Respect or shock and awe?

The image of a stunned and simian Saddam Hussein scratching at his thick and dirty hair, tugging at his gray beard with a look both submissive and wild, reportedly plucked without a fight out of a deep hole, served to destroy his long-cultivated myth of a modern-day Saladin. But it also seemed like a flashback to some ancient time, which knew no mercy for its enemies – a time in which Saddam had always lived but the rest of us did not. Saddam did not go out fighting. He was no heir to the great Kurd who defeated the Crusaders. Beside making this fact public, it was important for his American captors to further break down the image of the all-powerful despot who had ruled his country with institutionalized terror and arbitrary brutality for over three decades. Even after his thousands and thousands of portraits had been torn down and banknotes bearing his face replaced, Saddam still loomed large over Iraq, a giant shadow cast by the trick lighting of his long presence and mysterious disappearance. And suddenly the tyrant was a prisoner, the cloak of myth ripped from his shoulders and his bare self exposed to the merciless light of a medical examination. This was important for the Iraqis who had been brutalized during Saddam Hussein’s long reign. And it was also of the greatest importance to the rest of the world – boosting the morale of the Americans and their allies and informing those who had opposed the invasion of Iraq that it was time to get in line with America. To his victims, the video provided the assurance that the man the Americans had captured was indeed their former tyrant. It was also a clear message to the die-hard opponents of Iraq’s new regime that the symbol and driving force of the old one was gone. (Whether this will end the insurgency remains to be seen, although Saddam’s capture will surely take some of the steam out of it.) The Americans had every reason to show that Saddam was in their hands and powerless, subject to a medical examination made public – the semiotics of which are inescapable. But, as with other deadly weapons, there will be «collateral damage.» The pictures of a humiliated Saddam have a wider audience than the one within Iraq and the image will be seen and used in ways that will do nothing to further the civilized world’s fight against terrorism. Millions of people will feel that America’s humiliation of one man is the humiliation of the Arab nation, despite the lifetime of terrible crimes for which Saddam is responsible. Declarations from Washington that the war against terrorism is not against Islam or Arabs will lose their credibility against the backdrop of Saddam being dragged behind George Bush’s chariot. Progressive Arab commentators will lament the fact that it took an American invasion to put an end to a terrible dictatorship, one that had poisoned a whole region and held up its development but had been tolerated by the Arabs because its opposition to America (at least after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) and Israel had given it credibility as the Arabs’ champion. And the rest will see the humiliation – plain and simple. When Al-Jazeera (the television channel that is America’s gadfly in the region) asked viewers if Saddam’s medical exam was meant to humiliate Arabs, 97 percent of 1,500 callers said that it was. Some might argue that Al-Jazeera and most Arab news media are indeed a large part of the problem, preaching absolutes such as the dream of pan-Arab unity and virulent opposition to Israel and the United States in order to keep the flame of myth alive while doing nothing to make the too-real tyrants among them accountable. We can argue that the selective and repetitive use of bad news and incendiary images from Iraq and the Palestinian territories serve to prevent the debate about the Arab world’s future from going anywhere. But we cannot deny that Al-Jazeera and other sources of news are an invaluable window that the world has spent too little time looking into. Although they appear to be part of the problem, these news media serve to express Arab opinion and to shape it, in an endless cycle that reinforces stereotypes and compounds the real or perceived wrongs done to the Arabs. It is satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya that the Iraqis too are watching, and not the Iraqi Media Network run by the new team in Baghdad. So, if anyone really does want to win the war for public opinion it is here that he will have to wage it. There is no point in excoriating those who are opposed to your position if the battle is one of ideas. You can only try to win with deeds and arguments, and you should always be so fortunate as to have news media that show you what effect your efforts have. And if they appear infuriatingly biased, that bias is the gauge of your success. It is crucial for the United States to keep this in mind, now that it has chosen to become an integral part of this troubled region. But the way in which it displayed Saddam suggests that the United States either does not understand the power of the symbols with which it plays or just wants to flaunt its power and does not care about the consequences. For a long time, the United States has seemed to see the Middle East as a place where the paramount issue is the security of its ally Israel (in the sense that what is good for Israel is good for the United States and not the other way around) and, secondarily, the stability of favored regimes. Much policy appears to have been forged by think tanks and lobbyists in Washington, without the necessary engagement with the region. The Arabs are proud and dignified people with a long and rich history. It is both arrogant and foolish to see them only as countries that are «with us» or «against us» in the war against terrorism or in other issues. Pressing governments to align themselves with Washington’s interests or face consequences such as sanctions (as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which was passed last Friday illustrates) serves only to keep tensions high and forces leaders to either try to stand up to the United States or lose credibility among the more hard-line religious or nationalist groups among their populations. The European Union, though much maligned by the neo-conservatives in Washington, has far greater hopes of success. Syria, for example, is close to signing an association agreement with the EU. The deal demands political and economic reforms in Syria, which Damascus will carry out both because their time has come but also because the country’s leadership can persuade both the old guard in the establishment and the people that these are changes that have to be made. So Syria will change because it wants to and a changed Syria will make the world of difference to the Middle East. Unless the United States decides otherwise, of course. Perhaps the clearest example of how far a little respect can go in the region is the good reputation that Greece enjoys. Even though trade with the Arab countries is very small, and despite the inability of the Greek establishment and people to get down to allowing the construction of a mosque in the Athens area, Greece enjoys a great amount of respect in the Arab world because it has spoken with the Arabs as an equal, it has supported the Palestinian cause and Greek businessmen and professionals have worked there. At the same time, despite some very injudicious comments by prominent Greeks and news media, relations with Israel are good, allowing Greece to be the site of many contacts between Israelis and Arabs. So imagine if the United States were to be seen as an honest broker in the region. It commands such force and can effect such change with the slightest push in the right direction that it appears either tragic or cynical that it should choose the road of shock and awe. The result is that either out of folly or by design, by forging the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that it had rushed to see in the past, Washington is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Like the photos of kneeling prisoners at Guantanamo (which, once again, the Americans released for reasons they believed were justified) the appearance of gloating over Saddam will reinforce the message that America is out to defeat and humiliate Arabs and Muslims. Even if he feels that his own time is running out, bin Laden is surely smiling.