NOWHERE ARE the scenes of celebrating Iraqis prompting more shock and awe than in the Arab Middle East -- and not just in those countries, such as Syria, that fear being Washington's next target. People across the region were reportedly astonished to see Iraqis gleefully dancing on the statue head of Saddam Hussein and gratefully shaking the hands of U.S. Marines. With good reason: For weeks the Arab media have been telling their audiences that American forces were encountering insuperable resistance, that Baghdad was to be another Stalingrad, that thousands of volunteers would fight to the death for Saddam Hussein. For years, Arab leaders have been claiming that Iraqis were persecuted not by Saddam Hussein's brutal totalitarianism but by the sanctions that the United States insisted on. The corrupt state-sponsored intelligentsia in countries such as Egypt and Saudia Arabia argued that the arriving American soldiers were indistinguishable from the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So how to explain the undeniable evidence that many Iraqis regard the U.S. troops as liberators? The Arab press and satellite channels yesterday were awash with denials, conspiracy theories and tortured reasoning. "The danger now is that, because the invaders offer something better than Saddam in the short term, [Iraqis] may be left in the dark as to those invaders' real long-term motives," opined the Jiddah-based Arab News.
Buried in all the hostile rhetoric is an epochal opportunity for the United States. It's true that public opinion, among Arab elites as well as average people, has been strongly against the war -- though the oft-predicted "explosion" by the "Arab street" has failed to materialize. But most of the resistance has little to do with the removal of Saddam Hussein, who lost most of his following years ago; it's about those "real long-term motives" of the Bush administration. Many Arabs of the "street" long for change in their own authoritarian political systems and stifled economies but doubt that the United States really intends to promote such liberalization in Iraq, much less in the rest of the Middle East. They assume Washington must want only to install a puppet government and steal Iraq's oil. In contrast, government elites, especially those nominally allied with the United States, are afraid of just the opposite: that the Bush administration might mean what it says about democracy and therefore be on the verge of destroying the entrenched status quo under which American administrations have tolerated and even propped up Arab dictatorships.
This week's scenes from Baghdad have had the effect of cutting through all the Arab illusions and invalidating all the conventional rhetoric, at least for a moment. Whether or not they acknowledge it, Arabs everywhere now watch anxiously, maybe even hopefully, to see what the United States will do. Will it rush to install an administration of exiles and other favorites, which will then be pressed to adopt policies most Iraqis would likely reject -- such as the immediate recognition of Israel? Will the Iraqi oil industry be placed under the control of an American executive? Alternatively, will the administration succumb to pressure from "allies" such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and forgo any political process that genuinely empowers the country's long-oppressed Shiite majority or the Kurds of the north? Such steps would merely confirm what the Arab public expects of the United States and maybe even generate the violent backlash that Mr. Mubarak and his media have been predicting.
Or will President Bush fulfill his promise, by patiently working with allies and the United Nations, to build a truly representative Iraqi leadership that would be widely accepted as legitimate? That, even more than this week's tumult in Baghdad, would be the shock that could transform a region.