History and Humiliation

Shibley Telhami

As the battle for Baghdad begins and public opinion in the Middle East is further inflamed, the prevailing view in Washington remains that military victory will fix everything in the end. Two notions drive this view: that the defeat of Saddam Hussein will put the militant forces in the Middle East on the defensive and that the overwhelming exercise of American power will command respect, thus compliance, in the region, even if it doesn’t win hearts. Neither is supported by historical trends.

It is reasonable to argue that forces of militancy in the Middle East went on the defensive after the 1991 Gulf War. At that time, those hoping for radical change in the region had pinned their hopes on the power of states such as Iraq. The sense of Arab vulnerability after the demise of the Soviet Union created a vacuum of power that Saddam Hussein sought to fill. But the defeat of Iraq in 1991 dashed the aspirations of those seeking radical change.

Today militancy in the Middle East is fueled not by the military prospects of Iraq or any other state but by a pervasive sense of humiliation and helplessness in the region. This collective feeling is driven by a sense that people remain helpless in affecting the most vital aspects of their lives, and it is exacerbated by pictures of Palestinian humiliation. There is much disgust with states and with international organizations.

Few in the Middle East believe Iraq has a serious chance in its war with the United States, and pictures of overwhelming American power exercised against an inferior Iraqi army have only reinforced the belief that Iraq is a helpless victim. Unfortunately, the inspirations for overcoming weakness are non-state militant groups, which serve as models that many hope to emulate. The defeat and occupation of Iraq are likely to exacerbate the sense of humiliation and to increase militancy in the region.

It is instructive to look back at similar moments in regional history, when states failed to deliver. The collective Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 war left Arabs in despair after they had put their faith in the potential of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was non-state militant groups that revived hope for change. Within months independent Palestinian groups emerged and began operating within and outside the region. An episode in 1968 was especially telling. As Israeli forces raided a Palestinian stronghold in the town of Karameh in Jordan, they suffered more casualties than expected, and the operation was seen as a failure. News of the Palestinian success was quickly contrasted with the devastating failure of Arab states. Karameh, which coincidently means “dignity” in Arabic, became a metaphor for restoring regional honor. Within days, 5,000 recruits signed up to join the Palestinian groups in refugee camps.

The notion that the overwhelming exercise of power can achieve peace in areas of protracted conflict is not supported by the modern history of the Middle East. To be sure, power can prevent one’s defeat and inflict significant pain on the enemy, but rarely can it ensure long-term compliance. In its confrontation with Lebanon, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority over the weakest of neighbors has not translated into the power to compel the Lebanese to accept Israel’s terms or eliminate militancy. The Palestinians, after 35 years of occupation, are less resigned to their fate than ever. In fact, studies of conflict and cooperation among different parties in the region show that conflict goes on despite the inequality of power as the weaker party’s threshold of pain increases with every blow. The asymmetry of power is often balanced by an asymmetry of motivation.

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Dignity has sometimes been a factor even in the calculations of states, despite significant imbalances of power. In explaining the reasoning for Egypt and Syria’s launching a war against a superior Israel in 1973, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger put it this way: “Our definition of rationality did not take seriously into account the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect.” It is unlikely that Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, would have been able to extend his hand to Israel four years later without having restored his people’s dignity.

Besides the defeat of Iraq in 1991, one reason the militants in the region were put on the defensive was the emergence of a plan that raised hopes for a fair, negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. That some such plan will be even more necessary after the war with Iraq is clear. The prospects for it are not. It is improbable that Arab-Israeli peacemaking will become the Bush administration’s top priority after the collapse of the regime in Baghdad. Defending thousands of troops in Iraq, maintaining Iraq’s unity, addressing the North Korean challenge, focusing on the economy—all these will surely be higher priorities. It is certainly possible, though not likely, that Arabs and Israelis will decide to move forward on their own for reasons unrelated to the United States. But it is not possible to imagine that the issue will go away, that the region will deem it less important than before, or that the exercise of overwhelming force will command compliance and reduce militancy—even if the region is stunned into a temporary lull.

To honor the sacrifice of young American (and British) soldiers, and the many innocent victims in Iraq, we must begin at home by challenging faith in the overwhelming use of force as a primary instrument of foreign policy—even as we hope for a quick and decisive end to the Iraq war.