Why the U.S. Inspires Scorn
Other nations, and especially the Arab world, fear the start of an American empire
by Tyler Marshall and David Lamb
Los Angeles Times - March 16, 2003
DOHA, Qatar -- On what looks like the eve of war in Iraq, there is
evidence of a vast gap between the way the United States and the rest of
the world view the crisis.
What Americans see largely as a campaign to eliminate one Middle Eastern
dictator -- Saddam Hussein -- is viewed by many in Europe and especially
the Arab world as nothing less than a watershed in global affairs.
They worry that America's self-declared right to launch preemptive wars,
its willingness to dismiss the United Nations, to shuck allies and make
plans to invade and occupy another country -- all amid talk of remaking
the Mideast -- are the beginning of the end of the post-World War II
order and the start of an American Imperium.
Indeed, for a growing number of observers outside the United States, the
central issue in the crisis is no longer Iraq or Hussein. It is America
and how to deal with its disproportionate strength as a world power.
What the Bush administration describes as a war of liberation is widely
seen abroad -- even by those who condemn the Iraqi president -- as a war
"A simple truth has been withheld from the American people," said James
Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "In the
eyes of most Arabs, America lacks the legitimacy and moral authority to
impose itself on Iraq."
Added Sabah Mukhtar, the Iraqi-born head of the Arab Lawyers Assn. in
London: "Arabs and Muslims are just like anyone else in the world. They
don't like invaders, even if they come as liberators. There's a serious
belief the United States wants to redraw the map of the Middle East to
Even President Bush's announced decision to unveil a so-called road map
for Middle East peace has been dismissed in the region as little more
than a public relations trick -- a last-ditch effort to build support for
war among Arabs.
"The timing will make people across the Arab world look at it as part of
the preparation for war," said Hamad Kawari, Qatar's ambassador to the
United Nations in the 1980s and, later, to the United States. "They won't
take it seriously."
Ironically, the 1991 Persian Gulf War was also seen as a watershed in
world affairs -- but a very different one. As the first major conflict of
the post-Cold War era, it unfolded against a backdrop of Soviet-American
diplomatic cooperation, a rejuvenated U.N. and a broad, American-led
coalition of nations. The era was one of high expectations, in which
America, standing triumphant amid the wreckage of communism, perhaps was
never more admired, never had more friends.
The spirit of that moment is frozen in a photo that hangs today in
Kawari's Doha office. It shows him standing proudly with envoys from
nearly 30 other nations, Arab and non-Arab, all gathered around a smiling
President George H.W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden. The faces
represented both the coalition of partners Bush had assembled to roll
back Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the larger hope for a new age.
"In 1990, the case [against Hussein] was very clear, and President Bush
succeeded to build it," Kawari said. "I think the current president
didn't succeed in building a case that there is a threat. It is not a war
of liberation -- it is a war for [Hussein's] head."
If Bush has indeed failed, the price of that failure is easy to see:
America's actions -- and its stated intentions -- have rarely elicited
such disquiet or such suspicion. In this part of the world, where so many
countries joined the United States to confront Hussein 12 years ago,
there is neither enthusiasm nor a perceived need to attack him again
Dogu Ergil, a professor of international relations at Ankara University
in the Turkish capital, offered what he called the prevailing view of
Hussein within the Turkish leadership, including the armed forces and the
foreign policy establishment.
"Saddam's teeth and nails have been pulled out," he said. "He's not
dangerous anymore except to his own people. He is a paper tiger. Iraq is
not threatening anyone in the region."
Even in Muslim countries that are helping U.S. military forces, the
public is ambivalent, and policymakers admit privately that they worry
far more about the impact of unchecked American actions than about
In the years since the Gulf War, admiration of the U.S. has turned to
fear and resentment.
* In Doha, just a few miles from the U.S. Central Command base where Gen.
Tommy Franks stands ready to run a war against Iraq, a theater audience
made up mainly of Qataris breaks into applause as the leading actor
reacts to television scenes of the collapsing World Trade Center towers
with the words: "Americans go around punishing everyone. Now it's time to
let them feel something."
A follow-up line -- "The boys who flew those planes, now they were real
men" -- draws even louder applause, along with whistles of approval.
* In Egypt, one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, a
political cartoon in the respected national daily Al Ahram depicts the
Statue of Liberty using her torch as a flamethrower, its fire covering
the world with dark, forbidding clouds. In Cairo, a cab driver politely
asks an American to get out of his taxi when he learns her nationality.
* Also in Egypt, a singer cum political commentator named Shaaban
Abdel-Rahim cuts a wildly popular new song titled "The Attack on Iraq,"
whose lyrics include these lines: "Since the twin towers, we've been
living in a dilemma. / If one thousand died then, how many more thousands
have died as a result. / After Afghanistan, here comes the turn of Iraq,
and no one knows who is next." The song is a special favorite of the
younger set and plays hourly on Egypt's version of MTV.
* In Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. bases large numbers of strike aircraft,
the country's national airline has canceled daily summertime flights to
Orlando, Fla., because of reduced interest in trips to Walt Disney World.
Saudis say they are discouraged by visa hassles, restricted stays and the
possibility of facing interrogations by U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, at
home, a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric spews from Saudi mosques,
much of it denouncing America's planned involvement in Iraq.
Because of such public sentiment, Arab nations that do support U.S.
military efforts do their best to play down that support.
In the small gulf emirates, such as Qatar, many locals say they don't
support aggression against Hussein, but they accept it because in such a
politically volatile region, tiny, energy- rich states need America's
protection and its markets for survival.
Several factors have tainted Bush administration efforts to sell the case
for attacking Hussein in Arab countries. Israeli attacks on Palestinian
civilians beamed nightly into the region have left many Arabs convinced
that the U.S. operates by a double standard, declining to stop Israel yet
wanting to attack Hussein. The gulf of suspicion between the U.S. and the
Muslim world since the Sept. 11 attacks has added to the difficulty.
Still, critics say, a series of Bush administration blunders ended up
making a difficult task impossible.
In 1991, specialists note, the goal of U.S. intervention never wavered:
Free Kuwait. Twelve years later, the Bush administration has attempted to
justify military action with a number of arguments -- ranging from
Hussein's alleged stocks of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist
links to human rights violations -- with marginal results.
These varied messages have only blurred America's motives, according to
But administration critics argue that it is ambitious talk of remaking
the Middle East and hints of toppling leaders in other countries that
have most frightened many of America's friends.
"I can think of many good reasons for taking ... [Hussein] out, but I
can't think of any worse approach than the one we've followed," said
Nicholas Veliotes, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Jordan. "We've
poisoned the well we drink from. We didn't need to announce preemptive
strikes. We didn't need to talk about democratizing the entire Arab
world. We didn't have to walk with a swagger.
"We've alienated our allies in the Arab world and elsewhere," he added.
"Now we're looking around for help, and guess what? It isn't there."
Compared with the 29 nations that contributed military forces in 1991,
just two other countries -- Britain and Australia -- have so far joined
U.S. troops prepared to attack Iraq.
The depth of public feeling in the Arab world against an attack on Iraq
has observers already worried about postwar fallout. Regional specialists
note that Osama bin Laden's campaign of terror began as an attempt to
drive American forces from the Arab world -- forces that settled there
after the Gulf War.
"What's going on now is a legacy of the 1991 war," Kawari said. "Now we
can only ask what the long-term consequences of this war will be."
Marshall reported from Doha and Lamb from Cairo. Times staff writers
Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; Kim Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia;
and Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.