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War in Iraq:
Arab View

With Hussein Ibish
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Wednesday, April 9, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

How do Arab-Americans view the war in Iraq? How do Iraq's neighbors feel about the stability of the region in the wake of war? How certain is the fate of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq?

Hussein Ibish, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was online Wednesday, April 9 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss a range of topics -- the war, Arab-Americans, Kurds and more.

Ibish is the author of "Constitution's Edge: Arab Americans and Civil Liberties in the U.S.," "States of Confinement," and "Legitimizing Occupation."

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Hussein, thank you for joining us on such a huge day for the news coming out of Iraq. It would seem as if overnight the mood of the Iraqi population has changed from ambiguity to to outright displays of hatred for Saddam Hussein and his regime. We're all seeing the same photos on TV, but to the Arab and Arab-American community, what is the story here?

Hussein Ibish: I think the scenes of jubilation can't surprise anyone. Hussein was a foul tyrant and the Iraqis are well rid of him. No one doubted his removal was a good. The question that we have all had, including a majority of Arab Americans, has been about the costs and consequences of this war. The heartening scenes of Iraqis demolishing the symbols of the totalitarian structure and cult of personality of the Saddam regime don't tell us anything about these consequences and costs. We don't know how those same people are going to view American forces and an American military government in two or three months.

We don't know what the overall mood in Iraq is. We don't know what the political effects of this war will be in the region and the world. We don't know how the admin. intends to move from direct American rule to a stable, legitimate, self-reinforcing "pro-American" Iraqi system and what an exit strategy might look like.

Last night I was on Crossfire on CNN with Kenneth Adelman, who said that none of these concerns are important because nothing can be worse than Saddam. This is a dangerous and discredited logic which died with a lot of our country men on Sept. 11, 2001, because he and others in the Reagan admin. said there was nothing worse than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now we know there was something worse -- the Taliban and bin Laden.

One of the most important lessons of Sept. 11 is to be keenly aware of the longterm consequences of our actions and not rely on the kind of logic that holds consequences irrelevant because the present situation cannot be worse. There is always potentially something worse and we have to be careful not to create.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Do you believe that Islam and Democratic values are compatible? Could the best of Western law philosophy and the best of Sharia be combined to create a balanced and just form of governance for Muslim people?

Hussein Ibish: I suppose it could be. But I actually think that secular politics are indispensible to the rational self-government of a free and democratic people. The problem with religious politics, as we see in the Middle East, India and here in the U.S. with our own homegrown evangelical fanatics, is that it tends toward the absolute and the exclusionary. No society is homogeneous enough to warrant religious government and strictly speaking ideological rule is difficult to reconcile with freedom of conscience and speech. So my suggestion is that we all consider carefully the claims that secularism come up both as a political and philosophical point of view have to offer. The philosophical implications of secularism are extremely important since they emphasize that social phenomena are the product of a genealogy of human choices. It rejects all forms of determinism -- whether that be divine will, the hidden hand of the market, the inevitable victory of the proletariat, ecological determinism or other forms of this. It empowers people by clarifying that whatever problems we have, we got ourselves into it and it is up to us and certainly not god to get us out of them.

Seems to me this is going to be the basis for most reasonable political arrangements.

Kansas City, Mo.: If there were to be a successful emergence of some type of democratic Iraqi government in the not too distant future, would this impact the Arab neighbors and if so, how?

Hussein Ibish: Well, I think that this question is extremely difficult to answer, because its so difficult to imagine this actually resulting from the current situation. The U.S. is seizing absolute power in Iraq and talking about creating democracy. But in fact, the U.S. government has never smacked anything that smacked of democracy in the Arab world.

Let me point out that the last time we went through this in '91 the U.S. seized absolute power in Kuwait, then just reinstalled the dictatorial monarchy that existed before the Iraqi invasion. Now the reason why the U.S. has always viewed anything that smacked of democracy with deep suspicion in the Arab world is that the first set of questions on the agenda are very uncomfortable for American foreign policy. Among them would be such sensitive subjects as: the role of the U.S. in the region, the presence of huge numbers of American forces in the Persian Gulf, the perception that support for the Palestinian uprising has been insufficient and objections to any dealings at all with Israel, how oil resources are managed and revenues distributed and spent, and other difficult subjects.

One of the windows into what Arab public opinion and the discourse shaped by it would look like is in fact the al Jazeera network in which these kinds of issues are raised. And this discourse has produced great anger in the U.S. government, has gotten it hacked on the Internet and has had its reporters thrown out of the NYSE.

We talk about Arab democracy without taking into account that Arab public opinion may not be wholly compatible with our agenda in the Middle East. It is because of this that our admins have never had much interest in it.

If there were a democratic election in Jordan today there is no question that the new govt, in order to survive in a parliamentary system (which it would be) would have to suspend the peace treaty with Israel. This is something that American foreign policy cannot tolerate. It is just one small example of the problems ARab democracy would bring to our agenda. It is unlikely U.S. will create real democracy in Iraq.

Second point, there is no history of any country being bombed into democracy. Our track record with this is very poor. You can see this in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia and other noted failures. Not necessarily to achieve certain ends, but anything we'd perceive as a legitimate democracy.

Third point, a genuine functioning Iraqi democracy would have a positive influence in the Middle East, but as I say, the chances of it actually being the result of a U.S. military occupation is practically zero.

Somerville, Mass.: Is the Arab world seeing the scenes of huge crowds of Iraqis greeting American Troops as saviors? If this trend continues, will the Arab opinion on the street change? How much is the opposition to the invasion of Iraq is based on the fact that in any representatively governed Iraq, Shite's and Kurds will rule, instead of the traditional Sunnis?

Hussein Ibish: Yes, Arabs are seeing all the scenes -- at least those that have the satellite channels. You see everything on those stations. It's the American viewers who get a more filtered view because some things are viewed as being in bad taste and the standards are somewhat different -- such as the carnage, which has been more evident on Arab television.

I don't think that these scenes are going to change opinions because people were not moved to be opposed to the war because they liked Saddam Hussein. People were concerned about costs and consequences and these images do nothing to address these issues. People are not surprised to see them.

If the arrangement over the next two years were to prove to be popular with large numbers of Iraqis and they convinced the Arab world of that, it would change some minds. But if the occupation turns into a long affair, you'll see more grumbling. Much of the Iraqi opposition has problems with the plan for military rule of Iraq. I think, again, if we lived in an ideal world then obviously you'd see people changing their minds, but the reality is likely to be messier.

Finally, you know, I don't think anyone expects -- Kurds are not going to be ruling Iraq and I say that as a person of Kurdish origin. They are a minority and are concentrated in northern Iraq. Shiites, it is a concern of some of the gulf governments that a pro-Iranian shiite fundamentalist regime not emerge. One of the largest opposition groups, the supreme council, is an organization that wishes to do precisely that. There are enough competing forces in Iraq that that will not be possible. But at the end of the day, for good or ill, the power center is likely to remain the upper middle class Sunni population in and around Baghdad.

Pelham, N.H.: The Bush administration has given several reasons for attacking Iraq, with the most recent being the "liberation of the Iraqi people." What is your view on the primary reason the U.S. has invaded Iraq, and how will that inform the government's post-war policy in Iraq and the Middle East?

Hussein Ibish: That's a very good question. There is a mixture of reasons, depending on which group in the govt you look at. The one irreducible factor is that the reason that Iraq and the Persian Gulf region are significant is the oil reserves. Can anyone imagine this war taking place if the principal export of the region were dates? This is often dismissed as reductive, simplistic or paranoid as an interpretation, but it is actually an irreducible fact that can only be ignored through a process akin to neurotic denial. I think that there are other issues at stake -- certainly the perception among many people that Saddam would never be content being the president of a battered and divided Iraqi republic, but had regional ambitions which couldn't be contained in the longrun. This and the WMD issue probably carried the most weight in the govt. I don't think many people in intelligence and the military believed Iraq was about to give WMD to crazed terrorists, but the sense that Iraq might be capable of engaging in blackmail or muscle flexing in the region was a genuine concern given our de facto position that there can only be one power in the gulf -- the U.S.

Finally, there is the insane agenda of the neo-conservative hawks to reshape the Mideast to the likings of the U.S. and Israel. This would never have been able to win the day if it couldn't have been combined with the long-standing concerns about controlling this strategic region and its oil reserves and the concerns about WMD. I think that future phases of the neo-conservative agenda will be difficult, if not impossible, to translate into policy.

One final word on this. For over a decade, these neo-cons have been demanding the overthrow of Saddam and produced document after document, being used by conspiracy theorists, to urge such an attack. The fact is they made almost no headway until Sept. 2001 and they managed to very artfully utilize the political space for this aspect of their agenda that resulted from the Sept. 11 attacks.

It is important that rational people across the board -- whatever your take on foreign policy -- come together to ensure that this group of fanatics is not allowed to get our country pointlessly involved in what they are calling "World War 4" -- a generalized conflict in the Arab/Islamic world. I think they will be stopped.

Bethesda, Md.: Is peace even a possibility in the Middle East? Every terrorist attack is responded to with an Isreali attack. Can the cycle of violence ever be stopped?

Hussein Ibish: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is achievable and we know what a workable solution would look like: The creation of a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace and security. This is consistent with international law as reflected in security council resolutions and has been endorsed by a majority of the Israeli public, the Palestinians, the EU, the UN and the American public and is the Bush administration's "vision" for the future.

Unfortunately, extremists on both sides have been allowed to hijack the agenda through continuous acts of provocation, yesterday's bombing of a civilian area in Gaza by an Israeli F16 fighter jet killing two children among others, is a prime example. Such provocation, including numerous heinous suicide bombings, has kept Palestinians and Israelis in a state of panic and hysteria and has prevented the creation of a new political process which could substitute for the violence.

The other factor which has ensured that war continues and peace has no chance is the staunch opposition of the Israeli govt to any process which leads to the creation of a Palestinian state. In the latest example, PM SHaron has denounced the substance of the "roadmap" announced by Bush and Powell in recent weeks and APAC, pro-Israel lobbyists, have been hard at work to make sure the plan is modified or derailed. As long as Israel's supporters, including major Jewish orgs and the Christian right, are allowed to ensure that no U.S. pressure is applied to Israel, there will be no effective leverage on Sharon or his successors to abandon their opposition to a real two-state solution.

We know what is required for peace in the Middle East, but we lack the will to realize it because of the domestic political power of the the pro-Isreal constituencies.

Phoenix, Ariz.: You have long objected to SEVIS (the new foreign student tracking system) and government tracking of foreign students in general. Do you think this system should be retained, discarded entirely, or changed (and if so, what are the most important changes)? Especially considering that some of the September 2001 hijackers, and other terrorists, first entered this country as students.

Hussein Ibish: I think two of the 19 entered as students which means that there's no problem for the vast majority entering by some other route. The SEVIS system, most unfortunately, transforms universities into branches of immigration law enforcement when they should focus on selecting students bases on merit and then letting them complete their studies.

It's important to realize how valuable how important international students are to the economy. They are a consistent stream of immigrants (following graduation of course) with extremely high skill levels who contribute majorly to the GDP. These are the people that any immigration policy would be focused on attracting. The biggest problem with SEVIS at the moment is that the attitude the govt is taking toward students who are Arab and Muslim, who are being routinely slated for deportation if they fall below a certain amount of credit hours. This will make no one safer. It is a game of "gotcha" which is not only abusive, but is an enormous waste of time and resources. The SEVIS system itself, having been created, could be maintained without necessarily doing incalculable harm, what I objected to was the effort to create it in the first place, but as long as the government tends to treat foreign students as a pool of potential terrorists we're going to see irrationalities and abuses.

Since Sept. 11 there have been numerous instances which show that often the govt gets confused between national security and immigration policies. Once you address the national security, you still need a rational system to deal with international students. Treating them all as a pool of potential terrorists is simply irrational and in the longrun unworkable.

Insofar as SEVIS is part of this system, it is part of a structure that needs repair.

Southern Maryland: Would America's standing in the Arab world improve if we leaned much, much harder on Israel to stop its West Bank settlement, or even vacate the current ones? I'm very disappointed that Bush has only given lip service to settling the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

Hussein Ibish: Yes.

Poll after poll and every credible survey and study of public opinion in the Arab world shows that this is by far the most important issue in the Middle East. The sense over the past 2 1/2 years that the Palestinians are the victims of a brutal occupation has grown due to daily images on the new Arabic satellite channels of unarmed civilians being shot by Israeli troops. The U.S. is seen as Israel's patron, armor and protector. America's support for Israel is seen as unconditional. If we did take steps to change that impression, nothing could be more effective in building bridges. Even more importantly, if we do not address the conflict and be seen as a force that works towards the end of the occupation and liberating the Palestinians, that it will be impossible to reap any regional benefits from whatever success we have in Iraq.

Even if one were to succeed somehow in creating a best-case scenario in Iraq, as long as the palestinian issue is unresolved, it is likely that regional tensions and alienation between Arabs and Americans will deteriorate.

For good or ill, everything is seen through this lens and this lens alone. We may not like or understand it, but that is a fact. Until we come to grips with that we'll continue to fact skepticism and difficulties from the ARab world, including from people who otherwise are very sympathetic to the U.S., share our values and are the leaders in trying to create democratic civil societies.

Washington, D.C.: You say, "Can anyone imagine this war taking place if the principal export of the region were dates?"

Well, what of Haiti, Kosovo, Somalia, or Afghanistan -- places with no real economic interest to the U.S.? And, save Afghanistan, no real strategic interest either.

Hussein Ibish: Well, Afghanistan was significant because it was the staging ground and haven for a terrorist organization that attacked the U.S. repeatedly and murdered thousands of Americans. So, there is no question about the cause and aim of the Afghan war.

The Haiti intervention, like the Somalia intervention, was a very small effort militarily that was not sustained and abandoned when proved problematic. In Haiti, the U.S. was not resisted at all, so the comparisons are not instructive. The effort in Bosnia and Kosovo clearly has to do with another strategic American interest: Stability in Europe and the viability of NATO as an alternative to the independent European foreign policy and also to ensure the stability of Southeastern Europe. No one who follows foreign policy thinks there is only one strategic interest for the U.S. Korea is very important, for example.

What makes the Persian Gulf important is not its role in the structure of our most important military alliance or anything else. It is the oil and if you don't want to recognize that, you're free to do so, but I must tell you that I think it is willfully blind.

Dulles, Va.: Mr. Hussein --

Thank you for your insightful responses to the questions.

I've studied Middle East history, and over the last 70 years, there has been many attempts at Pan Arab Nationalism; whether it was through Abdel Nasser, The Ba'ath Party, or certain Islamists. Why has Pan Arab Nationalism -- as a movement to unify Arabs -- failed so miserably since the 1930s? Do not try to blame U.S. policy in Israel either, because that is a total cop-out.

Hussein Ibish: Of course it's a cop out.

The reason that pan-Arab nationalism has failed are certainly too complicated to go into thoroughly in a forum like this, but I think the principle cause is the dominance in almost every Arab state of a very small elite that controls the country undemocratically in the interest of a small group, usually in fact a family. Such political arrangements by definition preclude the actual sacrifice of local political authority in favor of some broader regional structure which might provide the Arabs generally with a stronger position to deal with other peoples. Local rulers have preferred to place their own power above any notion of Arab unity, making it practically impossible to achieve.

Additionally, there are important cultural differences that divide large parts of the Arab world, and reversing the effects of a colonial division, which creates states that have a vested interest in maintaining themselves has proven virtually impossible around the world. Look at the failure of Africa to achieve unity and the continued fracturing. Once states have been created, it's very hard, short of conquest, to enfold them into larger solutions. In the Arab world, it's largely the corruption, lack of social consciousness and parochial mentality of Arab governments and Arab political discourse generally.

Baton Rouge, La.: The pro-war crowd here is feeling very happy and vindicated by the images from Baghdad. The anti-war crowd is emphasizing the civilian deaths and injuries, and the humiliation that Iraqis and other Arabs must feel.

I have my doubts about the wisdom of this war, and I realize that TV images can be misleading, but some of those pictures of people celebrating are pretty powerful.

So two questions:

1. How do you think the "average" Iraqi really feels today?

2. What should the U.S. do from here? (Obviously, turning the clock back and not invading is not an option at this point.) Could all of this actually turn out to have been a good thing?

Hussein Ibish: It could turn out to have been a good thing because anything is possible, but I think the signs for the longterm political consequences are not encouraging. For a more detailed explanation, look at my piece in last week's LA Times. The longer American forces stay in Iraq, the more this will feel like a colonial administration and the more resentment will be created around the region. That is something about which there should be no doubt.

Obviously the scenes of jubilation and the collapse of a dictatorship are heartening. But what you're seeing is not democracy emerging, but chaos. Chaos that will be less cruel than the Saddam regime, although its a very low standard, but it is not liberation and it is not democracy. So these images only reconfirm what we already knew and agreed on, that Saddam's regime was vile and that most Iraqis would be delighted to be rid of it. What they don't tell us is anything about the way in which these people currently dancing will come to regard American troops and administrators or how stable and secure a post-Saddam Iraq will be or how our govt intends to exit this administration. Neither does it tell us anything about the political consequences and the effect on the phenomenon of al Qaeda and terrorism. All of this remains to be seen, so these images are gratifying at an emotional level, but they do not contribute anything to the debate about whether this war was in the end a good idea or not.

FInally, as to what ordinary Iraqis are feeling, I don't know and neither does anybody else. There is wide sentiment in IRaq today and these run a wide gamut and among the emotions are relief that the regime has fallen, apprehension for what the future holds, suspicion of American intentions and hope that the future will be far brighter. It would be extremely easy for a single individual to have all of these emotions and my guess would be that many people might be experiencing some mixture of them, but of course we can't be sure.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company