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In the Shadow of the Iraq War: America in Arab Eyes

Shibley Telhami

It is no secret that the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims outside Iraq strongly opposed the US-led invasion of that country. Most Arab governments shared the view of their public that the war was ill advised, but many felt they could not say ‘no’ to Washington. There was profound mistrust of American motives and fear that the regional consequences would be devastating. The ultimate judgement on the war would be less over the issue of weapons of mass destruction and more over the consequences of the war for Iraq and the region. Perhaps, some hoped, America could surprise them.

US policymakers knew, too, that the American public would judge the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war on the war’s outcome. Had things gone well, much would have been forgiven. But aside from the removal of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless regime, it is hard to claim success, even by the most modest of changing measures.

The war has significantly altered the distribution of power and the calculations of governments in the region, and has widened the gap between governments and publics. In Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, central authority has been significantly weakened since the war and non-state militant actors have correspondingly been strengthened. Washington had hoped that a stable, pro-American Iraq, aided by the presence of significant American forces on its soil, would enhance America’s projection of power in the region. While America retains much power in the Middle East, certainly more than any other state, there is a regional perception that the United States has been weakened. This is evident in public-opinion polls showing that Arabs believe America is now weaker than it was before the Iraq War. The sense that American forces are over-stretched in Iraq has diminished America’s ability to project power elsewhere.

While Arab governments were initially nervous about the prospect of being targeted after Iraq, many, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, found themselves indispensable for America’s strategy to prevent further disaster in Iraq, to pursue the war on al-Qaeda and its allies, and to manage the Arab–Israeli arena. Even in the early phases of the Iraq War, Arab leaders assumed that the Bush administration’s rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Arab world was primarily intended as a way of pressuring them to cooperate more in the ‘war on terror’, on Iraq and on the Arab–Israeli issue. Nonetheless, they understood that the president had stressed the issue of democracy to the American people and thus made it a political issue in the United States. In the early days after the fall of Baghdad, the Bush administration was looking to claim successes on the issue of democracy, in part to shift the domestic debate away from the absence of weapons of mass destruction. For Arab governments, the answer was simple: give the United States just enough evidence of political change to be claimed as successes in the American political debate. Once a country is added to the success side of the American ledger, they reasoned, it is hard for the administration politically to move them back into the failure column.

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The success of Islamist parties in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt has, predictably, applied the brakes on the US push for rapid electoral change in the region, and there has been a revival in the strong working relationship between the United States and its traditional friends in the Arab world. But this revival has camouflaged a serious shift in the balance of power, the ramifications of which are still unclear. Iraq is no longer a major regional power and, regardless of the outcome internally, will not be for the foreseeable future. Historically, Iraq has not only balanced Iran in the Gulf, but has been one of the poles in Arab politics, often competing with Egypt for Arab leadership. The demise of Iraq as a powerful state has inevitably increased the power of Iran, irrespective of Iran’s nuclear programme. This Iranian power is mitigated primarily by the presence of American forces in the Gulf. Even if the United States withdraws from Iraq, it will likely maintain its significant presence in the Gulf, and continue to project American power in the region. Despite their frustration with the outcome of the Iraq War, Gulf Arab governments remain heavily dependent on the United States, especially in the face of rising Iranian power.