After six days of war against Iraq, the masses in the Middle East are virtually silent. The West Bank is not in turmoil, the U.S. embassy in Jordan is not burning, the streets of Cairo are not filled with overturned cars, and Syrian troops are not mutinying. Where is the rage? Its absence, especially in those countries allied with the United States, is perhaps the most surprising development since hostilities began.
Only where the authorities smile on anti-American activities (Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, and Jordan), have any significant protests taken place. This quiet is unexpected because a consensus had formed since August to the effect that the U.S. government would pay a terrible political price for making war on Saddam Husayn. From the Middle East itself came hair-raising forecasts about the furies of anti-Americanism and the price to be paid by U.S. allies.
In the West, journalists echoed these warnings. Just before war broke out, Peter Ford and George D. Moffett III wrote in The Christian Science Monitor: "Even if Israel is not involved, a U.S. victory could unleash a wave of political radicalism, threatening Arab regimes friendly to the U.S.." Robin Wright of the Los Angeles Times went further, portraying even an allied victory over Iraq as futile. Her reasoning? "The long-term cost-benefit ratio on a host of other fronts" is tipped against the U.S. Many Middle East specialists shared these fears. Ann Mosely Lesch of Villanova University, for example, cautioned that war against Iraq "would arouse widespread popular opposition" in Egypt.
These analysts all worried about the re-emergence of the "street" as a powerful factor in Arab politics. They saw Saddam Husayn's belligerence making him a successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser in the eyes of many Arabs, a man capable of uniting the Arabs and standing up to West. Then came reports of anti-government and pro-Saddam riots in Syria, suggesting much trouble to come; a ban on all street demonstrations in Egypt-even those favoring government policies-pointed to the depth of fears among the authorities in another American ally.
But the street has not risen in Saddam's support, at least not in the first days of war, when it would have been most expected and most alarming. Why were the analysts wrong? What does quiescence suggest for U.S. policy?
The experts ignored three important facts about the Middle East.
- The prevailing mood of apathy. For years, Arabs have not rioted for trans-national causes; they took matters into their own hands only when an issue was of direct personal concern. Arabs are proven themselves unusually prone to riot against currency adjustments, subsidy cuts, and other austerity reforms-as shown by disturbances in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the Sudan, and Jordan. Indeed, they have won a reputation at the International Monetary Fund for an unwillingness to tolerate even the most modest economic adjustments.
But abstract causes are another matter. A much-disappointed people no longer has the energy to take to the streets. Arabs have been in what historian Hisham Sharabi dubs a "paralyzing trauma" since 1967, when Israeli forces simultaneously defeated Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian forces in a mere six days. Khomeini's expectations to the contrary, the Iranian Revolution failed to mobilize fundamentalist Muslims in countries like Iraq and Egypt. Ironically, Israelis were the only ones in the Middle East to demonstration against their government's activities in the 1982 Lebanon war and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. The Satanic Verses prompted riots in Pakistan and India (and among their kinsmen in Great Britain) but not in the Arabic-speaking countries. In the hopes of stimulating more activism, Arab activists scathingly condemn this apathy. In one memorable passage, Halim Barakat, a sociologist, wrote that "the Arab world stretches across continents like a huge stranded octopus, drained of its water of life and indignation. "
- The raw power of today's regimes. While Iraq has the most notorious repressive apparatus of any state in the Middle East, comparable institutions exist in nearly all Arabic-speaking countries. Even such apparently fragile governments as those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan engage in what Michael C. Hudson of Georgetown University has dubbed "monarchy by mukhabarat [security apparatus]." In most cases, protesters cannot reach the streets, much less cause damage or challenge the regimes' bases of power. The intifada in the Occupied Territories is testimony not only to Palestinian anger but to Israeli tolerance of political protest. What little dissidence is permitted in Arab lands exists to prove the regime's liberal credentials. More often, the leaders schedule street demonstrations to bolster their shaky policies; thus, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi himself participated in a procession three days ago in Libya.
- Respect for a winner. Saddam went into battle exuding confidence, threatening to set a fire that would "devour one half of Israel" and predicting that American soldiers would soon "swim in their own blood." Not for the first time, many in the Middle East let emotions of the moment carry them away. Neglecting the lopsided balance of power-including the economic sanctions against Iraq, the forces from twenty-eight countries arrayed against it, and the allies' overwhelming superiority in arms-they dreamed of victory. Now that war has begun, some of Saddam's partisans are intent on deluding themselves about its course; obsessed by hatreds, they see only his accomplishments-especially his purposefully unsurgical strikes against Israel's cities. (A Jordanian mother of two small children told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "I can't begin to explain how happy I am. . . . It doesn't matter if I die now. For the first time I've seen casualties in Tel Aviv caused by an Arab country.")
The fact that a U.S.-led war against Iraq failed to prompt riots has implications both for Operation Desert Storm and for American policies after hostilities end.
For Desert Storm, it suggests that American forces enjoy more leeway than was previously thought. Should combat lead to substantial losses of life on the Iraqi side, American generals need not feel restricted by worries about Middle East reactions. The occupation of a city like Basra, in southern Iraq, should be feasible for at least a few weeks.
As for the post-war period, assuming that allied forces prevail, the U.S. government will exert extraordinary influence in the Middle East for a period of months. Far from being enraged at Americans, Arabs will respect them more than ever before: we did what we said we would do. At that point, the critical goal for the U.S. government will be to exploit an ephemeral opportunity, and not to squander it-as it did the last time such a chance existed, in late 1982. Then, Israel's successes in Lebanon offered the U.S. government the possibility to reconstitute the sick Lebanese polity. Instead of this, however, Washington shunted Lebanon aside and announced the Reagan Plan for resolving the West Bank imbroglio. Nothing came of the Reagan Plan; but by the time this became apparent, the moment had passed to make a difference in Lebanon.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's diplomatic record over the past two years suggests that, under intense Saudi pressure, it will repeat this mistake and, once hostilities cease, turn its attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That would be a tragedy. Instead, it should concentrate on settling matters in the Persian Gulf. Among other goals, this means making sure that Iraq will be stable, defensible, and non-bellicose; that Kuwait need not again fear invasion; and that a balance of power exists in the Gulf between Iraq and Iran. The attainment of these goals are necessary to insure that American lives and treasure were not sacrificed in vain.