Why the U.S. Inspires Scorn

Times Staff Writers

On what looks like the eve of war in Iraq, there is evidence of a vast gap between the way the United States and the rest of the world view the crisis.

What Americans see largely as a campaign to eliminate one Middle Eastern dictator -- Saddam Hussein -- is viewed by many in Europe and especially the Arab world as nothing less than a watershed in global affairs.

They worry that America’s self-declared right to launch preemptive wars, its willingness to dismiss the United Nations, to shuck allies and make plans to invade and occupy another country -- all amid talk of remaking the Mideast -- are the beginning of the end of the post-World War II order and the start of an American Imperium.

Indeed, for a growing number of observers outside the United States, the central issue in the crisis is no longer Iraq or Hussein. It is America and how to deal with its disproportionate strength as a world power.


What the Bush administration describes as a war of liberation is widely seen abroad -- even by those who condemn the Iraqi president -- as a war of occupation.

“A simple truth has been withheld from the American people,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “In the eyes of most Arabs, America lacks the legitimacy and moral authority to impose itself on Iraq.”

Added Sabah Mukhtar, the Iraqi-born head of the Arab Lawyers Assn. in London: “Arabs and Muslims are just like anyone else in the world. They don’t like invaders, even if they come as liberators. There’s a serious belief the United States wants to redraw the map of the Middle East to favor Israel.”

Even President Bush’s announced decision to unveil a so-called road map for Middle East peace has been dismissed in the region as little more than a public relations trick -- a last-ditch effort to build support for war among Arabs.


“The timing will make people across the Arab world look at it as part of the preparation for war,” said Hamad Kawari, Qatar’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s and, later, to the United States. “They won’t take it seriously.”

Ironically, the 1991 Persian Gulf War was also seen as a watershed in world affairs -- but a very different one. As the first major conflict of the post-Cold War era, it unfolded against a backdrop of Soviet-American diplomatic cooperation, a rejuvenated U.N. and a broad, American-led coalition of nations. The era was one of high expectations, in which America, standing triumphant amid the wreckage of communism, perhaps was never more admired, never had more friends.

The spirit of that moment is frozen in a photo that hangs today in Kawari’s Doha office. It shows him standing proudly with envoys from nearly 30 other nations, Arab and non-Arab, all gathered around a smiling President George H.W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden. The faces represented both the coalition of partners Bush had assembled to roll back Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the larger hope for a new age.

“In 1990, the case [against Hussein] was very clear, and President Bush succeeded to build it,” Kawari said. “I think the current president didn’t succeed in building a case that there is a threat. It is not a war of liberation -- it is a war for [Hussein’s] head.”

If Bush has indeed failed, the price of that failure is easy to see: America’s actions -- and its stated intentions -- have rarely elicited such disquiet or such suspicion. In this part of the world, where so many countries joined the United States to confront Hussein 12 years ago, there is neither enthusiasm nor a perceived need to attack him again today.

Dogu Ergil, a professor of international relations at Ankara University in the Turkish capital, offered what he called the prevailing view of Hussein within the Turkish leadership, including the armed forces and the foreign policy establishment.

“Saddam’s teeth and nails have been pulled out,” he said. “He’s not dangerous anymore except to his own people. He is a paper tiger. Iraq is not threatening anyone in the region.”

Even in Muslim countries that are helping U.S. military forces, the public is ambivalent, and policymakers admit privately that they worry far more about the impact of unchecked American actions than about Hussein.


In the years since the Gulf War, admiration of the U.S. has turned to fear and resentment.


* In Doha, just a few miles from the U.S. Central Command base where Gen. Tommy Franks stands ready to run a war against Iraq, a theater audience made up mainly of Qataris breaks into applause as the leading actor reacts to television scenes of the collapsing World Trade Center towers with the words: “Americans go around punishing everyone. Now it’s time to let them feel something.”

A follow-up line -- “The boys who flew those planes, now they were real men” -- draws even louder applause, along with whistles of approval.

* In Egypt, one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, a political cartoon in the respected national daily Al Ahram depicts the Statue of Liberty using her torch as a flamethrower, its fire covering the world with dark, forbidding clouds. In Cairo, a cab driver politely asks an American to get out of his taxi when he learns her nationality.

* Also in Egypt, a singer cum political commentator named Shaaban Abdel-Rahim cuts a wildly popular new song titled “The Attack on Iraq,” whose lyrics include these lines: “Since the twin towers, we’ve been living in a dilemma. / If one thousand died then, how many more thousands have died as a result. / After Afghanistan, here comes the turn of Iraq, and no one knows who is next.” The song is a special favorite of the younger set and plays hourly on Egypt’s version of MTV.

* In Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. bases large numbers of strike aircraft, the country’s national airline has canceled daily summertime flights to Orlando, Fla., because of reduced interest in trips to Walt Disney World. Saudis say they are discouraged by visa hassles, restricted stays and the possibility of facing interrogations by U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, at home, a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric spews from Saudi mosques, much of it denouncing America’s planned involvement in Iraq.

Because of such public sentiment, Arab nations that do support U.S. military efforts do their best to play down that support.


In the small gulf emirates, such as Qatar, many locals say they don’t support aggression against Hussein, but they accept it because in such a politically volatile region, tiny, energy- rich states need America’s protection and its markets for survival.

Several factors have tainted Bush administration efforts to sell the case for attacking Hussein in Arab countries. Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians beamed nightly into the region have left many Arabs convinced that the U.S. operates by a double standard, declining to stop Israel yet wanting to attack Hussein. The gulf of suspicion between the U.S. and the Muslim world since the Sept. 11 attacks has added to the difficulty.

Still, critics say, a series of Bush administration blunders ended up making a difficult task impossible.

In 1991, specialists note, the goal of U.S. intervention never wavered: Free Kuwait. Twelve years later, the Bush administration has attempted to justify military action with a number of arguments -- ranging from Hussein’s alleged stocks of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist links to human rights violations -- with marginal results.

These varied messages have only blurred America’s motives, according to regional analysts.

But administration critics argue that it is ambitious talk of remaking the Middle East and hints of toppling leaders in other countries that have most frightened many of America’s friends.

“I can think of many good reasons for taking ... [Hussein] out, but I can’t think of any worse approach than the one we’ve followed,” said Nicholas Veliotes, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Jordan. “We’ve poisoned the well we drink from. We didn’t need to announce preemptive strikes. We didn’t need to talk about democratizing the entire Arab world. We didn’t have to walk with a swagger.

“We’ve alienated our allies in the Arab world and elsewhere,” he added. “Now we’re looking around for help, and guess what? It isn’t there.”

Compared with the 29 nations that contributed military forces in 1991, just two other countries -- Britain and Australia -- have so far joined U.S. troops prepared to attack Iraq.

The depth of public feeling in the Arab world against an attack on Iraq has observers already worried about postwar fallout. Regional specialists note that Osama bin Laden’s campaign of terror began as an attempt to drive American forces from the Arab world -- forces that settled there after the Gulf War.

“What’s going on now is a legacy of the 1991 war,” Kawari said. “Now we can only ask what the long-term consequences of this war will be.”


Marshall reported from Doha and Lamb from Cairo. Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; Kim Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.