American troubles and Arab expectations

KUWAIT CITY – The first days of the American-led war to topple Saddam Hussein offer a good preview of the global trends that will be dominant after the war is over: an America that is militarily strong and diplomatically weak, and an Arab world struggling to find a path to greater freedom. Since the war began before dawn Wednesday, America has shown the world once again its overwhelming military power – a power so much greater than that of any other nation that it creates its own disequilibrium. In purely military terms, America really doesn’t need allies. On the ground and in the air, it can toy and tease with adversaries the way a cat plays with a ball of string. But diplomatically, America’s troubles continued this week. Anti-war demonstrations erupted around the world, and there were worrying riots in Egypt and Yemen. The United States was reduced to pleading with a truculent Turkey for mere overflight rights – something that even the Iranians have quietly allowed! America’s failure to sway Turkey’s Parliament is perhaps the clearest example that military power, alone, will take you only so far. At this writing, it’s impossible to know whether the Turkish army will move aggressively south into Iraqi Kurdistan. But the mere fact that it has asserted such a right, with America a prisoner of Ankara’s whims, is a grievous political-military blunder. I’m told that US generals agreed a month ago to allow the Turkish army to enter Iraq, as part of the price of their cooperation. The moral of the story is that US generals should stay out of the bazaar. In this case, they got fleeced. I must confess that the prospect of Saddam Hussein’s imminent demise does not make me unhappy. I first visited Iraq as a foreign correspondent in 1980, and I have grown over the years to detest his regime. Even in a world of despots, this one is unique in my experience for his cruelty and recklessness. He governs, quite literally, through his ability to terrify citizens through the use of the most horrific kinds of torture. I gathered specific stories of the cruelty of his secret services from several dozen Iraqi sources a decade ago, when I wrote a novel about Iraq called «The Bank of Fear.» In terms of the advertised rationale for the war – containing the threat of weapons of mass destruction – any sensible person would put Iran and North Korea higher on the danger list than Iraq. I have no doubt that Saddam possesses chemical weapons – I have spent much of the past two days in bunkers here in Kuwait with my gas mask on, for good reason. But the UN inspection regime seemed to be doing an adequate job of slowly addressing that problem. Oddly, perhaps, the best rationale for this war is a kind of old-fashioned American idealism. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way, but the human rights case for war actually strikes me as the strongest of all. If it’s «Operation Iraqi Freedom,» as the contrived code name has it, then so much the better. And it was a nice touch on Friday when the US Marines, after hoisting an American flag over the captured port city of Umm Qasr, were ordered to haul it down and replace it with an Iraqi flag. I will never understand why the world paid so little attention to the fate of the Iraqi people in contemplating Saddam Hussein’s regime. One might have thought that a Europe that prides itself on its concern for such issues would have led the way. But no, they were so busy being angry at George Bush that they all but ignored Saddam. What encourages me is that, for all the chaotic protests against the war, the Arab people recognize Saddam for the dictator he is – far more clearly than do the Europeans. I have visited most of the Arab countries that surround Iraq over past six weeks, and in each I have found a fascinating state of political ferment. I have described this new sense of openness in once-closed societies from Syria to Saudi Arabia as «Arab perestroika,» and it’s encouraging. In Damascus a few weeks ago, a young man took me aside and said in Arabic: «You Americans are going to Iraq, yes? » I nodded. «Maybe you can come here, too.» He wants change, and there are millions upon millions of Arabs just like him. The message, which Arab leaders understand, is that their people want greater openness and political participation. Saddam symbolized the age of the dictators. His demise will begin a new era, and it’s not crazy to hope that it will be an era of greater freedom, political participation and yes, even of democracy. I’m less worried about what lies ahead for the Arab world than about the future of America’s relations with Europe. I think we are seeing the emergence of what will be a lasting (if loosely structured) coalition to contain America. It’s especially important that Russia has chosen to join this coalition – and thereby achieve at last the old Tsarist dream of being just as French as the French. American officials were convinced until the very end that Vladimir Putin would decide that Russia’s long-term interests required support for the United States. They were wrong. I cannot but wonder, too, whether desire to be part of a French-German led European Union has led Turkey to adopt its blatantly anti-American behavior. I fear the Turks will pay a severe price for their decisions of the past two weeks. They have defied their most stalwart friend and ally in Washington to court what may prove a European mirage. The Bush administration’s fundamental diplomatic failure has been its inability to understand that allies want to feel included. The art of diplomacy requires listening to tedious speeches, making boring foreign trips, flattering vainglorious United Nations egos. It’s all worthwhile if it helps cloak raw military power in the camouflage of diplomacy. Indeed, that deceptive process is the very essence of statecraft – to make other people feel good about letting you do what you want. The Bush administration, for reasons that historians will examine for decades, has somehow failed to grasp this obvious fact. At every moment that gentle words might have swayed feelings, Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, offered what sounded like contempt and arrogance. The Bush administration has paid such a severe price for its recent mistakes that I think officials have learned some lessons – and will at least try to sound less arrogant and unilateral. But it’s too late, sadly. The damage has been done. American power – overwhelming and intimidating – is seen by too much of the world as the enemy. And, as in the past, the world will organize to contain that rising power. The history of Europe, for the past 200 years, has been a series of coalitions to contain rising imperial powers – the France of Napoleon; the Germany of the Kaiser and Hitler; the Soviet Union of Stalin. Now a coalition is forming to contain American power. The coalition will fail, militarily. The Iraqi war will be a «success.» But as the Bush administration may finally be learning, military power is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for global success. (1) David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune contributed this to Kathimerini’s Sunday edition.

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