on the minds of
administration planners probably long before September
11, 2001. The attacks on that day only provided a
fillip, allowing the execution of their plans to remake
the Middle East. Since the US public could not be sold
on a scheme of grand social revision, the marketing
strategy relied on fear, and the various imminent
threats that Saddam Hussein allegedly posed.
year after this bold new strategy was embarked upon, it
is worth examining how the neighborhood has been changed
by the events of the past 12 months. Recall that the
goal was the transformation of Middle Eastern society,
and not mere regime change in one state. When the
United States invaded Iraq, it had the unequivocal
support of just two Arab states - Kuwait and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
provided surreptitious support in the form of
clandestine facilities or discreet overflight, but no
commitment of troops or open use of facilities. Kuwait
and Qatar were the indispensable launching pads for the
ground and air war that was quickly concluded.
No one in the US asked the Gulf states what
their expectations were about this military adventure.
They went along individually with great reluctance
because their fear of the US overcame their fear of the
adverse reaction of their publics (Kuwait always being
the exception). They were also not united in their views
of the US intention to invade Iraq.
Arabia's attitude was the most complex. On the one hand,
Saudi nerves had still not recovered from the fact that
15 of the 19 perpetrators on September 11 were Saudi.
Acts of terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia were limited
in scope and directed mostly at the US presence, but
fear that violence could expand (as it later did)
remained a constant worry. The al-Saud royal family had
to straddle a contradiction. Supporting the Americans
was an essential element of recovering from the damage
of September 11 and the wave of attacks from prominent
US commentators, especially the neo-conservatives who
dominated the administration of President George W Bush.
On the other hand, the al-Saud were equally conscious of
the fact that Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers had
used that very same close relationship with the United
States to undermine the credibility of the ruling
family. The tortured and twisted manifestation of
support for the US action was the only possible way out
of the dilemma.
Kuwait's attitudes were more
straightforward. Iraq had threatened the existence of
the Kuwaiti state in one form or another since before it
became fully independent. Only a decade before, Iraq had
invaded and pillaged Kuwait. Kuwaitis of almost every
political persuasion still saw Iraq as a permanent
threat and could be counted on to allow their government
openly to support the US action. Bahrain had its own
reasons for supporting the Americans, not least because
the US already enjoyed the committed support of
Bahrain's arch-rival, Qatar. The Bahraini majority
underclass was solidly Shi'ite and hated Saddam for what
he done to the Shi'ites of Iraq. Combined with the
feeling that the US military presence was essential to
the survival of the al-Khalifah family, this Shi'ite
attitude propelled Bahrain to support the Americans,
albeit with some superficial reservations.
UAE saw supporting the Americans as unpopular, but at a
level easily containable. Abu Dhabi did its utmost to
mask the full extent of support for the Americans.
Qatar supported the United States as
forthrightly as the Kuwaitis, but with a special twist.
Qatar views a US presence as a necessary component of a
national-security strategy. The Americans can deter any
foreign enemy. The Qatari state also believes that it
has managed to ensure domestic tranquility and popular
support by encouraging modernization through political
and social freedoms, combined with a clever diplomatic
position that stakes out independence from the US. Qatar
made its air, land and seas facilities fully available
to the Americans, even to the point of hosting the US
military's headquarters for the attack. At the same
time, Qatari spokesmen took pains to offer public advice
to the Americans on how misguided many of Washington's
policies were. To its population, the government
explained that Qatar's international obligations,
especially to the United Nations, made its impossible
for the state to do anything but support the Americans.
transformation? What is wrong with this picture?
The Americans saw the invasion of Iraq as a
transcendental moment of transformation that would bring
the region to democracy and free trade. The Gulf states
saw the US action in what can be described as purely
realpolitik terms. It is worth asking, however,
where does the transformation of the Middle East stand
today? The stated intent was simply to transform and
reinvent Iraqi society so that it would serve as a
shining beacon to the rest of the region and stand as a
strong ally to a broader US plan to solve the problems
of the entire region.
The planners expected that
the Iraqi people would rally to the United States and
deliver themselves into the caring US arms to await the
transformation. They thought their anointed exile leader
would quickly seize control and maintain order. Instead,
the place fell apart so rapidly that the planners could
not change their plans to accommodate the disaster.
Mobs looted the entire national infrastructure
while US troops stood by haplessly, hobbled by the fact
that their leadership had made no provision for a course
of action that would change its troops from liberators
to order-imposing occupiers. Having failed to catch the
first clue that things were not as they had hoped them
to be, they proceeded with their original plan to
decapitate the military, political and economic
structure of the country at the ankles.
stand more or less in control of a country seething with
resentment and on the verge of open insurrection, and
still without a plan in sight. No wonder President Bush
launched the Greater Middle East peace initiative as a
separate action; achieving his long-term goals of
democratizing the region would not happen from within
The Gulf states are themselves in a state
of shock at the way in which the operation in Iraq has
gone bad. They did not necessarily believe in the
high-minded and long-winded US plans to transform Iraqi
society. They did expect that the United States would
apply enough of its military, economic and diplomatic
hyper-power to ensure that Iraq would stay quiescent.
They were astounded at the series of mistakes the
Americans made. New fissures are appearing in the US
relationship with the Gulf. US leaders across the
political spectrum continue to lambaste the Saudi regime
as a breeder of terrorism. Bush cannot even impose his
awesome political discipline on his own administration
in this regard.
Qatar, which has openly offered
to turn itself into the Americans' principal bastion in
the region, finds itself on the receiving end of a
vitriolic US attack on the basic institution of
democracy: uncensored media. Despite the fact that Qatar
today hosts enormous US military forces and has
committed to financial and political support for US
activities in Iraq, it has been given the diplomatic
equivalent of the back of the American hand over
Aljazeera satellite television. Exciting news, presented
with the slant that satisfies the lowest common
denominator in its audience and with a very loose hold
on accuracy, has made Aljazeera the most popular Arabic
medium on the globe. In the midst of a US campaign to
foster democracy in the Middle East, it conveys to the
world a message that Middle Eastern democracy need not
include a free press.
The disenchantment with US
policies is affecting its business relationships as
well. Before September 11, the Saudis had decided to
open their natural-gas fields to foreign development. US
companies were at the front of a list of companies
invited to participate. After the Iraqi invasion, work
that had been suspended was reopened. Contracts were
awarded to three companies, none of them American.
Saudis have been boycotting US companies and their
students have stopped registering in US universities. An
important cultural bridge has been destroyed. Gulf
businessmen are also afraid of visiting the United
States, fearing the intrusive interrogations and
resenting the humiliations to which they are exposed on
entry. Instead of promoting a dialogue of civilizations,
they have finally concretized the clash of
civilizations. Wars started to end terror have,
according to US intelligence officials, increased
al-Qaeda recruitment tenfold.
Within Iraq, a
population that was initially inclined to be patient and
observe US intentions for it is increasingly joining a
popular resistance. Sunnis and Shi'ites, once on the
verge of civil war, are now united in their opposition
to the occupation, and their militias cooperate with
each other, sending supplies and words of encouragement.
Fallujah became a rallying cry for Iraqis, the first
victory against the occupation, the first liberated
city. Posters on Iraqi walls announce that "Fallujah is
the beginning of the end of the occupation". From a
hotel room in Baghdad, waiting to hear the next
explosion, one cannot help but wonder whether Iraq is
the beginning of the end of the American empire.
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