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.
He expected the United States to have had an effective plan for postwar Iraq. Soon after, he expected a renewed and serious U.S. attempt to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, still seen by most here as the axis of tension in the Middle East. Like Young, he was most optimistic the day Baghdad fell. But even then, and in ensuing weeks, he remembered fearing what was being unleashed, as looting and chaos ravaged the Iraqi capital. Then the Americans -- to him and others, inexplicably -- dissolved the Iraqi army.
"You saw the maximum of power and success and the moment of failure, side by side," he said.
In the fall of Hussein's government, some still see a redeeming moment. They cite Lebanon's 15-year civil war as a hopeful analogy: In time, after breathtaking carnage, the war ended there, and Lebanon remained a troubled but recognizable country.
"Nobody can prove the situation would be better if there was no invasion of Iraq. Nobody can argue that if Saddam were in power now, things would be better," said Ahmed Alrabe, a former Kuwaiti lawmaker and education minister.
More often heard are the words of Khalil. "Now," he said, with a bitter laugh, "there is only conflict and hatred."
The landscape of the Middle East today is vastly different than it was in 2003. Governments in countries such as Egypt and Syria felt insecure then, buffeted by budding reform and protest movements or international pressure. These days they appear emboldened, even confident. Iran is developing a more assertive foreign policy in the region, from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to the Gulf.
Proponents of the invasion often point to those governments, more than the mistakes of the United States, as the culprits in Iraq's unraveling. They had the most to lose if President Bush's vision, however impractical or overly optimistic, led to more accountability in the region.
"The reason Iraq failed is partly because of American miscalculations, but partly also because everyone in the region wanted them to fail," Nematt said. "Everyone took an active role in undermining the democracy project in Iraq."
But those who most fervently supported the American action bestow much of the blame on the United States itself, in a critique all the more bitter because it comes from admirers: There was no plan for the postwar period and too few troops; Iraqis played too small a role in the early days; and the Americans fumbled about as Iran, Syria and other countries outdueled them in Iraq. Fundamentally, some say, U.S. officials knew too little about the country they inherited, imagining a blank slate for their vision.
"The United States has a remarkable capacity to screw things up bureaucratically," Young said. "Maybe I should have anticipated the same thing would happen in Iraq, I admit."
"Everything is gray, and the Americans never figure it out until it's too late," he added.
In the studios of al-Arabiya in Dubai, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed sat in his sleek office, from where he heads the newsgathering operation for one of the Arab world's largest news channels. On television sets that adorned the walls, a recitation of today's Middle East scrolled across the screens: simmering civil strife in the Palestinian territories, deadlock in Lebanon, more carnage in Iraq.
"From bad to worse," the Saudi journalist said of the region, waving his hand. "It's the worst I've ever seen. Definitely."
He recalled a word and an image that he believes charted the American experience in Iraq. The word was occupation, the American decision to run Iraq for more than a year like postwar Japan instead of installing some sort of nominally independent Iraqi government after Hussein's fall. "This is colonialism; no one uses this word at all," he said. The image was the scene in Fallujah in March 2004, when angry residents killed four American contractors working for the U.S. military, mutilated their bodies and strung up two of the corpses from a bridge. "They were easily dragged into a confrontation," Rashed said of American leaders.
"They would get into some kind of shifting sand, and it would be difficult for them to win the war," he remembered thinking. "I knew at that moment they have the force, but they don't have the brains to manage the Iraqi situation."
Many who supported overthrowing Hussein dismissed the question of whether they would still back the invasion. The question itself is impossible or unfair, some said. But Rashed -- who said he sees as the best-case scenario a contained civil war within Iraq and the worst case a regional conflagration -- is blunt. "Of course, I would take the status quo at that time over change," he said.
At a fashionable cafe in Beirut, Young talked about a region where "the sectarian genie has been let out of the bottle." American policy, he said, reminded him of past decades: engaging despots for the sake of stability. Words such as "disaster" and "civil war" peppered his conversation. And he hinted at a sense of bitter frustration, even betrayal, in his views.
"The American agenda has completely changed," Young said. "What Iraq was set out to be has been supplanted by a completely different agenda -- containing Iran and containing Iran's allies."
"The democracy debate has ended today," he added, "and I regret that."