Sunday, March 23, 2003

Of Cowboys and Bombs

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

In a round-table discussion hosted by American diplomats and attended by Arab professors and journalists, our conversation turned to the chances of success of the US war on Iraq. After listening to many pessimistic analyses, a political science professor contended that the people in the Middle East see things in black and white and solutions are always either good or evil, with us or against us.
My reply to this simplistic view was to draw a multi-colored picture of the political, religious, cultural and ideological complexities in Iraq and neighboring countries.
Let us begin with the mosaic of the Iraqi picture. Iraq is populated by Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Farsi and Caledonians. The religious groups represented in the country are Muslims, Christians and Jews. On the ideological map there are Islamists, Ba’ath, Nationalists, Socialists and Communists. Culturally and economically, there is a whole rainbow of colors and shades, ranging from nuclear scientists to illiterate farmers, ultra-rich war merchants and corrupt leaders to poor men and women who cannot afford even baby milk for their children.
Within these categories, there are many sub-categories. Among Muslims, for example, there are Sunnis and Shiites, and among nationalists you find isolationists and regionalists.
In the surrounding areas, we see a picture no less colorful and varied. There are kingdoms and republics, as well as “republican kingdoms.” Some are real, some are fake democracies, and most are dictatorships. A few are religious and most are secular. Their inhabitants vary from Arabs to Turks to Persians. Some countries, like Israel, have as varied races as European, Russian and African. Their economic bases are varied too, including agriculture, industry, oil and tourism.
All these varieties, differences and complexities make the region look like a huge, powerful bomb with thin, delicate, overlapping, multi-colored wires. I reminded my audience of an old movie starring Omar Sharif.
The plot is about terrorists planting a bomb on a passenger ship and threatening to sink it if their demands are not met. The British government responds by sending explosives specialists led by a top expert. We watch in awe as the old expert with a pair of pliers tries to determine which wire to cut to disable the bomb.
I then asked them to imagine our feelings in the Middle East watching the latest American production. I reminded them that the situation is much more frightening this time: The bombs are more dangerous and deadly; the wires more complicated; and their colors more confusing. Even worse, the explosives experts are not experts at all, but a group of color-blind cowboys who see the world in black and white, good and evil. They carry guns not pliers, and ride their horses recklessly around the ship, their war cry ringing out as they prepare to solve the intricate problem of disabling the bomb by shooting it. Their relationship and experience of the place and its people is like the relationship between Michael Jackson and heavyweight boxing, or Mike Tyson’s expertise in belly dance.
I told them, if one of you believes for a second that these Zionist-Christian right-wing cowboys, who have never been in more than game wars, will solve the Middle East crisis in a quick and clean fashion and then just pack and leave, then I have a pyramid to sell you at the discounted price of 99 million dollars.
Everyone laughed — but I didn’t. The Greek drama that I described isn’t the scenario of a Hollywood movie, but a true story whose explosive events are about to unfold in our midst. And when the ship is burning and sinking, the American adventurers will cut their losses and go back to their big island on the first C30 transporter, and leave us and the world around us to deal with the mess they caused.
To us, the promises of establishing peace, justice and democracy in the Middle East is like a student who just failed his elementary school exams promising top scores in the GRE. In the less challenging test of Afghanistan, Bush and company failed miserably. After over a year of hard labor, the “nation-building” project produced a wild-west, drug exporting tribal land with a government ruling no more than Kabul city center. What chance of success is there, then, in the more challenging test of Iraq?
Arab News Features 23 March 2003

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