Americans as occupiers?

On Sunday evening, March 30, an MSNBC television reporter in southern Iraq told his American audience that Islamic Jihad had announced it was “sending thousands of suicide bombers from Palestine to help the Iraqis fight the Americans.”

The vision must have seemed overwhelming to my fellow countrymen grouped around televisions in Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Atlanta or even Paris (Texas) – as they imagined black-masked, Qur’an-carrying, rocket-toting young men flocking to Saddam’s standard in Safwan. Merely hinting that leaving Gaza for Baghdad might be a tad difficult would have met a puzzled look, much like the one my neighbor gave me during a conversation we had several months ago. This otherwise intelligent and articulate woman found it difficult to believe that the people of Bethlehem (from whence I had just returned) were under a 24-hour curfew. “That’s terrible,” she said. “People can’t even go to the theater.”

Still, her incredulity could not best the comment of CNN news host Paula Zahn, one of America’s most respected and highly paid television personalities. When told by a guest she was interviewing that the Palestinians were suffering under Israeli occupation, she responded, “They’re under occupation? No wonder they’re angry!”

Her comment seemed to support a highly controversial and inappropriate statement made by a senior CNN executive, who said that Paula had been hired because she was sexy. Really?

There are, of course, other stories circulating now in Washington, like the one told of President Bush, who was surprised to learn that Islam is split into two sects of Sunnis and Shiites (his aides apparently decided to let this over-simplification stand – for fear of making the subject too complex). “Just like in Christianity,” he reportedly said.

The Bush story is emblematic of the kinds of problems now facing the United States administration. While talk of American “imperialism” and “hegemony,” of US “warmongering,” “war crimes” and the “American-Zionist cabal” have infected the world press and sparked anti-American demonstrations from Jakarta to Paris (France), the sad truth is that the reason 80,000 young American men and women are strung along the road from Al Samawah to Kirkuk has less to do with American hubris than American ignorance. “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” remarked American writer Ambrose Bierce nearly a century ago. And how prescient his statement was. Today, Americans know less about the Middle East than they know about any other part of the world – and that is saying something. It explains how we arrived at the situation we are in today.

It is easy to conclude that the American war in Iraq acts out a plan hatched by a handful of men (and I suppose I am complicit in this, having published a piece on the influence of pro-Israeli forces in Washington policymaking circles). But it is too easy of an explanation and doesn’t really explain very much. It sends the wrong message: get rid of this administration and you get rid of the problem. ‘Twer it only that simple.

It was not a conspiracy that brought America to the Middle East, but rather ignorance – and it will be knowledge and experience, tragically learned, that will teach America what to do now that its forces are there. This is not to excuse American actions, or American intentions, but rather to help explain the kinds of miscalculations that led America into a war in Iraq, and the kinds of fissures that those miscalculations are now causing inside the White House.

The sprint into Iraq was seeded by a number of US officials who have a long history with Saddam Hussein. Primary among them is Vice President Richard Cheney, who was the Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War and an advocate of using American military force. Cheney is rightly criticized now for having promoted the view that American soldiers would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators. It was his opinion that Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard would fold up, “step aside” or even turn on their leader. They might still, and Cheney could be right – but his statement sowed a confidence in American arms that reinforced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s view that it would only take a modest number of American soldiers to bring down the Iraqi government.

Such confidence, so publicly stated, was the Bush administration’s first, but gravest miscalculation. It underestimated the Iraqi leader’s ability to call on all those in the region who oppose occupation and colonialism to repel the American invader – a call he made during an appearance just days after US and British troops stepped into southern Iraq.

After the broadcast, the administration debated whether it had really been Saddam Hussein (“or another one of his doubles”) instead of focusing on what he said – which was sophisticated, intelligent, articulate, and cleverly designed to appeal to the twin pillars of Arab nationalism and popular Islamic sentiment. That Saddam Hussein’s appeal would actually resonate in the Arab world caught the Bush administration off-guard, for it seemed to them highly suspect that anyone from Marrakech to Mazar Al Sharif would believe anything that Baghdad’s Stalin-wannabe might say.

The Bush administration seems to have been hoodwinked by its own beliefs about Iraq and the nature of the regime it is fighting – an intellectual dishonesty running so deep that it can hardly be called a miscalculation. That Saddam Hussein is a brutal leader, that he has committed crimes against his own people, that he rules with an iron fist and is capable of, well, anything, is not to be doubted. But that he will be defended by those in the extensive network of privilege that he has made possible, that there are thousands upon thousands of people who will defend the system he has built and that he is viewed by millions as an Arab first, and a dictator second, is now certain.

As a result, the United States military will soon be faced with the task of destroying the foundations of a civilization that was once among the most secular, educated, and sophisticated in the region. And making a show of promoting democracy and feeding the country has its own complications: it was Donald Rumsfeld who shook Saddam Hussein’s hand in the early 1980s, it was the United States that supplied Saddam Hussein with arms to fight Iran, and it was the United States that promoted and enforced 12 years of sanctions against a people who, back in 1992, boasted of one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world – but no longer.

And an irony not lost on American commentators is that, in seeking to displace and defeat Islamic fundamentalism (which will not be bombed into submission), the US is planting the seeds that will make it grow. It will do so by displacing a regime whose leaders derided bin Laden and his ilk, and who rarely, (until recently), allowed their shadows to cross the threshold of a mosque.

The Bush administration – and the leaders of its closest ally in the Middle East region – is careful to note that America’s friendship with Israel is a sideshow of the current conflict. But saying this does not make it so. It was only two months ago that current advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Israeli Ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval expressed his irritation and impatience at America’s interminable wrangling about finding a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi issue. Get on with it, he bluntly said.

And it was only two weeks ago that British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his parliament that one of the expected results of the war on Iraq would be the promotion of a “roadmap” whose implementation would put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush agreed, after Blair pressed him to do so, during a press conference held at Camp David one week later.

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with America’s dispute with Saddam Hussein, then why was (and is) the US administration so worried that the Iraqis will send Scud missiles screaming at Tel Aviv? How different this war might have looked, and been, if President Bush and his advisors had decided to press Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in accordance with United Nations resolutions that they (and not Iraq) have always ignored – and not according to some ephemeral timetable contained in a crumpled piece of paper.

That there will be more young Arab men and women willing to take their own lives to kill American and British soldiers is likely, that the US will establish checkpoints to protect its soldiers is certain, and that these checkpoints will become flashpoints of discontent is inevitable. Americans who have been in the West Bank and Gaza, who have worked and lived with Palestinians and Israelis, understand full well that the construction of American and British barricades outside of Basra, on the road to Najaf and Karbala, remind Arab peoples of similar barricades in other places.

These same Americans were horrified, but not surprised, that on the second day of the war a woman in the recently “liberated” city of Umm Qasr threw a rock at a British soldier. The videotape of this incident reminded nearly everyone who has been in Tulkarem, Ramallah, Rafah – or anywhere else in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – of Palestinian resistance to Israel. And it convinced many in the Middle East that America is not interested in democracy, but in oil – and occupation.

Americans as occupiers? Americans were relieved when George Bush said, “we are not going to stay in Iraq one day longer than we have to.” But that is just about what Israeli General Moshe Dayan said nearly 36 years ago, just after the Six Day War in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

The rock throwing and suicide bombings, the slow but unmistakable signs of resistance so common between occupier and occupied were predictable to everyone, it seems, except those in the Bush administration who promoted this war. The reason for their blindness is quite simple: those who could have told administration policymakers that Saddam Hussein would appeal to Iraqi nationalism, that he would promote a broad cultural appeal to the defenders of Islam, that his forces would fight to the bitter end, that the war would plant seeds of discontent throughout the Middle East, and that it would be well to publicly and diligently press Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their conflict, were ignored, shunted aside, blackballed, sent into political exile, or fired.

But there is still a chance for peace. While there is no question that Saddam Hussein will be removed from power, jailed, or killed, the slow devolution of events toward chaos can still be stayed. It will take enormous courage, and a willingness to tell the American people about its government’s miscalculations in bold and simple terms. It will mean convincing those who are saying privately that we must end Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – regardless of the political cost – to say so publicly. Which is why so many of us are still working hard to educate the American people about the unutterable and unalterable truth of this war: that unless controlled (and soon), its fires will consume the young soldiers of the Arab nation – as well as the young soldiers of mine.