For all the physical devastation being produced by the war in Iraq, the political and diplomatic damage to the region and American foreign policy may be even more profound. Indeed, less serious attention seems to have been paid to the requirements of rebuilding political relations than repairing the infrastructure and society of Iraq.
This conflict is further poisoning the already noxious political atmosphere between Arabs and Americans. It has intensified dangerous feelings of humiliation and outrage among the Arab public, while paranoid rhetoric about Western attacks against Islam is spreading from the religious fringe to the mainstream.
Our government’s failure to secure authorization for this war from the United Nations Security Council, largely dismissed as an unfortunate but minor detail here at home, has had a profound impact throughout the world. Almost no one in the Arab world accepts the administration’s stated concerns about either Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or the brutality of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. The consensus is that long-term American domination of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region is the actual aim. As a result, while most Americans see ourselves as liberators, near-universal Arab perception is that ordinary Iraqis are fighting courageously against incredible odds to defend their homeland. The profound Arab sense of violation trumps particulars about who is in charge of Iraq, even the reviled Hussein.
Dismissing these perceptions as ridiculous is a childish response to a fundamental political reality. Even more unhelpful are projections of our own fantasies onto the blank screen of a public opinion we fail to comprehend, imagining Arabs being overjoyed at the “liberation” of Iraq or “shocked and awed” into a terrified docility.
Vastly different images on American and Arab television of the war are feeding these profoundly divergent interpretations of its meaning.
Americans have been mainly treated to cheerful dispatches from embedded journalists and singularly uninformative but upbeat Pentagon briefings. Arab channels are filled with sullen images of Iraqi women and children lying in hospitals. Arab TV stations repeatedly aired footage of dead and captured U.S. troops, images angrily rejected by most American outlets.
The apparent American missile strike Wednesday on a market in Baghdad, killing at least 14 civilians, dominated media around the world, including the British press, but was barely mentioned on American news channels that morning. Arab stations displayed the dead and dying.
This hemorrhaging of alienation and hostility between Arab and American societies must be staunched. The dangers it poses are all too obvious.
What is absolutely required to mitigate existing tensions and the further damage being done by the war in Iraq is for the United States to take the lead in finally resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Every opinion poll, survey and serious analysis regarding public opinion in recent years demonstrates that the Palestinian plight is by far the most important issue in every state and among every segment of society throughout the Arab world. All developments in international relations including the Iraq war, for good or ill, are seen through this lens.
For almost three years Arabs have been subjected to daily images of Palestinians being killed by Israeli occupation forces in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They see the United States not only doing nothing to stop this, but continuing to supply Israel with high-tech weapons, particularly Apache attack helicopters. Now they see those same Apache helicopters bringing war to Iraq.
The spectacle of an American occupation of Iraq may dovetail in the minds of many with the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and be seen as an American extension in Iraq of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
This double-image can only lend a sudden and undeserved credibility to hysterical voices, such as Osama bin Laden’s, which rant about a generalized assault by “Crusaders and Jews.”
Not only has the Bush administration thus far failed to register the urgency with which Israel’s occupation needs to be brought to an end, it has steadily drifted toward an ever deeper identification with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Such a situation cannot continue without disastrous consequences.
It is essential that our government move quickly and decisively to ensure that Israel’s colonial occupation is ended, and that the United States is seen as a driving force in freeing the Palestinian people. Without this step it may be impossible to convince most Arabs that American foreign policy has anything to offer them other than war, occupation and humiliation.
This effort must be serious and sustained, and requires far more than unpublished road maps and unelected prime ministers of non-existent states.
Without a complete and final end to Israel’s occupation, no amount of success in post-conflict Iraq will mean anything positive for the region, and no substantial healing of the wounds can begin.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of electronicIraq.net and Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This article first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on 28 March 2003.