This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.
Iraqi boy runs through smoke from burning garbage in Baghdad, 2003. (Andrea Comas / Courtesy Reuters)
THE ROAD TO MODERNITY
There should be no illusions about the sort of Arab landscape that America is destined to find if, or when, it embarks on a war against the Iraqi regime. There would be no "hearts and minds" to be won in the Arab world, no public diplomacy that would convince the overwhelming majority of Arabs that this war would be a just war. An American expedition in the wake of thwarted UN inspections would be seen by the vast majority of Arabs as an imperial reach into their world, a favor to Israel, or a way for the United States to secure control over Iraq's oil. No hearing would be given to the great foreign power.
America ought to be able to live with this distrust and discount a good deal of this anti-Americanism as the "road rage" of a thwarted Arab world -- the congenital condition of a culture yet to take full responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds. There is no need to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and givens of the region. Indeed, this is one of those settings where a reforming foreign power's simpler guidelines offer a better way than the region's age-old prohibitions and defects.
Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons, the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world. The great indulgence granted to the ways and phobias of Arabs has reaped a terrible harvest -- for the Arabs themselves, and for an America implicated in their affairs. It is cruel and unfair but true: the fight between Arab rulers and insurgents is for now an American concern.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, the political and economic edifice of the Arab world began to give way. Explosive demographic trends overwhelmed what had been built in the postindependence era, and then a furious Islamism blew in like a deadly wind. It offered solace, seduced the young, and provided the means and the language of resentment and refusal. For a while, the failures of that world were confined to its own terrain, but migration and transnational terror altered all that. The fire that began in the Arab world spread to other shores, with the United States itself the principal target of an aggrieved people who no longer believed that justice could be secured in one's own land, from one's own rulers. It was September 11 and its shattering surprise, in turn, that tipped the balance on Iraq away from containment and toward regime change and "rollback."
A reforming zeal must thus be loaded up with the baggage and the gear. No great apologies ought to be made for America's "unilateralism." The region can live with and use that unilateralism. The considerable power now at America's disposal can be used by one and all as a justification for going along with American goals. The drapery of a unanimous Security Council resolution authorizing Iraq's disarmament -- signed by the Syrian regime, no less -- will grant the Arab rulers the room they need to claim that they had simply bowed to the inevitable, and that Saddam had gotten the war he had called up.
In the end, the battle for a secular, modernist order in the Arab world is an endeavor for the Arabs themselves. But power matters, and a great power's will and prestige can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change. "The Americans are coming," the Islamists proclaimed after the swift defeat of the Taliban. They scrambled for cover as their "charities," their incitement, and their networks of finance and recruitment came under new scrutiny.
The Islamists' apparent resurgence in recent months was born of their hope that the United States may have lost the sense of righteous violation that drove it after September 11, and that the American push in the region may have lost its steam. These Islamists are supremely political and calculating people; they probe the resolve of their enemies. The "axis of evil" speech of President George W. Bush last January had caused among the Islamists genuine panic. A measure of relief came in the months that followed. They drew new courage from the bureaucratic struggles in Washington and from the attention that the fight between Israel and the Yasir Arafat regime attracted some months later.
A successful war in Iraq would be true to this pattern. It would embolden those who wish for the Arab world deliverance from retrogression and political decay. Thus far, the United States has been simultaneously an agent of political reaction and a promoter of social revolution in the Arab-Muslim world. Its example has been nothing short of revolutionary, but from one end of the Arab world to the other, its power has invariably been on the side of political reaction and a stagnant status quo. A new war should come with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform.
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