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[casi] How the Arabs performed dismally in Iraq

How the Arabs performed dismally in Iraq

Now that the Iraq war is over, it is imperative to assess how the Arab world
performed both during and after the crisis. It was clear that there were
multiple views and fault lines within Arab ranks, and these were glossed

Splits existed not only between Arab states, but also between Arab regimes
and their publics as well as between the Arab and Iraqi publics. Many Arabs
failed to fully appreciate the predicament of Iraqis terrorized by the
regime of Saddam Hussein. Ideology and elite interests took precedence over
human rights and freedom. To be blunt, Arabs were at times as guilty of
double standards and contradictions as was the US.
Arab states gave little thought to a strategy that would have saved the
Iraqi people and pre-empted the US-led invasion, at Saddam Hussein’s
expense. Given the determination of US President George W. Bush’s
administration to attack Iraq, the Arabs could not have it both ways ­
saving both the Baath regime and its people. They had to make an unambiguous
decision to favor the latter. But this required a complex decision-making
process, visionary leadership and a hardened sense of realistic politics.

What transpired instead were vacuous formalities, equivocation,
procrastination, recrimination and inaction. The dismal performance of the
Arab states and publics may be explained by the closed nature of the Arab
political order, its crisis of political legitimacy and the deepening
dependency of the states in the region on the US. Despite this dependency,
Arab states could have advanced their interests and those of the Iraqis ­
dependency does not and should not imply total subservience.

The Iraqi crisis did not just further discredit and weaken the Arab League.
It exposed the inadequacy of concepts used to understand the nature of Arab
politics ­ the meaning of Arab solidarity and unity, the role of the Arab
League and Arab public opinion and the meaning of “Arabness” in the Middle
East subsystem. Never had the gap been so large between official Arab
rhetoric and reality as before and during the war, a situation exacerbated
by US unwillingness to seek Arab help in the Iraqi crisis. No wonder Arab
public cynicism and alienation reached dangerous proportions. No wonder
Arabs had little input or influence over the course of events in Iraq, even
though the war occurred in their heartland, shaking the foundation of the
Arab political order.

American officials spent considerable time and effort negotiating with
Turkey, offering billions of dollars for use of its military bases. They
also held talks with Iranian representatives to ensure Iran’s neutrality
during the war. In contrast, Arab support was taken for granted and no
concessions were negotiated. The US had no impetus to take the Arabs
seriously, as they failed to articulate a convincing collective stance on
Iraq. In the end, most Arab states accepted the inevitable. Their key
concern was to limit the domestic reverberations of the Iraqi crisis, but
also to please the Bush administration and avoid being targeted by its

Although publicly Arab leaders said they were opposed to the war, several of
them provided vital and unconditional logistical support to US forces. They
neither demanded a specific role in Iraq’s political and economic
reconstruction, nor did they link the Iraqi crisis to a resolution of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Now, three months after the end of the war, Arab states have little to say
about their vision for a post-Baath Iraq. Beyond generalities about the need
for Iraqis to govern their own country, Arab states have not clarified the
role they would like to play in the new Iraq. What political models or
systems are they willing to support? The Arab League has produced no policy
papers to determine what contributions member states can make to assist

What pressures can the Arab states mobilize? Public pronouncements must be
translated into policy initiatives. For example, why not table a proposal to
deploy 70,000 Arab troops in Iraq, within the context of an international
force, to secure the peace and enable Iraqis to determine their own affairs?
One condition for the deployment of this force would be that the US
immediately hand over power to the Iraqis, even if its forces remain in

To be fair to Arab leaders, it is not their lack of will but of vision that
prevents them from actively participating in Iraq’s reconstruction. It is
the Bush administration’s hard-liners who oppose involving the international
community in Iraq, particularly Arab states, lest they recreate the new Iraq
in their own authoritarian image. However, given the deteriorating Iraqi
situation, more voices in the US are calling for bringing in outside parties
to secure peace and assist in the socioeconomic, if not the political,
reconstruction of Iraq.

Regardless of what one thinks of the American occupation of Iraq, its
failure would have devastating repercussions on Iraq and the region. It is
in Iraq’s interest (as well as that of the Arab world and the US) that the
country stands on its own feet and begins a process of social

Three questions are in order: Will Bush administration neoconservatives
relent in their opposition to involving the world community, including Arab
states, in Iraq’s reconstruction? Will the Arabs develop plans regarding
contributions they could make to the stability, security and development of
a new Iraq? And what role can Arab civil societies and institutions play in
assisting their Iraqi counterparts in rebuilding their own state and

Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian Johnson Chair in international affairs
and the Middle East at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He is the author
of America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? He
wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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