Politics & Policy

What’s Wrong With The Arab World?

We're not morons, you know.

Are the Arabs really this stupid?

As politically incorrect as this may sound, that’s more or less what I keep thinking when I read about the Arab world’s response to the war in Iraq. Oh, I don’t mean their opposition to the war. While I think it’s the wrong position to take, it’s hardly fair to say it is an inherently unintelligent point of view. Reasonable and unreasonable people alike may differ on this. Jacques Chirac isn’t stupid — nor, for that matter, is his old friend Saddam Hussein.

No, what I’m referring to is the widespread outrage from across the region denouncing two alleged — alleged — accidental misfires of U.S. weapons which Saddam’s regime says hit Iraqis. After 58 Iraqi civilians died in a second such incident, newspapers across the Arab world went into overdrive. “Monstrous martyrdom in Baghdad,” blared a huge headline in al-Dustur, a Jordanian newspaper. “Dreadful massacre in Baghdad,” Egypt’s huge Akhbar al-Yawm newspaper declared, featuring pictures of two young victims of the explosion covering half the front page. “Yet another massacre by the coalition of invaders,” was the main headline in our ally Saudi Arabia’s popular al-Riyadh daily (Note: The first “massacre” claimed 15 lives).

Between these newspapers and the broadcasts of the al-Jazeera television network and numerous similar Arab TV stations, the region is being fed a steady stream of body parts, wailing children, and grieving women.

In response to these images and the corresponding commentary about them, numerous intelligent, successful, Arab civilians from across the Middle East believe that America is willfully murdering Arab civilians in huge numbers. “Those pictures have showed that America’s war is not only against the Iraqi regime and the Iraqi army, but also against the Iraqi children and elderly. How can we trust them now?,” 19-year-old Mahmoud Sahiouny, a Syrian computer-science student who lives in Beirut asked the Washington Post.

“It is as if you are watching a horror movie,” said Summer Said, a journalist for the Cairo Times, an English-language newsmagazine. “I thought, at first, okay, maybe it isn’t a war for oil. Maybe America does want to help. Now, it’s genocide to me. Is the American government trying to exterminate Arabs?”

And it is precisely this point which makes me ask, Are the Arabs stupid?

For you see, if the goal were to massacre Arabs — never mind commit genocide — we would not bomb merely two obscure markets. If our goal was to “exterminate Arabs” our precision-guided bombs might land more precisely — and more often — on Arabs in, say, Basra or Baghdad or Cairo, or wherever else we might find Arabs in large numbers. Instead, the criticism from even the Iraqi military is that we are blowing up empty buildings. Indeed, as of this writing, we’ve launched more than 17,000 sorties over Iraq in about 12 days. For some perspective, the Dresden firebombing took place over a period of about 18 hours and involved about 2,000 bomber sorties. It killed about 135,000 people. We’ve launched 8 1/2 times that number of sorties and generated less than 1 percent of the casualties. I’m no bean counter, but if our intent is to “massacre” Arabs, our tax dollars are being woefully misspent.

So, what’s going on?


Well, for one thing, the hothouse logic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is surely spilling over into this one. For decades, Arab governments and the newspapers they control have been pouring gasoline on the fire of Arab resentment toward Israel as a way to deflect attention from their own corrupt and impoverished regimes. No doubt, there are Palestinians with serious and legitimate grievances against Israel (and vice versa) but Arabs in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc., who have no plans ever to visit historic Palestine, have no relatives there, and, were it not for the presence of Jews there, would not care about the plight of the Palestinians at all, have been convinced that their problems can be attributed to the oppression of the Palestinians. The Palestinians are the Sudenten Germans for any number of dictatorial regimes, beginning with Iraq.

Indeed, speaking of Iraq, we won’t know for sure for some time, but there’s every reason to think that since the war began Saddam Hussein has ordered the purposeful murder of more Iraqi civilians then we have killed by mistake, and yet there are no headlines about that in Cairo or Riyadh, and no pictures of Jordanian Arabs tearing apart the Iraqi flag with their teeth in the Washington Post either.

And it has been ever thus. Syria’s government wipes out thousands of its own, and no one cares (including, alas, the U.S. government). Syria occupies Lebanon even today and no one wails about the “occupation.” Iraq invades Kuwait and it is easily forgiven and forgotten. Shiites in Saudi Arabia are second-class citizens, to say the least. But Israel, ah Israel; if Israeli kills even a single civilian by accident in pursuit of terrorists who blow up children, the charges of “genocide” go up like flags on a football field.

Even the single greatest indictment against Ariel “the Butcher” Sharon centers on an event in which Arab Christians slaughtered Arab Muslims. Whatever Sharon’s culpability in the massacres at Shabra and Shatilla, they were almost certainly tangential and inadvertent. Nevertheless, Sharon is routinely denounced as a blood-drinking warmonger, while Yasser Arafat is “a man of peace,” despite the fact that he has directly ordered the murder of women and children on more occasions than anyone cares to remember. Indeed, Arafat has ordered the execution of more Palestinian civilians (he calls them “collaborators”) than Sharon has.

Which, understandably, brings us back to Saddam. It may be, as Chris Matthews suggests — with just a bit too much of a smirk — that Iraqi nationalism and ethnic pride are forcing many Iraqis to overlook Saddam Hussein’s evil and defend their nation in much the same way millions of Russians defended Saddam’s reported hero Joseph Stalin. Of course, the Germans weren’t invading Soviet Russia as liberators (though they were greeted as such by many in the Ukraine and elsewhere).

Indeed, to the extent such loyalty extends beyond the ranks of the Fedayeen Saddam and the Republican Guard — we still don’t know how many Iraqis are fighting from fear rather than loyalty — I think it has more to do with what could be described as mass-Stockholm syndrome. So terrorized and brutalized have the Iraqis been, for so long, they scratch at the eyes of their rescuers.


This is a tragedy.

The Arab world is a basket case, economically and politically (morality we can debate another day). One handy statistic: If you subtract oil, the total exports of the Arab world — i.e., the 500 million people comprising all of North Africa and the Middle East, minus Israel — amount to less than those of Finland: a country with one hundredth the population. So convinced that some outside force — imperialists, Jews, oil companies, America, the CIA — is responsible for the failings of their once-great civilization, Arabs cannot handle any blow to their self-esteem. It’s not so much dead Arabs which grates on their psyche but, the sting to their pride which comes when non-Muslim, non-Arabs do the killing. This is what makes smart people act stupid.

Indeed, this is hardly unique to Arabs. All over the world and throughout history national pride and cultural passions have driven nations to violence and folly. As Yale’s Donald Kagan has written, “The common practice of calling such motives ‘irrational’ reveals how narrow the professional understanding of what matters to people has become in our day.” He goes on: “The notion that only economic benefits, power and security are rational goals is a prejudice of our time, a product of the attempt to treat the world of human events as though it were the inanimate physical universe, susceptible to scientific analysis and free to ignore human feelings, motives, and will. Such an approach is no more adequate to explain current behavior than to explain the actions of human beings throughout history.” (For more on this, see “Don’t Kowtow Now.”)

But if Arabs want to define their national interests in terms of pride and shame — as NR’s David Pryce-Jones has argued so eloquently — that’s fine; that’s natural even. But that decision has serious costs. If the Iraqis side with pride and totalitarianism over realism and liberty; if the Arab propaganda machine and suicide-bomber networks decide that it would be better for Iraq to be a giant Lebanon free of Americans than to be an Arab Sweden with our help; if they decide that even one dead Iraqi at the hands of “infidels” is worse than 100,000 at the hands of Saddam; if they greet this rescue mission with bullets, then things will only worsen for the Arabs.

For that’s what this is, a rescue mission. It may have been launched out of American self-interest, but that should make no difference to the Iraqis. And I still hope that the Iraqis will snap out of it and recognize we’re there to help. Indeed, if they greet the U.S. with gratitude there really will be no end to American charity and assistance. We can point to Japan, South Korea, and Germany as evidence of the prosperity and decency we can help usher in. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, et al., can offer only Lebanon or some phantasmagorical Brigadoon plucked from the fantasies of jihadists. To those who can see clearly the interests of their children, this should not be a hard choice.

But it is a choice. If even after Saddam is gone, they shoot at the lifeboat and spit at its crew, America will simply confiscate the weapons we came for and leave. Many, many Americans will conclude that democracy cannot take root in Arab soil after all, and if they don’t want our help we will say “to hell with them” — as we did to the Somalis. We will strike deals with murderers and thugs whenever profitable and contain those murderers when not. To borrow a phrase from Le Monde, we will declare “We Are All Frenchmen Now” and we will let Arabs kill Arabs (and yes, probably Israelis too) because it won’t be our business — all because some desperate people are too proud to stop acting stupid.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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