April 1, 2003 | Op-ed

Beneath the Surface

By Terry M. Neal

As the mainstream media obsess over the operational details of the war in Iraq, something ominous is brewing in lands beyond that does not portend well for the United States. There is a growing sense of outrage in the Arab and Muslim worlds about the Iraq war. Those feelings seem to belie the Bush administration's contention going into the war that all but the most radical elements in the Middle East would embrace America's effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein, and that U.S. soldiers would be viewed as liberators.

In fact, there is scary and disconcerting evidence that Hussein, despised by many Arabs for years, has morphed into a hero for the Arab resistance movement. Such developments have potentially serious ramifications. For once the fighting in Iraq has ended, the United States could be less safe than it was when the war began.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, considered a friend and ally of the United States, issued a stark warning on Monday that the war was leading to an increase in Islamic militancy: “If there is one (Osama) bin Laden now, there will be 100 bin Ladens afterward.''

Putting such comments into perspective has been difficult for Americans. Yet, headlines in newspapers around the Middle East trumpet very different messages. You have to look deep inside America's newspapers to find stories about the reaction around the world to the war, but one of the best of the handful of stories in recent days to capture that was by The Post's Emily Wax, who reported on Sunday about the growing anger.

“Bush is an occupier and terrorist. He thought he was playing a video game,” said George Elnaber, 36, a Arab Christian and the owner of a supermarket in Amman. “We hate Americans more than we hate Saddam now.”

“For every man they kill, there will be four or five people who want revenge for this person's life. They can't just kill people and have it be forgotten,” said Ali Sabry, 43, a building attendant in Cairo. “America is our enemy now. They have millions of Muslims praying against them every day.”

There are, of course, very different opinions about whether or how much this matters.

The Argument Against

While the administration's rationale for the war has shifted, the original argument set out last year was that Hussein was a dangerous tyrant who should not be allowed to posses weapons of mass destruction. The chance that he might share such weapons with groups such as al Qaeda necessitated, in the eyes of many in the Bush administration, immediate efforts to disarm him. If he refused to disarm, as he originally agreed to do at the end of the Gulf War, Bush and other in the administration believed he should be disarmed by force.

At the heart of the U.S. debate was whether the use of force would end up making Americans safer. Three U.S. diplomats resigned in recent months, after voicing concerns about U.S. policy toward Iraq.

“I strongly believe that going to war now will make the world more dangerous, not safer,” Mary Wright, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, said in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Fawez Gerges, chair of Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, believes that the war will have the opposite of its intended effect. He believes the war will exacerbate tensions and allow radical forces such as al Qaeda to carry on their unconventional war of terror against America and its allies.

In other words critics say, the war in Iraq is just a battle — one that America will almost certainly win. But the larger battle — one for the “hearts and minds” that goes well beyond the borders of Iraq with the world's one billion Muslims, now becomes much more difficult to win.

In a Tuesday interview, Gerges expanded on his point: “The American invasion has alienated most of the moderates, who now appear to be united with the radicals against the United States. In this particular sense, this war is a God send, a gift, to people like Osama bin Laden.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, agrees.

“This war was designed by a group of neoconservatives who know nothing about Iraq, that kept its own counsel, and who only took advice from people who shared their racist view that overwhelming force — shock and awe — would not just defeat Baghdad but also lay waste to extremism in the region and cause moderates to bow down and come to their senses,” said Zogby, whose book “What Arabs Think: Values, Beliefs and Concerns” was published a year ago.

He continued: “We're looked at today as the new hegomonic power, and this administration must answer for how they squandered any good will that existed [in the Middle East]. That's not the way to make us more safe. It's the way to make us a moving target, putting our lives at risk, our businesses at risk and our allies at risk–and most tragically of all, it's creating a symbol out of [Hussein's] deplorable regime.”

The Other Side

The other side of the argument would be represented by people such as Cliff May, former communications director of the Republican National Committee and the current president for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, anti-terrorism think tank based in Washington.

May has emerged as an influential public and behind-the-scenes supporter of the war. May's position, essentially, is that appeasement makes the aggressor even more aggressive.

“The first thing I would say is we can never make ourselves secure by attempting to make our policies inoffensive to everyone in the world,” May said. “Bin laden attacked us and he told us why: because we had troops on holy Saudia Arabian soil, because of the economic sanctions on Hussein. We simply cannot allow ourselves to change our polices based on threats and blackmail. Once you start down that road, there's no stopping.”

May and others argue that much of the broader Arab and Muslim opposition to the coalition attack will dissipate when the Middle East and the rest of the world are finally beamed pictures of Iraqi civilians gleefully greeting U.S. soldiers once they become convinced that their liberation is a certainty.

At a recent speech in New York, Richard Perle, who stepped down recently as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, said: “I think the one thing that would encourage further acts of terror against the United States would be a withdrawal by the United States at this point. If we were to fail to carry forward on the things we've said, we would appear to be what Osama bin Laden says we are and what Saddam Hussein has said we are, which is weak and blustery, a bully. So we have to carry this forward. . . .Weakness is fatal in these matters. We're dealing with people who understand strength and have only contempt for weakness.”

The other side, May says, might have a point if extensive efforts had not first been made to accomplish the goal of disarming Iraq without war. Bush used war as it should be used–as a last, rather than a first resort, he said. And, he finds some of the opposition in the Arab and Muslims worlds to be hypocritical.

“What is really astonishing is that all of these people who are so angry at us for making this effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein were not angry when he slaughtered 100,000 Kurds, or attacked and slaughtered thousands of Shia in the south. They never protested Saddam Hussein's plastic shredders that he uses on dissident, or the rape he uses against the wives of dissidents. If we're going to back down because this is not going to make us popular, we are essentially saying we surrender. We are in a war against terrorism and we will not win it through appeasement.”

In Conclusion

There are, of course, other viewpoints. But it appears certain that victory in Iraq cannot be boiled down to a simple equation. Killing Hussein or removing him from power is only part of the answer, for he is not the only aggressor America is battling.

Much was made of how the U.S. military's powerful weaponry would “shock and awe” the Iraqis into submission. Not only has that not happened, other countries throughout the region have shocked and awed the American government with a newfound boldness since the opening days of the attack. If one of the purposes of the war with Iraq was to send the unmistakable message not to mess with the U.S. because to do so would invite severe consequence, the message seems to have emboldened rather than cowed some other countries in the region.

In recent days, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell have sent stern warnings to Iran and Syria to stop arming Iraq, implying they could be next if they fail to comply.

Syria's response?

“Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

It could be a long war.

In tomorrow's Talking Points column, we consider the other justification the Bush administration has given for war with iraq — freeing the Iraqi people from an oppressive dictator.