Tuesday, December 30, 2003

French Kiss-off - Punishing dissent in Snail Country

The French journalist Alain Hertoghe paid a heavy price for accusing leading French newspapers of being unreasonably critical of the United States when covering the war in Iraq. In a recent book, La Guerre Outrances, he wrote that the papers saw "the war they would have liked to have seen," infusing news stories with their ideological preferences. This prompted Hertoghe's own employer, the Catholic daily La Croix, to fire him because he had maligned its war coverage.

Many might observe that Hertoghe was merely stating the obvious: the notoriously subjective press in France has always been ambiguous toward the United States, and in the case of the Iraq war its criticisms merely mirrored an unsympathetic mood pervading French society. However, the fate that befell the journalist revealed something more perverse, namely that France's foreign policy self-esteem continues to be propped up by dubious perceptions that simply should not be challenged.

As it happens, a leading perception is that of a "French alternative" in the Middle East, which holds that France is virtually one among equal world powers in the region, whose interests must be taken into consideration whenever important decisions are pending. Ever since Charles de Gaulle realigned French policy away from Israel after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, France has regarded itself as an independent troubleshooter in the region, often advancing its interests against those of the United States, while also filling the gaps Washington has left open.

This self-image has been largely made possible by France's being a permanent member of the Security Council. However, it has stood against the reality that no Middle East state friendly (or unfriendly) to Paris and Washington considers its relationship with France as even moderately equivalent to that with the US. At best, ties with France are used as leverage against the Americans, never as a substitute.

The contours of this purported French alternative were not necessarily sharpened with the emergence of the European Union. In April 1996, for example, France's foreign minister, Herve de Charette, took on a diplomatic mission during Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon that undermined EU interests as much as it did American ones. It was Paris, not Washington or Brussels, which initiated the so-called "April understanding," although the Clinton administration hijacked the proposal once it proved to be a useful means to end the border conflict.

France's achievement brought confidence to its Middle Eastern diplomacy, which had shown little real success after the Madrid conference in 1991. Yet this led nowhere. Paris soon resorted to playing the role of spoiler in Iraq, as it headed an effort to lift UN sanctions there, which would have conveniently allowed French companies to rake in billions of dollars from contracts with the Ba'ath regime. This hardheadedness may have been financially explicable, but it also meant France was hitching its Iraqi fortunes to the resilience of Saddam Hussein.

As Hertoghe wrote in his book: "As a result of being permanently confronted with dictatorial, or at least authoritarian, states and abusive or even terrorist means, a kind of tolerance develops, which sometimes drifts into open complaisance."

That the French were complaisant with the Ba'ath regime was plain in the run-up to the Iraq war, after Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin indicated France would prevent military action at all costs: "We will not allow a [UN] resolution to pass that authorizes resorting to force," said de Villepin at a press conference with his Russian and German counterparts. This contradicted the spirit of UN Security Council resolution 1441, but also raised questions about French acumen, since the statement could be justified neither on idealistic nor pragmatic grounds.

With respect to idealism, it made little sense for France to engage in a quixotic effort to derail a war that was by then certain to happen. Far more usefully, France could have abstained at the Security Council, preserved a friendly rapport with the US and used this to help ensure that the humanitarian interests of Iraqis would be protected. When it came to pragmatism, French combativeness merely guaranteed that once the war ended, Paris would be viewed with hostility, marginalizing it in post-war bargaining over reconstruction contracts and the debt owed to it by Iraq.

French President Jacques Chirac managed to hide behind the fact that the public supported him. That's why France has yet to engage in a public debate over whether it gained anything politically from its fervent opposition to the US. Yet Chirac and de Villepin had nothing to show for their efforts. If anything, the French president's slapping down of Eastern European states for supporting the US on Iraq (where he imperiously remarked that they "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet") only confirmed he would tolerate no dissent on his policy choices.

Apparently La Croix was of a similar disposition, even though Hertoghe was far less critical of its coverage than he was of reporting in such papers as Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation. Yet Iraq was significant enough an episode in recent French Middle East diplomacy to require different behavior. Did the French media fail to ask the right questions about the wisdom of their government's performance prior to the Iraq conflict? Did they intentionally avoid providing more objective news of the war?

These are perfectly legitimate questions in a Western democracy, and they merit more than this rejoinder to Hertoghe—that he missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.

Friday, December 19, 2003

From the Jaws of Victory - Catching Saddam and giving Iraqis their country back

Last Sunday, as television stations showed footage of a captured Saddam Hussein, a Damascus shopkeeper turned to me and said: "We got rid of him, but there is one left. Do you know who?" I hesitated: "No, you tell me." He answered: "Osama bin Laden." When someone in my group said: "And Bush," the shopkeeper feigned shock and, smiling, replied: "I know nothing about politics!"

On that day, the Syrian didn't care about punishing George W. Bush, even though the US president had just signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. He was just enjoying the disgrace of an Arab despot.

The reaction was interesting, because it contrasted with a purportedly more general Arab feeling of humiliation that Saddam had not gone down in a hail of gunfire. Consider this lament from that tragicomic distillation of Arab pathology, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi: "It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs watching...the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating (American) medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison."

Leave it to the Arabs, or more specifically to their Pan-Arab publicists, to miss out on history and transform their potential triumphs into perceived failures. The image of a brutal and cowardly thug cowering in a hole should inspire an Arab renaissance and invite Arabs to break free from the patronizing intimidation of their leaders; yet many persisted in seeing Saddam's downfall as an illustration of the region's failings.

Evidently, someone forgot to explain this to the Syrian shopkeeper.

In its often-simplistic belief in core democratic values in the Middle East, the Bush administration may be closer to the truth than its critics give it credit for. Many Arabs will have seen in Saddam's downfall something personally liberating, even if the subtleties of Middle East academia prepare one for more than the unrefined deduction that Arabs, like most other people, don't appreciate regime goons staring over their shoulders, raping their wives, shooting their husbands, brainwashing their children or razing their villages.

Yet it is precisely by reaffirming such core liberal values, by restating its belief in the dictum "live and let live," that the US will emerge successfully from its stumbling Iraqi entanglement. Saddam's capture bought the US valuable time, and his trial will surely cast light on what a service the Bush administration did when it ended the long Baathist nightmare. However, this time must be put to good use as the US lays the groundwork for a truly independent, open and representative Iraq.

But what of the Arab world? Even America's harshest critics showed little nostalgia for Saddam, though many of them had explicitly or implicitly praised him in the days when he was custodian of the "eastern flank of the Arab world," to use author Christine Moss Helms's injudicious phrase. How revealing, and relieving, it was to read Talal Salman, an unrepentant Pan-Arabist, writing in Al-Safir on Monday: "It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation...Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn't fight."

And yet many are the dictators still thriving in our region, simultaneously criticized and defended by Pan-Arab intellectuals and polemicists, who regard them as indigenous ills, and, therefore, more palatable than the Americans.

Keeping America out of the Middle East would not be a bad idea if Arab governments didn't invite the contempt that makes outside intervention in their affairs so tolerable. In many a conversation at the start of this year, Arab and Western opponents of an Iraq war insisted that transformations in the Middle East must be homegrown, and that what the US was planning was unacceptable. What they couldn't answer was why Saddam had for so long been deemed acceptable, but also how domestic reform was possible under a near genocidal regime. In their zeal to censure America, the critics were reduced to peddling an absurdity.

That's why Saddam's removal and arrest were a logical conclusion to an illogicality, even if one might question the Bush administration's intentions. At the end of the day, however, these intentions will be checked by the Iraqis' desire to fashion a country that is to their own liking, thanks to the liberal values the US has claimed to be advancing. Saddam's capture will only reinforce such values, and through them the wish of Iraqis to avoid seeing their country turned into an American colony. On Sunday the US told the Iraqis: Saddam is history; your country is now truly yours.

There is a paradox in colonialism—since some insist on seeing the US presence in Iraq as a neo-colonial venture. It is that indigenous elites established by colonizers usually end up leading national liberation struggles. The Americans know this and are also aware that they are giving their Iraqi allies a stake in a new system that will surely reject absolute American control. If you have any doubts, then ask yourself where else could Saddam's delectable televised humiliation lead?

Monday, December 1, 2003

Orient Obsess - A lackluster look at Americans abroad

American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 424 pages, $34.95

In his book The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami took a page out of Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962) in closing a chapter by describing a son as a coda to his departed father. Wilson did it with Tom Sherman, who epitomized the psychological pathologies of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. (Tom became a Catholic priest, to his father's enduring regret.) Ajami did it with professional basketball player Steve Kerr, whose tenacity on the court replicated that of his father, Malcolm, a Middle East specialist who was president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) when he was murdered in January 1984.

Few Lebanese saw anything seminal in Kerr's death, let alone pondered its meaning in the context of well over a century of U.S.-Arab relations. Lebanon's on-again, off-again war was then in its ninth year, and the loss of this scion of patrician American missionaries was regarded as just another tragedy in a series of similar outrages, though unusual for having infiltrated the sheltered world of the AUB.

For Ajami, however, the murder represented much more. He described Kerr's death as that of "an intimate stranger," born in Beirut "in the very hospital where he was pronounced dead," an American who had sought to understand and address the Middle East on its own terms, and who could do so in its own language. Like Wilson, Ajami saw something transcendent in the contrast between father and son, a generational rupture that spoke to the complexities, moral and political, of the worlds navigated by the fathers. In Kerr's case, a world that devoured him.

Douglas Little, in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, provides a practical, competent overview of American relations with the Arab world, but one that will leave you in search of either drama or meaning. Little, a history professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is good at chronological exposition, has blackened many a note card, and boasts a hefty bibliography. Yet the outcome is a book that will make you marvel at how someone could tackle such an enthralling subject and make it sound so flat.

The title doesn't help. Whenever the word Orientalism is used, people on all sides of the Middle East studies divide reach for their pistols. They will safely pack them away upon scanning Little's tome, however. He never really uses the term in an interesting way, in part because his definition is anemic: American Orientalism, he argues, is "a tendency to underestimate the peoples of the region and to overestimate America's ability to make a bad situation better." One suspects that even the late Edward Said, who famously developed the concept of Orientalism in a 1978 book of the same name, would wince: "What of the nexus of knowledge and power creating 'the Oriental' and in a sense obliterating him," Said might well sneer, citing himself.

Yet there are aspects of the book well worth examining. Little opens with a chapter on America's cultural alienation from the Arab world, where he makes the valid point that perceptions of Arabs in the United States lag far behind those of other ethnic groups in terms of sensitivity. American popular culture is shot through with appalling stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans, though Little's path to this revelation is much too dependent on his reading of National Geographic, which he foolishly treats as the primary vessel for establishing American attitudes toward foreign cultures.

Little falters also in overlooking those sympathetic Americans -- missionaries, academics, and diplomats -- who sought to explain the Arab world to their countrymen. They were the ones who set up educational institutions that trained generations of Middle Easterners, who made understanding the region a cornerstone of their lives, and who, like Malcolm Kerr, paid a high price for embracing cultural ecumenism. Surely they deserve a mention in Little's inventory of American anti-Arab biases, if only to underscore their irrelevance in forming American opinions.

In fact, Little never gauges the impact these Americans of the Middle East played in defining their country's outlook on the region. He prefers sketching the grand policies of U.S. administrations and oil companies to explaining the psychology of the American-Arab encounter. That's fine, but one never gets a sense that Little has experienced his subject at first hand; American Orientalism reads like something crafted in a New England study. Infinitely more immediate is Robert Kaplan's rousing 1993 work, The Arabists (the term used to describe those Americans working in, enamored with, and knowledgeable of the Arab world), with its insights garnered through myriad interviews, lengthy taxi rides, and plodding lunches.

Little didn't need to duplicate Kaplan, but he would have gained by giving a face to his characters. The Arabists will remain valuable, for example, because of its unsparing account of Americans going native in the Middle East, an essential feature of the cross-cultural interaction Little is describing. Consider, for example, Kaplan's account of the mid-'80s kidnapping of American missionary Benjamin Weir in Lebanon by Islamic Jihad. What image could match that of Weir's wife Carol snapping at U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, who had just criticized the kidnappers, that her husband's captors "had some legitimate grievances against the United States"?

The Weirs suffered for their Middle Eastern sympathies, losing their daughter Ann in a bus-train accident in Egypt, where she had gone to teach. Yet their attitude only underlined how the Arabists, often remarkable for their educational, academic, and cultural achievements, were also astonishingly blind and petty when it came to certain issues.

For instance, most Arabists' deep revulsion for Arab Christians, particularly Lebanon's Maronites, was legendary. One explanation is that the mainly Protestant Americans couldn't abide the Eastern Christians' attachment to Catholic France, or their devotion to the outward trappings of religion at the expense of spirituality. That may be true, but it misses the point: What pro-Arab Americans couldn't stomach was that the Christians were often estranged from their Muslim brethren and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered (though minorities were among the first theorists of the ideology). The Arabists believed, particularly during the heady days of "national liberation" in the 1950s and '60s, that archaic Christians were stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. There was something very American in their reaction: a righteous indignation that the Arab consensus was being bucked, but also a romantic identification with a dogma regarded as modern and progressive. Ironically, a similar motivation shaped the Arabists' outlook on Israel -- always perceived as a foreign body interrupting potential regional harmony.

This is all absent from Little's unadventurous log. The few discernible Americans populating his book are government officials, who for much of the half-century of American-Arab transactions after World War II were preoccupied with the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War successive administrations tried to resolve the following conundrum: How far could Arab governments go in expressing their sovereign nationalism without threatening America's position vis-à-vis the USSR? The specter that haunted Washington was that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was seen by the United States as an anti-communist nationalist until he sought to play the superpowers off against one another, while also developing his relationship with Moscow, which had no qualms about arming him.

A consequence of this anxiety that Arab regimes might tilt the Soviet Union's way was an American quest for stability in friendly states. Little takes an intriguing look at how numerous administrations sought to pursue this goal through a strong dose of Yankee hopefulness, which was much needed since pro-American Arab leaders were often splendid thugs. And they had an incentive to stay that way: Washington was so obsessed with losing ground in the Cold War that the regimes could easily abuse their populations and stifle free expression. The U.S. wouldn't turn up the heat on them as long as they were regarded as anti-communist -- as "sons of bitches, but our sons of bitches."

American policy makers understood this reality but still stalwartly requested that their repressive confederates advance reform, development, and modernization to garner domestic support and ward off coups or revolutions that might harm U.S. interests. The only problem, as Little observes, was that reform raised expectations (he uses the examples of Iraq under the Hashemites, Libya under King Idris, and Iran under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi), mobilizing populations even more aggressively against their pro-American masters. What Washington could not grasp was that reform and modernization contradicted regime immovability: The U.S. wanted its friends to stay solidly in place as enlightened despots, but Arab populations (not to mention the Iranians in 1979) naturally saw reform as an invitation to oust their leaders -- even if what came afterward was often far worse.

The USSR ultimately collapsed through Mikhail Gorbachev's similarly misguided notion that a sclerotic and largely discredited system could somehow survive political and social renovation. The Soviet leader's efforts provoked much derision in the United States. Yet many forget that American policy in the Middle East was for decades based on similar logic.

Do the Bush administration's actions in Iraq portend change? One paradox, it appears, has been replaced by another very similar one: Where the U.S. had previously sought reformist change by its Arab allies to ensure steadiness, today it claims to spread liberalism through American military might but is so far finding this difficult to manage. The Bush administration is again confronting the familiar problem of introducing positive change and realizing afterward that dynamism can be a headache. In response, the U.S. can revert to familiar behavior, averting its gaze from the illiberal practices of friendly Arab regimes, or it can stick it out and turn Iraq into a liberal-capitalist showcase, whatever the regional fallout.

For the moment the administration is taking both approaches simultaneously, but ultimately only one can prevail. In calling for a new American empire to replace the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, the British historian Niall Ferguson has referred to the U.S. as "an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficit disorder." Yet what Ferguson forgot was that for half a century, until the 1991 Gulf War, the United States had it both ways -- managing the region like an imperial power, but doing so from a distance without getting its hands, or conscience, too dirty.

That much has changed. America has virtually become a Middle Eastern state because of its Iraqi presence. More often than not the region has absorbed its conquerors and neutralized them. Against this history stands an American tendency to impose the will of the United States and, as Mark Twain put it in Innocents Abroad, to bear down on the people of the region "with America's greatness, until we [crush] them." A liberal Middle Eastern order will emerge only if America is able to sidestep these two extremes -- absorption into the region or its gradual suffocation.