The Iraq war's invisible winners


The fall of Baghdad this month was accompanied by another event that was less visible but that has potentially far greater consequences: the collapse of Pan-Arabism as an essential and controlling aspect of Arab political thought. Because the triumph of Pan-Arabism half a century ago led to the eclipse of liberal thought in the Arab world, Pan-Arabism's collapse may well make room for liberalism's gradual return in the region's discourse. That could in turn allow the region to break its historic cycle of political failure and economic stagnation. If that occurs, it would be a clear—if perhaps paradoxical—case of liberal interests advanced and served by military means; the true victors of the overthrow of Iraqi Ba'thism would be the long-powerless Arab liberals.

Pan-Arabism is the concept that the Arab world from Morocco to the Persian Gulf constitutes a single natural entity. The long-term function of Arab politics and culture is thus to advance eventual Arab unity; entities like the Arab League are way stations toward this end. Of course, regions like the Maghreb, the Levant, and the Gulf are recognized as having their differences, but as seen through the Pan-Arabist prism, these are perceived as overwhelmed by stronger common interests.

The concept has often seemed to be so much boilerplate (talk of actually political unity really was boilerplate), with Arab leaders frequently working at cross-purposes. However, it has retained power as a way of interpreting the world, especially the interaction between Arabs and others. In these terms, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite the concept's many ups and downs, individual nations have often subsumed their cultures, economic interests, and politics within a Pan-Arabist agenda that has served all Arabs poorly.

The worst consequence of the idea was that it legitimized the notion of a single great Arab leader, speaking for and acting on behalf of all Arabs. This empowered politically megalomaniacal and militarily inept figures to bring the entire Arab world to near-ruin. The major such figure was of course Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose rise to power represented the triumph of the idea. Nasser not only led his own nation to catastrophe in his delusional 1967 war against Israel, but took the rest of the Arab world with him. Iraq's Saddam Hussein also adopted the rhetorical role—Pan-Arabism is the last resort of the Arab scoundrel—and appears to have been accepted in the role by otherwise skeptical Arabs as long as he was in confrontation with the United States, with Israel, and with "imperialism."

Hussein's fall at the hands of the U.S. military is potentially a mortal blow to the concept, primarily because of the reaction of much of the Iraqi populace. Scenes of unrestrained jubilation on the part of Iraqis throughout their country simply cannot be absorbed into the Pan-Arabist narrative, which framed the conflict through the Arab media—especially the popular and influential Al-Jazeera—as a case of Western imperial aggression against the Arab nation.

Accounts of the reaction to pictures of Iraqi joy in the rest of the Arab world are filled with descriptions of stupefaction. A viewer in Riyadh seeing Iraqis celebrate blurted out, "I spit on them!" A West Bank viewer said he was "stunned and appalled." Cairenes watching admitted, "We are confused. We are all trying to figure out who has won this war." Even more eloquent than such reactions is the silence of the "Arab street" that has prevailed since the broadcast of these scenes.

The long-standing Arab narrative of common confrontation with the imperialist enemy being in disarray, liberals have already started offering a competing narrative. Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of Beirut's English-language Daily Star, dismissed the old Pan-Arabist paradigm last week on an Arabic-language current events program. "For 50 years," he told a satellite television audience, "I have been listening to Arab leaders on their soap boxes blaming all our problems on the United States. I'm tired of it."

The editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashid, wrote a thunderous essay entitled "Saddam Did Not Fall Alone."

"It is not Saddam Hussein who fell yesterday," Al-Rashid wrote. "What collapsed are the big lies that accompanied him, praised him, and glorified him." In a dig at Arab media, Al-Rashid added, "Also collapsed are the minds that insisted on falsifying the facts of both present and history, that prevaricated in the name of the Iraqi people. Before the eyes of the whole world, the Iraqis decided in favor of truth, by themselves, in their own capital of Baghdad…"

"Shocked were the people of Cairo, where fundamentalists, nationalists, leftists, and the misguided led marches in which they announced their willingness to volunteer. They led marches in which they volunteered to defend Saddam's Iraq… Therefore, yesterday's scenes of the Baghdadis demonstrating and tearing down and urinating on the portraits of their dictator, pulled down the biggest lie in contemporary Arab history."

The Iraq war, Al-Rashid wrote, "is the first of its kind. It is a war against the evil Arab situation." The real meaning of Iraqi joy, he concluded, is its "challenge to political and cultural conventions."

The famous Syrian poet Adonis, writing this week in the London-based Al-Hayat, has taken up that challenge. The lesson of Iraq, Adonis writes, is that it is a mistake to connect a people and a regime, "even if it is a real democratic one, much less an autocracy." One's patriotic duty, writes the poet, is thinking and criticizing. One "must criticize the government constantly to progress forward and to deepen the democratic institutions, and to stabilize freedoms and human rights. In this way, intellectuals can keep progress alive."

In short, a group of Arab liberals is proclaiming the end of Pan-Arabism and its history of excuse-making for failure and tyranny. In its place, they are attempting to re-establish a liberal intellectual beachhead from which they can examine and criticize Arab institutions. This doesn't mean that Pan-Arabism will go away entirely—numerous Arab commentators reportedly reacted to Iraqi joy with Pan-Arabist contempt—but it does mean that it faces a potentially serious challenge. The fall of Baghdad is arguably the beginning of the Post-Pan-Arabist age.

A revitalized Arab liberalism is essential to the renewal of the region. Among the great failures of the contemporary Arab world is that its press, its academy, and even its arts establishment had been unable in recent decades to fulfill one of their essential cultural roles: identifying social and institutional problems, and offering corrections. This was not because there were no insightful Arab liberals; there are many. Pan-Arabism, however, has been a totalist tradition that rejected the legitimacy of challenge; its decline into Pan-Arabist Islamism actually exposed outspoken liberals to danger. Many have been keeping their heads down.

Post-Pan-Arabist liberalism, if such a movement continues to develop, may play a role similar to the so-called Post-Zionists of Israel, a group of historians, journalists, and others who have re-examined Israeli history and institutions, and offered their own revisionist interpretations of them. Of course, Post-Zionists are not necessarily right about all their controversial assertions, nor will Post-Pan-Arabists invariably come to justifiable conclusions. The point, however, is that a vigorous critical discourse, however painful, is greatly to be preferred to excuse-making delusion.

Arab liberals, it should be noted, are not necessarily allies of the West or of the United States. Many will be critics not only of their governments, but of America as well. After all, there is a European liberal tradition that is often at odds with the U.S., and that has the capacity to be profoundly anti-American. American-style liberal capitalism, however, has an impressive track record in the competition of ideas. It should have no difficulty welcoming a renewed Arab liberalism, freed of the pathologies that have strangled it for so long, to the debate.