Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 July 2004
Issue No. 698
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Done solo?

The Arabs, writes Clovis Maksoud*, must wonder: could they have removed a ruthless dictator like Saddam Hussein by themselves?

When Saddam Hussein was brought as a prisoner before an Iraqi investigative judge last week the Iraqis as most -- if not all -- Arabs suffered a severe jolt. The scene and the moment were unique, and in contemporary Arab history unprecedented. People found themselves trying to navigate without a compass. The confusion in the reaction underscored the authenticity of the emotional trauma. The predicament was due to the sheer uniqueness of this drama. On the one hand it was theatre, on the other it was too real. It generated intense anxieties, even among some who sought escape by feining obliviousness.

The trial -- if that is what it is -- will be painful to watch, to follow and to acquiesce to. Extreme, albeit marginal reactions will in time intrude into the authenticity of the collective trauma. Some reactions will seek instant revenge or speedy exoneration. Both extremes, in these circumstances, contribute to a dethronement of reason. They endanger the catharsis that would enable the Iraqis to resume a modicum of normality.

The Arabs feel that part of their history is on trial -- and here I use the word trial in its broader sense. Surreptitiously they feel they are being tried also. Saddam Hussein is part of their collective memory -- the illusions they had about him and the disillusionment that followed. While most Arabs feel relieved that Saddam's regime has been removed, a sense of profound embarrassment follows, because they did not do it themselves.

What exacerbated the Arabs' sense of outrage was their exasperation that the invasion of Iraq was totally illegitimate, as has now been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Weapons of mass destruction were never found; Saddam's links with Al-Qaeda were disproved by the bipartisan United States commission investigating the security flaws that made the 9/11 terrorist attacks possible.

But the point which has provoked the most intense Arab anger is the revelation that the attack on Iraq was planned by the pro-Israeli cabal which became an active participant in US policy-making, and no longer consisted of an Israeli lobby confined to exercising pressure. When Arabs and Americans warned that this group of American Likudniks were planning to strike Iraq, many Israeli and pro-Israeli groups dismissed the warnings as "typical Arab conspiracy theories" by promoters and justifiers of "anti-Jewish" trends.

This neo-conservative Likudnik cabal persuaded the new Bush administration in 2001 to render Iraq the primary target and the focus of the pre-emptive strike strategy that was envisaged. Rendering Iraq the priority for attack was certified by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and subsequently confirmed by several authoritative publications, articles and testimonies. The plan of attack had to be postponed in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The US won the sympathy and solidarity of the world community and its war in Afghanistan was generally accepted as launched in self-defence, and was thus seen as legitimate.

The 11 September attacks were treated by the Likudniks within the Bush administration as an interruption of their plans to strike at Iraq as well as an opportunity to enhance Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ability to project his savage attacks on the Palestinian resistance and further usurp Palestinian national and human rights. This was to render Sharon's strikes against Palestinians to be perceived as identical to the US response to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Consequently, Israel began to be treated as a partner of the US in the struggle against "international terrorism" and the US began to insist that the Pentagon would be the principal architect of US global policy as "terrorism" became the pivot of America's international relations. What ensued was that the State Department was marginalised and its cadre of professional diplomats and their input were rendered irrelevant.

No sooner had the Afghan theatre stabilised than the Iraqi plan resurfaced with a vengeance. What followed is recorded history. It is nevertheless necessary to ascertain that for the neo-conservative Likudniks, Iraq was the target and the Saddam regime was the pretext. The essence of this neo-conservative strategy was to remove Iraq as a factor in the region's balance and to ensure an enhanced strategic superiority of Israel in the region.

For this objective, the US resort to the United Nations Security Council was designed to stop the squandering of the support it had gained after 11 September. The US was growing suspicious that the UN inspectors were not certifying the false claims about weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons rapidly enough. The Bush administration, in shameful collusion with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, deliberately violated the UN Charter, and went on executing its plan of invading Iraq. It was this flagrant and arrogant manifestation of raw power and self-righteousness that provoked the intensity of Arab anger.

Even the Anglo-American attack sought to suppress the motives of the invasion -- and so long as the justification went unproven, the attack remained immoral and illegitimate. The two powers introduced new reasons for their invasion, namely "liberation of Iraqis" from a ruthless regime. It is the paradoxical duality -- a sense of relief that a reckless dictatorship was removed, and the perfidy of the invasion with the humiliations that it brought about -- that has been at the core of Arab political consciousness throughout this great crisis.

But let us turn our attention back to the trial of Saddam Hussein. In fact there are three separate but interrelated trials taking place simultaneously.

One: A trial of the Bush administration is taking place in the US through the mechanism of presidential elections. The reports that are coming out of the various US investigation commissions, the fact that nobody seems to be assuming responsibility for the falsehoods and lies that brought on the war, the alienation of international public opinion, as well as the abuses sanctioned by the legal counsels in the justice and defence departments and the White House -- ones which were authorised by people "higher up" (how high?) in the US chain of command -- will be major factors determining the outcome of the presidential elections.

Two: In Baghdad -- within the Green Zone, where Saddam and his associates are being tried, and have already been prejudged -- it is intended partly by the US occupation to deflect attention from the possible "guilty" judgment that might be rendered by an electorate discovering that it was deceived into going to war. This clearly applies to Tony Blair too.

Three: The Arabs must try themselves, and seek to reconcile the excruciating consequences of being witnesses to the obvious humbling of a ruthless authoritarian dictator, with Arab collective expectations that transparency and accountability of governments throughout the Arab homeland will now be more feasible and good governance more possible.

But there will always remain a lingering question. Could the Arabs have removed the pathetic figure on trial in Baghdad on their own? This question, even if unanswered, can be the means by which the compass can be recovered.

This lingering question can embolden the Arabs to realise their untapped potential and bring about the Arab renaissance that has long eluded them, and exculpate them from the embarrassment and the necessity to keep thinking over that lingering question.

* The writer is the former Arab League ambassador to the UN and director of the Centre for the Global South at the American University in Washington DC.

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