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How to win the war
U.S. needs to be a fairer superpower in the Middle East

By Farhang Asfarpour
October 15, 2001
The Iranian

The bombs falling on Kabul have a different resonance in the Muslim world than the CNN images seen by Western audiences. No matter how cruel the Taliban regime or how murderous Osama bin Laden, Middle Easterners have a hard job believing in the virtues of American foreign policy on account of its past track record. To change that opinion, the U.S. needs to overhaul its foreign policy and be seen to be a fair world leader. If it does not, the outcome could be catastrophic with oil supplies, the lifeline of industrial nations, under serious threat.

After Wolrd War II, the U.S. was looked upon as a young, freedom-loving country that had just eradicated fascism. The Muslim world had, up to then, been dominated by Britain, France and Russia, each imposing its own hand-picked rulers to extract as much of the "black gold" or other minerals as they could. Muslim intellectuals looked towards the U.S. to usher in a different and more democratic era. Alas, their wishes were short lived.

In 1948, Israel was established in the middle of Muslim countries, with the consequent displacement of large numbers of Palestinians. In 1953, a CIA coup overthrew Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, and re-imposed the authoritarian Shah. A not dissimilar fate awaited Sukarno of Indonesia, another Muslim country. When Israel occupied parts of neighboring countries in 1967, the U.S. vetoed every UN resolution that might have resulted in Israel pulling back to its international borders. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Even altruistic U.S. acts such as the liberation of Kuwait have been seen in a different light in the Middle East. There are clear directives in the Koran for the defense of those whose homes are invaded and for repelling the aggressor (another reason why Israeli settlements in occupied territories cause so much outrage in the area). Hence when the Iraqi army marched into Kuwait, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt had no hesitation in joining the U.S.-led coalition while enjoying widespread support at home.

Saddam is a hated dictator and many in the Middle East hoped that the U.S. would eliminate him and free the Iraqi populace. The first indications after Iraq's hasty withdrawal were promising. The Shiites in the South and Kurds in the north were encouraged by Washington to overthrow Saddam. But once the opposition forces came out into the open, the pledged U.S. support never materialized and the uprisings were brutally quashed. This event decimated the Iraqi opposition and left Saddam stronger. Many Middle Easterners believe that in spite of all the rhetoric, Saddam had served Washington's interests well during eight years of war with Iran and there was never any real plan to remove him. He just needed cutting down to size and left on the back burner for future projects.

So what should be done to win the hearts and minds of Muslims?

First and foremost, the U.S. should take an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and be seen to lean on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. The Palestinian plight is a sore point and one often used by militants to prove Washington's duplicity.

It is not that Arab dictators, like Saddam, treat their citizens any better. The problem is visibility! In this, the Israelis are somewhat similar to the British colonial rule in India. While the upper class Britons were running the country, everything negative was blamed on them. Once the Indian elite took over, they had no one else to blame but themselves for the ensuing corruption and civil war.

Once the Palestinians are given their own homeland, not only would a flash point be extinguished, but also a clear symbol of the lob-sided U.S. foreign policy be put to rest. The situation is not getting better either. In spite of UN resolutions and world opinion, Israel seems intent on holding onto all of the occupied territories. The number of settlers, for example, has swollen from 80,000 to 200,000 over the last eight years even though the Oslo Peace Accord was meant to freeze settlements.

Another important issue is the destabilizing effect that continuing Israeli occupation and intifada over the last few year has had on the neighboring states. Most Arab countries are run by autocratic rulers, who got there by inheritance or imposition. As the death tolls from Afghanistan mount, the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia need to do something to appease their already restless population but their hands are tied. If they allow demonstrators on the streets, the mob will get bolder and might turn against the unpopular regimes themselves. Stopping the public manifestations of anger will result in a pressure cooker effect waiting to explode. With the lure of martyrdom and immediate salvation, bullets might no longer be so effective.

The Arab regimes might superficially look stable, but let us not forget what happened in 1978. Addressing the ex-Shah of Iran in Christmas of 1977, President Jimmy Carter called Iran "an island of stability in a turbulent sea". Yet within a few months, Iran came to a standstill, a barrel of oil jumped to $40 and two million people were marching on the streets of Teheran demanding Shah's head. Same fate might await many of the Arab rulers.

If we are to live in peace, the U.S. can no longer turn a blind eye to dictators based solely on their political allegiance or economic pay-offs. No one has the right to vote in Saudi Arabia and women are treated worse than camels. In spite of that, the Saudis hardly ever receive a negative rap in the media since they are supposedly our "friends" and represent "moderate" Arab states. Had the oppressive interpretation of Islam predicated by the Wahabi ruling clique been exposed, the CIA would have found it harder conniving with the Saudis to export their brand of Islam to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 80's. Pluralism, democracy and free press in the Arab world would translate itself in the long run into more stability for the entire world.

Siding blindly with unpopular regimes results only in the alienation of large parts of the population and pent-up anger and frustration without the safety valve of votes and representation. This combined with an ever more bellicose interpretation of Islam, has created fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit and radicalized large swathe of the population. If the war on terrorism is to be won, the West and the U.S. in particular, need to practice what it preaches: democracy at home and abroad.

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