Coming to Terms with the Muslim World

March 24, 2004

Coming to Terms with the Muslim World

For the past ten years, and even before, Washington experts on Iran have been saying that the regime in Teheran will be toppled any day, yet the regime is still in place and is firmly entrenched.


For the past ten years, and even before, Washington experts on Iran have been saying that the regime in Teheran will be toppled any day, yet the regime is still in place and is firmly entrenched. No amount of wishful thinking has changed this fact. All the while, we have missed opportunities to work with Iran and better influence regional events. Putting off rapprochement in the hope of dealing with a friendlier regime has been an exercise in futility. After all this time, even the optimist's optimist would have given up on a regime change anytime soon. But even if the regime does change now, after nearly twenty-five years, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge what we may have lost and to say, "I told you so."

At the same time US administrations have espoused democracy for the Middle East and Muslim countries, they have supported the Al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia, Musharaff in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq (prior to 1990) and others of the same ilk - first in the name of expediency and now under cover of the war on terrorism. The quest for a quick fix of short-term security concerns has trumped the vision for the long-term. US support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, all in the name of political expediency, has been the driving force for Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities. The constant reference to freedom and democracy by President Bush has only served to remind Middle Easterners of the freedom that they don't have because of America's support for dictators for over fifty years. Arabs, as did Iranians before them during the reign of the Shah, have started to place much of the blame for their abysmal political and economic conditions at the doorstep of the United States because of its support for their corrupt, anti-democratic, yet US "friendly" (and malleable), rulers. We in the US have not acknowledged the damage of guilt by association and have learned nothing from our experience in supporting the Shah in Iran. Still, we are surprised that we have lost the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. More ominously, we don't seem to appreciate the wider ramifications of this fact and of our actions today.


We continue to say one thing and do the opposite. While the President expresses his appreciation for Islam, the Pentagon appoints a person such as General Boykin to a highly sensitive post, which will have him interacting closely with Muslims. The General's words on Islam, however, show neither respect nor appreciation. How long would a person making similar pronouncements on Judaism or Christianity be kept on the job? There has been a serious disconnect between the Administration's words and actions when it comes to support for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and respect for Islam.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan came the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was arguably the most despised ruler in the Middle East. He was an atheist who had turned to Allah for cover. But the way in which the US  handled him hurt America in the eyes of Muslims. Yes, Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and captured, ridding the Muslim world and the Middle East of its most brutal dictator, but what about the dictators the US continues to support?

There is no Northern Alliance in Iraq to support the US and to give the US cover against the charge of an uninvited occupation. The Bush doctrine of preemptive intervention and regime change, as played out in Iraq, has destroyed America's image throughout the Muslim world. It was a stretch to believe that Saddam Hussein was an imminent danger to the US and to the West. He was clearly a menace toward his neighbors, but, ironically, the country that had suffered the most at the hands of Saddam, Iran, did not feel sufficiently threatened to endorse the US war effort. Sadly, the occupation of Iraq has not and will not be a success if the US continues to project its conqueror image and continues on its present path. US support for a three member interim presidency (Shiite, Sunni Arab, Sunni Kurd), caucuses as opposed to direct elections for an interim government and expanded federalism for Kurds will be rejected by Shiites, if not today then in the future. The US should resist imposing conditions on Iraq, which will in time be rejected and could be the cause of bloodshed. The US must get regime change right in Iraq the first time around. If the regime turns out to be undemocratic and corrupt, the US will be blamed. In that event, if the US supports another regime change, it will be blamed for interference. The US has very little room for maneuver in the eyes of Muslims.

This Administration's policies have undermined the United Nations and have made a mockery of the international rule of law - principles that American presidents have worked hard to nurture. The Bush doctrine of preemptive intervention and regime change has not only alienated Muslims but has resulted in conflicts with our traditional allies, "old Europe." It has made friendly Muslim regimes reluctant to cooperate with us in Iraq or, for that matter, anywhere else. It has turned ordinary Muslims around the world against the US and has created more anti-Americanism and more terrorists than we could have ever dreamt possible. In Iraq itself, it has led to a nightmare, with groups hostile to the US invasion and occupation making a determined stand, as did the mujahedin and their foreign supporters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And no matter what the Bush Administration says, there is no end in sight. There are thousands of Ba'ath party loyalists and hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims who feel threatened and are willing to fight the US occupation and what will likely turn out to be a Shiite-dominated government. And Shiites, for their part, are determined to reverse the over eighty years of Sunni minority rule. If this were not enough, Islamic fundamentalists are entering Iraq from all sides to fight against the foreign invaders. This is not a conventional war that will end with a battle. It will drag on until the only remaining Saddam loyalist and the last anti-American is either captured or killed. But this may take generations, because anti-Americans are entering Iraq every day.  Simply put, this policy will fail if it has not already done so. The only way out is to win the hearts and minds of Muslims.

The failure of Bush's Iraqi adventure has weakened the prestige of US military power in the eyes of the world. Bush continues to threaten other countries, like Iran. But if the US cannot even control Iraq after ridding it of a brutal and unpopular dictator, how could it ever hope to be in a position to invade and control a country like Iran - a country with a more popular government than Saddam's and with three times Iraq's population and size? The US is the world's only superpower, but its Achilles heal has been bared in Iraq; unquestioned military might provided little ability to see ahead and to manage events. Moreover, as the invasion of Iraq was based on questionable evidence, this fact alone will make it almost impossible for the US to garner world support and to act in any other trouble spot, even if it does have solid evidence of a threat. It takes years to earn credibility, but this same credibility can be lost in one day. Furthermore, as more and more Americans are killed in Iraq and as we spend enormous amounts of money, the Bush doctrine is in danger of losing its support among the American people.

As important as anything else over the last ten years is the deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations. Increasingly, the US is seen as an unabashed supporter of Israel. The US becomes ever more isolated from the world community and especially from the Islamic world with every UN vote on Middle Eastern affairs. In the eyes of Muslims around the world, the US role in the peace process has been anything but that of an "honest broker." President Bush's description of Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" and his failure to condemn or oppose the construction of the wall dividing the West Bank has infuriated Muslims. The Road Map - the centerpiece of the Bush administration's Arab-Israeli policy - has become the Mined Road. Arab televisions show the plight of Palestinians on a nightly basis, something that Americans rarely see. To the majority of Arabs, to be pro-American means to be anti-Arab. Palestinian terrorism against civilians must be condemned, but so should Israel's brutal repression of Palestinians.

In the face of these adverse developments in US-Islamic relations, US rhetoric only fans the fires. For example President Bush's high profile speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003 only made matters worse in many Muslim eyes. The President not only touted the quest for democracy in the Middle East, but he even mentioned the spread of democracy as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, with no mention of weapons of mass destruction and only a passing reference to national security and terrorism. He added that: