Last Sunday, as television stations showed footage of a captured Saddam Hussein, a Damascus shopkeeper turned to me and said: "We got rid of him, but there is one left. Do you know who?" I hesitated: "No, you tell me." He answered: "Osama bin Laden." When someone in my group said: "And Bush," the shopkeeper feigned shock and, smiling, replied: "I know nothing about politics!"
On that day, the Syrian didn't care about punishing George W. Bush, even though the US president had just signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. He was just enjoying the disgrace of an Arab despot.
The reaction was interesting, because it contrasted with a purportedly more general Arab feeling of humiliation that Saddam had not gone down in a hail of gunfire. Consider this lament from that tragicomic distillation of Arab pathology, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi: "It was a shock to us, and an insult to millions of other Arabs watching…the Iraqi president submitting to the humiliating (American) medical examination; we would have liked to see him fight to the end and die a martyr like his sons and grandson, or choose the death of Hitler by firing a bullet into his head or swallowing poison."
Leave it to the Arabs, or more specifically to their Pan-Arab publicists, to miss out on history and transform their potential triumphs into perceived failures. The image of a brutal and cowardly thug cowering in a hole should inspire an Arab renaissance and invite Arabs to break free from the patronizing intimidation of their leaders; yet many persisted in seeing Saddam's downfall as an illustration of the region's failings.
Evidently, someone forgot to explain this to the Syrian shopkeeper.
In its often-simplistic belief in core democratic values in the Middle East, the Bush administration may be closer to the truth than its critics give it credit for. Many Arabs will have seen in Saddam's downfall something personally liberating, even if the subtleties of Middle East academia prepare one for more than the unrefined deduction that Arabs, like most other people, don't appreciate regime goons staring over their shoulders, raping their wives, shooting their husbands, brainwashing their children or razing their villages.
Yet it is precisely by reaffirming such core liberal values, by restating its belief in the dictum "live and let live," that the US will emerge successfully from its stumbling Iraqi entanglement. Saddam's capture bought the US valuable time, and his trial will surely cast light on what a service the Bush administration did when it ended the long Baathist nightmare. However, this time must be put to good use as the US lays the groundwork for a truly independent, open and representative Iraq.
But what of the Arab world? Even America's harshest critics showed little nostalgia for Saddam, though many of them had explicitly or implicitly praised him in the days when he was custodian of the "eastern flank of the Arab world," to use author Christine Moss Helms's injudicious phrase. How revealing, and relieving, it was to read Talal Salman, an unrepentant Pan-Arabist, writing in Al-Safir on Monday: "It was an end worthy of a despot, an oppressor of his people, weak in the face of foreign occupation…Every dictator is a coward, he kills but doesn't fight."
And yet many are the dictators still thriving in our region, simultaneously criticized and defended by Pan-Arab intellectuals and polemicists, who regard them as indigenous ills, and, therefore, more palatable than the Americans.
Keeping America out of the Middle East would not be a bad idea if Arab governments didn't invite the contempt that makes outside intervention in their affairs so tolerable. In many a conversation at the start of this year, Arab and Western opponents of an Iraq war insisted that transformations in the Middle East must be homegrown, and that what the US was planning was unacceptable. What they couldn't answer was why Saddam had for so long been deemed acceptable, but also how domestic reform was possible under a near genocidal regime. In their zeal to censure America, the critics were reduced to peddling an absurdity.
That's why Saddam's removal and arrest were a logical conclusion to an illogicality, even if one might question the Bush administration's intentions. At the end of the day, however, these intentions will be checked by the Iraqis' desire to fashion a country that is to their own liking, thanks to the liberal values the US has claimed to be advancing. Saddam's capture will only reinforce such values, and through them the wish of Iraqis to avoid seeing their country turned into an American colony. On Sunday the US told the Iraqis: Saddam is history; your country is now truly yours.
There is a paradox in colonialism—since some insist on seeing the US presence in Iraq as a neo-colonial venture. It is that indigenous elites established by colonizers usually end up leading national liberation struggles. The Americans know this and are also aware that they are giving their Iraqi allies a stake in a new system that will surely reject absolute American control. If you have any doubts, then ask yourself where else could Saddam's delectable televised humiliation lead?