| Confronting Iraq|
With Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, Feb. 24, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
In a recent story, Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid described the tepid reception an Iraqi diplomat received on a recent visit to Egypt. Although common sentiment in the Arab world decries any government cooperation with U.S. plans for war against Iraq, support is no longer overwhelming for Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein. Regional neighbors, Shadid argues, support the Iraqi people, but not the regime.
Shadid was online Monday, Feb. 24 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss Arab sentiment as the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq draws ever closer.
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.
Anthony Shadid: Good morning. It's a pleasure to join you all today. I see there's already a long list of questions, so I'll get started trying to share some of what I've gathered from reporting in Cairo and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Today in the Post, there was a report that Europeans feel Bush is more of a threat to global peace than Hussein, do you believe this view is shared by a majority of people in Arab countries?
Anthony Shadid: That sentiment is probably shared to an even greater degree in the Arab world. It would probably not be an overstatement to say there is a consensus in the Arab world -- with the exception of Kuwait and some quarters of the Persian Gulf -- that Saddam Hussein poses less of a threat than President Bush. The sense here is that the war is for oil, US control of the region or a determination to reshape the Arab world through force. The administration, of course, disagrees but the degree to which that opinion is shared here is striking.
Washington, D.C.: In reference to your book, "Legacy of the Prophet," do you feel any parts must be revised or updated since the events or 9-11? Or do you see what has emanated since then as an extension of issues you raise in the book?
Anthony Shadid: I actually did revise "Legacy of the Prophet" after the Sept. 11 attacks. Those revisions came out in the paperback version. I think any book is in need of constant revision, and it's one of the frustrating aspects of writing on current events. But unlike others, I'm struck by how many of the trends I discussed in the book hold true today and, at some levels, are even gaining force. It's counterintuitive, but I believe that the Sept. 11 attacks have unleashed a lot of introspection among Islamic thinkers, even self-criticism. How that plays out and where it leads to are still questions. But the discussion is remarkably pitched.
Silver Spring, Md.: What do Arab leaders see as priorities for the Middle East countries and what stops them from achieving regional objectives?
Why isn't oil used as leverage?
Anthony Shadid: I think Arab leaders at this point are most concerned about their own public opinion, which is almost universally opposed to war. In recent weeks, you've noticed some leaders in Egypt and elsewhere shift their tone -- suggesting that war is inevitable and there's little they can do. That doesn't play well with their publics. Privately, officials are deeply worried about the reaction if war does take place and its implications for stability.
Mobile, Ala.: One of the first targets in the Afghan campaign was al-Jazeera's television transmitter, effectively limiting Arab (and everyone else's) television coverage of the campaign. What role, if any, will al-Jazeera be able to play in forming world and Arab opinion to the U.S.-led attack and occupation of Iraq?
Ex ante, how would you expect al-Jazeera to cover the invasion and occupation?
Anthony Shadid: Al Jazeera has spent months preparing for a conflict. In my conversations with them, they plan to dispatch as many as 15 journalists to cover a war in Iraq. They remain the most influential Arab channel, although there are a growing number of stations -- al-Arabiya in Dubai, for one -- who are trying to compete with them. I suspect everyone with access to a satellite in the Arab world will be glued to Jazeera's coverage of a war. Many believe they are not afraid to report what's going on, and despite U.S. reservations about their coverage, they seem to remain the most credible outlet in the Arab world.
Easley, S.C.: Friday's Post reported administration plans to appoint what amounts to an American viceroy in post-war Iraq. Do you have any insight into how such a plan would be received in the region? Is there any possibility that a group of regional governments could assume this onerous task?
Anthony Shadid: Arab officials who I've spoken with seem torn about the prospect of an American occupation. On one hand, they see it as the only way to maintain stability in postwar Iraq and prevent the country from disintegrating. On the other hand, they realize that a U.S. occupation of an Arab country, much less Baghdad with its history as a capital of Islamic civilization, will be inflammatory in a region already very upset about U.S. policy. As for regional governments, there has been some talk of an Arab peacekeeping force, but it remains just talk. My sense from officials is that they would be willing to play a role, but would prefer a postwar Iraqi military to remain in charge. Their concern is definitely stability over democracy.
San Francisco, Calif.: Does Egypt feel like it is being bullied US' Middle East policies because of the annual financial support it receives from the U.S.?
Anthony Shadid: Egypt is in a tough position. On the one hand, it values deeply its relationship with the United States and doesn't want to undermine it. But it realizes at the same time that its support of the U.S. runs counter to public sentiments. I'm struck in recent weeks by the growing disenchantment with what many view as the ineffectiveness of Arab governments like Egypt. How deep that runs remains a question. But that resentment is heard more and more often.
Washington, D.C.: I do not support the war, but don't you think there is actually a fear among both Muslim government's and militant Islamics that democracy might just work in Iraq? And if it does, it was the potential to shake up the whole region as the people protest their own government's tyrannical regimes and oppose the tyranny of militant Islam. This is especially true in Iran, where the 20 something population is very restless and critical of their government.
Anthony Shadid: Some analysts argue that Saudi Arabia does, in fact, fear a democratic country across its border. But my sense is that governments, at least, are far more worried about instability. They doubt the U.S. will remain committed to a postwar Iraq, and they worry the country will become fragmented, possible engulfed by civil war. It should be noted, though, that very few in the region frame the conflict as one over democracy in Iraq. As I said earlier, whatever the case may be, there's a virtual consensus here that the war is over oil and U.S. dominance of the region.
Chapel Hill, N.C.:
The media has noted that the huge global protests in Europe have shown that Europeans make a distinction between opposing the Bush Administration and opposing "Americans." Does that same sentiment/distinction exist in the minds of Arab leaders and lay persons?
Anthony Shadid: I think that distinction was long made. But I notice an erosion in attitudes that is increasingly targeting Americans themselves. Given the anger here, you might expect more trouble, and I know of no attacks on foreigners in Egypt. But in more subtle ways, foreigners and particularly Americans are less welcome.
Mt. Rainier, Md.: From what I've read, it seems that many of the authoritarian Arab governments (Egypt and Saudi particularly) have used Islamic conservatism as a way of keeping their populations acquiescent under serious restriction of liberty. Now that this radical conservatism is starting to bite back, I guess they're having second thoughts? Without the religious underpinning, the Saud family will be in political deep trouble to justify their ownership of the country. How are they going to spin this?
Anthony Shadid: I think governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have sought to use religion as part of their rule. But my sense is that it's not to justify repression, but rather to bolster their legitimacy as religiously sanctioned governments. There's no question a backlash has arisen. And as of now, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others have sought to repress pretty substantial religious currents. How long they can repress them is another question. As of now, Islamic movements -- mainstream ones that do not endorse violence -- represent the only credible opposition in countries like Egypt and Jordan.
Amman, Jordan: I contend that an American conquest of Iraq will rekindle the long running feelings of hate and mistrust between the Muslim East and the Christian West and will be perceived as the modern phase of the Crusades. Would you care to comment?
Anthony Shadid: There is no question that sentiment is out there. It's difficult to overstate the depth of disillusionment and disenchantment toward the United States right now. My sense is that it doesn't run deep and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would go far in dissipating it. Others might disagree.
Boston, Mass.: What is the potential for a U.S. invasion to undermine otherwise sympathetic Arab governments like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia? If there are significant civilian casualties or a long and difficult occupation, would that foment unrest? If Saddam pursued scorched earth and devastated his own population, would people perceive these casualties as a result of the U.S. action?
Anthony Shadid: I think there is great potential for an invasion to undermine these governments, though to what degree is unclear. They're obviously bracing for unrest from a public that is upset at both U.S. policy and their governments' seeming inability to change it. Whether that anger turns into protests or rather feeds into a more gradual erosion of legitimacy of those governments is a question. But it's hard to imagine the governments emerging unscathed.
Washington, D.C.: Why do people keep talking about "stability" in the Middle East as if that is a good thing that we want to protect?
Stalinist Russia was very stable, but was a mass murdering regime. Each and every Arab regime right now is a non-Democratic, non-Open Market, repressive, thugocracy. Some are worse (Saddam Hussein), some are better (King Abdullah of Jordan), but all are despicable.
Wouldn't destabilizing these government be a good thing?
Anthony Shadid: There are few voices outside of governments in the region that don't want change, from Islamic activists to secular liberals. But there are even fewer voices who contend that change is best brought about by an invasion of Iraq. A war is being framed in different ways by different people. Governments obviously see it through the lens of stability, good or bad. Popular sentiments much more frame it in terms of U.S. policy and very few people in the Arab world defend that policy.
Washington, D.C.: In newspapers here, there is a lot of reporting about Americans' opposition to the war (bills passed by cities, rallies, and so forth). Are those American protests reported in the Iraqi/Arabic press? If so, to what extent when compared to reports about the looming U.S. threat?
Anthony Shadid: That's an interesting question. I've been struck by how much the protests resonated in the region here. Some of the leading Islamic voices -- in newspapers and speeches -- pointed to the protests as all the more reason to move beyond rhetoric that frames the crisis as one of Islam against Christianity. Ironically, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, was among the loudest voices on that point. Many also noted that the protests were far bigger in Europe and America than the Arab world. That prompted some soul-searching here over the state of freedom of expression and democracy.
Lyme, Conn.: Today's Washington Post has an article on how much of the world views President Bush more harshly than Saddam Hussein. Obviously, we have failed to convince the world about the need to invade Iraq. How will the United States be able to instill confidence that it is working to improve lives in the Middle East, the Balkans, Korea, Afghanistan, etc. when our image is so low? How can the United States build its international image?
Anthony Shadid: In my conversations, it's remarkable to the extent that the Palestinian conflict plays a role in shaping opinions. Even the most pro-American elements in places like Egypt and Jordan treat that conflict as a domestic issue. One intellectual remarked to me that it's become a metaphor for the helplessness that many feel across the Arab world. My sense is that the end to that conflict would go far in dissipating resentment of the United States. Obviously, that's easier said than done. But to a greater degree than even Iraq, that remains the most pressing concern.
Vienna, Va.: Much of the Anti-Americanism of the Middle Eastern population is the result of a tightly controlled press and radical Islamic propaganda. Many (if not most) of those from this area who have actually been exposed to the high American standard of life, modern conveniences, etc. readily adopt it. Why do Saudi princes and diplomats come to this country so often and spend so much money here?Simple -- much of what is available here is simply not available (for many different reasons) in the desert kingdoms of the Middle East. They claim to uphold strict Sharia laws but do not actually follow them when given the chance.
Anthony Shadid: I beg to differ on that point. My experience is that anti-Americanism is not the result of ignorance. Rather, some of the most educated, most liberal Arabs pronounce the deepest disenchantment with U.S. policy. To them, it's not a question of culture -- in fact, American culture remains remarkably popular. Rather it's a question of policy that they view as inherently opposed to their interests.
Wheaton, Md.: Do most Arabs still link the Iraq conflict to the Israeli/Arab conflict? Is the Arab thirst for the complete destruction of Israel so strong that they will support Hussein and others like him to achieve that goal?
Anthony Shadid: I think many Arabs do link Iraq with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but largely by virtue of U.S. policy. They don't see the U.S. with their best interests in mind. I would differ on one point. If anything, I'm struck by how little support there is for Saddam Hussein himself this time around. Rather there is deep sympathy for the suffering of Iraqis over the past 10 years and fear that a war will be devastating.
Hinsdale, Ill.: You mention that governments in the Mideast are under pressure from their citizens for their inability to influence U.S. policy regarding their regions. Is there an articulated understanding or view by these governments as to what is required or effective in influencing these U.S. policies? If so, how similar are these views to your perception of the expectations underlying U.S. policy?
Anthony Shadid: I think Arab governments are troubled by their lack of influence with U.S. policy. To them, the most pressing issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and just today, an Egyptian official was blunt in acknowledging there was little they could do about it. But they have little alternative. They don't want to endanger their relationship with the U.S., so they're basically in limbo. I think many of them simply hope the war ends soon, they emerge unscathed, and the administration makes some steps in the aftermath toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ease public resentment.
Washington D.C.: When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, it seems the Arab world faults the policy and the U.S. policy-makers fault the communication of the policy as if it's not being explained clearly or in an effective manner. What is the disconnect? Would a different marketing campaign really win Arab support for existing U.S. policies?
Anthony Shadid: Not to be pessimistic, but I tend not to think so. I think many Arabs understand U.S. policy well and simply don't like it. Statements in Washington also seem to play better at home than abroad, too. It's kind of an irony that until recently, they may have got little air time. Now Jazeera broadcasts them, sometimes in their entirety.
Washington, D.C.: But isn't the main point that Arab people oppose Saddam, but offer no practical alternative? If you are against something (such as the war), then you must be for something. So far, the Arab population appears to be against the U.S. policy, but has offered no practical solution to the problem.
Anthony Shadid: I think if you asked that question to someone in Cairo, they would argue that Saddam doesn't pose the threat the U.S. describes, that his weapons are not a menace, that he could be contained and that a war is not for the good of Iraq, but rather for the good of U.S. interests. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, it's just what you hear.
Anthony Shadid: Thank you all for the compelling questions. Time for me to sign off, but I understand my colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be taking questions next. Have a good day.
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