Mercredi 24 décembre 2003
No - 14916
Bush has thrown open Pandoraıs box in a paradise for international terrorists
2003 has been crucial for the Middle East, with war in Iraq and the continuing intifada in Israel. David Hirst from ³The Guardian² assesses what happened, what it means, and where it might lead next year.
WHEN, at dawn on March 20 the US and its British ally went to war against Saddam Husseinıs Iraq, they were intervening in the region on such a scale that Arabs everywhere compared the invasion, in its potential geopolitical significance, to that seminal upheaval of the last century: the collapse of the Ottoman empire. That led to the arbitrary carve-up of its former Arab provinces by the European colonial powers and, in 1948, to the loss of one of them, Palestine, to the Israeli settler-state.
In Arab eyes, it was a final mortal blow to the so-called ³Arab system² through which the component parts of the greater Arab ³nation² collectively strove to protect the territorial integrity and basic security of the whole. To the disgust and shame of the Arab peoples, it was not merely incapable of preventing the conquest and occupation of what, properly governed, would have been one of the most powerful and prosperous Arab lands, it was largely complicit in it.
It simply stood and watched as the worldıs only superpower embarked on its hugely ambitious, neo-colonial enterprise: to make Iraq the fulcrum for reshaping the entire region and, with regime change and ³democratisation², cure it of those sicknesses political and social oppression, religious extremism, corruption, tribalism and economic stagnation that had turned it into the main threat to the existing world order. It did not formally envisage a full-scale redrawing of state frontiers, but it looked as though by an inexorable momentum that might come to pass.
It was seen as a second Palestine, not so much because it was a foreign conquest of another Arab country, but because, via the Bush administrationıs neo-conservative hawks, it was at least as much Israeli in inspiration and purpose as it was American. The mighty blow struck in Baghdad would so weaken other Arab regimes that the Palestinians, more than ever bereft of Arab support, would submit to that full-scale Israeli subjugation and dispossession of all but a last pitiful fragment of their original homeland.
This grandiose enterprise began well enough. The rottenest regime of a rotten Arab order collapsed swiftly as expected. Within three weeks the Americans were in Baghdad and an American tank teamed up with a jubilant crowd in the symbolic act of toppling Saddamıs statue in Firdaous Square. On May 1 a triumphant, flight-suited George Bush strutted aboard an aircraft carrier to declare major combat operations at an end.
But America was to find no weapons of mass destruction, demolishing the prime official war aim. More seriously, the goodwill it had earned from most Iraqis for overthrowing the despot soon began to dissipate amid the evidence of just how ill-equipped the US was for the ³nation-building² that was to follow. There developed a competition, fateful for the success or failure of the whole enterprise, between a majority of Iraqis, who for all their growing exasperation with the occupation wanted it to remain until a healthy, independent Iraqi order could take its place, and a minority who wanted to end it by any means.
By June the first American soldiers began to die. The resistance begun by Saddam loyalists widened to other groups, overwhelmingly Sunni, until by October the CIA concluded that 50,000 people were active in it. The US military responded with drastic methods collective punishments, massive firepower, demolitions and razings that could not but incite a greater militancy.
In the wider Arab world, a virulent anti-Americanism was not offset, as it was for the Iraqis, by a hatred of Saddam and the fear of his possible return. So it warmed to the Iraqi resistance more than most Iraqis did and spawned militants of its own who were drawn to this new arena from which to conduct their jihad against the enemy of Islam and Arabism.
As they struck at almost any target, Iraqi, American or foreign, military, civilian or philanthropic, the itinerant suicide bombers also exploded another pretext for the war: that Saddam had been a partner with Osama bin Laden, and that overthrowing him would deal a critical blow to international terror.
³By pretending that Iraq was crawling with al-Qaida,² the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, ³Bush officials created an Iraq crawling with al-Qaida.² And not just Iraq: since the invasion the terrorists have struck in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey, mostly at the expense of other Muslims.
Ariel Sharon staged Israelıs first air raid on Syria in 30 years. Ostensibly it was retaliation for a particularly atrocious Palestinian bombing, but it was also a blatant bid to cast Israel as an operational ally of the US in the ³reshaping² of the region and the punishing of that other Baıathist dictatorship which, in the neo-conservative scheme of things, was next in line for the Saddam treatment.
Then it was revealed that in Iraq US forces were adopting counter-insurgency techniques the Israelis had taught them. This could only deepen the Arab and Muslim conviction that what the American soldiers were now doing to Iraqis was what the Israelis had been doing to Palestinians for the past 50 years. Resistance in one place could only inspire and reinforce it in the other.
In this unfavourable climate Mr Bush sought to launch the long-stalled ³road map² for peace, but only at the price of casting the noblest of his official war aims ³democracy for Arabia² in a very curious Israeli-tinted light. To try to supplant Yasser Arafat with the Palestiniansı new prime minister, the hapless Abu Mazen, was actually to subvert democracy in one of the few Arab societies whose leader was, more or less, its authentic electorally proven choice. This short-lived fiasco foundered on Mr Arafatıs obduracy, Mr Sharonıs intransigence, renewed suicide bombings by Hamas and the partisanship of the most pro-Israeli US president ever, who was not going to risk the wrath of his Jewish and rightwing Christian constituencies in the run-up to next yearıs presidential election.
Likewise, on the Iraqi front, becoming as it was the greatest potential threat to Mr Bushıs prospects of a second term, exalted foreign purpose fell suddenly and flagrantly prey to the expediencies of domestic politics. The capture of Saddam was indeed a timely public relations triumph. But it seemed as likely to broaden the anti-American insurgency as to diminish it, and thereby amplify the growing murmur that here was a new Vietnam in the making. (...)
With this subterfuge, Mr Bush might just, as he apparently plans, manage to declare ³mission accomplished² on the eve of the presidential election. But it would be remarkable if such an essentially US-installed government, presiding over a hastily reconstructed army and police, was able for long to master the maelstrom of colliding passions and political interests which the removal of the tyranny has unleashed.
An Iraq at loggerheads with itself, and a paradise for international terrorists, would spare none of the principal actors in this geopolitical drama. Not the US, confronted as it then would be with the classical colonial dilemma of whether to pull back or plunge yet further in. Not the Arab world, whose regimes in their peopleıs eyes only differ from Saddamıs in the degree of their degeneracy, nor Israel.
David Hirst is the author of the classic The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East; a new edition has been reissued by Nation Books in the US and Faber in the UK