War's Arab Supporters Bitter Over Its Results

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 22, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- With a certain satisfaction, Lebanese journalist Michael Young watched a local station broadcast images seen across the world on April 9, 2003: the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square, its reverberations rumbling across a stunned Middle East. Out of curiosity, he switched to a satellite station from Syria. It was showing a documentary on a venerable Damascene mosque. He flipped to another channel, where a former Egyptian general was dismissing the idea that day that the Iraqi capital had even fallen.

"If they were scared of what was happening in Baghdad, there was more power in this moment than might have been expected. The regimes were truly scared of this moment, truly scared," recalled Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut.

"The problem is," he added, "the Americans failed."

The coterie of Arabs who supported the U.S.-led invasion were never the target of expensive American propaganda efforts. Their unpopular stands in the Arab world earned them inboxes full of angry e-mails; a few claimed they got death threats. And nearly four years after the invasion they backed, their sense of frustration, resentment and even betrayal speaks volumes about how withered American standing is in the Middle East today and how far the region itself has deteriorated, riven as it is by escalating conflicts, worsening sectarian tension and a simmering struggle with an ascendant Iran.

"It's a success story for al-Qaeda, a success story for autocratic Arab regimes that made democracy look ugly in their people's eyes. They can say to their people: 'Look at the democracy that the Americans want to bring to you. Democracy is trouble. You may as well forget about what the Americans promise you. They promise you death,' " said Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian analyst and the former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language daily newspaper al-Hayat.

Added Magdi Khalil, an Egyptian writer and proponent of the invasion, "Everything, everything is very gloomy."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long festered, cultivating indelible resentment toward the United States, Israel's strategic ally. Now it is joined by growing crises and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and, on the Arab world's borders, Iran and Somalia. The Bush administration is moving to arm perceived allies: Nearly $100 million is proposed for Palestinian security forces pitted against the Islamic movement Hamas and potentially hundreds of millions more for the Lebanese army, seen as a bulwark against the ambitions of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah. Across the region, political affiliations are being pared to the raw bone of sectarianism, often accompanied by emotional expressions of Sunni and Shiite identity.

From the Persian Gulf to Egypt, the arc of the administration's avowed aim of promoting democracy in a region still largely run by autocrats and monarchs has come full circle. In the latest sign of shifting priorities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice eschewed public criticism of Egypt's authoritarian government during a visit last week, declaring it instead part of "an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly." Some critics see a reversion to past U.S. policy, forging an alliance of what Washington considers mainstream, albeit autocratic, states against Iran, Syria and groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Implicit, critics say, is the prospect of greater confrontation in a region already racked by it.

"What's coming is worse than what is now," columnist and editor Ghassan Tueni wrote in Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper.

"If the future and coming two to three years are negative, and what is sought after fails, the legacy will be a disaster, one of the first major disasters of the 21st century," said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University.

In March 2003, most of the Arab world saw the imminent invasion as American revenge for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a grab for Iraq's oil, a play for unquestioned supremacy in the region, a way to protect Israel or, often, a convergence of all of them. Like Young and Khalil, Ghabra was one of the very few in the Arab world who saw the invasion as opportunity. Hussein was a malignant current in the Middle East, he thought, and only force, American force, could remove him and initiate a transformation in a sclerotic region.

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