The images are jarring, the hypocrisies appalling, the rhetoric repulsive. Only in the Arab Middle East — and the Islamic world in general — are suicide-murderers operating and indeed canonized, even blessed with cash bonuses. An inveterate liar like Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf is lauded for his defense of a mass killer like Saddam Hussein — and at last lampooned not on moral grounds, but because his yarns about thousands of dead Marines are finally exposed by the sound of American tanks rumbling his way. The last gassings in the modern world — Nasser’s in Yemen and Saddam’s in Kurdistan and Iran — were all Mideastern; so are promises of virgins in exchange for bombing women and children.
Pick up any newspaper and the day’s bombings, killings, and terror are most likely to have occurred somewhere in the Islamic world. The big, silly lie — Jews caused 9/11, the U.S. used atomic weapons against Iraq, Americans bombed mosques — has been a staple of Middle East popular culture. The hatred of Jews is open, unapologetic, and mostly unrivaled on the world stage since the Third Reich.
I think the American street — and as we have learned in the case of anger toward the French, there surely is such a thing — has finally thrown up its hands with Arab ingratitude. Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian recipients of billions of dollars in American aid routinely reply by trashing the United States, whether in the street, through government publications, or via public declarations in Arab and European capitals.
In embarrassed response, we are tossed the old bone by their corrupt leaders — “Ignore what we say publicly and look instead privately at what we do.” Arab apologists claim that triangulating with and backing off from the only democracy in the region would win back their good graces; but we know that such perfidy toward Israel would only win us contempt, as we were shown to be not merely opportunistic, but weak and scared into the bargain as well.
Shiites, once murdered en masse by Saddam Hussein, now turn on the American and British liberators who alone in the world could do what they could not. Iraqis, freed by us from their own home-grown murderers, in thanks now blame us for not stopping them from robbing themselves. Our citizens are routinely blown to pieces in Saudi Arabia or shot down in Jordan, even as we are told that Americans — after losing 3,000 of their citizens to Islamist killers — are not being nice to Arab students and visitors because we require security checks on them and occasionally tail those with suspicious backgrounds. Egyptians march and shout threats to America and the West — and then whine that thousands in Cairo and Luxor are out of work because most over here take them seriously, and choose to pass on having such unhinged people escort them around the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings. Have all these people gone mad?
The world is watching all this, and it is not pretty. After talking to a variety of foreigners who do not necessarily share the American point of view, I conclude that South Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Africans don’t much like what they see in the Middle East — and blame those over there, not us, for the old mess.
The general causes of these Middle Eastern pathologies have been well diagnosed since September 11, ad nauseam. The Arab world has no real consensual governments; statism and tribalism hamper market economics and ensure stagnation. Sexual apartheid, Islamic fundamentalism, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a censored press all do their part to ensure endemic poverty, rampant corruption, and rising resentment among an exploding population. Siesta for millions is a time not for napping between office hours, but for weaving conspiracies over backgammon.
Class, family, money, and connections — rarely merit — bring social advancement and prized jobs. The trickle-down of oil money masks the generic failure for a while, but ultimately undermines diversification and sound development in the economy — as well as accentuating a crass inequality. Autocracies forge a devil’s bargain with radical Islamists and their epigones of terrorist killers, from al Qaeda to Hezbollah, to deflect their efforts away from Arab regimes and onto Americans and Israelis. All the talk of a once-glorious Baghdad, an Arab Renaissance in the 13th century, or a few Aristotelian texts kept alive in Arabic still cannot hide the present dismal reality — and indeed is being forgotten because of it.
Millions in the Arab street now enjoy merely the patina of Western culture — everything from cell phones, the Internet, and videos — but without either the freedom or material security that create the conditions that produce these and thousands of other such appurtenances. The result is that appetites and frustrations alike arise faster than they can be satisfied with available wealth — or constrained by the strictures of traditional and ever-more-fanatical Islam. Americans now accept all this — and snicker at the old Marxist and neocolonialist exegeses that the British, the Americans, the French — or little green men on Mars — are responsible for the Middle East mess.
Illegitimate governments — whether Arab theocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, or corrupt oligarchies — rely on state police and their labyrinth of torture and random execution to stifle dissent. Filtered popular frustration is directed toward Israel and the United States — as the martyrs of the West Bank are the salve for anger over everything from dirty water to expensive food. Millions of Muslims collectively murdered by Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, the Taliban, the Assads, Qaddafi, and an array of autocrats from Algeria to the Gulf seem to count as nothing. Persecuted and often stateless Muslims without a home in Kurdistan or Bosnia gain little sympathy — unless the Jews can be blamed. It is not who is killed, nor how many — but by whom: One protester in the West Bank mistakenly shot by the IDF earns more wrath in the Arab calculus than 10,000 butchered by Saddam Hussein or the elder Assad.
Before 9/11, the West in a variety of ways had been complicit in all this tragedy, and either ignored the alarming symptoms — or, worse still, aided and abetted the disease. Oil companies and defense contractors winked at bribery and knew well enough that the weapons and toys they sold to despots only impoverished these sick nations and brought the dies irae ever closer. “If we don’t, the French surely will” was the mantra when bribery, Israeli boycotts, and questionable weapons sales were requisite for megaprofits.
Paleolithic diplomats — as if the professed anti-Communism of the old Cold War still justified support for authoritarians — were quiet about almost everything from Saudi blackmail payments to terrorists and beheadings to mass jailings, random murder, and disfigurement of women. Political appeasement — from Reagan’s failure to hit the Bekka Valley after the slaughter of U.S. Marines, to Clinton’s pathetic responses to murdered diplomats, bombings, and the leveling of embassies — only emboldened Arab killers.
Judging magnanimity as decadence, the half-educated in al Qaeda embraced pseudo-Spenglerian theories of a soft and decadent West unable to tear itself away from thong-watching and Sunday football. Largess in the halls of power in New York and Washington played a contemptible role too — as ex-ambassadors, retired generals, and revolving-door lawyers created fancy names, titles, and institutes to conceal what was really Gulf money thrown on the table for American influence.
On the left, multiculturalists and postcolonial theorists were even worse, promulgating the relativist argument that there was no real standard by which to assess third-world criminality. And by mixing a cocktail of colonial guilt and advocacy about the soi-disant “other,” they helped to create a politically-correct climate that left us ill-prepared for the hatred of the madrassas. Arab monsters like Saddam Hussein sensed that there would always be useful idiots in the West to march on their behalf if it came to a choice between a third-world killer and a democratic United States. More fools in the universities alleged that oppression, exploitation, and inequality alone caused Arab anger — even as well-off, educated, and pampered momma’s boys like Mohamed Atta pulled out their Korans, put on headbands, and then blew us and themselves to smithereens, still babbling about unclean women in the last hours before their rendezvous in Hell.
So the general symptomology, diagnosis, and bleak prognosis of this illness in the Middle East are now more or less agreed upon; the treatment, however, is not. Arab intellectuals — long corrupted by complicity with criminal regimes, and perennial critics of American foreign policy — now suddenly look askance at democracy, if jump-started by the United States. American academics, who once decried our support for the agents of oppression, now decry our efforts to remove them and allow something better.
What in God’s name, then, are we to do with this nonsense?
We seek military action and democratic reform hand-in-glove to end Islamic rogue states and terrorist enclaves — not because such audacious measures are our first option (appeasement, neglect, and complicity in the past were preferable), but because they are the last. Go ahead and argue over the improbability of democracy in the Middle East. Reckon the horrendous costs and unending commitment. Cite the improper parallels with Germany and Japan until you are blue in the face. Stammer on that Baghdad will never be a New England town hall.
Maybe, maybe not. But at least consider the alternatives.
Hitting and then running? Did that in Iraq in 1991 — and Shiites and Kurds hated us before dying in droves; Kuwaitis soon forgot our sacrifice, and we spent $30 billion and 350,000 air sorties to patrol the desert skies for 12 years. Afghans gave no praise for our help in routing the Soviets, but plenty of blame for leaving when the threat was over.
Establish bases and forget nation-building? Did that too once, everywhere from Libya to Saudi Arabia, and we still got a madman in Tripoli and 60,000 royal third cousins in Riyadh.
Turn the other cheek and say, “What’s a few American volunteers killed in Lebanon or the Sudan when the stock market is booming and Starbucks is sprouting up everywhere?” Did that also, and we got 9/11.
Pour in money? Did that for a quarter-century; but I don’t see that the street in Amman or Cairo is much appreciative about freebies, from tons of American wheat to Abrams tanks.
Get tough with Israel? Taking 39 scuds, pulling out of Lebanon, offering 97 percent of the West Bank, and putting up with Oslo got them the Intifada and female suicide bombers.
The fact is that the only alternative after September 11 was the messy, dirty, easily caricatured path that Mr. Bush has taken us down. For all the reoccurring troubles in Afghanistan, for all the looting and lawlessness in the month after the brilliant military victory in Iraq, and for all the recent explosions in restaurants, synagogues, and hotels — we are still making real progress.
Two years ago the most awful regimes since Hitler’s Germany were the Taliban and the Hussein despotism. Both are now gone, and something better will yet emerge in their place. The American military has not proven merely lethal, but unpredictable and a little crazy into the bargain — as if our generals, when told to go to Baghdad or Kabul, nod yes and smile: “Hell, what are they going to do anyway, blow up the World Trade Center?”
Two years ago the world’s most deadly agent was an Arab terrorist; now it is an American with a laptop and an F-18 circling above with a pod of GPS bombs.
Two years ago nuts in caves talked about Americans who were scared to fight; now the world is worried because we fight too quickly and too well. There are no more videos of Osama bin Laden strutting with his cell phone trailing sycophantic psychopaths. Yasser Arafat is no longer lord of the Lincoln bedroom, but shuffles around his own self-created moonscape.
Two years ago Syria and Lebanon were considered sacrosanct hideouts that we dared not enter — or so a sapling ophthalmologist from Syria threatened us. Today we tell the custodians of terror there to clean it up or we will — and assume that eventually we must.
Two years ago — and I speak from experience — faulting our corrupt relationship with Saudi Arabia brought mostly abuse from hacks in suits and ties in Washington and New York; now defending that status quo is more likely to incur public odium.
Two years ago the Cassandra-like trio of Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, and Fouad Ajami were considered outcasts by disingenuous but influential Middle Eastern Studies departments; now they — not the poseurs in university lounges and academic conferences — are heeded by presidents and prime ministers.
No, we are making progress because we have sized up the problem, know the solution — and have the guts to press ahead. No one claimed all this would be easy or welcome. But like Roman senators of old with each hand on a fold of the toga, we offer choices. We hope that there are still enough people of good will and sobriety in the Middle East to rid themselves of the terrorist killers, and thus select a freely offered, Western-style democracy over the 1st Marine Division, a 1,000-plane sky, and some 30 acres of floating tarmac.