The Middle East: A dream or a nightmare

There is considerable controversy surrounding the death of Nicholas Berg but that is not the point his father Michael has been making since his son’s tragic death in Iraq. How he died is not important. What is important is that policies to end life in Iraq have been made. Nick Berg was one of their victims. Ahmad, the eight year old Iraqi who was shot by US troops, was another and so are most of the more than 800 US troops who died in Iraq after May 2003, and the Iraqis and Americans who will die before this wretched occupation and incessant exercise to kill come to an end.

Policies to end life in Palestine have been made. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most enduring in the present times but the easiest to understand-it’s a conflict over Palestinian land. For 56 years Palestinians have been living one step ahead of Israeli bulldozers devouring their land. The attempt to de-create Palestine is followed almost daily by attempts to de-create Palestinians. In the past four years alone more than 3,000 Palestinians were wiped out, three times as many Israelis. Over 25,000 Palestinians were injured or maimed for life, five times as many Israelis. What do Palestinians want? “First the (Israeli) army must get out of our territory”, said Zacharia Zubeidi, commander of the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin. “If Israel leaves Jenin altogether, and does not come back, doesn’t bring in tanks and kill us every day, there’s no need even to raise up weapons.”

Policies to end life in the Middle East have been made by many Arab governments. Yes, they have killed their own people in streets, dungeons or inside their own homes because they don’t want to share power. Policies to suppress the universal rights of human beings abound. Many are based on emergency laws that permit the detention of any suspect indefinitely. Some died in prison without charge or a visit from their wives or children. Some died even as the official press criticised Americans for torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib.

Policies to stifle democracy and free speech are being made even today to enforce suppressive and cruel past policies but no one should be fooled into believing the ruler’s justification for all this killing and suppression. The collective branding of the opposition has changed but the aim has not. Arabs who called for reform were branded pro colonialists and thrown in prison. Later it was fashionable to brand them “communists” then “Islamic fundamentalists” and now “terrorists”. This is the most vile of all labelling. It allows innocent people to be shot on sight. It denies them legal rights. It impounds their money. It cancels the rights of every dissident and permits arrests and torture en mass and the screening of dead faces of so called “terrorists” on state television. It encourages these governments to hunt or try to kidnap dissidents anywhere.

The war against terrorism is being used as a tool to scare whole nations into paying blood and treasure to support expansionist policies. “Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice (on Iraq) with the battle against terrorists worldwide,” The New York Times said. “There are two unpleasant alternatives: either Mr. Bush knew he was not telling the truth, or he has a capacity for politically motivated self-deception that is terrifying in the post-9/11 world.”

After inflaming it, most tyrants are joining this war on terrorism. For many Middle East governments this is now a lucrative business. They get free weapons, police training, international legitimacy and a free hand to do whatever they please. What a change three or four years can make. In the mid 1990s a strange phenomenon emerged. Tolerance, the soul of democracy, permitted true Islam to be peacefully preached in mainly Christian capitals like London and Paris without fear of intimidation from rulers of Islamic capitals.

British and French Ministers and members of parliament were telling Arab ambassadors they can’t buy into the claim that all Arab dissidents are Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists. Not anymore. Excesses were allowed by Muslim extremists with doubtful credentials to stir Islamophobia in London and Paris. “The perception that our government is pandering to the neoconservatives of America has given rise to the belief that all Muslims are implicated in the aggression,” Labour peer Baroness Uddin said. “Each of us is constantly being asked to apologise for acts of terror that befall the world.” Almost suddenly elected presidents, prime ministers and tyrants are speaking with one voice that echoes Bush’s famous war cry after 9/11:You are either with us or against us.

More than 75 percent of Arabs -225 million- were born under tyrannical regimes. Tens of thousands of young men and women were detained over the years many on the strength of suspicion or rumours or “re-emption”, to borrow a term we have been hearing recently from Washington and London. Thousands died in prisons under torture many times more cruel than that meted by American soldiers in Iraq’s prisons. Thousands of Arabs suffered permanent psychological or physical damage and many took their own life to escape the suffering. Like Jewish settlers who invoke God to justify armed robbery of Palestinian territories, and like Bush who invokes freedom and democracy to justify invading Iraq, Arab tyrannical rulers have hid their crimes behind lofty cause – fighting imperialism, fighting Israel, defending the Arab nation’s honour and other nonsense.

In some Arab countries tens of millions of people are living in medieval fiefdoms dedicated to the prosperity of a small number of corrupt politicians, generals, princes and sheikhs. Members of royal families have multiplied and so did their expenses. They need a bigger share of the economy while the share of entire populations has contracted. In some countries there are no decent jobs for anybody who defies governments. In other supposedly wealthy countries they are no jobs. Most of the 225 million young Arabs under 36 have no hope in the present so they have no hope in the future. M ore often than not, young men are turning to Jihad as a short cut to Heaven to escape their hell on Earth.

Arabs are not fooled by their rulers and the Americans should not be either. Rulers who are looked in the eye by Bush and “inspired” to tell journalists waiting outside the audience room they support Bush’s policies in the Middle East, are the same rulers who go back and declare that American policies in the region will create hundreds of Bin Ladens. The rulers who claim publicly they are against the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, are the same rulers who send generals to the Occupied Territories to coordinate with their Israeli counterparts policies aimed at more suppression of Palestinians once Israelis move out if they move out. Rightly, Palestinians are demanding a homeland in the West Bank and Gaza but the world should know Egypt and Jordan denied Palestinians a state when they controlled the West Bank and Gaza for close to 20 years.

Western leaders meet too many Arab rulers but that does not mean all Arabs are corrupt. Western leaders discuss “bilateral issues” with visiting Arab rulers but that does not mean all Arab are illiterate. Fifty years of failed American policies in the Middle East is not the outcome of failed dialogue with Arabs but successful dialogue with the rulers. They stir the anger of the populace against US and Israeli policies with one jaw and feed American intelligence with mischievous claims about dissidents at home with another. For the past 50 years this has been a win-win situation for Arab rulers. They get American help to fight the opposition at home, and they channel the people’s anger away from them towards the US.

There is a stirring in the Arab street and the rulers are becoming aware of the dangers ahead. “Make your choice before it is too late for all of us,” they warn the US and other Western powers. “It is either us or the Taliban. It is either I or Bin Laden. It is either dissidents killed or jailed or terrorists bent on murdering Westerns in streets and housing compounds. When they hear the word “democracy” they have a different answer. “Look at Turkey and pay heed,” they say. “You either support my government or support a parliament that is certainly to vote against your policies every time a motion is introduced.”

Bush made his choice and the Middle East has neither security nor democracy nor any hope of either in the foreseeable future. Not content with a poor attempt to re-write the present, he is involved in another poor attempt to re-write the past so it may fit in his grand design for Iraq and other countries in the Middle East. He would like to claim a monopoly on freedom and democracy but the monopoly he seeks in Iraq is the monopoly on exercising violence. Only a fool may think he can support dictators and democracy at the same time. Only a fool may think he can can call for freedom and allow rulers to stifle freedom. Only a fool can call for peace in the Middle East and work hard to create violence.

Bush and Blair may look at the Middle East and see a nightmare but neither will admit his responsibility for the creation of the nightmare. Neither will admit he made a mistake by invading Iraq. Bush has not regretted publicly the outrageous support he gave Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the outrageous addition to the injustices suffered by Palestinians by denying more than four million exiles the right to return home. Blair was Labour’s asset. He is now a liability but he would rather remove Labour from power than remove himself. Journalists who questioned the war and the torture lost their jobs but not the politicians who sent soldiers to their death. Bush is blaming the CIA, Ahmad Chalabi and the “enemies of freedom” for the disastrous situation in Iraq but, like Blair, the wants to steady the course of a ship that long lost its rudder.

Accountability has been substituted for denial, truth for spin and resolution for fudging. Spin doctors and public relations stunt engineers rule supreme in the echelons of western power. They never had it so good. Bush reiterates the word freedom so often one is forgiven for thinking it is a copyrighted American invention. Somebody ought to remind Bush the Statue of Liberty is a French gift and the Middle East had more freedom before his tanks rolled into Iraq not less. The Middle East had democracy and free speech before Bush was born but the Israeli-Arab conflict killed the experiment because democracy is dissent and dissent is not tolerated by nations under attack. The Americans, of all nations, should know this.

Fifteen months into this wretched occupation of Iraq, Arabs are still trying to understand what are Bush’s real intentions in their region. He is not a great communicator but Blair is, and he, more than Bush, should take most of the responsibility for selling a doubtful audience his false reasons for war. He should say the truth but every time he opens his mouth he gives the people of the Middle East a headache. This prime minister continues to believe in himself even though most do not believe in him. He believes he is right when most believe he is wrong. He has concealed his real role well but people are pointing at him and say: There goes the dean of all Neocons. As somebody who reads books rather than depend on short sessions of briefings by the converted, Blair should have realised that empires belong to past era of history; that sooner or later the violence he and Bush sent to the Middle East will met by even more violence once the shock is absorbed and the real intentions understood.

Bush and Blair have given hundreds of thousands of Arabs the power of violence and the Middle East -the crossroads of civilisations and the birthplace of three religions- has been sent hurtling towards a violent course the Middle East will suffer from for many years to come. On average, it takes the Arab nation two years to stir against foreign threats. This time it was much shorter. Iraqis were telling each other they can’t believe Bush is spending 150 billion dollars and sacrificing the lives of several hundred soldiers to give Iraqis democracy.

Like Arabs, Americans want peace and prosperity but Bush brought them neither. “What Saddam did was awful, but what the Americans are doing is worse,” said Abu Ahmed, a laborer who lives with his wife and four sons in a government-built apartment house in Baghdad. “They say they are bringing us freedom. But this is what they bring-destruction.” The defeat in Iraq is a defeat for Bush’s hallucinations of grandeur not for America’s noble ideals. And yes, Iraqis saved Iraq and the Middle East from foolish designs of Bush and Blair. One hopes the Americans will realise one day that those Iraqi fighters saved the US from further disastrous conquests; that the Middle East is home to millions who hate the policies of US governments but it is also home to millions who look up to the US and admire American values and respect for democracy.

What happens next is up to the US. No foreign power has been able to control Iraq for long. The occupation is clearly the problem in Iraq not the solution. The presence of US troops in Iraq does not mean the US can take oil for free. They are prepared to pay for it. It has no economic advantage because it caused the price of oil to shoot up and costs of security to increase. It does not mean more security for the US because the occupation is inviting growing numbers of Jihadis from other Arab and Muslim countries. For the first time in over 50 years secular Arab movements are joining religious movements in the fight against the US occupation and the evolvement of a Pan Arab, Pan Islamic liberation movement will radically change the Middle East. Instead of firing the sparks of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq is extinguishing both. Instead of driving Arabs to more secularism it is reviving militant Islam and giving power to mullahs and imams and other religious aspirants.

It is mind boggling to promote a convicted fraudster like Ahmad Chalabi to be leader of Iraq. By the time the US administration realised he will never be accepted by Iraqis as their president it was too late, but the mistake was repeated by installing Ahmad Chalabi mark II, the infamous Iyad Allawi. Rather than solving Bush’s problems in Iraq he will complicate them. If he invites the coalition to kill more Iraqis the US will be blamed. And long after Allawi resumed his comfortable exile in the UK, the US will continue to be harassed by Iraqis who want revenge for the killing of loved ones.

Bush did the Iraqis and all other Arabs a great favour by removing Saddam Hussein but the heavy price the Iraqis paid has outweighed the benefit. Bush could not even match Saddam in the provision of security and electricity. The US soldiers who are supposed to provide security for Iraq are over stretched. They can hardly provide it for themselves. They don’t feel good when they see Iraqis dance around dead American bodies and they loathe their mission. Once viewed with admiration and respect, US soldiers are viewed with hatred and contempt and many American soldiers find it hard to understand why they are being killed when their aim is to improve the lots of those killing them but the true answer lies somewhere else.

“Look at this,” said Ghassan Abu Ahmed to an American reporter, raising his hand in a sweeping gesture toward the tableau of American military might. “This is freedom? It is crazy.” The scene warranted the comment. “A pair of AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships thumped back and forth overhead, scouring residential streets for insurgents. Dun-colored Bradley Fighting Vehicles snorted and wheeled around, their tracks gouging holes in the tarmac. A dozen Humvees stood sentry, closing off the four-lane avenue to Iraqi cars, while nervous American soldiers with M-16 automatic rifles forbade local residents from approaching.”

Sooner or later Saddam would have been assassinated and mutilated in the street by angry crowds that meted the same justice on previous prime ministers and heads of state before him. Fortunately he can’t live forever and the tails that will succeed him will be looking for the head in vain. It is a desert justice that has caught up with criminals for hundreds of years but dealing with the army of the only super power in the world is another matter. Iraqis can resent, fight and wait but the blood is boiling. “Once grateful to Americans for ridding them of Saddam Hussein,” the AP reported, “many in this Baghdad slum have come to hate U.S. troops for bringing chaos — and not much else — to their door. “It’s like these tanks are rolling over my own body,” Habib said bitterly. “I don’t care if the fighting hurts our businesses as long as we don’t see them in our country.”

It takes a fool to launch a war but few wars are more foolish than the Iraq war. What is needed now is a wise man to end it. Arabs should not be forced to become enemies of the US. Americans are not colonialists. The era of colonialism, like the era of empires, is over. People in the Middle East will defend their homes. They will reverse any foreign occupation. Anybody who thinks they can’t should read their history. All invasions since the 11th century ended up in disasters but the Arabs have paid a heavy price and not just in blood and treasure.

As Americans know all too well the truth is not the first victim of wars but personal liberties. The Patriot Act is a very good example but Arabs have hundreds of patriot acts intended to pry on private liberties and freedoms of all types enacted in the name of fighting Israel, imperialism and terrorists. Even the new Iraq has a new one that will not produce a new Saddam Hussein in the end but a dictator with another name. The Americans have 140,000 soldiers in Iraq and they can bomb groups of people in cities like Fallujah without being seen but they have very little political influence, and they will have to accept what the turmoil in Iraq produces and try to make it look good with the help of loyal and compliant media.

The Middle East needs not be the nightmare it is becoming. It needs a vision to turn it into a dream. A dream of peace and prosperity not of violence and occupation. A dream like that invoked by Martin Luther King Jr. and re-invoked again by a father who has just lost a child in horrific circumstances. “The people of America and the world have told me that they have a dream and a vision,” Michael Berg said, “that dream is a dream of peace, a vision of all nations living together in harmony and in love.”

Bush has launched two wars in three years to take American liberty, prosperity and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq but he was successful in neither and both countries continue to suffer from the lack of security that both countries had before the invasions. Afghanistan is poorer than during the rein of the Taliban and Iraqis have joined the ranks of the poorest nations of the world. It boasts the second largest proven oil reserves in the world but it’s bankrupt.

Both cases are the result of failure. Had the US spent a portion of the money earmarked for war and counter terrorism on providing jobs and improving living conditions, the insurgency in both countries would have been limited and devoid of any substantial public support. Had Bush admitted mistakes were made and tried to convince Iraqis to embark on a fresh start things in that country may have been different. Bush, instead, resorted to denial and wishful thinking. All are wrong except him and his advisers. With such a frame of mind all, on the contrary, seem to be correct.

“If we demonstrate an America that has a foreign policy that is smarter, more engaged … and more respectful of the world, we’re going to bring people to our side,” John Kerry, the presidential contender, said. “We’re not only not going to put additional troops there, that’s the way to bring our troops home.”

Iraq is less secure today than it was on the eve of the invasion and terrorist groups are mushrooming rather than contracting yet the official line from the White House is that “the U.S. and the world are much safer now that the new Iraq is taking on terrorism and marching toward democracy.”

Lincoln Chafee, a moderate in the GOP, complained recently of the continuing denial. “I feel there’s been a whole host of mistakes,” said Chafee, a moderate in the GOP. “Among them,” the Senator said, “was insufficient troop levels.”

The US, Chafee Said, is spending $1 billion a week in Iraq yet he has heard that electricity does not work in some places, some schools are not open, and water treatment plants remain out of commission. The senator said the country is more dangerous now than when he visited in October.

Chafee, like many others, complained about the continuing noises that threaten to enlarge the conflict in the Middle East to include countries like Iran and Syria. Chafee thinks the Bush administration needs to work more closely with Iran and Syria.

Afghanistan is yesterday’s news and Iraq may start to disappear from front pages and prime time news bulletins but the war on terrorism has not been won. There are many reasons for that but one important factor is that American policies in the Middle East are unjust and they will continue to produce terrorists. No wonder many Middle East analysts consider him a recruiter of terrorisms rather than a terminator.

The Middle East would like to believe Bush when he speaks about liberty and democracy but they can’t. They want democracy but their rulers are the second biggest obstacle to achieve this goal. The first is the president of the US. “The tail does what the head tells it to do,” Middle East people say about the relationship between their rulers and the president of the US. Only when the head decides the Middle East will be safer in the hands of men and women who want nothing more than to raise their children in peace and prosperity the tails will wag in obedience. Like most Arabs, Michael Berg wanted his son to live in peace and prosperity. He did not.

It’s a shame he is not running for president so all children, American, Arabs and Israelis, may enjoy peace and prosperity and not suffer another hundred years of war and devastation.

* The writer is a novelist and historian and was co-founder of Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat newspapers

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