Exactly 10 years ago today, Iraq's war for conquest of Kuwait ended in total failure. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was expected quickly to lose control of Iraq, but a decade later he remains very much in power.
How did he manage this? Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's chief spokesmen, hinted, even before war broke out in January 1991, why his master had no worries. Middle Eastern regimes, Aziz told US secretary of state James Baker, have never "entered into a war with Israel or the United States and lost politically." Though somewhat exaggerated (Arab leaders did pay a price for losing to Israel in 1948-49), Aziz was basically right: military loss usually does not hurt a Middle Eastern ruler. Instead, he denies disaster on the battlefield and flourishes politically.
Consider some examples:
Suez crisis, 1956: Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser suffered a humiliating military rout at the hands of the British, French and Israelis, but insisted on having won a victory. He was widely believed. As a result, this episode "strengthened him politically and morally," writes the University of Maryland's Shukri Abed, helping Nasser become the dominant figure of Arab politics.
Six Day War, 1967: Catastrophic defeat at Israel's hands prompted Nasser to offer his resignation, but Egyptians responded with massive street demonstrations calling on him to stay in power (he did). Syria's defense minister in 1967, Hafez Assad, went on to become president of his country.
Battle of Karama, 1968: Yasir Arafat's Fatah lost its first major armed confrontation with the Israelis, but claimed victory.
Yom Kippur War, 1973: Israeli forces may have beaten the Egyptians and Syrians, but the latters' governments again portrayed the war as a great triumph.
Siege of Beirut, 1982: Arafat transformed a humiliating retreat from Beirut into political victory, emphasizing that the Israelis needed 88 days to defeat him, far longer than it took them to defeat other Arab forces.
Today, those events are remembered as a glorious victory. For example, Hamas recounted a few years later that the Palestinians in 1982 "humiliated" Israel and "broke its resolve."
But what explains this surprising pattern? Three aspects of Muslim life help account for it.
Honor has monumental importance; maintaining it counts more than actually achieving something. Hussein Sumaida, an Iraqi exile, explains Saddam's motives in taking on most of the world in 1991: "Winning didn't matter. What mattered was putting on a good show and gaining the hearts and minds of the smoldering Arab world."
Fatalism offers Muslim rulers a way to avoid blame. It was all in the cards, what could we do? As'ad Abu Khalil of California State University finds that in times of defeat, Arab leaders typically adopt an attitude that "people have no influence or effect whatever on their actions and deeds. It is only God who acts." Invoking "the inescapability of destiny" absolves Arab regimes and armies from responsibility. This pattern, he correctly notes, "has become typical to the point of predictability."
Conspiracy theories are so dominant that every confrontation with the West (including Israel) is assumed to imply a Western intent to destroy the rulers and conquer their countries. Egyptians, for example, widely believed the British and French governments planned in 1956 to eliminate Nasser and occupy Egypt. When these devastating consequences failed to happen, his mere survival became tantamount to a famous victory.
Defeating an enemy on the battlefield is not enough to win in the Middle East; the ruler and his regime must also be eliminated. The policy implications for Iraq are obvious.
Aug. 28, 2006 update: Hasan Nasrullah's star status in the Middle East after by any objective standard having lost his war with Israel fits exactly into this pattern. Lee Smith points out the continuities today in "The Real Losers: Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah admits that the war was a mistake."
Nov. 19, 2012 update: Barry Rubin makes similar points to mine at "The Israel-Hamas War and the Suicide Strategy: How Arab Forces Expect to be Weak, Start Losing Wars and Still Hope to Win." What he calls the "suicide strategy" involves a leader thinking: "I will start a war that I cannot win in order to create a situation where the other side wrecks my infrastructure and kills my people. Then I will lose militarily but win the battle. How?" Rubin then lists three elements:
- I'll kill some people on the other side and do some damage to it. Since they are weaker and less brave than I am they will give up. The longer the war, the more likely they are to look for a way out even if that involves many concessions on their part. Using terrorism against their civilians reinforces this tactic.
- By suffering, and magnifying that suffering using a generally sympathetic Western media, I will make the other side feel sorry for me and oppose their own leaders who will be portrayed as bullying, bloodthirsty, and imperialistic.
- The specter of war, suffering, and especially civilian casualties, will drive the "international community" to press my adversaries to give in, stop fighting (even if I continue it on a lower level), let me survive, and even give me benefits.
While this strategy "has often worked against a Western adversary or Israel," Rubin notes, "It won't work against fellow Arabs or Iran because those forces couldn't care less how much damage and how many civilian casualties they inflict."
Celebrations of a pretend Hamas victory.
Celebrations of a pretend Hamas victory.
Fatah official Bassam Zakarneh asked on his Facebook page, "My brothers, if the death 163 of martyrs including the leader Ahmad Jabari, with thousands of wounded and all [government] institutions destroyed is considered a victory, then by God what is defeat?"
July 11, 2014 update: I look at this issue again at "Why Does Hamas Want War?" Key passage:
Hamas leaders are quite rational. Periodically (2006, 2008, 2012), they decide to make war on Israel knowing full well that they will lose on the military battlefield but optimistic about winning in the political arena. Israeli leaders, conversely, assume they will win militarily but fear political defeat – bad press, United Nations resolutions, and so on.
Sep. 11, 2014 update: The Egyptian analyst Abdel-Moneim Said takes up this topic in "Victory and defeat." He begins by recalling his time at a student publication after the terrible Egyptian loss in the Six-Day War: "To my great surprise, I found that quite a few of my colleagues at that newspaper believed that we had won the 1967 war!" How so?
the logic went as follows: the purpose of the Israeli-US aggression was to overthrow the glorious president and the socialist system in Egypt, but given that the president was still in power after the people came out in mass demonstrations in support of him and his wise leadership, on 9 and 10 June, and given that the socialist system was still in place, the enemies had not obtained their objectives. Hence, we won!
Unfortunately, he goes on, "the general line of logic described above has remained unchanged and many Arab revolutionary forces continue to use it." Said offers three examples:
After the war to liberate Kuwait, Iraqi president Saddam Hussain decided he had won "the mother of all battles". After all, the aim of that war was to overthrow him and his regime. As he and his regime were still there, he and his regime had emerged victorious. …
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah applied the same logic to the Lebanese-Israeli war in the summer of 2006. As long as he, personally, and his Hizbullah group survived he could claim an unqualified victory.
Even President Bashar Al-Assad believes he can proclaim himself victorious before the battle has even ended. Is he not still there at the heart of Syria with his party, clique and clan?
He then applies this logic to the July-August 2014 fighting between Hamas and Israel:
When one side suffers 2,100 dead, thousands of others wounded, a large portion of its civilian infrastructure and its tunnels destroyed, and a good amount of its military capacities depleted because of the skilled commanders who were killed, while the other side loses 72 dead and two wounded and the trouble entailed by the hundreds who had to take refuge in shelters from time to time, the results of the recent war in Gaza can hardly be chalked up as a Palestinian victory. Yet Hamas leaders have proclaimed victory in accordance with the aforementioned logic.
It holds that the Israeli aim was to eliminate Hamas and end the firing of missiles. Therefore, as long as both Hamas and the missiles still exist, Palestinians should rejoice in this resounding victory. Of course, nowhere did anyone happen to consider a single Palestinian aim related to the liberation of the occupied territories (for which purpose, one presumes, there are weapons, missiles and tunnels). The question of whether or not the battle won the liberation of a single square metre of occupied land has not been raised.
We celebrated victory because the enemy failed to achieve its objectives as we defined them. As for our objectives, it was taken for granted from the outset that they would not enter our equations of war and peace.