Fouad Ajami always has something interesting to say and his latest in the January/February 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs is no exception. He believes the coming war to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime will send the very powerful message that the US has shifted its long-term stance on the Middle East. Historically the US has restricted itself to maintaining the existing order and has intervened only to prevent or reverse a disturbance in the balance of power. This war represents a shift away from the historical pattern of US reticence about getting more deeply involved in Arab politics and is part of a larger effort to fundamentally change the trends in Arab political development. The old position has effectively been discredited by the attacks on 9/11 and the new position will be to support the Arab reformists. Ajami also examines the motives of the terrorists and sees terrorism against the US as motivated by frustrations in Arab society and politics.
The United States has been caught in the crossfire between the regimes in the saddle and the Islamic insurgents. These insurgents could not win in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria, or on the Arabian Peninsula. So they took to the road and targeted the United States, and they were brutally candid about their motives. They did not strike at America because it was a patron of Israel; rather, they drew a distinction between the "near enemy" (their own rulers) and the "far enemy," the United States.
Those entrenched regimes could not be beaten at home. Their power, as well as their people's resigned acceptance that their rulers' sins would be dwarfed by the terrors that Islamists would unleash were they to prevail, had settled the fight in favor of the rulers. The targeting of America came out of this terrible political culture of Arab lands. If the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, could not avenge himself against the military regime of Hosni Mubarak for the torture he endured at the hands of his country's security services, why not target Mubarak's U.S. patrons?
A similar motivation propelled the Saudi members of al Qaeda. These men could not sack the House of Saud. The dynasty's wealth, its political primacy, and the conservative religious establishment gave the rulers a decided edge in their struggle with the Islamists; the war against America was the next best thing. The great power was an easier target: it was more open, more trusting, and its liberties more easily subverted by a band of jihadists. The jihadists and their leader, bin Laden, aimed at the dynasty's carefully nurtured self-image. The children of Arabia who had boarded those planes on September 11 and the countless young men held at the Guantanamo Bay military base could not be disowned. Bin Laden got the crisis in Saudi-American relations he aimed for.
Ajami is by no means confident that after the military victory an American attempt to politically reconstruction Iraq will be successful.
Iraq may offer a contrast, a base in the Arab world free of the poison of anti-Americanism. The country is not hemmed in by the kind of religious prohibitions that stalk the U.S. presence in the Saudi realm. It may have a greater readiness for democracy than Egypt, if only because it is wealthier and is free of the weight of Egypt's demographic pressures and the steady menace of an Islamist movement.
Iraq should not be burdened, however, with the weight of great expectations. This is the Arab world, after all, and Americans do not know it with such intimacy. Iraq could disappoint its American liberators. There has been heartbreak in Iraq, and vengeance and retribution could sour Americans on this latest sphere of influence in the Muslim world.
Will America be willing to try to remold Iraq on the scale that is required to even have a chance of success? As Ajami points out, the United States no longer has the degree of cultural confidence that it had in 1945 when it set out to reshape the political culture and institutions of Japan. Iraq is in some ways a tougher challenge than Japan because Iraq's culture is linked to a religion and a larger regional culture that provide competing external influences that the United States didn't have to contend with when reshaping a culturally far more insular Japan. At the same time, the Middle East's political development is also held back by consanguineous marriage patterns. The United States therefore faces a tougher task with Iraqi reconstruction and less confidence with which to carry it out.
Ajami writes with far more insight and understanding of Middle Eastern politics and history than the vast bulk of pontificating commentators. A lot of Western commentators try to explain Arab motives by imagining what would drive a Westerner to do what they do. Attempts to categorize Arab movements and factions using Western political ideologies and Western culture war categories leads to an awful lot foolish nattering. Compounding this problem are Arabs who are knowledgeable enough in Western political thinking to try to cast their factions and movements in terms that will appeal to the sympathies of ignorant Westerners and so the misconceptions are reinforced. Ajami manages to stick to the basic motives of the groups, their histories, and their perceptions of each other. He cuts thru a lot of rhetoric to make the Middle East much more comprehensible. If you want to read an analysis of the Middle East that isn't some standard boilerplate stereotype such of breast-beating hawkery, Arab apologist blame-it-on-US/Israel, or idealistic kumbaya dreamer then Ajami's latest is worth your time.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2002 December 23 11:16 PM Civilizations Clash Of|